This is Part 2 of “The Ultimate Power Forward” series, detailing several of the key components that made Karl Malone the greatest power forward to ever play the game.
In Part 1, we looked at Malone’s low-post game which made him virtually unguardable for opposing power forwards. As a result, teams began to defend Malone with their center (in an era where most starting centers in the NBA were atleast 7-feet tall). As was the case in the lowpost, the Mailman developed a counter to deliver against teams that tried to defend him with size. That counter was a perimeter face-up game that made Malone one of the most versatile bigmen to ever play.
On the left block, Karl utilized phenomenal footwork to go with a lethal jumpshot that wreaked havoc on even the NBA’s premier defending 5’s. Malone utilized the reverse pivot to perfection – which allowed him to square up to the basket from about 12-15 feet on the baseline and leave bigger defenders at his mercy. If they backed off Karl would sink the jumper in their grill (and because he could fade backward on his J, he could make shots that were perfectly contested with a hand in his face). When defenders closed out and played him tighter, that set them up for the blow-by on Malone’s hard baseline drives.
On the right block, Malone squared-up to the rim utilizing the “Jack Sikma move” – an inside reverse pivot and jumper – to perfection.
By the end of his career Malone had made himself into a deadly mid-range jumpshooter from virtually any spot on the court inside of 20-feet, but one spot he particularly loved was the high right elbow. In Utah’s UCLA set, the Jazz would send Stockton through on a shuffle-cut. Sometimes Stock would set a down-screen on Malone’s man but even when he cut though – because he cut hard it forced Malone’s man to sag down to take away an easy layup. As a result, Malone was able to catch the ball stepping back from 17-feet, swing the ball through and deliver the jumper. Again when teams closed out that set up Malone’s hard drive to the rim. If the jumper wasn’t there, Malone became a high-post passer with Utah executing their precision off-ball action (example: the PG running through, setting a backscreen for the 3, then springing free on the weakside off a curl).
Malone not only developed his jumpshot, he developed a myriad of ways to get it off. He could pumpfake to keep the defender off-balance and then go straight up into his shot, jabstep then step-back and shoot, and even became an effective shooter off the dribble (how many 260-pound all-stars could make 16-footers after putting the ball on the floor?). On occasion Malone even displayed a respectable 3-point shot. His 85 threes made over his final 15 seasons in Utah don’t amount to much (about 6 makes per season) until you consider Carlos Boozer has made 1 three-pointer in 12 seasons, Al Jefferson 3 in 9 seasons, and even Paul Millsap (whose 3pt shot has received much attention) has averaged a shade under 10 3pt makes in his last three seasons.
The NBA has had a lot of power forwards with great low-post games, and they’ve had a lot of power forward’s with great mid-range games – but there’s never been a power forward who had as potent a combination of interior scoring and mid-range jump shooting as Karl Malone.