Any aspiring point guard who ever attended a basketball camp has heard the cardinal rule, a warning to prevent scenarios in which things tend to go wrong more than right. Greg Anthony, an 11-year NBA veteran who played the position in the 1990s and early 2000s, remembers it being drilled into him in his early years: “You were always taught you’re not supposed to leave your feet when you pass the ball.”
The guidance is aimed at helping players avoid making panicked decisions in midair, but most can’t pull off what the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic did in the second quarter of a recent win over Utah. Muscling into the lane, Doncic rose for what looked like a short-range shot. Then, in the half-second he was airborne, he glanced back over his shoulder at a teammate stationed on the wing — drawing a defender into that passing lane — before firing a sharp-angled, no-look dart to Reggie Bullock for an open corner three-point attempt. Doncic landed and Bullock made the shot — all according to plan.
In recent years, the NBA’s most creative passers, from 20-year-old LaMelo Ball to 37-year-old LeBron James, have thumbed their noses at this piece of conventional hoops wisdom. Doncic and the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young — ranked fifth and third, respectively, in assists per game this season — have gone a step further, turning the jump pass from a highlight-reel play into a cornerstone of their approaches, allowing them to open up the defense. Their coaches have accepted it for the simplest reason: It works.
“In the game of basketball, nothing was invented by the coaches,” said Igor Kokoskov, an assistant with the Mavericks and Doncic’s former coach on the Slovenian national team. “Players change the game, and with the jump pass, the genius players are the game-changers. It’s our job to notice.”
The first two things Carlin Hartman, then an assistant at the University of Oklahoma, noticed about Young when he arrived on campus as a freshman in 2017 were the long hours he spent studying the game and the split-second decisions he made playing it. Off the court, the 6-foot-1, 164-pounder pored over film of Chris Paul and Steve Nash, similarly undersized point guards who relied on guile and angles to manufacture whatever advantage they could. On the court, Young used that knowledge to read a defender’s slightest lean and moved quickly into the right shot or pass.
“He could always see things,” Hartman said. “He was two steps ahead of everybody.”
This manifested most obviously in a maneuver Young has become known for in Atlanta. Dribbling around a screen, he creates a two-on-one scenario: himself and a big man vs. the defender guarding that big man. But where Paul and Nash tended to stay on the floor in these moments — per numerous coaches’ instructions, to be sure — Young would raise up for what looked like a floating jump shot, forcing the defender into an unwinnable decision. Challenge the shot, and Young adjusts the trajectory to make it a lob pass for his now-open teammate. Hedge against the pass, and Young gets the bucket himself.
In addition to leading the Big 12 in scoring during his lone season at Oklahoma, Young set the top mark in assists per game, his 8.7 more than 1.5 better than the second-place finisher. For the Sooners’ coaches, embracing their star’s go-to move meant abdicating some of their usual responsibilities.
“It’s pretty much taboo for most guys, because we want them playing off two feet, playing under control,” Hartman said. “But when it comes to guys like Trae, he sees it before even you can see it.”
Young, who grew up in Pampa, Tex., honed the technique under Dallas-area trainer Tim Martin. Martin taught Young that the trick lies not only in athleticism or timing but also in chemistry: convincing an opponent of one thing while readying a teammate for the other.
“Trae does a phenomenal job of communicating with his bigs — not just in games but in practices,” Martin said. “In order to be able to make those kinds of passes, you have to overcommunicate off the court, build relationships so they always know what to do in different scenarios.”
With Atlanta, which opens its postseason with a play-in game against the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, Young has spent countless hours working with center Clint Capela, to whom he threw a league-best 164 assists this season. While the Atlanta crowd roars in response to the latest alley-oop, Joe Prunty, a Hawks assistant coach, often notices point guard and center holding a quick conference on their trip back downcourt, tracking coverages and fine-tuning angles.
“The game is an art,” Prunty said, “and they’re always having a discussion about what they’re seeing — from both of their perspectives.”
