Photo by Larry W. Smith - European Pressphoto Agency
The genesis of basketball’s most unstoppable offensive player adopting one of the sport’s most feared moves can be traced back to an old proverb: necessity is the mother of invention. It was 2011, and Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder had just been eliminated from the Western Conference Finals by Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks. Only 22 years old, Durant already had two scoring titles under his belt. Eventual supremacy felt inevitable.
But even after he averaged an efficient, playoff-leading 28.6 points through that impressive 17-game run, a notable 61 percent of Durant’s baskets were assisted. Beside Russell Westbrook, who was still familiarizing himself with the complicated responsibilities of a franchise point guard, there was plenty of room for Durant to become more self-reliant and less predictable against defenses that schemed to play him as physical as they could.That summer, Durant formed a relationship with personal skills trainer Justin Zormelo. The two focused on easier ways to get to his right hand, score out of the post and one-on-one. But the key, limitation-shattering upshot from those workouts came from the decision to install a crossover dribble into Durant’s repertoire.The goal was to exploit the very same move Allen Iverson unleashed on Michael Jordan, but with the sweeping range of a condor. On day one, the idea nearly imploded before take off: After a few tries, standing still and then in transition, with Zormelo defending him close, aware of what move Durant wanted to do, he drop-kicked the basketball across the gym. “Fuck this,” Durant said. “I’ll never do this in a game.”Understanding how beneficial this move could be if mastered by someone with Durant’s physical dimensions, Zormelo didn’t let Durant quit. “At first he hated it, did not like it at all,” he tells VICE Sports. “And now you can’t guard it. Now it’s one of his signature moves. It gave him the freedom and the confidence to know everything doesn’t have to be a one-dribble pull-up.”
With the NBA lockout in effect, Durant spent the next few months testing the move out in exhibitions all across the country, from New York’s Rucker Park and the Dyckman Basketball Tournament to Washington D.C.’s Goodman League to the Drew League in Los Angeles. “That’s where he really got comfortable with it,” Zormelo says.Today, Durant’s crossover is an emotionless sledgehammer. The NBA has no answer for it. Already armed with a 7’4” wingspan, one of the more accurate and unbothered jump shots in league history, and all the physical advantages that come with a seven-footer’s perspective, the move is virtually unstoppable.“I think the guy that really changed the league was Allen Iverson,” Steve Kerr says. “Iverson started to really sort of put pressure on the officials, you know, with his move, where it was a borderline carry. And the players have pushed it now over the last 20 years. Almost everybody’s carrying the ball now so everybody’s crossover is better. When you’ve got a guy like Kevin who can shoot threes and handle the ball and post-up, do whatever he wants, with the more lax rules interpretations, forget it. It’s almost impossible.”“He’s probably the only person in the NBA right now who gets his crossover off anytime he wants to,” Kevon Looney says. “Me [defending] him in practice, I know how hard it is to guard. You’ve gotta respect his hesitation pull for the three, it’s incredible. So you’ve got to try and honor that and try to jump up on it. And when he hits you with a cross there’s nothing you can do about it but just hope he misses. He probably has the best crossover in the league. I’ve been waiting to steal it in practice and I haven’t gotten to it yet, but one day I’ma get it.”
This season, Durant is averaging more pull-up shots than every player in the league except Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker. (Over the past five years, he's placed top ten in pull-ups per game three times. The two times he fell short: the season he missed 55 games and his first stint with the Warriors.) It’s his bread and butter, and the way he uses his crossover to set everything up forces most defenders to give a cushion they otherwise wouldn’t.
Durant’s arms make it almost impossible to reach in for a steal, and those who convince themselves they can dance with him on the perimeter are usually mistaken. There’s no "right way" to defend it, and those who’ve tried maintain that his timing, command, and understanding of angles make stopping it impractical. The moment before he cripples his prey, Durant stands tall and calm. He sways ever so slightly, like a scarecrow barely touched by a light breeze. Then, in an instant, he's on a slide board facing a defender in quicksand.“When I start hopping with the basketball and kind of playing with a little bit more energy when I’ve got the ball in my hands, you know, I feel like I can just use my creativity to get free and get open,” Durant says. “I could speak all day about the game, but I just feel like, from my experience, it allows me to be more creative out there and…my instincts just take over after a while.”
