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Chef James Harden and his Step-Back Platter

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Chef Boyardee...ergh...Chef Harden has been cookin' defenders on isolation plays, particularly on step-back jumpers. The Dream Shake looks to the film to explain why.

James Harden is this season's MVP frontrunner; he puts on show every night.

You can now expect the Beard to hit a step-back jumper at least once during a game and do his "cookin" gesture. Here's an example of a very popular James Harden step-back jumper. In a February game versus the Timberwolves, Ricky Rubio fell victim to a Harden step-back. James Harden shook Rubio, causing the young guard to fall down while Harden simultaneously hit a step-back three.

Harden's offensive approach consists of putting the ball out and baiting defenders to reach out and create contact. In his defense, Harden is more comfortable practicing this technique rather than protecting the ball from defenders. He's strong enough to take the contact inflicted and control the ball when gathering.

This counterintuitive method has vaulted Harden into the realm of the most efficient scorers in the league, and it consistently makes him difficult to gameplan for. His craftiness around the basket continues to impress; finding various ways to finish over, around, and through defenders in traffic. Driving and scoring around the basket isn't the only thing Harden excels at.

This leads into his unarguable step-back jumper. As of March 18James Harden is shooting 49.7 percent on step-back jumpers (overall) and 58.2 percent on step-back three point jumpers. In most situations, particularly in isolation plays, everyone in the stadium knows Harden will look to drive left, stop on a dime, and pull-up a jumper. Yet, only a few defenders have been able to contain the wrath of Harden's step-back platter.

Let's take a look at his shot chart (via NBA.com/Stats)

James Harden step-back shot chart

As a left-handed basketball player (prefers his strong hand), Harden is much more efficient when driving and attacking the left-side. The defense knows and game plans for this by trying to force Harden right (towards the help-defense), but they're unable to yield a positive result. He knows how to pick his spots, using misdirection and hesitation dribbles to get the defender off-balance; freeing Harden to make good use of the openings he creates.

As shown in the chart above, Harden does a decent job when going to the right. His step-back jumper on the right side is particularly potent around the high-post and free-throw line extended area.

Before we dig deeper into Harden's step-back jumper, here are some more stats to keep in mind:

  • He's taken the most step-back jumpers this season with 153. Stephen Curry is the next closest with 71 attempts.
  • Harden also averages 8.35 seconds with the ball in his hands per possession that ends with a step-back jumper.
  • He also averages 7.173 dribbles per step-back jumper attempt (I'll talk about why later on).
  • Lastly, the average distance for each step-back attempt is 19.54 feet away from the basket.

With some statistics and efficiency data in mind, let's analyze Harden's step-back jumper and find what makes it so dangerously successful.

The illusion

Harden's step-back jumper is dominant because he creates the misconception he's not shooting it, rather that he's measuring the defender in an attempt to blow by and attack the basket. If the defense knew that Harden was going to pull-up, they would constantly put themselves in positions to stop it and get the ball out of Harden's hands.

Harden is very patient and poised no matter the situation. He knows how to manipulate his defender and has excellent timing, knowing exactly the right time to size up his defender and make a move. After watching numerous Harden step-back jumpers, I can confirm that the Beard has an elite understanding of different angles and driving lanes as well as an underrated mastering of fundamentals and ball-handling ability.

For Harden's step-back jumper to be as prosperous as it is, proper footwork and balance is essential. The illusion has two facets: tricking the defender and creating space (both simultaneously).

Let's take a step-by-step look at Harden using his dribbling and footwork to create a high-percentage step-back jumper.

Harden fakes right on Tucker, slow dribble

Tucker plays him well, trying to force Harden to drive right (can't use dominant left hand) towards help defense. Harden hits him with a slow hesitation dribble to the right, giving Tucker the notion that he's won and Harden will drive right.

Harden with a quick dribble back to the left

Harden quickly changes direction with a crafty maneuver. With Tucker off-balance, Harden begins to drive with his dominant left hand towards the basket.

Harden drives and help-defenders come

Harden takes long strides when attacking the basket, which pay dividends in this situation as he is given the choice to finish at the rim or take a step-back jumper just outside the paint. All of this, of course, depends on whether Bledsoe and Morris come over to help deny penetration.

Harden is stopped, decision time upcoming

Tucker catches up and Bledsoe/Morris come over to help, so Harden decides to take the step-back jumper. He's created the illusion and picked his spot, now it's time to create the proper space and get off a jumper.

In any step-back jumper, the shooter must create space by jamming their foot into the defender -- denying them the ability to contest the shot. Harden regularly does this with a jab step when positioned on the low-block or high-post. In the situation above, Harden creates space by jamming his right foot in front of Tucker, forcing P.J. to retreat and allowing Harden to get off a shot. Tucker is on his heels and cannot recover and contest Harden quick enough -- an easy two points for the Beard.

Here's the full play from above. James Harden goes through the entire step-back "'checklist" in under five seconds.

The Beard and Step-back at Equilibrium

When all forces that act upon a central object are balanced, then the central object is in a state of Equilibrium. In Harden's case, his step-back is the central object and all the hours of practice, basketball fundamentals, and precise footwork are at balance when he attempts a jumper.

It's astonishing how well-balanced James Harden is when taking a step-back jumper. With an array of hesitation moves, dribbles, jab-steps, and other crafty movements, Harden is able to keep momentum and balance and lock-in his shot.

After jamming his foot into the defender, Harden quickly sets his feet and shoulders (pointed towards the rim) and fires the mid-range jumper. Let's look at an example and analyze how he's able to keep balance, even when fading away slightly.

Harden gives jab step

Harden takes his defender off the dribble and decides he wants to take a step-back jumper. He uses fancy dribbles to get the defender off-balance then hits him with a jab-step to create more space.

Harden squares up

After jamming his foot, Harden correctly positions his feet -- pointed towards the basket. His shoulders are also pointed towards the basket, properly squared -- putting him in great position to get off a high-percentage look. This takes hours of practice and refinement of technique to do. It's amazing that Harden is able to quickly put himself in position for a jumper and keep himself balanced, something not many others in the NBA can emulate.

Harden's left foot hangs out

Harden fades away slightly but lingers his left foot to keep balance. In the majority of his step-back jumpers, Harden lands with his right foot and keeps the left foot out, pointed towards the basket. His back curves somewhat, but for the most part he's able to jump straight up and shoot over the out-stretch arms of various sized defenders.

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Footwork, balance, dribbling, and fundamentals are all characteristics that James Harden has mastered. His high basketball IQ and crafty abilities make him one of the most dangerous basketball players in the league and front-runner for the MVP award. He's only 25 years old and will continue to work on and improve his all-around game. Harden always talks about working on his step-back jumper -- an already dangerous shot that has become downright lethal.

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