‘His body is all one piece’
If Young turned to the jump pass to counteract a height disadvantage, Doncic used it to bolster an already significant leg up. The 6-7, 230-pound guard, currently nursing a calf strain ahead of the Mavericks’ first-round series against the Utah Jazz, can muscle wherever he likes on the floor and shoot over most anyone in his way when he gets there.
His frame lets him pull off passes popularized by James, missiles flung over the heads of the defenders bunched against the threat of his own scoring. But Doncic also studied smaller fellow Europeans — especially Vassilis Spanoulis, who’s known as the “Greek Steve Nash.”
“Parts of every player,” Doncic said, explaining to TNT last season how he has built his tool kit. “That’s how I see it.”
It’s one thing to see the defense’s rotation in real time and pick out where the ball should go. It’s another to summon the strength, without his legs anchoring him to the floor, to get it there.
“His body is all one piece,” Kokoskov said. “He’s got the strength to make those passes look effortless.”
Doncic’s midair stunts take on many forms. He’ll rise up for a layup and, when a center leaps to contest the shot, drop the ball down to hip height and slip it to a teammate. He’ll ease into what seems like a standard jump shot and then, without so much as turning his head, wrench sideways and muscle the ball 50 feet, hitting a shooter square in the chest.
The challenge is to capitalize on his creativity without edging into recklessness: Doncic turned over the ball five or more times in 31 of 65 games this season.
“My only concern is that sometimes he gets bored,” Kokoskov said. “Making the simple play, making the simple pass — that’s too easy for him.”
‘That’s not for everybody’
The jump pass is about more than chasing highlights or bucking convention, though; it has become the next frontier of high-level playmaking, a salvo in the arms race between offense and defense. A surplus of high-level shooters and the foregrounding of the pick-and-roll game over the past decade has turned every possession into a question: Can a playmaker make use of a window of advantage before the defense slams it shut?
“Trae Young’s ability to score, he puts the defense in a posture where they have to react — guard the rim, the floaters and lobs, and the three-point line,” said Anthony, now an analyst with NBA TV. “But defenders are also better, and in order to create the right angles, sometimes you’re going to have to leave your feet.”
It’s also a matter of laying bait. “These guys are playing chess,” Anthony said. “They know, once they jump, if you think the ball is going one place, you’re going to react accordingly.”
The most manipulative passers think on a grander scale. Young sometimes hops up for no evident reason, which makes the effect all the more disorienting.
“Let’s say he jumps one time,” Martin said. “Then the next time down, that defender has to make an adjustment, and all of a sudden Trae’s putting a bounce pass between his legs. He always has a setup move for the next move.”
One player’s revolution is the next player’s blueprint. Just as school-age hoopers once mimicked Stephen Curry’s long-range three-pointers, the next wave of prep stars surely has drilled this circus-style passing. Their coaches might insist it doesn’t work; their social media feeds, when another Doncic or Young highlight pops up, say otherwise.
The jump pass distinguishes itself from other trendy moves, though, by being inherently unrepeatable. It’s not the Michael Jordan fadeaway or the Allen Iverson crossover, individual trademarks that became generational touchstones. It relies on a player’s ability to track the patterns happening all across the court quickly, before gravity beats him.
The day after Young scored 36 points and tallied 10 assists to help the Hawks beat Brooklyn, Prunty watched the Mavericks play the Bucks. Early in the game, Doncic, who would finish with 32 and 15 in a Dallas win, jumped toward the rim and slung an underhand pass to Dwight Powell for a dunk. It wasn’t the day’s gaudiest highlight, but to Prunty it laid bare the qualities that only the most daring passers possess.
“All he did was get in the air and wait for the defender who was guarding Powell to make a decision. He jumped, so Luka just dropped it off to him,” Prunty said. “But that takes a supreme confidence in his ability to see the floor, his ability to handle the basketball. The game will evolve, but that’s not for everybody.”