ELITE is ELITE: Fancy Footwork

In an all-new bi-weekly written series, in preparation and excitement for the 2022 WNBA AT&T All-Star Weekend in Chicago, I’ll be decoding different skillsets and amplifying which players stand out the most in such categories through “ELITE is ELITE.” This week we dive into the fanciest of footwork in the W.

Any game or athletic event stands out for its sheer ability. The best of the best performing at the highest level physically possible is a significant draw of professional sports. What routinely sets basketball apart from its contemporaries is the style and personality that comes through in play. The game has principles that define it and morph over time as basketball theory changes. How a player performs personifies those principles and stamps out the individuality of the game.

There’s nothing quite like it. The same thing can be done in a multitude of methods with thousands of shifts and variations.

On a 94 by 50 hardwood court, the possibilities are endless. When the objective is to get the ball in the net, how you move, the way you move, and why you move opens up an array of options. The defense is forced to recalculate by the footfall, with the variables quantified based on the threat and efficacy of the player moving.

How a player gets into their shot, the motion, shoulder fakes, pumps, the occasional smitty (greatest move in basketball), and dribble combinations enhance the possibilities tenfold. It’s dizzying to think about!

The elite of the elite have toiled on their craft as scorers, honing relentlessly with live reps. The scoring comes in any and all shades; some players have remarkably similar skill sets. Moves can be adopted from past players and molded into one’s own signature style. 

How they get to those spots with their footwork bridges the gap between scoring archetypes. Movement is incredibly determinant in a game predicated upon maximizing and minimizing space. The footwork to self-create off an Iverson cut is different from the setup for an up and under, but the purpose remains the same; create separation, shift the defender, and open cleaner avenues to score.

In a league predicated on post play, the varying methods through which the best bigs in the W get where they want showcases some of the true beauty in basketball: variety and individualism. 

I can’t imagine not starting with Sylvia Fowles in any conversation about footwork. Her size has made her a dominant force in the W for nearly two decades, but the nimbleness and mobility she possesses in the paint is what separates her as an all-time great.

*There are many players with phenomenal footwork; not all of them will be explored in this space, but that doesn’t detract from how good they are. This is not a Top 5 list but rather a showcase of adept footwork and its variety.*

Fowles has an adept sense of her place on the court as well as where the defense is. Her balance and coordination are so impressive. Her footwork carves out the pathways.

Catch someone smaller but with length on a deep seal, and Syl will drop and spin her way into a touch shot or fading floater to avoid outstretched limbs. Send late help, and she’ll pivot her way into a less contested look and leave the flying defender without a target area.

Speaking of pivots, her pivot foot may as well be an anchor! Watch this.

The quick lateral strides to gain inside position on Cambage set up the initial advantage. Fowles keeps peddling back into Cambage and towards the rim to jostle for closer positioning. Up fake, pivot to get Liz on her hip, and then step through to use the rim for her protection with Liz contesting from behind. 17 steps to open up the easy basket.

A’ja Wilson has operated less out of the post this season, but it almost suits her game more in some ways. Especially playing more at the five, Wilson has showcased her fluidity from the middle of the floor. Her mid-range jumper opens up the ability to attack off the dribble and isolate either slower defenders she can skirt by or smaller defenders that she can body to the foul line.

Wilson seeks out advantageous areas on-court and flows to her spots. Her plus handle for her size and long strides combine in tandem for eye-popping moves like the up and under and step through to send Nia Coffey packing.

Nneka Ogwumike is so explosive with her movements, yet graceful at the same time. Her strides feel almost drawn out and sudden simultaneously, like a ranging jab. She paws out for placement and then strikes like lightning. Nneka creates space in a way that few can.

Her spin is absolutely lethal, and the balance that allows her to blend it with other motions is remarkable.

Brionna Jones is ridiculously strong and plays a physical brand of basketball, but her swiftness is mesmerizing. 

As Sabreena Merchant of The Step-Through expertly points out, Jones’ footwork is impeccable. She always forces momentum towards the rim with her strength, simultaneously operating in all planes of motion to achieve her goal; easy baskets. The easy baskets come through a terrifying pitter-patter of pressure applied through her constant reworking of positioning. No position is set because Jones isn’t satisfied with pounding the ball; she will put the ball through the hoop and you in the stanchion in the process.

Elizabeth Williams, a stout post defender, works Jones to the baseline to minimize operating room on the catch. A smart play. Jones works Williams closer to the baseline with a momentary backdown, and then shoulder spins back to the open floor, catching Williams flat and moving her backwards at the same time. Find daylight, up with the floater, and nothing but net.

Breanna Stewart’s coordination and footwork allow her to play like a guard while being the size at the five. Her shooting ability is what then lets her utilize that to absolutely torment opposing frontcourts and give defensive coordinators nightmare fuel when prepping to play the Storm.

The number of players in the league that are 6’4 that can run a four/five pick and roll makes the defense care that it’s being run, and then be able to split the difference with a tight maneuver before throwing up floater is one. 

Stewart amalgamates all areas of the floor in a way that few in the history of basketball have even grasped. It’s breathtaking to watch. She bends defenses to the fullest, and her movement skills exacerbate the sizable advantages she creates. Footwork paves the way in all avenues of scoring. 

All that disparity of setup is just within one position group! Guards like Kelsey Plum masterfully blend movement into on and off-ball proliferation, crafting with speed and shot creation through step-backs and side-steps. Jewell Loyd sells her moves and cuts as she flows into action like no other and picks apart defenders with her first step. Allie Quigley creates maximal separation for herself with her efficiency, rarely miss-stepping and expertly using angles to her advantage to get the cleanest looks possible outside the arc.

4,700 square feet on a basketball and the ways to get a shot off exceed that number exponentially. The shot falling is the coveted result, but the process of getting there is often overlooked and underappreciated.

Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.