The most lethal two-step in the NBA

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO LIFTS himself out of his mesh-backed office chair and strides to the center of the Bucks’ locker room. Moments earlier on this March evening, he was eyeing the exit as a media horde questioned him about the Bucks’ 11-point loss to the Rockets, their sixth in seven games. So when One More Reporter approaches him with just One More Question about One More Loss, he barely looks up.

Now he can’t stop talking. In fact, talking isn’t enough, so he extends his famously long limbs and mimics dribbling a basketball on the patterned gray carpet. “You dribble in the front-one, two,” Antetokounmpo says, taking one step forward with his right foot, then another with his left to the opposite side of an imaginary defender. “That,” he says, “is a Eurostep.”

Antetokounmpo continues, modeling his footwork with the precision of a ballroom instructor. Defenders have started sitting on the Eurostep, he explains, so now his go-to move is a counter to the original. He returns to the center of the locker room to demonstrate. Antetokounmpo begins again with a right-handed dribble, throws a quick shoulder fake to his left, but this time he keeps the ball on the right side of his body and takes another long stride in that direction. This whole performance is in response to a single question: “How did you develop your Eurostep?”

“Walk with me,” he says, as he makes his way through the corridors of the Bradley Center toward the players’ parking lot. Passing by maintenance workers lugging heavy trunks, he continues on about the intricacies of the Eurostep — how James Harden uses it to get fouled; how his instincts tell him which way to go-a move that just over a decade ago had no name, had few NBA practitioners and sure as hell looked like a travel.

Now? It has changed the way players navigate the defense to reach the rim and, with it, the game of basketball itself. The idea behind the move is laughably simple: In basketball, a player is allowed to take two steps after gathering his dribble. Through most of the game’s history — in the U.S., at least — players, coaches and refs operated as if those steps had to occur in one direction and at one pace.

The Eurostep is just a logical development within the rules: The first step goes one way, the second goes in the opposite direction to avoid a defender.

To watch any NBA game is to see that the best players on the best teams have mastered the move, each with his own subtle wrinkle. LeBron James does his Eurostep with his elbows high. Kyrie Irving keeps the ball low and finishes with layups off either foot. Russell Westbrook tries to explode into a dunk. Harden extends his arms, daring his defender to foul him. Dwyane Wade drops floaters off his Euro.

As for Antetokounmpo? A FiveThirtyEight study showed that he covers just over 15 feet off a single dribble when driving to the basket. Add that to his 7-foot-3 wingspan and he can start his Eurostep from the 3-point line.

“It works,” he says. “It’s going to be a foul or it’s going to be a bucket.”

But if Antetokounmpo represents the final phase of the move’s evolution, understanding its prominence requires a voyage of discovery. You have to go back decades and cross oceans.

Walk with us.

BELGRADE, 1963. A 15-year-old boy named Vlade Durovic finds a seat in the bleachers of an intimate outdoor stadium that houses the Red Star basketball club, the dominant team in the Yugoslavian professional league. Around him, men light cigarettes. Below, players traverse the sunbaked concrete.

Durovic’s gaze is fixed on Vladimir Cvetkovic, one of Red Star’s top scorers. He makes a move toward the basket, and as he enters the lane, he picks up his dribble and takes a hard step with his right foot. Simultaneously, Cvetkovic lifts his left leg for what seems an eternity, balancing on his right leg while waiting for his defender to commit to one side. If his man slides over to cut off the initial angle of his drive, Cvetkovic will simply step to his left and shoot.

That move, Durovic says today, was an early-and slow-form of the Eurostep. Now 70 and retired after a successful career playing and coaching in Europe, Durovic has seen versions of that move for nearly 60 years but never thought much of it. “That move was normal in Europe, especially in Yugoslavia,” he says.

All of which is why it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the Eurostep’s Big Bang moment. Instead, it has evolved over time on the hardwood, with Eastern Europe as its incubator — and the mid-1980s as the beginning of the move’s modern era.

