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The Art of Passing

With defenses spread out more than ever before, the NBA has become a playground for the game’s most creative passers

Daniel Hertzberg

“I don’t want to sound cocky when I say this, but it’s like I see things before they happen. I kind of know where the defenders are gonna be. I kind of know where my teammates are gonna be, sometimes even before they know. My game is really played above time. I don’t say that like I’m saying I’m ahead of my time. I’m saying, like, if I’m on the court and I throw a pass, the ball that I’ve thrown will lead a teammate right where he needs to go, before he even knows that that’s the right place to go to. I just slow things down to a point where I can control what happens. It’s a God-given talent.” —LeBron James in Lew Freedman’s LeBron James: A Biography (2008)


I.

Goofy screams a lot. Could be for any number of reasons. The bipedal dogthing has long been prone to errors and accidents of all sorts. Injuries are familiar. So are setbacks. The world can be unkind when confronted with something it’s never seen before. “Freak,” you hear. “Death wish.” “Ratlover.” “I heard it’s cows that really do it for him. Cows. And they’re not hot at all.”

Some of the errors are unforced. Goof can be unaware in all facets of the game. Soggy and foggy, oblivious to reality. His gear is rough. The gloves are a miss, the whole ensemble really. A solid turtleneck, black vest, brown shoes combo—it can harsh a mellow, for sure. Crumpled, lizard-green fedora the shape of an upturned, extraterrestrial, hunchbacked ballsack? There are better choices to be made. Some of his issues, though … we’re built how we’re built. The poor depth perception, the lack of brainpower, the teeth, difficult hand to get dealt. Probably some undiagnosed ADHD-type stuff going on. Staggeringly clumsy. A turbocharged Magoo. Strange-looking limp-eared Pollyanna with a proclivity for animatronic possum-yodeling and chaotic fly-casting, to still be alive at all is a miracle. But he puts his body through it. He puts his body through it and he screams.

He screams because he’s falling down an elevator shaft. He screams because his television explodes and launches him into the cosmos. He screams because he is briefly, for a short while, inside a tiger. Sometimes he embraces the grind, practicing his pogo stick, putting in the hours, trying to get better, and accidentally boings right off a cliff. And he screams. It’s always the same scream. “Yaaaaaaa-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooey!” And there is fear in the scream but also traces of elation. Yes, pain is coming soon, and yes he is hurtling pantless toward surefire hospitalization and potential disfigurement, but he is also in an ice cream truck with his best friends, and for a moment he feels like an eagle. For a moment, he is flying. And he screams. And the scream is high.

It’s not often human beings can hit such octaves. But on the night of January 19, 2022, one man did. It was overtime in Denver. Nuggets-Clippers. Eight seconds left. Clock winding down. Tie ball game. Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP of the league and a big, bad Serbian seer, held the ball near the outer reaches of the coaches’ box with Ivica Zubac guarding him. Serbia vs. Croatia. Frank, stirring:

With respect to Zu—offensively, he was putting in work: 15-for-19 from the field, 32 points, 10 boards—the word “guarding” is being used pretty liberally. Maybe “… with Ivica Zubac back to fail once more” would be more appropriate. Or that might be unfair. Joker torched the entire Clippers defense all night. Wasn’t all on Zu. Jokic was working out of the back of the book, had the answers to all their questions. And so when Amir Coffey left Will Barton to double Jokic, he was coming to double a monster sitting on 49 points, 14 boards, and nine assists. He was coming to force the ball out of Jokic’s hands, to make someone else, anyone else, beat them. When Coffey went to double, Luke Kennard, the Finasteride Fireball, had to rotate up and take Barton. This made B.J. Boston come off Aaron Gordon in the opposite corner to take Monte Morris. Reggie Jackson was in help under the basket, keeping an Oakleyed eye on Jeff Green in the dunker’s spot. Morris cut hard and flashed to the middle of the lane. Boston went with him for a couple steps. That was all Jokic needed. The double didn’t matter. Jokic was nonplussed. From above his head with arms in his face he threw a right-handed cross-court missile to Gordon. When Kennard took Barton, Gordon was in the corner. He didn’t move. When Morris cut middle, Gordon was in the corner. He didn’t move. When Jokic threw it, Gordon was in the corner. He didn’t move. He didn’t have to. Jokic hit him square in the numbers and he let it go. The pass could not have been more perfect, even if Jokic were standing next to Gordon and handed him the ball.

