NEW ORLEANS — Brian Roberts remembers his floater moment vividly.
He had seen the shot, even tried it, but never really needed it. That was before he had his welcoming to the NBA.
Roberts, who’d played professionally in Germany for three years, had just signed with the New Orleans Hornets last summer. He and his new teammates, in town for developmental work with the coaches, were playing a pickup game.
“I was driving to the basket, and (center/power forward) Jason (Smith) came and blocked one of my layups,” said Roberts, a 6-foot-2 point guard. “At that moment, it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s time for the floater to be developed a little more.’ ”
The floater is like a short shot in the lane but more like a long layup, off one foot, designed to get the ball high over centers and power forwards. It is a necessary tool for guards, particularly smaller ones, in today’s NBA of athletic big men who definitely are very adept at blocking shots and playing defense the lane.
Hornets assistant coach Dave Hanners remembers long ago when coaches taught guards to drive into the lane, fake and pass.
“Bigs started figuring that out, and they’d come half way,” Hanners said. “Then the guards are like, ‘What do I do now? I can’t go all the way because he’ll block my shot. I can’t pass it (underneath) because (his teammate’s) not open.’ So, maybe that’s how partly the floater got developed.”
Hornets shooting guard Eric Gordon agrees that to get into the lane now can mean being in no-man’s land.
“I was the type person who drove it all the way to the basket,” said Gordon, 6-3, quick, very strong and a good leaper. “But dudes are a lot taller and longer and very athletic, and they’ll block that. And, if you pull up for a 5- or 6-footer in the lane, they’ll even catch it. You almost have to have a floater now.
“When you get into the lane, the bigs are waiting to see what you’re going to do next. The floater throws their timing off because it’s so quick. They might not even jump. It’s much harder to block.”
One might think that pulling up a little farther out — say 8, 10, 12, even 15 feet might be an option. However, do that on a consistent basis, and big men definitely have won. They want to keep foes out of the lane.
And, Roberts said, pulling up for longer short shots isn’t always the answer, either. That just allows opposing big men to get help.
“Pulling up takes more time than shooting a floater,” Roberts said, shaking his head and half-chuckling. “By the time you gather yourself and leap, someone will come from behind and block your shot. It’s crazy.
“With the floater, you’re still moving forward, but you can quickly get the shot up high and still stop yourself from getting a charge.”
The little floater, first seen decades ago but having gained in popularity, is now such an integral part of the NBA game that coaches teach it. Hornets assistant coach Fred Vinson works with starting point guard Greivis Vasquez and Roberts during practices and before games on scenarios in which they can use the floater.
“We run a lot of pick and rolls, and it works well with Greivis and our offense,” Hanners said.
However, a floater appears to be more of a pass to the basket than a shot, such as a lob, if you will. And, if so, how accurate and dependable can that be?
“Oh, it’s definitely a shot,” Roberts said. “I just make sure I keep the same wrist action (as a shot) when I do it. So when I float it up, I just kind of take a little bit off of it but keep the same shooting motion that I have.”
Gordon, agreed that it’s a shot, and said it’s not as easy as it looks.
“You have to work at it to master it, to get the right touch,” he said. “When you’re working on it, you don’t have dudes coming over to block it and affect your concentration. It takes some time.”
Hanners said there’s a reason smaller guards use it. No self-respecting big guard, such as the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, Denver Nuggets’ Andre Iguodala or Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade, wants to use a floater.
“When someone like Iguodala gets in there, he’s thinking about dunking the ball,” Hanners said. “He doesn’t care who the big guy is. Your bigger guards are more athletic, they can create space better, they can go over the top of certain players with their bodies. So, it’s a tool for smaller players.”
However, not everyone taller than 6-5 is that athletic. Vasquez uses the floater similar to the way smaller guards do, but his size gives him an advantage, he said. When he runs the pick and roll, he often finds defenders running alongside him.
“I can just shoot it over them, so it’s an easy shot,” Vasquez said.
Hanners said the shot has evolved, much like the sweeping hook became the jump hook. He said the shot “began in the ’80s, moving forward.”
Roberts said he first saw veteran guard Steve Nash use it, say, 10 years ago while with the Phoenix Suns.
Now, there are signs the shot is continuing to evolve. Although many guards use it, Hanners and Roberts say the San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker may have the best floater in the league.
“He gets into the lane and leaps off both feet,” Hanners said. “It gives you more balance. You can control the flight of the ball better and control your body more.
“Basketball is reactionary, and the floater is just part of the evolution of the game.”