Back then, Toni Kukoc was a 17-year-old phenom playing for his home club of Jugoplastika in Split, Croatia, where practices routinely lasted eight or nine hours and coach Slavko Trninic emphasized finding different ways to get to the basket. To emulate a defender trying to take a charge, Trninic would place a chair in the middle of the lane, then tell players to dribble from the 3-point line and attempt to finish at the rim.

“It was explained to us that you are allowed to do two steps,” Kukoc says. “Either you’re gonna do two forward steps, or you’re gonna do zigzag, or you’re gonna do forth and back; it’s the same thing. As long as it’s two steps, it’s inside the rules.”

At the same time, fellow Croatian Drazen Petrovic was starring for Cibona Zagreb. Petrovic had grown up playing for Durovic at a smaller club called Sibenka, but Durovic never taught him the Eurostep. Petrovic picked it up from watching other Yugoslavian players, then added it to his game with Cibona. “We had it in our domestic league,” Durovic says. “I think at least 10 players did the same thing.”

Still, while the move spread across Europe, it registered as a joke in the United States. Durovic often took his club to the U.S. to scrimmage against college teams, and the referees didn’t see the rules quite the same way. “Every game, 10 times they called us travel, travel,” Durovic says. “I got crazy. I [was charged with] like three, four technical fouls. I complained, but they said, ‘You are crazy, you are not normal. This is traveling.’ ”

College refs weren’t the only ones who thought Durovic was nuts. On one of those trips, he spent time in Cincinnati, where he got to know Oscar Robertson. The retired Hall of Famer invited Durovic to play pickup ball with some of his friends and, well, you can guess what happened next. “I played three-on-three with Oscar,” Durovic recalls. “I started to do [the Eurostep] and they said, ‘Hey, man, what are you doing? Traveling, man! What f— is this?’ ”

Still, the Eurostep continued to flourish overseas-and at the end of the 1980s, when the NBA began to see an influx of international players, the Eurostep finally gained a foothold in basketball’s highest league. Petrovic joined the Trail Blazers in the 1989-90 season, but it was a fellow rookie that year who would become known for bringing the move into the NBA.

Sarunas Marciulionis was a 6-foot-5 guard who grew up in the former Soviet Union and regularly faced Petrovic and his Yugoslavian teammates in international competitions. “They were so good at moving around our big guys,” he recalls, so he began to steal their secrets.

The Warriors drafted him in the sixth round in 1987; by the time he joined them for the 1989-90 season, the Lithuanian lefty had perfected the art of taking two steps in any direction on his way to the basket. By his third season, he was slicing through defenses on his way to 18.9 points in less than 30 minutes per game.

“I grew up in Oakland, and Marciulionis was the first guy I can remember seeing use that move,” says Phil Handy, who worked as the Cavaliers’ director of player development from 2013 through last season and helped Kyrie Irving develop his Eurostep. “I didn’t understand it, but I just always remember I was like, ‘Man, that guy is so dynamic. He’s fast, he’s athletic, but he always changes directions before he gets to his layups.'”

Kukoc joined the Bulls in 1993 and initially struggled to use the move as effectively as Marciulionis had. “It was called a travel plenty of times,” Kukoc says. “But the more I established myself into the league, the more I was allowed to use it.”

Even with Kukoc and Marciulionis slithering to the hoop for layups, though, their NBA rivals didn’t bother to adopt the Eurostep. It was almost as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

“SERIOUSLY, IT’S GOT to be a f—ing travel.” Chances are you’ve screamed that at your TV after watching Harden or Giannis scoot around a defender with pitter-pat footwork. And it’s understandable. There’s a voice in the brains of all NBA fans that sounds a lot like your middle school gym teacher, and that voice has been telling us for decades that what the Eurostep looks like must be a travel.

It’s not.