When the shot went in, the whole arena screamed. One stood above the rest. It was ESPN NBA analyst Richard Jefferson. And he sounded like Goofy.

That pass. This is electric, Powerline-level stuff. It stands out.

II.

In 2008-09, the Washington State men’s basketball team ended the season with a record of 17-16. They went a lackluster 8-10 in league play, finished seventh in the Pac-10, and missed the NCAA tournament. Those Cougs were coached by Tony Bennett fresh off back-to-back seasons in which they’d tied the school record for wins in a season, with 26. Bennett’s teams guard hard and trend toward a more methodical, deliberate kind of basketball. The third-leading scorer on that ’08-09 team was a baby-faced freshman named Klay Thompson. Their second-leading scorer was a senior big man out of Australia named Aron Baynes. Their leading scorer, at a little over 13 a game, was senior guard Taylor Rochestie.

This past summer, Rochestie penned a WikiHow article on how to properly execute an elbow pass. He has three methods listed. The first is the behind-the-back elbow pass. There are four steps.

1. Draw in the defense by driving straight toward them.

2. Bring the ball behind your back at elbow height.

3. Look in the opposite direction of the ball.

4. Hit the ball with your nondominant elbow.

Rochestie has two more variations on the elbow pass, each with three steps apiece. One is for what he calls an inside elbow pass, the other for what he’s coined a bent elbow pass. In the Community Q&A at the bottom of the page, one of the questions asked is, “Are elbow passes difficult?” Rochestie’s answer: “For sure they are! I’m a fan of creative passes but you’ve got to need to practice a lot before trying it in the game, or your passes may fail.”

The pass he’s hoping to teach is this one.

In 2019, House of Highlights asked Jason Williams whether he was surprised nobody else in the league has tried the elbow pass since he did. Williams answered: “I think a lot of them don’t have the balls to do it. Scared of messing up. I think I had that going for me a little bit. I call it going for me. A lot of people say I got it going against me. But I wasn’t scared to try anything. Because I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I can pull this off.’”

III.

Most passes are boring. A little something to initiate the offense, or continue it. An uncontested inbound. A chest pass from the top of the key to the wing. A post entry bounced into the waiting hands of someone who has their defender sealed. These can be pitiful little yawns. Basketball’s expository dialogue. The nothing before the something. These passes are more functional than fun, thrown and caught with little thought, forgettable even in the air.

Some passes are not boring. Some passes are parties. Let’s watch Joker’s again from another angle. Who cares? The world’s on fire and little matters.

Jokic had no time for prisoner-of-the-moment hysterics after the game. When asked about the play, he said, “I kind of make those passes on a normal basis. It’s a normal pass.” That last sentence is absurd. That’s a normal pass the way a spaceship is a normal car. But artists can be bad critics of their own work. They’re too close to it. Despite the ridiculousness of that second sentence, the one right before it might be spot on. He’s not making game-winning passes every week, but game-breaking? Passes so good they make you laugh? That’s old hat to him at this point. The pass to Gordon wasn’t even the best Jokic has thrown against the Clippers. That title belongs to this lunacy from the bubble.

A madman. Some of the reads happen so fast, so automatically, the assists look almost involuntary, like he’s merely doing what he was designed to do. The code’s already written. The rest is theater.

