It might seem unbelievable now, but there once was a time when P.J. Tucker didn't spend the majority of games posting up in the corners. This was winter 2013. Tucker, after spending the previous five years bouncing around various cities across the globe, was in his second season with the Phoenix Suns. He was still trying to prove his value to the NBA, and his coach at the time, Jeff Hornacek, was looking for ways to generate space for the team's two dynamic point guards, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Hornacek wondered if he might station Tucker in the corner—the hope was that doing so would drag the man guarding Tucker away from the basket, opening up lanes to the hoop. Tucker was open to it.
There was just one problem.
"I couldn't stop stepping out of bounds," Tucker recalls. "It would drive Jeff crazy."
Tucker wears size 14 sneakers, which stretch almost 12-and-a-half inches. The space in the corners between the three-point arc and the sideline is just 36 inches, leaving less than two feet of space for Tucker to maneuver. So, as a solution, Hornacek instructed Tucker to instead slow down when he reached the wing, pivot his feet and slide down toward the baseline. If the ball was thrown to him, his feet would already be set and, more importantly, in bounds.
The technique became second nature for Tucker. Not only did he learn to stop stepping out of bounds, but before long, he also became one of the most accurate corner shooters in the league. That proficiency from the corners would pay off: Tucker later inked a four-year, $32 million deal with the Houston Rockets. Now, as a member of the three-point-happy Houston attack, more than half of Tucker's shot attempts come from the corners. This season, no player has launched more corner threes; he attempts 3.4 per game, according to NBA.com. Last season, only Trevor Ariza attempted more. It's not uncommon to watch Tucker jog down the floor, plant his fire hydrant-shaped 6'6" frame in a corner and remain in the same spot for an entire 20-second possession. His presence has helped both James Harden and the Rockets reach their respective heights. Allow Tucker to spot up freely, and he'll splash a three. Keep a defender glued to him, and Harden is gifted a free pass to the rim.
But to do all that, Tucker had to learn how to navigate all the little intricacies that came with shooting in such a cramped space. Because, it turns out, perfecting what is considered one of the easiest shots in the game is a difficult task.
"You have the awkwardness of it because of the angle with the backboard, you have to worry about the footwork," Tucker says. "It's a specialty type of shot."
The first head coach to identify the value of utilizing the corners was Gregg Popovich. During the 2002-03 season, Popovich's Spurs launched 41.3 percent of all their three-pointers from the corners, while the rest of the league averaged just 26 percent.
This was before analytics had taken over the NBA. Then, the corner three was more of a natural progression—where an offense could flow. Bruce Bowen, the most prolific corner sniper from those Spurs teams, says, "It wasn't that we were chasing shots from the corner; it was more organic and about spacing. Pop knew that if you swung the ball properly on a pick-and-roll drive or a post-up, that's where the shots would come from."
One benefit the Spurs recognized was that a big man positioned in the corner stretches opposing defenses. Also, corner threes allowed teams to take advantage of a loophole in the NBA rulebook—that all shots behind the arc extending around the hoop are worth three points, no matter the distance. The three-point line in the corner sits just 22 feet away from the rim, 21 inches closer than it is at the top of the key. That meant three points could be had for hitting a shot from two-point distance.
"That was always the shot we wanted. We thought that it was the easiest shot," says Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni. "We didn't have the analytics to back it up, but once they backed it up, we ran with that. It's just shorter than the other shots."
Fifteen years ago, D'Antoni led a Suns team that helped thrust Popovich's corner three revolution forward. Occasionally, though, he'd run into a player who wasn't totally on board. "You have guys that want to expand their games, and I get it, but that's not what we do," D'Antoni says, adding: "[Former Phoenix Suns guard] Joe Johnson used to run into the corner, and he didn't love it. Until he got $80 million running into the corner. … So he was all right."
The numbers might not be as black-and-white as D'Antoni and others believe. According to a 2014 Nylon Calculus study conducted by Seth Partnow, now the director of basketball research for the Milwaukee Bucks, the bump in shooting percentage from the corners could be a result of those shots being "more open." It's what Popovich originally saw—that the geometry of a basketball court is what makes the corners so valuable.
