Carmelo Anthony is nearly synonymous with his trademark isolations. The league has mostly moved past his signature skill in favor of more ball and player movement, but when things break down, there’s Anthony, hanging out in the mid-post, waiting to jab step his defender into an early grave.
Anthony is one of the last vestiges of the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant era of isolation scoring, favoring their famous mid-range jumpers over a more analytically-efficient shot. These aren’t just wasted possessions as he’s routinely been one of the top isolation scorers in the league throughout his career, combining a level of usage and efficiency routinely ranking him among the best.
In particular, Anthony makes use of the jab step to get rid of his defender and open up the narrowest of windows to rise and fire:
Philadelphia’s Robert Covington takes a half step back when Anthony throws the jab with his right foot, and that’s all the daylight he needs to can the jumper. It doesn’t matter that Covington quickly recovers and gets a hand in Anthony’s face — unless you get your fingers on the ball, that shot is splashing through the net more often than not.
The most important part of the jab step has nothing to do with his feet. Anthony makes defenders move because of what he does with the ball; he swings it across his body as if he’s going to take a hard dribble to his right. Once his defender takes a step to cut off the drive, Anthony’s already won the battle. Most of Anthony’s isolations during his time with the New York Knicks came after a switch in pick-and-roll, allowing him to either physically dominate smaller defenders or use the threat of his quickness to put big men off balance.
Watch below how DeAndre Jordan jumps back on the initial jab step, but doesn’t quite close back out all the way, out of fear Anthony will go right by him if he does:
Of course, no move is effective every time. Anthony has a litany of counters and continuations he can use to take advantage of defenders who don’t fall for the initial jab. When Davis Bertans sticks with him on the initial jab step, Anthony knows he’s going to stay put, so he takes a dribble to his right that he threatened with the first jab, which gives him the separation he needs to hit the jumper:
An ability to separate from his man, both on a one-dribble pull-up and a drive to the basket, feeds defenders’ respect for his initial jab step. As he ages, which we’ve seen this year, opponents aren’t biting as hard on his jab because even if he goes by them, they’re confident they can get a bit of a late start and still stick with him. Just like Jordan and Bryant before him, Anthony is having to adjust to this new defense, rummaging further down into his bag of tricks to get defenders in the air to draw fouls.
Anthony’s legacy lives in the next generation as there are now guys every night who throw jabs at their opponent to put them off balance. Watch Anthony Davis give Jusuf Nurkic the same right foot jab Anthony loves to open up the jumper:
Davis doesn’t quite commit to the jab step as much as Anthony does; Anthony moves the ball all the way across his body to really sell the fake to his opponent, whereas Davis keeps the ball in his shooting pocket the whole way. Then again, Davis is at least two inches taller than Anthony, so he has an easier time rising over his opponent on these jumpers.
Kevin Durant works Anthony’s jab into his isolation game as well, both as a way to open a lane to the rim or the same jumper we’ve seen from Anthony and Davis:
Durant’s jab is closer to Davis’s than Anthony’s; he also keeps the ball closer to his shooting pocket, so he can get to his jumper as quickly as possible. Add that to Durant’s height and incredibly high release point on his shot and there’s almost nothing defenders can do if they so much as flinch when Durant makes his initial jab step.
Anthony is by no means the first player to integrate the jab step as a part of their repertoire, but perhaps nobody has used it more effectively than he does. Multiple skills go into Anthony’s success with the jab step, from his quick release and ability to bring the ball up from anywhere to shoot, to his quickness and physicality when he does decide to put the ball on the floor. Davis and Durant, among others who use the jab step in their isolation game, sometimes have trouble getting defenders to commit to the fake because they don’t move the ball across their body like Anthony. Anthony’s ability to rise and fire even if the ball is outside his preferred shooting pocket makes him special in these situations.
It might not matter for guys like Davis and Durant because of their immense length and athletic ability, but for Anthony and other guys who are sized normally for the forward position, every inch of separation matters and nobody gets more separation on their jab step than Anthony.