With the NBA’s signature shoe roster set to soon balloon to as many as 25 players by next season, we’re looking at the highest spike since the late ‘90s.
The current crop of footwear headliners across the NBA includes everyone from longtime staples like LeBron, KD, and Stephen Curry to the up-and-coming first-timers like LaMelo Ball, Zion Williamson, and Trae Young. In all, 22 players can claim their own signature shoe during the 2021-22 season, with Jimmy Butler, D’Angelo Russell, and Jayson Tatum all slated to be added to the mix in the near future.
As 10 brands have followed the footwear formula and bestowed a signature shoe upon their top endorsers — in Langston Galloway’s case, he went out and created his own brand from scratch — the reliance on NBA stars headlining signature shoes is as strong as ever. Nearly 70% of the league’s 450 players have worn a signature-branded sneaker from the lines of the less than two dozen signature athletes.
Looking ahead as the decade progresses and some of the NBA mainstays head toward retirement, there’s a new batch of rising stars to look to as next in line for one of the league’s most prideful distinctions.
For decades now, that elite group of players has been keenly aware each night of just who has their own signature shoe. As Allen Iverson put it:
“A lot of guys had contracts with different shoe companies, but they didn’t have their own signature shoe. So I’d kinda puff my chest out a little bit.”
Who will be next to puff their chest out a little bit? Let’s take a stab at figuring it out.
Luka Dončić // Jordan Brand
Ever since signing on with Jordan Brand after his breakout Rookie of the Year campaign that quelled any doubts about his EuroLeague transition to the NBA, there’s been constant speculation about when Luka Dončić would receive his own signature shoe.
The summer before Dončić signed on, the Jumpman landed the most coveted rookie since LeBron James in Zion Williamson, and by September of 2019 had already begun the ideation process around its eventual Zion 1 signature shoe that dropped in the spring of 2021. Jayson Tatum is slated to become just the sixth Jumpman hooper to receive his own namesake model, leaving Luka as the next logical athlete in line.
To date, Luka has helped headline team shoes like the Zoom Diamond and React Elevation, along with the annual game shoe series in the Air Jordan 35 and 36. This season, he’s the headliner of the Zoom Separate model, inspired by the lethal stepbacks he uses to create space by elite players. His pairs feature two hits of his new logo, a mix of his first initial ‘L’ and #77 jersey number.
After landing fifth on the league’s jersey sales list, Doncic’s star power could extend beyond just the US. In 2019, Nike made eventual MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo its first-ever European signature basketball athlete. With only a handful of Americans in Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, and Zion Williamson launching a Jumpman signature to date, could Jordan Brand bestow that same first-ever distinction upon Dončić in the coming seasons?
Ja Morant // Nike
With Morant heading to his first All-Star Game next month in Cleveland, his star power is beginning to peak. This comes just as the Grizzlies continue to make waves throughout their unexpected rise from play-in team to third in the Western Conference standings.
All year long, Morant’s game has been electric and explosive, with the former No. 2 pick now in the MVP conversation. The third-year pro’s fearless and prideful leadership style is tailor-made for the Memphis fanbase, while his small school underdog story, highlight-reel rim attacks, and relatable size have all led to him becoming a national star transcending his market.
Morant’s No. 12 uni slotted sixth on the league’s latest jersey sellers list for the first half of the season, marking a rare merch-moving appearance for a Grizzly player. He jumped two slots on the season-long list in just the first two weeks of January.
When the league’s final All-Star fan vote returns were announced this week, Morant found himself second among Western Conference guards, behind only Stephen Curry.
Most importantly, the four-year rookie shoe deal he landed in May of 2019, ahead of that summer’s NBA Draft, could be soon due for an extension negotiation during the upcoming 2022-23 season. The agreement is set to expire in the Fall of 2023. While he’s likely to command a sizable raise on his existing annual base pay, conversations are also expected to include pressing go on a potential “Ja 1” signature series.
After helping to headline Nike’s second power-lacing Adapt BB sneaker during his rookie year, Morant has largely rotated through a trio of signature lines over the last two seasons. From a batch of Kobe 6 PEs to a constant mix of Kyrie Irving’s more colorful themes, to one of the best decade-old stashes of Kevin Durant’s KD 4 in all of its most beloved themes, Morant’s sneaker game has been one of the best among Swoosh endorsers.
With his game continually on the rise, his profile due for yet another leap with his upcoming All-Star starter nod, and the Grizzlies turning the corner from rebuilder to real, an upcoming Ja Morant signature series is the next logical step for the South Carolina native.
Zach LaVine // Sneaker Free Agent
Along with Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, Bulls high-flier Zach LaVine found himself among the most sought-after sneaker free agents of the fall as this season got underway. With the Bulls now one of the league’s biggest surprises, the former Dunk Contest champ’s play has him set to make a return to the All-Star Game in February, as he’s continually helped to uplift the Bulls since first arriving via trade.