“When I start hopping with the basketball and kind of playing with a little bit more energy when I’ve got the ball in my hands, you know, I feel like I can just use my creativity to get free and get open."
The move is effective on whoever’s guarding him, but places a particularly cruel bullseye on big men. “When he gets a big on him, what we try to do is shift him,” Zormelo says. “Once Kevin gets, for example, Enes Kanter with the first one, Enes Kanter’s leaning one way, so he can pull right there, he can go by him right there, or, since he has him leaning, give it to him one more time. And then he’s done. There’s no big that can stay with him.”Durant’s crossover isn’t new, but it remains unprecedented. It's also the closest modern life gets to Greek mythology; Durant is the NBA's Medusa, staring you into a lull, knowing his most subtle flinch will turn your brain into concrete. Zero human beings his size have come close to coupling such effective handle with a revered jumper, and so many positive side effects spill from that marriage—including the way it lessens the wear and tear his body would otherwise take against defenders who could live inside his jersey—with arguably the biggest shot of his career coming as a direct result.Seen above, LeBron James was helpless as Durant cradled the ball in his left hand. Play up too tight and he’d be at risk to commit a foul or get left in the dust. Offer a cushion and Durant can rhythm-dribble his way into doing exactly what he did.“[The crossover] helps him in transition,” Zormelo says. “The game winning shot on LeBron…guys really just give him the jump shot when they don’t want to be embarrassed. LeBron will give him the jump shot. I don’t want to make this about LeBron, but LeBron will give him a pull up and people don’t know why. Like ‘OK, LeBron, you’re quote unquote an All-World defender, why would you be letting Kevin shoot jumpers on you?’ Because he doesn’t want him to take him off the dribble!”
Speaking as someone who's dealt with Durant's crossover for years and knows how unique a challenge it can be, Brooklyn Nets forward Jared Dudley agrees."He loves the hesitation pull-up three, so you’ve got to pick him up early. And then what he’s added to the hesitation is the crossover, so what you try to do as best you can is pick him up early to take away that three and then when he crosses over, try to get into his body, which is also difficult because, not being able to touch him, you’ll send him to the free-throw line where he’s basically a 90 percent free-throw shooter," Dudley tells VICE Sports. "It’s definitely one of the hardest tasks, if not the hardest task in the NBA."A few years ago, Durant caught Dudley in his crosshairs:"I do remember that play," he says. "Look, you’ve got to pick your poison with him. My only thing is I look at how they’re playing throughout the game, are they trying to attack, are they trying to drive, and at that time I think he hit so many jump shots where I just wanted him to be able to…if he goes to the basket it’s a plus."It’s easy to overlook Durant’s crossover because he’s so otherworldly at everything else. He can pass, protect the rim, and drop 30 with one arm tied behind his back. He can rise up off a ball screen, function as a roll man, and feast on a strict diet of baseline turnarounds."I don’t think people give his ball-handling as much credit as it deserves in terms of getting from point A to point B, staying on balance and being able to create space into a jumper," Steph Curry says. "It’s pretty deadly."But elements of Durant's game wouldn’t work as well as they do without that rare ability to get where he wants as a man that size. It’s critical and terrifying: A move normally associated with point guards, curbed by someone whose arms look like a pair of scythes. Over the last eight years, Durant’s crossover isn't just “good for a seven-footer.” He’s become his own chapter in the move's evolution, with one of the most effective crossovers the league has ever seen.“It’s pretty nice, man," Klay Thompson tells VICE Sports. "Guys who have a crossover like that are Steph, Kyrie, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams. But [Durant] is seven foot, which is insane to think about, and those guys are 6’5” and below. He's one of the best ever.”