Rule 10, Section 13 of the NBA rulebook spells it out in an eight-part explanation that details everything from how a pivot foot is established to what happens when a player falls to the ground while holding the ball. Refs work off a framework they call a “two-count rhythm,” but the key is this: Players have always been allowed to take two steps, then shoot or pass. As Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s head of referee development and training, says, “long steps, short steps, slow steps, fast steps — [they’re] still equal steps.”

Still, James Naismith never could’ve envisioned two steps like Antetokounmpo’s. Two steps that cover 15 feet. Two steps that render the area between the top of the key and the basket all but undefendable.

The Greek Freak and others have weaponized footwork by stretching the rules to their limit. In doing so, they have fundamentally changed the way basketball is played and how we see it.

NBA PLAYERS ARE consistently getting to the rim more often and finishing more effectively when they get there. According to Second Spectrum, team drives rose from 33.8 per game in 2013-14 to 41.4 last season. In 2013-14, players averaged 1.03 points per direct drive on shots near the basket; last season that number was up to 1.07. Tighter officiating, the proliferation of the pick-and-roll and an added emphasis on perimeter shooting have all led to this change, but the Eurostep has been a part of the story as players have sought more effective ways to attack.

That would not have happened without Manu Ginobili.

Close your eyes, think of Ginobili and some version of this scene might appear: Ginobili, coming off a ball screen to the right of the lane, taking a left-handed dribble at the elbow and closing in on a backpedaling big man. He takes a long step into the middle of the paint, and the big guy, desperate to keep the southpaw from going left, slides over to block his path. Surprise! Ginobili counters with an equally long stride to the right as he blows past the helpless defender for a layup.

Unlike his predecessors, Ginobili arrived from Italy at the right time to start a revolution. Suddenly, he was Eurostepping on national TV, with Charles Barkley shouting “Ginobiliiiii!” back in the studio. He was doing it in the NBA Finals, year after year. And before long, he was doing it at a time when a fan could post a clip on social media for all the world to see. It’s no surprise that the first reference to a “Euro Step,” according to a LexisNexis search of publications, occurred in a 2007 article that mentioned Ginobili.

He developed moves and countermoves. He could change direction off either foot or fake as if he were going to step across his body and continue in a straight line to the basket. He could set up the Eurostep with a crossover or a hesitation dribble and protect the ball by covering it or wrapping it around his back. Although the flashiness of his Euro captivated the basketball world, Ginobili says it served far more utilitarian purposes.

“It was more a survival tool, trying to avoid guys like Shaq, Karl Malone, because if not, I was going to get hurt,” he says.

Opponents continued to lobby for traveling calls, but they also began taking notes. Tony Ronzone, the Mavericks’ director of player personnel and the then-head of USA Basketball’s international scouting efforts, recalls helping Team USA prepare to play Argentina in 2008 and asking Kobe Bryant how to stop Ginobili. “ ’You can’t,’ ” Ronzone recalls Bryant saying. “ ’You try to sit on his left and make him go right, but he’ll always come to his left, even though you think you’ve stopped him.’ Kobe knew: It was because of the Eurostep.”

Dwyane Wade, a member of that Team USA squad, had just added the Euro to his game. His USA teammates quickly realized how effective the move was. “All the guys were asking me to teach them my Euro in practice one day,” Wade recalls. “So that’s when I knew everybody was taking notice.”

Wade doesn’t remember exactly how he picked up the move — although like everyone else, he credits Ginobili — but he developed his own twist. Whereas Ginobili would take long strides, Wade would take a step to the middle and then a quick step to the side as a way to juke plodding bigs. Wade’s second step was so powerful he could dunk off the move.

In recent years, more stars have emerged with their own versions of the Eurostep. None is as hard to stop as Harden’s, and none is as controversial-for a pair of reasons. First, he uses a sneaky technique that makes it appear as if he’s taking an extra stride. A player’s two steps to the basket don’t begin until he has gathered the ball, and as long as his dribble is alive, he can do whatever he wants with his feet-stutter-step, skip, Riverdance. So when Harden attacks the rim, he often pushes the ball far out in front of him and waits as long as possible to gather it while shuffling his feet.