In 2017-18, Jokic was second in the league behind only Ben Simmons in passes made per game. Jokic threw around 66 a night. The next season, he and Simmons switched places on the leaderboard and Jokic bumped his number up to a little over 71. He led the league again in 2019-20 with 75 a game and then somewhat surprisingly landed back in second place last season. Domantas Sabonis was airing that thing out. This season, Jokic again leads the league in passes per game with 74.2. The next closest is Kyle Lowry, at 66.8. Throwing a lot of passes does not a good passer make, but these numbers show just how much the ball is in his hands, just how much playmaking weight is on his shoulders. If ever there were a point center, this is it.

The best player in the history of the league who has put up a 40-point triple-double and looks like a toe. He is full of it tonight. His game’s cockeyed. It manifests itself in these odd little magic tricks that almost feel like jokes. Nuggets games should be accompanied by a laugh track. Or another way to say it … you know how a lot of times the bloopers are better than the actual show?

Jesus Christ said, “Yo, fellas, pass out these fish.” Jokic has taken that message to heart. He’s an equal-opportunity initiator. If you’re open, you’re getting it. He doesn’t have to look at you to know where you are. His paws are loaded with gifts and he’s rifling those things out like a Serbian Santa. He’d be the greatest cornhole player who ever lived. You don’t even need to know you’re open. He’ll find you.

Some Jokic sorcery comes off as though he himself is sort of over the whole basketball supercomputer thing. Some plays he makes with the spirit of someone who’s lying on the couch and just heard the doorbell ring. Can hear his groan through the television. “Seriously? Can’t believe I have to do something amazing again. This is so dumb.” He’s a comedian in a hangdog sort of way. The funniest guy in the room and bored by laughter. Offensively, he’s a bit machine. Off the charts in the idiosyncrasy department with respect to both quantity and quality. The answer to the age-old question, “What if, on occasion, a professional basketball player moved with the energy of Paul Rudd in Wet Hot American Summer?”

You wonder about the passes he doesn’t throw. What’s too crazy for Jokic? Passes banked diagonally off the backboard to the other side of the floor? Passes that are required to go through two different defenders’ legs? He will seemingly try anything. He tried this. Who tries this?

What a sicko. Obscene, NSFW pass. The kind of content that makes the librarian kick people off the computers. Total and complete, hands on the head, unholy filth. Sometimes it’s best to look at the reaction a play gets to understand how nuts it was. You know a pass is next level when the bench reacts like someone just got dunked on.

Jokic is an impressionist. There are one-handed touch passes off offensive rebounds and full-court Hail Marijas. He’ll throw these sling passes out of the post, one-handed standstill cross-court ropes to the opposite corner. No point using both arms if you don’t have to. The release point does not matter. Neither does the defender. He can find teammates in close quarters just as well as he can find them in space, has a million ways he can get it done.

In 2019, Jokic said: “Assist makes two people happy. A point make one guy happy. So it’s as simple as that.” That’s a remix of a Toni Kukoc quote from his playing days. “One score makes happy one player, one assist makes happy two.” These read like mantras. Assists are all the rage in the Balkans. We are all Frank.

IV.

The best passes are surprises. They come from nowhere, require multiple viewings from multiple angles at multiple speeds to fully comprehend. They take prescience and daring and nerve. Creativity, originality, instincts. They invigorate, offer some levity when the tension needs breaking. They’re playful, yeah? A little flirty or something? Sort of [wiggles eyebrows]. They perk you up, make you pay closer attention. So and so is on the floor, fun could be around any corner. Blink at your own risk.

