THE SECOND THAT Basketball slips into Lonzo Ball’s hands, he has a goal in mind.
It’s March 1st, and the New Orleans Pelicans fell on Utah Jazz at six at the start of the third quarter. After a Mike Conley 3, the pelican wing Brandon Ingram takes the inbounds pass and shovels it on to Ball, which immediately spins – and scans. Ball immediately spots a 6-foot-7, 284-pound 20-year-old roaming the sideline, running away from three Jazz defenders who see the game coming but cannot do anything to stop it.
With a flick of his wrist, Ball sets everything off the opposing free-throw line and shoots a 65-foot arrow at his porthole. From the left side of the alley, Zion Williamson leaps to the edge, catches the nearly floor-length pass and gently lays it inside.
The piece has been months in the making. Years, really. Building this chemistry takes time. It started the moment Williamson and Ball played in a pickup game for the first time in 2019 at the Pelicans’ practice area. In the years that followed, the duo has become one of the most devastating and explosive in basketball.
“Literally when he caught it,” Williamson said, “I knew he was throwing it. When he released that pass, I knew it was on the money.”
From start to finish, the best streets hardly take a second. But the most exciting game in basketball is far more complicated than just a praise and dunk. It takes trust between teammates built over the years – with non-verbal tics, deliberately horrific passes, and bold results.
It takes time, strategy, and even chants for tropical fruits from time to time.
FOR SOME PLAYERSIt’s a look. For others, it’s a nod. Another, a subtle point. Every great alley begins with a riddle: how does a player let their teammates know that they are about to fly through the air to the edge without making it obvious to the defense?
That’s a word for the Philadelphia 76ers Center Dwight Howard, who has received 984 street hops in his career.
Yes. Pineapple. For most of Howard’s career, he drew on a series of non-verbal looks developed over time with his Orlando Magic teammates Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson that resulted in him sprinting and heading for the basket. But playing on his sixth team in nine seasons doesn’t provide time to develop the nonverbals. So he resorts to fruit.
“Pineapple! Pineapple!” he said. “Something crazy to shake off the defense.”
For the Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, it was a dessert: ice.
“‘Ice cream’ would be if you were a security guard and you were standing in front of me – then I would say ‘ice cream’. That is, when you approach the backboard, you throw it anywhere,” said O’Neal.
Not everyone is that sneaky. Teammates used to annoy Rudy Gobert jazz center for pointing outrageously in the air and believing he was open to the praise.
“You feel like you’ve got the chance to catch the alley, you’re getting excited,” said Gobert. “So you point up.”
Utah security guard Donovan Mitchell, who has thrown 65 praises on Gobert in the past four years, helped put an end to all of the over-pointing. Through practice and film sessions, he has developed a feeling for when Gobert should and will start his 7-foot-1 frame on the basket. Now Gobert can keep his fingers from giving up the trick and rely on Mitchell to deliver.
There are few who have mastered this hidden art of spotting a good praise opening better than LeBron James, the star of the Los Angeles Lakers who, according to Second Spectrum data, is only Draymond Green in terms of efficiency in helping up alleyways tracked.
“As a passerby, I always look at the second line of defense in a court situation,” said James. “There’s always a bottom guy or someone willing to help on the praise. I want to put my offensive player in a position where he just has to go up and get it.”
If anyone has as much institutional knowledge of the alley as James, it is his longtime friend and guardian of the Phoenix Suns, Chris Paul, who has thrown the second most frequent alleys in NBA history since the league started the stats in 1996 To follow up Let Paul get started and he can give an in-depth talk about the intricacies of a perfect alley-oop setup.
“The screen, the right angle, you’ve got marksmen on the wing,” said Paul. “It’s about taking angles off the screen and reading the low man …”
Then Paul paused.
“To tell the truth, I’m probably making it easier than it actually is.”
LaMelo Ball remotely praises Miles Bridges and the duo join forces in an alley-oop layup.
NOBODY HAS James Harden, whose 475 praise assists are more than double that of second-placed Trae Young (235) and third-placed Russell Westbrook (233).
Part of what has made Harden’s praise so unstoppable is that it looks just like his Floater, something he perfected with former teammate Clint Capela and on which he worked with the new vertical threats from the Brooklyn Nets, DeAndre Jordan and Nicolas Claxton, works.
“As a 3-point threat and able to get to the basket and get attention, I’ve learned how to just place the ball and communicate with my teammates,” said Harden. “When I drive you have to be prepared for it.”
For Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Harden’s ability to deliver that pass on the drive is almost unstoppable.
“When you know a man is not a good passerby or cannot find good angles, it is much easier to protect him,” said Gobert. “”[Harden] was able to throw the rag over it once I had helped too much. Clint was always in the right place. “
Ricky Rubio, the guardian of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said he chases which teammates like to jump off a leg or two, left or right, high or low lobs, clean surfaces or acrobatics. Howard, however, likes to keep it simple and make the goal as clear as possible to his praise throwers.