Once Harden collects the ball, he manipulates its placement. Sometimes he’ll extend his arms fully, almost forcing the defense to swipe across his wrists. Other times he’ll shove the ball into the defender’s throat so he can’t swipe at the ball. These moves aren’t just effective ways to change direction or draw fouls, though. They also eliminate risk.

In basketball, every dribble is dangerous. Every bounce is an opportunity for a defender to knock the ball away. And that’s why Antetokounmpo’s ability to get to the rim from half court with one dribble — with a Eurostep at the 3-point line — is so deadly.

He’s playing a different game.

FROM THE OUTSIDE, the venerable Bronx gym looks more like a warehouse. But upon entering the building, you know exactly where you are: At the midpoint of the far wall, a massive white sheet hangs from the rafters, adorned with a snorting bull logo and the word “Gauchos” stretched between the horns.

On either side of the pennant, eight smaller, vertically oriented banners display names and résumés that are familiar to any basketball fan. Mark Jackson. Stephon Marbury. Kemba Walker. Before they went on to star in the NBA, they played for the Gauchos, the historic New York-based AAU program now in its 52nd season.

The sounds of a single basketball bouncing and the raspy voice of coach Dwayne Mitchell echo off the walls as 10 fifth-graders form two lines on either side of the 3-point arc. One by one, the boys dribble toward the basket, where a coach is waiting on the block.

When they reach him, they jab their right foot to his side, rip the ball across his chest and take a second step into the middle of the lane. Layup lines now end with Eurosteps.

As the drill concludes, Tai Turnage makes his way toward the sideline. He’s 4-foot-9 and slender, sporting a freshly shorn flattop and a white T-shirt from the AAU national championships. Everyone in the gym calls him Two Step. “I was in a game at MIT and a kid tried to steal the ball from us,” Turnage says. “So I Euro’d it and then I went up for a layup and got the and-1.”

Tai’s dad, Billy Turnage, taught him the move. Billy coaches high school ball, and when his players started executing Eurosteps on their own, he realized he needed to incorporate the move into his drills. “I first saw it with Ginobili,” he says. “Then it was just a trickle-down effect. Kids watched Ginobili and then they started doing it. Then other kids watched them and it just kept trickling down. It’s like technology. Either you move with the times or you get left behind.”

Two weeks later, Tai’s former backcourt mate with the Gauchos, Bernard “Shakes” Bowen Jr., walks into the swanky Sky gym on Manhattan’s West Side. This is Chris Brickley’s office. The 32-year-old trainer has gained recent notoriety for working with a host of basketball’s biggest stars — Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell and CJ McCollum among them. Bowen’s father is close friends with Anthony and regularly takes Bernard to practice with Brickley. The Eurostep is among the moves he teaches-or refines.

“It’s such a popular move that these players are teaching themselves,” Brickley says. “I just add different finishes and different pickups.”

So Bowen and Brickley run through a series of combo moves together: inside-out dribble into a Eurostep; behind-the-back dribble into a Euro with a leaning finish.

Ginobili shakes his head when considering the move’s evolution. “I was shocked when it started to be mentioned because it was the most common thing,” he says. “It was just two steps the way we always learned it.”

Two steps, in whatever direction he desired. It’s such a simple concept, honed on the playgrounds of Argentina, that it was almost impossible for Ginobili to imagine that the move would end up altering the very balance of power between penetrator and defender. That it would inspire actual drills taught by top coaches. That it would lead to thousands of highlights on YouTube.

But as he looks back on those early days in South America, where he developed a move that would become his signature, he can’t help but feel a pang of regret.

“I should,” he says with a wry smile, “be very disappointed about the name.”

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