Great passing is its own kind of intelligence. It’s knowing the answer before the other team has asked the question. It takes self belief and a steadfast commitment to your point of view. The best shotmaking makes you want to go outside and play pretend, imagine hitting buzzer-beaters in Game 7s. The best passing makes you want to go play with your friends. One is not necessarily better than the other—despite reports to the contrary, the points do matter—but the communal nature of things, the creation of an environment in which everybody feels like they have a chance to touch the ball, this has to make things better, no? Elevator rides are a little quicker. Buses are a little warmer. Probably better bits in the locker room? Less laughing at, more laughing with. It’s hard to get too far away from harmony if you share well. When their heads are right, the best passers are the good-vibes guys of the league. Joy curators. Misters Congeniality. They make you happy. They let you touch the ball. They trust you. They think you’re good enough. They think you can help. Some combination of stunt-person, illusionist, actor, detective, and circus performer. They raise the energy on the bench and in the stands, give the air that crackle. You want to be in their orbit. Things are brighter there.

The greatest passers have a flair for theatrics. There’s flavor on the throws. Got to have a little zest if you want to keep everybody smiling. The best prey on attention. Wiley ball handlers use their eyes to play tricks on the defense just as much as great quarterbacks do. Most defenses have at least one simpleton who can be gullible under the right circumstances, happy to go along with whatever story the ball handler’s eyes are telling them. So, the eyes go one way. The ball goes the other. Some say eyes don’t lie. These people are naive and taken advantage of hourly. Average passers need both eyes all the time. The savants take pictures in their mind, hold them there, stare at one thing but think of another. Being great at passing is being great at deception. And if their acting is true enough, they keep their secret until the last possible second, until the moment their teammate is in the spot they want them. Then the pass finally happens and everyone sees before them the invisible truth that was there all along.

Even the loudest passes start as whispers. Great passers sneak. They manipulate, toy, lie. Make opposing teams slower, confused, blind. The ever-changing, ever-stretching geometry that takes place on NBA courts has necessitated an uptick in trickery. In a game in which space is at a premium and openings start closing as soon as they appear, players with the ability to be seconds ahead of a defense become doomworkers. Players in the modern NBA are bigger, stronger, faster, longer, quicker than ever. Defenses are better than they used to be. They cover more ground, jump higher, reach farther. But evolution begats evolution. And so certain passes that might not have been used as much in the past become paramount to an offense’s success.

In late December, TrueHoop published a piece by David Thorpe with the subheading: 3 pointers dominated for a while, now it’s physical defense. Passing is next. He lists five passes being used with increasing frequency in today’s game. The look-away bullet pass, the hook pass off a ball screen, the bounce pass off the dribble in transition, the slip screen pass leading to the rim, and the half-court thread-the-needle pass in traffic. Thorpe writes, “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.”

More than ever we see ball handlers come off screens and pass two and three guys away, take advantage of help defenders who would, in the name of readiness, cheat just a bit too far off their man. Sometimes, there’s not enough time to get a second hand on the ball. This has made it all the more important for players to add live-dribble passing to their bags. Say a big sets a screen a step or two above the 3-point line at the top of the key. The ball handler comes off the pick, freezes defenders with his eyes, and fires a left-handed, no-look, live-dribble sling pass to the opposite corner. The best of those are frozen ropes into a shooter’s hands. The best lead ball handlers in the NBA today can rocket one-handed darts with speed and accuracy from great distances and they can do it all with either hand without looking at who they’re throwing to. They can’t afford to telegraph where the ball is headed or have it arrive anywhere other than on target. It must fly true regardless of the angle at which it’s thrown. Odds are, if the pass is at the shoelaces, it might as well have not even happened.

The greats take chances. A lot of words have been spilled about shooting with confidence. Less has been said about passing with confidence. Seeing the pass is one thing. Making it is another. Just because someone isn’t open right now doesn’t mean they aren’t about to be. The best pass teammates open. Throw the ball into space, know their guy will be there to meet it at the right time. They’re smooth and forceful with their inventiveness, can initiate and react with creativity at full speed, in traffic. They go hard but they’re not freaking out about it. This is how some passes seem shot from cannons. The speed’s surprising because we see no strain.

They’re fearless with the mustard but don’t require it. Some passes, the window’s tight and the ball needs zip. Others, a more tender approach is needed. So maybe there’s not as much juice behind the ball or they put some air under it or they give it a little English and let it bounce and curve toward the hands it’s meant for.