“I’m telling them to hit Jerry West or the flag and I’ll get them,” he said, referring to the stickers on the lower corners of each NBA backboard.
However, in some situations a perfect setup is not possible. When Harden drives, he looks for long defenders who can jump up and disrupt his pennies. These obstacles can derail what would otherwise be perfect deliveries – although James argued that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“The worst passes are some of the best alley-oop finishes,” he said. “It challenges the man receiving it to actually deform his body or jump a little higher than he wanted, to extend his wingspan and actually cope with it and cope with either the left or right hand. “
Lonzo Ball targets the same spots Howard loves, though on-time delivery isn’t always his goal.
“When I see it in the game, I just throw it and honestly hope for the best,” said Ball.
Hoping for the best might be something that runs in the family. According to Brother LaMelo, he is not aiming at all.
“No, I’ll just throw it,” he said. “I really let God take the wheel.”
Trae Young throws the ball into the hoop with his left hand and John Collins ends the game with a two-handed dunk.
IT’S FEB. 21 AND The Atlanta Hawks have a comfortable lead over the Denver Nuggets in the fourth quarter. Trae Young casually dribbles the floor and crosses the ball in his left hand as he passes the half-field line. He takes the ball to the left sideline, with Nuggets star Jamal Murray following his every move.
Young is looking – waiting – for his favorite target, John Collins, to take his step. He’s been doing this since he first teamed up with Collins three years ago in the 2018 Utah Summer League. When the duo got into the Vegas Summer League a few weeks later, Young knew their connection was freezing.
Collins, a springy 6-9 forward with a penchant for finishing a praise thrown into orbit, is also looking for Young. They make eye contact and share a knowing nod. Collins fakes towards the perimeter and then cuts the back door. It’s wide open.
Young coolly tosses a rag on the front of the rim. Collins takes three steps and takes off, catches the ball, and then slams it home, adding a pirouette from the hoop for good measure.
“I’ve just made up my mind that I’m not going to come down with basketball and go back up again,” said Collins. “I was completion This one.”
For anything that involves taking a basketball from one ground based player to another making its way to the hoop, the goal is the most important part of the process.
“It’s more like 20-80; 20 on the pass and 80 on the guy who really has to jump and throw it down,” Rubio said.
It was a new experience for Mike Conley to have someone to throw an alley to.
“It took getting used to throwing a rag at a large one because God blesses Marc Gasol, but for many rags he doesn’t jump over the edge.” Said Conley. “Now my readings have changed from the floater to an alley for Rudy [Gobert] and learn where its catching radius is. “
The attractiveness of the Alley-oop goes far beyond its efficiency. Sure, there are few better ways to score than hit a teammate to drop the ball straight into the basket. But there is also a compounding effect.
“It’s a little demoralizing,” said Gobert. “You end up immersed and at the same time it gives them energy to see it.”
That is why these pieces are so memorable for the duo who perform them. Collins couldn’t help but remember an NCAA tournament game four years ago against Kansas State when he breached a zone set up to keep him off the post.
“The defender jumped early and I stayed on the opposite block and my point guard threw it to me,” said Collins. “And when the defense attorney saw that he was cheating and tried to jump back, he got physical.
“I dipped everything over him. That was cool.”
Eric Bledsoe tosses it up in transition to Zion Williamson, who rocks the rim with a one-handed dunk.
When asked to tell his Williamson is taking a break. He needs some time to think.
“That’s tough,” he said. He took another break and spent years leafing through a catalog.
Then it hits him.
“It was Sweet 16 in college,” he said. “It was against my current teammate Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Tre Jones is the point guard. He got the theft.”
He goes on and becomes more animated with every detail.
“I ran on the right wing. It’s a close game, an NCAA tournament game, so very intense. I remember Tre just kind of seeing me.
“He just tossed it up. He put it there. I had to get it off one foot. I remember catching it, the arena just went crazy. In my mind I run back to the defense and think:” “Man, this is NCAA basketball. This is March Madness.” It was insane. “
The anticipation for these otherworldly jams couldn’t have been higher in Williamson’s rookie year. By the time he got to those first ball pickup games, Zion already had a plan.
“My thing was like, ‘Okay, before I say anything, let me see if he’s going to throw these praises or if I post a full dish when he is going to throw it,'” he said.
“I’ve done that, and every time he does that thing where he throws it on the court, he does it every time.”
So one of the best new alley-oop duos in the NBA was born – and even a meniscus tear in the preseason couldn’t stop them.
“We didn’t miss a beat,” said Williamson. “I thought, ‘Just put it there – I’ve got you.”
That was all Ball needed to hear.
“Once you have confidence in someone you know will catch,” said Lonzo Ball, “you can throw it pretty much anywhere.”
ESPN’s Marc Raimondi contributed to this story.