2022’s key NBA skill: the pass
3 pointers dominated for a while, now it’s physical defense. Passing is next.
BY DAVID THORPE
The NBA is overloaded with talent–athletic, shooting, ball-handling, coaching–all kinds. Scoring has been exploding because of people who shoot like Stephen Curry and coach like Steve Kerr. That kind of offense has defined success in recent years. This year, though, is the revenge of the defense, thanks to changes in personnel (long, mobile athletes all over the place), tactics (I could go on all day), and importantly, a bold new “let ‘em play” approach from referees.
This has tilted somewhat who wins and loses in this league, and–I predict–sketches out the shape of the next winning skillset: passing. The way things are going right now, the future is going to hold a crazy rich set of opportunities for players who know how to deliver a killer dime.
An example: now that it’s harder to find clean looks in the halfcourt, fastbreak opportunities are precious gold. Or, they should be. While a two-on-one or three-on-two is reliably money in high school and college, to my eyes NBA offenses aren’t scoring as often as they should, because finding the easy bucket often counts on whoever has the ball making a nice pass.
Too often the player with the ball just doesn't have that skill at that speed. The most common version: often, both offensive players prefer to keep the ball high, with a chest pass or a lob. The defense knows it too, and with hands up, those passes get a little trickier, and the passer can get hesitant, which ruins everything. But, of course, there’s a workaround, which I will explain below.
Not everyone can be Magic Johnson or Nikola Jokic—two giant men who can see a) over their opponents and b) the future. But everyone can practice using their eyes, body language, and excellent fundamentals to create scoring moments for teammates. In fact, as I tell the players I mentor, deeply schooling these fundamentals is the key to climbing up the offensive metrics, which can play a role in getting you paid. If you want to be on the court when your team gets easy buckets, this is what you can do.
Be a better ball handler and a trusted ball mover. Make easy plays, and don’t turn the ball over when the defense isn’t all over you.
Be fundamentally sound, so that the ball goes where you want it to with precision. This is every bit as valuable as mastering a crossover dribble or reverse layup.
On time and on target passes. The best looks, at this level of the game, only exist for milliseconds.
Kyle Lowry isn’t tall, but nonetheless creates beautiful easy shots for teammates all the time, especially, the other night, sharpshooter Max Strus. How? Erik Spoelstra mentions “on time and on target” passes as the key. Lowry has an excellent ability to do all that while using his eyes and body language to convince the defense something else was coming entirely. It’s sales.
Mel Brooks tells a story about a grocer, whose market has a smattering of items on the shelves, and cartons of salt everywhere. His son asks “dad, do you sell a lot of salt these days, is that why you carry so much?” His father replies with a smile “no, not at all, but that salt salesman, he is really something.” Kyle Lowry could sell a lot of salt.
Here are five passes I teach in my gym all the time, and that every player can master, to bring some of that into your game:
The look-away bullet pass
Max Strus was having a game and Lowry wanted to keep feeding him. But the Magic defense knew all of that. So how did Lowry create this shot opportunity? Watch Lowry’s eyes and body. Everything screams he’s passing right. That misdirection creates just a sliver of time for Strus. A regular chest pass to the corner would have taken too long, which is why Lowry threw that bullet pass. Pro passes fly faster than any in college or high school, it’s a major teaching point in my gym. We need the ball to find its target as quickly as possible. THAT pass to Strus came with so much sauce it packed the message shoot this! Not every player can make that pass with a message, but they can all learn to use their eyes to move defenders and then add some zip.
The hook pass off a ball screen
LaMelo Ball might end up as the best passer in the league. He has great size for his position, and is supremely good at making passes that require lots of practice. This is what we call a “hook pass,” and it’s not for beginners. The defenders know just where the ball is, have arms outstretched, and are crowding him–but he gets it there instantly anyway. Many would try a bounce pass in his situation, but it’s lower and slower and is easily tipped in this kind of traffic.
Ball delivered the ball so quickly, PJ Washington was able to attack a gap in the coverage and get to the rim. Had he made the catch just two beats later, that angle to the rim would have evaporated. Timing and accuracy mark the best passes.
