Up in the air: Is it OK for NBA players to leap before looking?

If you made it to middle school basketball or have ever watched a college game called by Bob Knight, you know that leaving your feet to pass is a serious transgression of basketball fundamentals. Once airborne, there are precious few moments to find a recipient, and if the intended target becomes suddenly unavailable, the passer can get hung out to dry. At that point, usually the best thing that can happen is a travel, which at least prevents a steal-fueled fast break.

But if you watch the NBA, you also know that pro players do this all the time.

And not just any players, the best players. Guys like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo make this hoops heresy a habit. And not only do they get away with it, they often use the jump pass to great effect.

Sometimes, however, they do get stranded in mid-air, which prompts the knee jerk “well Bob, that’s why you say players should never leave your feet to pass.” As someone who’s counseled high school players away from this risky play, I was conflicted, so I asked around to see what the people who watch the best in the league regularly pull off this advanced maneuver thought.

Anthony Macri, a coach at David Thorpe’s Pro Training Center, explains it this way:

“There is a difference between jumping to pass with a plan in mind and jumping because you are stuck and don’t know what to do and so you jump to try to bail yourself out. The first is fine, second is bad. At younger levels it’s almost impossible to get kids to understand the difference, so it’s easier just to say ‘don’t do it.’ In the NBA there is a lot more room for that decision, and sometimes it’s a necessary move.

And having a plan doesn’t mean lockstep. When Coach Thorpe or I talk about having a plan, it doesn’t mean following a script. It means have a goal in mind, with counters if your primary options are taken away.”

Because NBA defenses are so long, and passing angles so difficult to create, jumping to pass can be a useful and even vital way of moving the ball and finding open players.

But jumping to pass should be separated from jumping then passing.

Yet some players do seem to be able to get off scott-free even when they make up their minds after elevating. As Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns told me, “Nash gets away with it because he’s Steve Nash. That is to say he thinks basketball at such a high level and sees things on the court before they happen, which allows him to make plays where others would just commit turnovers.”

  • Or maybe the move is “the ugly residue of supernatural athleticism,” as The Heat Index’s Tom Haberstroh suggests. He’s been watching two of the league’s most frequent jump-passers, LeBron and Wade, leap into the air and then make up their minds all year.

    “You never see guys like Carlos Arroyo commit a jump-pass, mostly because they’ve weeded it out of their game early on. They don’t have the athletic chops to justify it or pull it off consistently.

    Wade and LeBron, on the other hand, can get away with it because banning it is worse than the alternative: they stop aggressively attacking the basket. Usually the jump-pass occurs after they seek contact in the lane. They don’t get the shot off, and they’re forced to call an audible. You want them to maintain that fearlessness in the lane that makes them so difficult to guard.”

    Haberstroh isn’t a fan of the move, but he sees it as something of a necessary evil. “Bottom line, if you tell Wade and LeBron to stop jump-passing, you also lose the free throws that come with jumping into traffic. So you learn to deal with it.”

    A great point. The top level NBA players are so talented and physically gifted that there are, in some cases, a whole separate set of fundamentals by which their games abide. Then again, Wade seems to have some kind of compulsive disorder that causes him to jump in the air without a plan far too often.

    This is a surprisingly typical NBA play: a gifted wing attacks the paint, leaves his feet, hangs and surveys following options: shoot, pass cross-court or to the opposite corner, lob the ball back out top to reset, or sling a dart to a baseline cutter. Coach Macri told me “it takes lots of strength to make that pass. Guys like LeBron do it well. Derrick Rose is a guy who could physically do it but I’m not sure he is as aware of a guy as LeBron.”

    Sebasitian Pruiti of NBA Playbook is far less ambivalent. “I hate it unless it is obvious that he has his mind made up and the jump is to create a better angle.” The problem is, with players so gifted, it’s often difficult to read their intentions.

    Kobe Bryant, for one, has mastered the skill of leaving his feet not only to open up passing options, but also to fool the defense into defending against his shot. Forum Blue and Gold’s Darius Soriano applauds the move:

    “I can rattle off countless plays in which Kobe’s been successful with it, but he’s at his best using it in pick and roll situations. Kobe’s such a threat when coming off the screen that once he elevates, defenders (especially big men hedging out) close out to contest his shot only for Kobe to dump the ball to a diving or popping big man for an easy shot. Or, because Kobe has gotten so use to passing in this manner, he’s also become accustomed to skipping the ball cross court to open shooters on the wing when the defense properly rotates to the dive/pop man that set the original screen.”

    Last night against the Celtics, Bryant found Pau Gasol for a hockey assist in the exact manner described by Soriano. Kobe drove to the right baseline, dragging multiple Celtics defenders with him. As he rose, potentially to shoot, he contorted his upper body and whipped the rock back to Gasol, who was waiting just beyond the free throw line. The Spaniard, recognizing a two on one, attacked the basket before dumping the ball off to a baseline cutter for the easy bucket. Pau got the dime, but Kobe’s play was the bucket’s genesis.

    Clearly, Kobe had anticipated the Celtics defensive rotation, so there was little risk of a turnover. Similarly, Brendan Jackson of Celtics Hub notes that Rajon Rondo can consistently make jump passes because of his innate understanding of where his teammates will be. While the pass appears to be a low percentage play, “Rondo’s chemistry with his teammates, coupled with the Celtics formulaic half-court offensive sets, means Rondo seldom has to force the issue with a jump pass, so for him the risk versus reward debate may be unfairly skewed. “

  • The video is beautiful, but it’s probably also worth noting that while these players are some of the most dynamic in the League, Rondo (1), James (3), Nash (4), Wade (12) and Bryant (17) are all near the top in the league in turnovers per game. The jump and pass may be just a part of a greater trend: players who are counted on to create for their teams will necessarily turn the ball over more frequently. Seven of the top (bottom?) eight in the league when it comes to TO/gm are All-Stars, the other is John Wall.

    Still, Jackson taps into a recurring theme amongst everyone I talked to. Even though they recognize the effectiveness and practiced nature of the play, the belief that leaving one’s feet to pass is a breach of the sacred code of hoops fundamentals makes it difficult to embrace the play. I’d rather he didn’t do it, but I wouldn’t tell him not to.

    The other idea that echoed across my emails was that these stars make this play with a purpose, not in a panic. Though results can vary, through incredible athleticism, awareness and practice, this uncouth phrase of the basketball lexicon has become a fundamental tool for the most elite creators in the NBA.

    Follow Beckley on Twitter!

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