NBA mock draft after the NCAA tournament
What are the big developments in the 2021 NBA draft class?
The college season is complete and underclassmen have begun to declare for July’s NBA draft. While we won’t know who’s in and who’s out until the early-entry withdrawal deadline on July 19, we can still make some projections and begin to get a sense of how players will line up when teams make their selections.
What did we learn from three weeks of NCAA tournament action — and the months of games that preceded the Big Dance? Which players are projected to be lottery picks? And how will some of the top international prospects compare with college basketball’s best?
Note: While it’s too early to reasonably predict the 2021 NBA draft order, we’ve used the latest version of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index to help give an early look and show traded picks.
Jalen Suggs | PG/SG | Gonzaga
Top 100 ranking: No. 3
The 40-foot, game-winning bank shot will be etched into NCAA history, but it’s the defensive motor, open-court playmaking, downhill attacks and gamer mentality Suggs brought to the Final Four that has him in the top 3 of our latest top 100.
Jalen Suggs’ buzzer-beating 3 in OT sends Zags to title game
Jalen Suggs drains the long 3-pointer as time expires to send Gonzaga to the title game.
On the heels of his iconic shot against the UCLA Bruins, Suggs proved to be one of the only Gonzaga Bulldogs players who didn’t look rattled in the national title game against the Baylor Bears and elite guards Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell. Despite the early foul trouble in the title game, an issue that plagued him at times this season, he defended with his usual energy on and off the ball, made an effort to put consistent pressure on the rim in space and knocked down a pair of catch-and-shoot 3s on his way to 22 points on 15 shots versus Baylor.
Against UCLA, it was Suggs’ recovery block leading to a full-court bounce pass to Drew Timme that injected life into a Zags team on the ropes against Johnny Juzang and UCLA. That came shortly after stellar defense and a clutch midrange pull-up. Whether it was against BYU in the West Coast Conference title game or versus UCLA down the stretch, Suggs came up with big play after big play for Gonzaga all season, and there’s clearly a wow factor to his game when he hunts down a defensive rebound and starts attacking the retreating defense. It’s easy to see him thriving in a Jrue Holiday type of role at the next level, and Suggs certainly has more juice off the dribble than Holiday, who averaged eight points per game on a talented UCLA team and went 17th in the draft.
With all that said, Suggs isn’t a perfect prospect. His high-energy defense often bleeds into his offensive attack as he plays a style that can lead to erratic decisions, shoulder-lowering charges and highly contested shots at the rim. He is still searching for the inner calm you see from the NBA’s best late-game assassins. With over 32% of Suggs’ offense coming in the open court, his naysayers wonder if he is sure-handed enough of a ball handler to fully quarterback an offense, especially if he isn’t looking at the rim from 3 when teams duck under screens. He had a handful of possessions in Indianapolis that signaled his clear need to improve his ball security. He’ll also toss up some hard left and right misses that you wouldn’t expect from a player who has made so many big shots during his career.
But Suggs’ body of work speaks for itself. NBA teams want to see how elite prospects respond in the biggest games of their young career, and Suggs averaged 18.6 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds on 63% from 2 and 43% from 3 against three hard-nosed defensive teams in Baylor, USC and UCLA. Although Gonzaga fell one game short of a perfect season, the 19-year-old guard passed his litmus test with flying colors and could surely go as high as No. 2 in this draft, with Cade Cunningham still the favorite at No. 1. G League Ignite prospects Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga have more natural ability, but Suggs’ Final Four run accentuated the fact that he is the exact type of high-floor competitor a general manager will feel comfortable betting on maximizing his long-term potential.
— Mike Schmitz
Davion Mitchell | PG | Baylor
Top 100 ranking: No. 8
No player improved his stock over the past month or so more than Mitchell, and this is far from a March mirage.
The high-motor guard has been a favorite in scouting circles for the majority of the season, but midway through conference play, most teams viewed him as a high-level backup guard who could hang his hat on his elite defense and quickness. After watching him help carry Baylor to a national title, it’s clear Mitchell not only projects as an NBA starter and one of the best defenders in the league, he also holds considerable star potential.
