La Bomba: an appreciation
Euroleague.net's editorial director, Frank Lawlor, has spent most of his career as a basketball journalist in Europe and his native United States, writing about and interviewing the top players in the world on both continents for more than two decades. In terms of practical basketball experience, he was a head coach in the Spanish second division for one fortuitous season in the late 1990s. Frank's new blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
If you had one crucial shot for any basketball player in the world to take, to whom would you give the ball?
It almost doesn't matter what kind of shot. Your team's down by two and needs that many to tie or a three-pointer to win. Or you're tied and a single free throw will mean victory. Or you're behind three points and need a buzzer-beater from long distance to tie and stay alive.
If that shot is life or death, the difference between winning or losing, and especially if there is a trophy or a medal at stake, I know whose hands I would put the ball in.
This week, or next, or the one after, Juan Carlos Navarro will set the Turkish Airlines Euroleague all-time scoring mark with the most points since the competition was founded in 2000. The scoring record now belongs to recently-retired Marcus Brown, with 2,715 points. Going into Thursday's game between his team, F.C. Barcelona Regal and Montepaschi Siena, Navarro has 2,682 points. He needs 33 to tie and 34 to surpass Brown.
Once Navarro breaks the record, however, it is hard to imagine that he will not hold it for a very long time. No active Euroleague player within 500 points of him is younger. The only active player that is less than 1,000 points behind him is just 10 days younger. And at 31 years old, Navarro certainly seems to have a lot of points left in him.
I don't choose Navarro based on stats alone. More than 200 Euroleague players over the years have higher two-point percentages than him, 73 have been more accurate from three-point distance, and 20 shoot their free throws better. Just the same, I'll take Juanqui.
What Navarro has cannot be taught. Call it winner's mentality, call it killer instinct, call it what you will.
We are talking here about a player who has probably lifted more trophies and hung more medals around his neck, already, than any basketball player ever. His personal count is up to 14 national or international in-season trophies - Euroleague (2), Spanish Leagues (6), Korac Cup (1), Spanish King's Cup (5) - as well as five gold medals, three silvers and a bronze in World Championships, European Championships or Olympic Games.
On all but a couple of those teams, he had starring roles. His string of MVP, Top Scorer and All-Euroleague awards prove as much.
But all of that is not why I would give Navarro the ball with any trophy or medal on the line.
For me, it's all about the shot-making.
The free throws speak mostly in numbers: 565 made at an 85.5% rate. Only Brown has made more at a higher rate in Euroleague history. In the context of getting a trophy-winning point, however, Navarro can get to the line with the best of him. He has been chased by defenders all his life, and knows how to take advantage whether they are aggressive or not aggressive enough. Just watch him come off a screen sometime with a particularly young and aggressive defender behind him. He'll receive the ball and stop in his tracks. Then he'll pass the ball to the referee, even as he's still blowing his whistle, and head for the free throw line. Navarro knew a foul was coming 10 seconds earlier. Your team needs a free throw, he'll get one, and hit it. But that's not the way he plays as a habit. In fact, on a per-minute basis, 137 other Euroleague get to the foul line more than him. In other words, he's not out there fishing for fouls, no matter how sure his free throws are.
Next, there is his signature shot, La Bomba, named after him and him after it. Some fans assume that La Bomba must be his three-point shot, because he can bomb from long-range with the best in the world. But the shot that gave Navarro a nickname early in his career is not the three-pointer, but rather his running one-hander. He tosses it more like a grenade than a bomb, in fact. Most players have two choices when they drive toward the basket: stop and pop, or try to finish strong with a layup or dunk. Navarro didn't invent the running one-hander. He just perfected what is an extremely high-risk shot, made on the move, lofted high over much bigger men coming at him. La Bomba happens in the space that opens when Navarro beats his own defender before the rest of the defense can catch him. He is not such a jumper to consistently challenge those big men, and there is rarely enough time to gather the ball, stop and take a normal jumper. A creative genius when it comes to shot-making, Navarro owns that split-second clearing among a defense focused on him and the ball his own, shooting his right-handed La Bomba on a high arc that suspends all action and draws all eyes for a long second...before it drops through the net. If you think about it, few scorers in basketball history have done so much damage with one-handed shots that aren't layups or dunks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time NBA scoring leader, comes to mind. No one else.