Since October, LaVine has been lacing up one of the league’s most frantic rotations on a nightly basis, flipping from rare and vintage Kobe models, to retro Jordans, Adidas looks, and New Balances that tie back to his hometown of Seattle. Brands including Puma, Li-Ning, Under Armour and Anta have also all had internal discussions and looked into potentially signing the pure scorer.
Initially signed to a rookie shoe deal with Nike after turning pro out of UCLA in 2014, LaVine landed a lucrative four-year deal with Adidas in 2017 that was set to expire this past October. He’s now averaging more than 23 points per game for a fourth straight season.
Before the season, Anta made a strong multi-year offer that included a detailed and strategic signature shoe launch plan. A combination of LaVine’s iconic Dunk Contest performances, his smooth playing style, and the power of the Chicago market led to the belief in him as a signature shoe endorser.
Though a potential deal failed to materialize, the presentation included a look at more than a dozen colorways of a Bugatti Chiron-inspired “ZL1” sneaker, chronicling the many chapters and milestones of the 26-year-old’s life story.
Should LaVine look to play out this season as a true sneaker free agent, eclipsing Adidas’ “match clause” window that extends only until the Spring, he’d look to bank on the Bulls’ breakout season to lead towards yet another lucrative shoe deal, with signature shoe potential a likely factor during talks.
Jamal Murray // New Balance
Jamal Murray originally signed on with New Balance just before Christmas of 2020, after an Orlando bubble breakout filled with clutch shots, a 50-point career high, and thoughtful custom sneakers that caught the nightly attention of the sneaker blogosphere.
Initially, he was slated to be a key headliner of the brand’s upcoming Two Wxy sneaker, with Kawhi Leonard set to launch his own signature series with the company last fall. Unfortunately, Murray suffered a torn ACL just months later that has also kept him sidelined to start this season.
An anticipated pre-playoff return could catapult the Nuggets right back to being a postseason darkhorse. Once back, he’ll be looking to make an equally impactful return for New Balance.
After inking the deal, Murray immediately took to both the brand’s on-court team shoes, along with its instant classic off-court options like the retro 550 silhouette and 347. He’s been spotted donning both New Balance apparel and lifestyle sneakers all year long on the sidelines while in street clothes, often also lacing up the new Two Wxy 2 model for his pre-game workouts as he ramps back toward full strength.
His player exclusive pairs feature his “JM” logo and also incorporate an arrow through the lettering, a nod to his 3-point celebration gesture. If the 24-year-old can continue his ascent among the league’s list of top guards, with New Balance in need of more star power behind the notoriously reserved Leonard, Murray will have an opportunity to emerge as a future face of the brand.
Devin Booker // Nike
Within the Nike portfolio, “Book” has long been the brand’s best and most marketable untapped player to headline a new sneaker series. A Mamba disciple who faced off against Kobe Bryant during his rookie season — Bryant’s last — the Suns sharpshooter has been mostly wearing Kobe Protro models ever since, in clean purple and orange-based player exclusive executions.
With the post-career contract between Nike and the Bryant estate now in limbo for nearly a year since its expiration last April, key Swoosh endorsers like Booker have also been impacted, with no immediate product plans for Kobe sneakers appearing likely.
Many of the PEs worn around the league this season were last produced in December of 2020. Booker switched between a collection of Kobe 6 exclusives to close last season, before locking in on a light purple pair of Kobe 4s for the Suns’ impressive run to the 2021 NBA Finals.
Just as his initial four-year rookie shoe deal was set to expire in 2019, Book quietly landed a new five-year Nike agreement for an exponential raise that continued his connection to his go-to sneaker series.
If Nike and the Bryant estate are able to strike a new contract that would continue the Kobe series, it would make all the sense in the world for Booker to be the face of a new sneaker potentially dubbed the “Mamba Legendary.”
Before each game, he pens “BE LEGENDARY” along the midsole of his nightly pair, an homage to the charging push from Bryant that the late Laker legend penned onto the toe of his Kobe 11s after their final matchup in 2016. Booker later got the motivating phrase tattooed along his forearm.
Though he’s firmly said he’ll “never run out of Kobes,” should the series actually come to an end, Booker may need to look beyond the much-loved Bryant line and push to become the face of a future series of Nike’s GT shoes, or even his own “DBook” signature line.
With Morant seemingly next up on the Nike side, where 5 signature athlete lines currently exist, a sharp strategy could also be to shift the Suns scorer to Converse. Booker already wears Chucks through the arena entry tunnel before every game, making for a natural partnership that could lead to the brand’s first signature shoe since its mid-2000s Dwyane Wade series. Well ahead of his current deal’s 2024 expiration, brands are already circling Book as a top sneaker free agent target of that class.