Mitchell shakes defender, hits smooth step-back as Baylor starts hot
Baylor’s Davion Mitchell loses his defender with a step-back and knocks down the jumper.
What impressed me most was just how many different ways Mitchell can beat you. Against teams such as Wisconsin and Villanova, he torched perimeter defenders and bigs alike with his elite burst and sudden changes of pace. His acceleration, balance and ability to get his chest parallel to the floor on downhill attacks is as impressive as I’ve seen from a guard. He’ll be one of the fastest guards in the NBA from Day 1. With the Houston Cougars playing him as a driver in the Final Four, he knocked down hang-dribble pull-ups and a step-back 3 to his left, and he showed the sharp footwork and off-the-dribble game that so closely resembles Donovan Mitchell.
Maybe most impressively, Mitchell has turned himself into a real lead guard who knows when to go get his own or when to facilitate. Houston threw two bodies at him on most every screen, and he almost always made the right play, whether it was a pocket pass to the roller or a skip to the corner. He also showed he can pass off the dribble, which is a deadly weapon when paired with his pull-up shooting and elite quickness. With NBA spacing and shooters around him, Mitchell figures to be a near impossible cover so long as his jumper is falling.
Then you add in the fact that he knows how to coexist alongside other guards, plays with a nonstop motor and is one of the best defenders I’ve ever evaluated and you have a pretty special prospect who I think deserves consideration as high as No. 6. Not overly long or tall despite his strong, 205-pound frame, there’s still room to fine-tune his finishing in traffic while becoming more consistent from 3. Analytics models will likely flag his career 66% free throw shooting. It’s worth noting that if Mitchell, 22, were to go in the top 10, only six top-10 picks since 2000 will have been older than him on draft night: Randy Foye, Shane Battier, Wesley Johnson, Buddy Hield, Ekpe Udoh and Rafael Araujo.
But the former Auburn transfer has proved his ability to improve each and every season up until this point. Mitchell consistently rose to the occasion as the heart and soul of a special Baylor team, and he is the exact type of fearless player coaches and teammates will want to compete with every night.
Corey Kispert | SF | Gonzaga
Top 100 ranking: 12
A consensus first-team All-American, Kispert had likely his worst game of the season in the NCAA championship game against Baylor, scoring 12 points on 12 field goal attempts, while struggling defensively and looking tentative throughout. Outside of a 23-point outing against No. 16 seed Norfolk State, Kispert had a fairly quiet March by his lofty standards, potentially extinguishing his chances of being a top-10 pick in the process. He didn’t shoot the ball at quite the same rate he had previously, though he is still one of the best shooters in the draft, hitting 44% of his 3-point attempts in each of the past two seasons.
Kispert has proved capable of getting his jumper off effectively coming off screens, operating out of dribble handoffs, and pulling up off the bounce while attacking closeouts or out of the pick-and-roll. More than just a shooter, Kispert also brings quite a bit to the table with his ability to make good decisions with the ball, be it attacking closeouts for straight-line drives, finding the open man, leaking out in transition and finishing around the basket with either hand and tremendous touch — hitting 63% of his 2-point attempts on significant volume.
At 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, Kispert had no problem handling power forwards for most of the season, contributing as a rebounder on both ends and playing above-average defense for the most part thanks to his outstanding awareness off the ball in team settings. His lack of length and just average lateral quickness aren’t ideal projecting to guarding NBA wings, but he plays with good effort and has the strength and awareness to at least not be a liability on that end of the floor.
Players in Kispert’s mold are hugely valuable and difficult to find in today’s NBA, which could certainly encourage a team to elect to use a late lottery pick to add him to their roster on an inexpensive rookie scale contract despite him not possessing the type of upside you typically hope to find in that slot. The fact that he has already played a similar role in college to the one he’ll be asked to play in the NBA should help his cause as well.
