After decades of strategic evolution, the most effective methods of shot creation in the NBA still stem from simply being quicker than an opponent. Dribble penetration is the modern era's weapon of choice, and though screens, ball-handling and playmaking all play a role in shot creation from the perimeter, there's simply no replacement for the power of bursting toward the rim without aid. The first step allows players to generate points and draw fouls, and it matches its substantive gains with aesthetic value.
So naturally, those who are able to trigger their drives more quickly than others have incredible value in the NBA—for production's sake, if not for style alone. Here are a look at the players who could realistically claim to have the quickest first step in the NBA (in no particular order):
Westbrook is categorically slammed for all that he does wrong, but there's no denying his incredible athleticism and ability to explode to the basket at a moment's notice. It's an aspect of his game that's inarguably native, and yet has been enhanced by his gradual development.
Though Westbrook may have entered the NBA with elite speed, his ability to launch himself into the lane off the dribble has been augmented by the improvement in his shooting stroke. Now, opponents have little choice but to respect Westbrook's shot from both mid- and long range, thereby opening up driving lanes to the rim by luring the on-ball defender close enough to contest a possible pull-up jumper.
Anthony, too, takes a lot of flak for his style of play, but when he's committed to getting to the rim, there are few forwards who can keep pace. Anthony's combination of size, mobility, quick shot release and rebounding ability is almost unfair in a theoretical sense, and yet certain factors have prevented him from assuming a place in the top tier of NBA stars.
Nonetheless, that initial stride toward the rim is a killer. Anthony lulls opponents into verticality with a quick shot fake, and builds on his moves with a jab step or an unexpected drive. His attacks are well balanced and unpredictable, making him an incredibly effective driver from both the baseline and the elbow.
We aren't likely to see Rose firing at full speed much this coming season, but we won't soon forget how potent his first step can be. Were he fully healthy, I suspect Rose tops this list with a bullet. But given just how much we don't know about his rehabilitation or future, there's a conversation to be had about how the rest of the NBA's quickest drivers match up with the man who sets the modern standard.
What's most striking about Rose's first step is its length. Typically when a guard commits to a drive, they begin with a quick shuffle or a moderate stride. Not Rose. One of the league's most impressive athletic specimens somehow leans fully into a long step around his man and toward the rim, all without sacrificing his ability to change direction or the coordination of his drive. He's a marvel, and for this reason (among so many others), we wish him a speedy recovery. The NBA just isn't the same without Rose.
The most recent addition to this list is a player with a pretty small sample of play beyond the high school level. Yet Irving's credibility as a driver—after a single season in the NBA and just a handful of games in college—is nonetheless unimpeachable. Irving did such a fine job off the dribble that he developed some grassroots support for inclusion on Team USA—a team already full to the brim with elite point guards.
It was well deserved. Irving is unquestionably one to watch as his NBA career begins to take shape, and his inclusion on this list is more than warranted. Yet what stands out the most with Irving is his lack of athleticism relative to the other names mentioned in this post. He isn't a terribly explosive athlete, and yet through subtle fakes and cues in his play, he's able to throw off his opponents and start toward the basket unimpeded. He has a quick first step and an excellent sense of when and how to use it—traits that should help him build on his phenomenal rookie year.
It's honestly hard to make any list of top NBAers without naming James. He's simply that good and in this case, that athletic. The move to nominal power forward has only made his advantage in athleticism that much more glaring, but James is generally quicker than any defender put in front of him. The shot, the passing and the ball-handling are all there, but it's James' size that makes his first step so utterly indefensible.
Undersized opponents are forced to take risks and close space in their efforts to defend a player with every conceivable physical advantage, all of which makes James' efforts to drive that much easier. The opening to attack the basket is there because of all the other threats that James introduces into the equation, granting a lightning-quick penetrator a decisive upper hand.