This math might also partially explain why some of the game's most experienced corner shooters don't consider the shot as easy as some numbers suggest. For example, Patrick Patterson, an Oklahoma City Thunder forward whose ability to shoot from the corners has helped him receive multiple multiyear deals, said he often rises up onto his toes when spotting up from the corners. "Especially in transition," he says, "because you're probably not looking down to see where you are. So it's good to just be sure."
What initially flustered Patterson most about spotting up in the corners was the inability to step into his shot. Most players prefer to catch the ball while stepping forward as opposed to standing still. To do so from the corners, though, would mean starting from out of bounds. The league's rules dictate that both feet have to be planted on the court before a player can touch the ball, making the timing on a catch-and-shoot messy.
Patterson, Tucker and many others have figured out a remedy.
"You hop into the shot," Patterson says. "You come up and lift your leg—for me, it's the right one—as the ball's in the air, and bring it back down as the ball comes to you. It sort of recreates that one-two step feeling."
But perhaps the most awkward part about spotting up in a corner is how close it can bring a shooter to an opposing team's bench. "You can definitely feel the guys behind you," says Detroit Pistons wing Glenn Robinson III. He and others say the corners can often feel claustrophobic. No room to move your feet forward or backward, and about a dozen or so people hovering behind your back. "Sometimes you can feel them breathing," Robinson III says.
"Especially when playing the Warriors," Patterson says. "They're up 90 percent of the game, cheering, screaming, yelling stuff. You definitely feel them."
The methods opposing benches use to distract shooters vary. Former NBA player Tony Allen once tried waving a towel in the air, only to have it slip out of his hands and fly onto the court. He was assessed a technical foul.
Some players try to distract corner shooters with gibberish.
"Amir Johnson is guaranteed to say something every time," Orlando Magic wing Terrence Ross says of the Sixers center. "He yells ‘Smoky' to me all the time. I have no idea why. I think whatever he can think of at the moment, he just says it."
Others hurl more personal barbs. A few years ago, Robinson III, then with the Pacers, was playing against the Los Angeles Clippers. At one point in the game, Robinson III found himself standing in a corner in front of a resting Paul Pierce. "You'll never shoot like your dad," Robinson III remembers Pierce barking at him. Robinson III, the son of a two-time All Star, caught a pass, buried the jumper, then turned back toward Pierce.
"I stared him down and started talking junk," he recalls.
In recent years, the percentage of three-pointers attempted from the corners has actually dipped a bit, according to research provided to B/R by the NBA. In 2013, 27.6 percent of all three-pointers were shot from the corners; last year, that number dropped to 22.0. One reason is that most coaches, aware of the math, have prioritized limiting opponents' looks from the corners. Players have also grown more comfortable launching threes from all over the court; the league is on pace to shatter the NBA's record for total three-pointers taken in a season for the seventh straight season.
And yet, NBA coaches seem to emphasize the corners more than ever. Teams like the Sixers, Bucks and Pistons (among others) have used tools like paint and tape to mark the corners in their practice facilities to stress to players where they should be looking to stand on the court.
The reasoning is the same that Popovich deduced nearly 20 years ago. "Everyone always says to me, ‘The corner is your favorite shot,' but that's not true," Tucker says, "It's just the best place to go to space."
But Tucker is is quick to point out that there's more to the corner three than simply catching and shooting off a standstill, First, he said, he plants his feet. Then he finds the opposing team's center while Harden or Rockets point guard Chris Paul runs a pick-and-roll. Tucker then glances at whether the man tasked with guarding him is staying back in the paint to help, or following Tucker out to the perimeter, and then reads the spacing. "It's all about reading and reacting," he says. "And trying to keep the guy guarding me honest." Sometimes he'll remain in the same spot. Other times he'll "lift up" a bit toward the ball-handler to present a better passing angle.
In other words: Becoming King of the Corners took work, and Tucker has no plans to relinquish his crown. "I've spent the past two years standing in the corners for 90 percent of the game," he says. "And I still practice that shot more than any other."