— Jonathan Givony
Josh Giddey | PG/SG | Adelaide 36ers
Top 100 ranking: 13
The second-youngest player currently projected to be drafted, Giddey has hit his stride in a major way over his past six games, averaging 14 points, 9.5 assists, 8 rebounds and 2 steals per game, while shooting 51% from 2 and 41% from 3. Adelaide released combo guard Donald Sloan and replaced him with another former NBA player in Brandon Paul, who is more of a wing, and that put the ball in Giddey’s hands full time and let him explore the depths of his creativity, which has led to spectacular results, at times.
There are few players in this draft class who show the type of vision, creativity and awareness Giddey does. He controls the game from his unique 6-foot-8 vantage point in an exhilarating fashion. He gets anywhere he wants on the floor thanks to his outstanding size, ballhandling and propensity for changing speeds, and operating out of hesitation moves and driving in both directions. He can throw passes off a live dribble with either hand or come to jump stops and zip two-hand overhead bullets to open shooters on the wing. The timing and velocity of his bounce passes are extraordinary, making it very difficult for opponents to game-plan for, especially recently with the way he has been shooting the ball from the perimeter when defenders go under on ball screens. Teams have found some success switching big men onto Giddey and forcing him to finish over length, something he is capable of doing but can be inconsistent at due to his thin frame and struggles operating through contact.
Those same issues also manifest themselves on the other end of the floor, where Giddey struggles quite a bit more. He gets blown by off the dribble frequently, has a difficult time getting over screens and gets caught falling asleep off the ball on occasion. Even when beat, Giddey’s size and feel for the game often allows him to get back into plays, which is reflected in his very strong steal and block rates, not to mention his rebounding, which is more reminiscent of a big man than that of a thin-framed guard.
Defenses will likely continue to dare Giddey to punish them from outside. NBA teams will closely scrutinize his shooting splits (47% on 2s, 32% on 3s, 67% FT) to help determine how scalable is his ball-dominant role. The progress he has made as the season moves on coupled with his youth and the instincts he displays on both ends of the floor leave plenty of room for optimism. With the college basketball season finished, NBA scouts will now focus their full attention on the international crop, including Giddey, who still has 15 games left in his season. He already has cracked the ESPN lottery and could continue to help himself further with a strong finish, as the 6 to 20 range of the draft remains highly unsettled, with no clear consensus of how the order might shake out.
Jared Butler | PG/SG | Baylor
Top 100 ranking: 23
A first-team All-American, Butler wrapped up an outstanding season with two excellent games in the Final Four, delivering 39 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds and just 3 turnovers on efficient shooting in helping Baylor win the NCAA championship with blowout wins over Gonzaga and Houston.
Baylor capitalizes on offensive rebound with Butler’s 3-pointer
Baylor’s Adam Flagler grabs an offensive board and dishes to Jared Butler for three.
Butler’s versatility was on full display, playing on or off the ball, looking effective running pick-and-roll sets himself or spacing the floor for Davion Mitchell, and knocking down 8 of 14 3-point attempts to finish the season shooting 42% from beyond the arc. He looked calm with the ball in his hands, picking his spots patiently and letting the game come to him, which is not a surprise considering he has nearly 100 college games under his belt playing a featured role for a team that went 54-6 the past two seasons. The fact that he is such a reliable shooter with his feet set or off the dribble, while also having the ballhandling and pace to create offense for himself and teammates, gives him a clear-cut role projecting to the NBA.
As effective as Butler has been offensively, he also has shown significant improvement defensively this season, walling off with his quick feet, showing great effort getting over screens and being disruptive off the ball in taking away passing lanes and digging down for steals. He doesn’t have the strongest frame or the longest arms, and he might struggle at times with some of the bigger wing-type players he’ll likely encounter in the NBA at the shooting guard position, but it won’t be for a lack of effort. His strong anticipation skills and feel for the game should help, as well.
NBA teams will like that they are getting a proven college player — just named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player — who also has upside to grow. Butler is a young junior who won’t turn 21 until late in the summer.
Ariel Hukporti | C | Nevezis
Top 100 ranking: 44
The 18-year-old Hukporti has had a choppy season in Europe so far, playing only 12 of his team’s 27 games in seven months due to knee and ankle injuries as well as a lengthy COVID-19 pause. He has had some impressive outings, at times, but also some ugly games, which is to be expected to an extent from an 18-year-old 7-footer moving from his home country of Germany to Lithuania.