As unique as his signature shot, La Bomba, might be, he tends to use it mainly when the defense gives him nothing else. It is rare, however, that Navarro cannot get off his even more dangerous shot, the three-pointer. There are great shooters from long distance of all stripes and colors. Some almost never miss when open, others who are lethal when their feet are set, still others who stop and pop on the run. Navarro does all those things and more from behind the three-point arc. It's important to note that whenever he is on the floor, Navarro not only must confront the other team's quickest defender, but the entire defense. There is no such thing as an isolation play for him. All eyes are on him, and every defender knows he is likely to shoot. You almost never see him left open unless it's a fastbreak and the defense is scrambling. Most of the time, however, he has two defenders nearby, his own and an extra, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. Despite all those obstacles, his three-pointer remains as dangerous as any player's for many reasons, starting with his incredibly quick release.
Navarro's triple is closer to an old-fashioned set shot, pushed from the height of his neck, than the modern three-pointer that requires players to jump high and release at the top of that jump. Neither does he have the height to just lift the ball over his head, like Larry Bird, and release easily over a defender right in front of him. This is where Navarro's feet make him special, dancing in small spaces, faking the drive to gain extra centimeters, taking one dribble and stepping back. When he has that minimum of space to shoot, he does so effortlessly. He lifts the ball a miminum, too, barely above the neckline, and flicks his wrist. It is just as beautiful an arc as any classic long jump shot by a player with time to gather himself and shoot "in suspension", as the Spanish say. A shot from the chest of a player his size who the defense is absolutely keyed on should be blocked repeatedly at the Euroleague level, but staying with Navarro when he wants to shoot is like catching a fly. That's how quick he is, on both his feet and his release. Speed is one thing, but quickness takes place in small spaces. And Navarro is quick like few players ever. You rarely see him try to shoot over a well-positioned defender. He always gets his shooting room.
Of course, if a defense manages to keep him covered, Navarro is a lethal passer, too, among the top 10 in assists in Euroleague history. That, too, is unusual for a top scorer. But we are talking here about taking that one, life-or-death shot, and that's where Navarro truly sets himself apart from the rest. For one, he can simply back up. His range, despite that flick-of-the-wrist style, just keeps going further from the basket when necessary, perhaps requiring a bigger hop as he shoots, but only slightly. Second, his step-back move happens in a flash. The ball is in the air before the defender has recovered from the fake. Finally, there is the three-pointer Navarro takes when all else fails, sometimes off pick-and-rolls, sometimes off his own dribble, sometimes on the break. Always, time is of the essence. Some players moving fast and recieving the ball on the fly will drift because they can't help themselves. It is something coaches teach them to avoid: set your feet and go up straight. Navarro, when he must, will drift on purpose, letting his momentum take him sideways, jumping that way, to get the last bit of space that the straight-up defender thinks he has denied him. Everyone knows he wants to shoot, the defense has done everything possible to stop him and, lacking the vertical ability to go higher than the defender, Navarro drifts into the space open beside him. It defies shooting logic. The shot requires a different trajectory, not directly at the basket, because such a drift ruins the shot line. It must be aimed a little right or left to account for the direction of the drift. It's a desperation shot, really, but Navarro can make it as if it were an everyday part of his shooting practice. And maybe it is.
In the next three weeks or so, the Turkish Airline Euroleague will have a new all-time scoring leader. He does not score one-on-one, but against full defenses designed to stop him first. And he makes it look easy.
It's time that Juan Carlos Navarro is recognized as one of the best shot-makers in the history of basketball, with no qualifications. Not one of the best for his size. Not one of the best in Europe. One of the best. Period.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET
Thursday, November 10, 2011