The most devastating passers are well-rounded, can shoot, dribble, and not get played off the floor on the other end. When the passing’s there and the shooting isn’t, a player negates their own strength. This can cause uncomfortable moments. Just spitballing here but maybe a player has an uncontested layup but gets spooked at the thought of getting fouled and missing free throws so he gets rid of it.

When the passing’s there, but the player can’t guard anybody, that presents further problems. Hard to play a guy who gets hunted every defensive possession and provides little to no resistance at the point of attack.

Milos Teodosic is one of the greatest passers in the world. He does things on offense you want to watch over and over, makes defenders look like total and complete fools. He came to the Clippers in 2017 after long stints with EuroLeague powers Olympiacos and CSKA Moscow. Teodosic had trouble staying on the floor in Los Angeles. This was because, by the end of his Clippers tenure, he could not guard a stool. He struggled mightily on defense and I guess also threw a huge fit that the cigarette machine in the locker room didn’t have Camel Blues? I agree a guy needs to guard if they’re going to get minutes, but that’s pretty unconscionable on Steve Ballmer’s part. He’s a billionaire. Some things are bigger than basketball. Give the man his Blues. The Clips waived Teodosic in 2019. He plays in Italy now and there are wild reports circulating out of Bologna that he has contracted a disease that makes him look exactly like Edgar in Men In Black and will be forced to retire. So, you know, got to be able to guard.

For the first time since Bird and Magic ran things, the league has found itself in something of a passing boom. It’s brimming with passing talent. In addition to Jokic, there’s LeBron James and Chris Paul, old lions still more than capable of fireworks. They’ve been historically special passers since they entered the league and both are still very much in possession of their fastball. Then you’ve got the youth movement. Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Trae Young. Let’s throw in Darius Garland because these full-court bounce passes aren’t going to bounce themselves. The magnetic qualities are there, the game’s real, and barring injury he’ll be lobbing no-look bombs to a souped-up Garnett for the foreseeable decade. Should have his own shoe by 26. There are delightful (if you’re a Nugs fan, annoying if you are anyone else) role players like Facundo Campazzo and injured vets with the face of an angel like Ricky Rubio. Draymond Green has it. So does Lonzo. James Harden will get bored, lazy, or both and throw some potion. [Man in the back of the room rises slowly, raises his hand, removes his cap.] I know he’s still a calf and I ain’t trying to start nothing but I would humbly submit that Giddey, that Australian boy? He can pass that thing too. I’m also jealous of those onyx locks. High-level flow. The mane is grand.

And then there’s LaMelo.

V.

The post on Reddit was titled, “Rank these players as passers: LaMelo Ball, Chris Paul, Nikola Jokic, Trae Young, LeBron James, Ben Simmons.” In August 2021, GQ showed it to Ball, asked his opinion.

LaMelo: “That first one seems right. LaMelo Ball. And, oooo, passing?”

(A little jump cut. Someone off screen tells Melo who Jokic is. The video was posted August 17, 2021. Jokic was named MVP of the league on June 8, 2021.)

LaMelo: “Oh, that’s The Joker? Yeah, he can pass. I’ll probably put him next. Bron. And then CP, Trae. Nah. I gotta throw Simmons somewhere up in there. I ain’t gonna lie, I don’t know. I got a top three, though. Well, I got a top one. Shit. Me.”

LaMelo’s combination of confidence, fundamentals, sauce, and pragmatism make highlights a foregone conclusion and fun inevitable. It’s a mixture that assures the viewer a good time. Watch and smile. He has such a command over the ball some of the wildest passes come off laid back, almost conversational. He’ll underhand no-look a bullet from the free throw line to a cutting Hornet under the basket and he’ll do it with a heart rate that doesn’t hit 60.