Hook passes are made to look easy … they are not. Gifted passers can do them with either hand, but even to master them with the your good hand requires many weeks of mistakes in training sessions. (Put it this way: you don’t hold a cup of hot coffee around people doing this drill.) Getting the passing arm extended over the defenders’ arms is the key. Throwing accurate passes from that kind of fully extended arm position is something that comes naturally to almost no one, and takes a lot of refinement.
The bounce pass off the dribble in transition
In my gym I have a rule, “plan on throwing it to where the defense isn’t.” What that means is:
If the receiver is taller than the defender, throw it up high.
If the defender is taller than the receiver, use the bounce pass.
This is one remedy to the league’s current frustration finishing fast breaks efficiently.
There are two keys to a successful bounce pass that have nothing to do with the defense and everything to do with the passer:
The ball should be released from around the waist, below the arms of the defender nearest the ball.
It should travel two thirds of the distance to the target in the air before bouncing, so it only has to travel in the air one third more before it’s caught. The ground slows the ball down, making it more vulnerable to be stolen, so “two thirds/one third” is pounded into players’ heads by good coaches. The other benefit: it keeps the ball from bouncing up high, near tall men’s arms.
In the play above, Draymond Green sees athletic 6-9 center Robert Williams between him and the basket, with hard charging 6-9 (and far more gravity bound) Kevon Looney filling the lane. Williams is betting on a chest pass or a lob. He has his left arm raised and is standing a bit too upright, giving Green the space to bounce the ball perfectly to Looney, who is not known for catching lobs in traffic. By the time Williams reacts to the low pass, it’s too late. No other kind of pass would have led to such an easy basket.
The slip screen pass leading to the rim
The common remedy to defenders switching screens is what’s called a “slip screen,” where just before contact is made the screener slips away toward an open spot near the rim or out to the 3-point line. In this case, Clint Capela sees that Nikola Jokic is cheating toward Trae Young, who often uses situations like this to shoot a 3. Good awareness by Jokic.
Capela takes a step toward the action, selling Jokic further on the idea a screen is coming, and Trae needs attention. Then, before he even sets the screen, he darts toward the rim.
There is an easy play, stop at the nail in the middle of the free-throw line. Capela would be all alone, and have an easy catch. But … Capela at the free-throw line is not exactly money for the Hawks. So Young uses a careful little pass to lead his teammate to the front of the rim, where Capela is a killer. It’s not the easiest catch. A weaker player may not have made it. But Capela is seven years into learning to be a greedy NBA receiver. He uses his body to shield the defender from the ball, then easily scores. Great passes create scoring opportunities that just weren’t there before.
The half-court thread-the-needle pass in traffic
It is hard to make the pass Green did in transition, and it is similarly hard to make those kinds of passes in half-court actions. In transition, bodies are moving fast but lanes are clearer, in half-court play the movements are slower but the paint is crowded. Most coaches call this a “pocket pass” because, they say, it’s thrown from the “pocket” of the lane. I never understood that! I call this a pocket pass because the passer throws it from his pocket, not his chest, above his head, and the cutter catches the ball at his pocket.
Defenders, wisely, typically have their arms extended wide or high. But this is how passers beat that strategy. The delivery here, unlike a hook pass, isn't so hard to master, but the read is. Jokic is a new breed of big man who knows how to be the ball handler in screening actions–all kinds of bigs would be wise to practice this skillset and follow suit.
Here, Jokic uses a screen and sees that the Hawks defensive duo get a little lost, they don’t really commit to switching, nor do they cut off the passing lane to Jeff Green. (Against a passer like Jokic, they should have kept one hand into a bounce passing lane.) Jokic, like Lowry on that bullet pass, makes them think an air attack is coming, he’s standing upright and his eyes are up before he suddenly slips that pass in. Pure genius, and again, what looks like a nondescript moment in the offense becomes an easy dunk in the blink of an eye.
Happy New Year from TrueHoop!