Story and illustration by Hugh Widjaya @hughwidjaya
What makes Dirk Nowitzki the greatest shooter and one of the most inspiring players ever?
At seven feet tall Dirk Werner Nowitzki should not have such a stunning array of shooting moves. Sure he might look awkward when the ball leaves his fingers and his feet the ground – like a blonde, better looking cousin of Frankenstein – but who cares when a player of centre and power forward dimensions can finesse the ball through the net? It’s because he looks so stiff and square shouldered when putting on nightly shooting clinics that I find him so mesmerising to watch, like a National Geographic documentary.
Three point shot? Swish! Got it!
High arcing turn around post up move? Got that too.
Crafty array of step back fade-aways and dribble drives? Locked and loaded.
And a sweet textbook free throw shooting technique. Tick.
In one of the most entertaining segments of ESPN Sports Science, the show looked at the mechanisms of Nowitzki’s fadeway, with graphics that’d make Lucas Films weep. Being a writer who’s not particularly interested in science, I was amazed to discover, that at the highest point of his release, Nowitzki measures in at nine and a half feet! (for someone who’s got a mild phobia of numbers, I know that’s tall) That’s not a typo! That’s the equivalent of jumping from a standing start, the height of a building’s one storey level (or more, depending on which architect you ask. A one storey height will range from the low end at 7.5 feet to 10 feet). No human being should be able to do anything that sweet from that height without the assistance of a) standing on dwarves, b) stepping on ladders or c) Minority Report-style jetpacks. Also, at the peak of his release he’s leaning backwards at a twenty degree angle on one foot. It ain’t easy, I tried it but stopped for fear of breaking my back! And sure height is a gift but when combined with a sweet stroke, it’s like winning Powerball.
And in a show that’s obsessed with power, strength or speed by looking at point guards or dunking, examining shooting mechanics via a big man no less, is refreshing. At the apex of his shot, Nowitzki is like a one man Grand Canyon. Open, expansive, majestic and thrilling to look at.
But without NBA smarts, Nowitzki could have been another Brad Lohaus of the Milwaukee Bucks (for shame, for shame for what you did to Herr Nowitzki, but still not as dire as MJ going at 3), a big man gifted with a smooth shooting touch and nothing else. Only by positioning himself in the right spots – aided by a good handle for pull and post ups, pump fakes and less used but skilful drives to the lane – has Nowitzki been able to shoot at a field goal percentage of .471 and amass 25,051 points to date (As I write, he has just passed another brilliant shooter, John Havlicek to go 12th all time scorers! Booya!).
And while not empirical proof, consider the opinions of three of the best players and most dominant alpha wolves in NBA history. Answered MJ, in an article coinciding with his 50th birthday, when asked who of today’s breed could hang with Jordan in his golden era, he listed Kobe, Lebron, Tim Duncan and Nowitzki. Maybe MJ was having gatorade inspired flashbacks to his Larry Legend duels, because not only do LL and the German power forward/centre share some of the daggiest blonde haircuts to ever grace a hard court, but their game is similar. Their shooting accuracy and style is borne out by their stats. Bird was 24.3 ppg, 10 reb, and 6.3 ass for his career, while Nowitzki is currently 22.6, 8.2 and 2.6. Percentage wise, LL was .496 FG% .886 FT % for his career, and Nowitzki is at .475 and .87. While there’s a clear disparity in terms of assists, Nowitzki kills it in the perimeter shooting category, totalling 1340 so far from 3514 compared to Bird’s 649 makes from 1727 over 13 seasons.
Then there’s Kobe Bryant. Notorious for not being easy on opposing players, The Black Mamba, in 2012, compared Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway to his, after stealing it from the German, “Dirk does it well, I do it better … mines a little sexier.” Pressed on these comments a day or two after Kobe said, mock bitingly, “His shot looks ugly. It is. It looks terrible. Anybody in Dallas that says Dirk has a pretty fadeaway, is lying through their teeth. It just looks disgusting … but it’s extremely effective.”
Two things I’ve gotta say about those comments. You try looking like Nureyev, when you fadeaway and you’re seven feet tall. And second, even when Kobe’s paying compliments he’s still spitting venom.
King James, during the 2011/2012 finals, also paid respects to Nowitzki’s pogo move saying, “Probably the most unstoppable shot is the sky hook. So you put Dirk second. You have a seven footer fading away on one leg. There is no one that can block that shot.”
Another thing that Nowitzki shares with Bird. If the legendary Celtic was a lock for the Hall of Fame with his superstar stats and championship rings, then so is Nowitzki. Like Bird, Nowitzki is loyal too, a one team player through thick and thin.