Passing is self-expression. The greatest have style and substance. It’s not just about accuracy and speed and precision. It’s a manifestation of that player’s particular aesthetic. With their passing they show you: This is how I see. This is how I think. This is what looks best to me. This is how basketball is supposed to be. It’s a window into a personality. A way for a player to apply his stylistic fingerprints to the game. You’re most able to understand the way a player processes the game by the way that he passes the basketball.

Ball’s a futurist. A sport utility armored fighting sports car. Pirelli’s skirting. Small saltwater aquariums in the headrests. Underwater fauna from the Outer Banks, teal and purple seahorses. That pink Abarth Rally in the “Lemonhead” video if it was also a submersible capable of flight. Welcome aboard. Artillery’s in the trunk. Mind the leather. It’s crocodile. Albino crocodile. And let’s go cause some trouble, shall we?

LaMelo and Jokic are similarly creative. They’re industrious, resourceful dudes who love to share. Just trying to get their team some points.

They can both make it look casual, Ball exceedingly so. The ho-hum nature of some of Jokic’s brilliance can be attributed to the fact it is being done by a very large man who sees no point in rushing things. Ball is Jaguar fluid and certain in his movements. He’s equally fearless with his playmaking, will try anything and look comfortable doing it. Big bets without the sweat. Carefree, confident, fundamentally sound, audacious. These highlights, their brilliance is not born out of an attempt to wow. Ball does it this way not because it is cool, but because it will work. Form follows function. He interacts with the defense on his terms, exerts the energy he needs to, flows.

Affinity is the word. They have an affinity for helping. Neither passes solely to wow. They’re not highlight hunting. The assists are a byproduct of the way they see the game. They aren’t making the pass so people will get out of their seats. They make the pass they make because that’s the best way to make it. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t make it that way. If you happen to leap out of your seat as a result of their vision, all the better.

If you told me to assemble an all-star dodgeball team consisting entirely of NBA players, I would tell you don’t tell me what to do. You’re not my dad. You’re not the boss of me. I’ll do it if I want but not because you said so. Only reason I’d even consider it is because it sounds fun. If I were going to do it now, the first two calls I’m making are to Nikola Jokic and LaMelo Ball.

VI.

On the night of February 16, 2022, Jokic repeated himself. It was late fourth quarter in San Francisco. Nuggets-Warriors. Five seconds left. Clock winding down. Golden State up two. Jokic, that doomworker, held the ball in the left corner with Kevon Looney guarding him. Like Zubac before him, he was back to fail again. Jokic had gotten whatever he wanted all night—13-for-24 from the field, 3-for-5 from 3, and 6-for-9 from the line. The Dubs had all the wrong answers. He did what he wanted when he wanted, controlled everything. And so when he drove middle, he did so with 35 points, 17 boards, and seven assists. He did so as the most dangerous man on the court.

Monte Morris had inbounded the ball to Joker in the first place, then cut through to the other side of the floor. When Jokic put the ball on the deck, Morris worked his way to the wing, made himself available. The man who was supposed to be guarding Morris was Steph Curry. Curry had gotten distracted by the Serb, though, and in trying to get in proper help position found himself in a bit of no-man’s land, not close enough to Jokic to affect much, but not close enough to his defensive assignment either. Jokic drove until, with a little over a second left, he finally got Curry to commit. He looked at the rim and threw a no-look pass to Morris on the right wing. Jokic had occupied Curry’s attention long enough that his contest was just a hair late. “I took the bait,” Curry said after the game. “Made a dumb read. Was a step late thinking the clock had run down enough where it was only his opportunity to shoot and he made a great pass.” The pass hit Morris in rhythm and Morris ripped the net. Curry shouldn’t beat himself up too much. Jokic makes fools of men on the regular. The real crime was the bucket hat. Lizard green is hard for anyone to pull off.

When the shot went in, the Denver bench emptied. They mobbed Morris, smiles everywhere, the shot made possible by the pass. Their joy had been curated. Fun was had. And the team was happy.

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.

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