Hukporti is one of the most physically skilled big men in the draft, featuring elite size and strength to go along with impressive mobility both running the floor and elevating off his feet. He does some things you don’t expect a player his size to be able to, including executing an in-game windmill in transition in a game last week. His combination of speed and power makes him extremely difficult for slower-footed big men to contain in the post or on straight-line drives, helping him draw fouls in bunches at times this year. More than a dunker, he shows flashes of touch around the rim, some passing capability out of the post and even the ability to step into pick and pop 3-pointers smoothly, at times, hitting 7 of 22 attempts from beyond the arc in 277 minutes this season. His mobility also can be an asset on the defensive end. He is quick off his feet for blocks or rebounds and has great closing speed in getting from the perimeter to the paint to make a play at the rim after getting beat.
With that said, Hukporti is still a long ways away from putting things together and does several head-scratching things each game that make you wonder about the likelihood of that ever happening. He makes very questionable decisions on both ends of the floor, committing an astronomical 5.3 turnovers per 40 minutes to go along with 5.3 fouls. His offensive efficiency leaves a lot to be desired, as his 45% true shooting percentage is tied for last among all players currently projected to be drafted. Part of that has to do with his role, as he has the freedom to do almost anything he pleases on a team that is 7-20 in the weak Lithuanian league and sitting in last place. But that’s also partially due to his underdeveloped feel for the game. He simply does not have a great understanding of his strengths and weaknesses as a player at the moment. That shows most vividly on the defensive end, where Hukporti is often a step slow with his reaction time and the way gets taken advantage of frequently by older players. Trying to defend pick-and-rolls is quite an adventure for Hukporti at the moment, as he tends to gamble incessantly, gets lost in open spaces, takes bad angles on screens and struggles to cover ground on the fly.
While it’s clear that Hukporti is several years away from helping a NBA team win games, there also aren’t that many players with his physical abilities and talent as a finisher, rebounder and shooter. A patient team with a good G League infrastructure could look at him as an interesting gamble to roll the dice on at the end of the first round or in the early to middle part of the second, as there is unquestionably a significant amount of upside left to tap into long term.
Matthew Mayer | SF/PF | Baylor
Top 100 ranking: 53
Although he was relatively quiet against Gonzaga, Mayer scored 52 points off the bench during Baylor’s six-game title run, thriving in a microwave scoring role that could eventually translate to the NBA level if he carries this momentum into a strong senior season in Waco, Texas.
At 6-foot-9 with excellent fluidity, Mayer was a major weapon for Scott Drew coming off the bench thanks to his shot-making ability, aggression attacking the rim and overall energetic style. Mayer is the only player in our top 100 to average at least 20 points and 3.0 steals per 40 minutes last season, and he did so while chipping in almost 10 rebounds per 40, as well. Although he needs to do a better job of staying in his shot, Mayer shoots it easy from NBA 3 range at 40%, is a comfortable ball handler for his size, has the footwork to rise up in midrange spots and plays with never-ending confidence, which worked in his favor given the role he played for Baylor.
Mayer still has quite a bit of room to improve as a decision-maker and a defender as he heads into his senior season. Although his strength is his scoring ability, he is a bit too eager to break off into isolation, at times, and can do a better job of picking his spots, which he’ll likely need to do as he steps into a more prominent role next season alongside a stellar recruiting class. While a playmaker defensively and on the glass, Mayer loses focus, at times, and struggles with physicality defensively, even if he has good feet and moves really well for his size. If Mayer can maintain his efficiency and production in more of a featured role next season while upping his passing, it’s easy to see him developing into an attractive option for NBA teams. As we’ve seen with a guy like Jake Layman, 6-foot-9 forwards who can make an open shot and offer some versatility generally get a lot of bites at the apple to make it in the NBA.
Quentin Grimes | SG | Houston
Top 100 ranking: 64
The American Athletic Conference player of the year had an up-and-down NCAA tournament from an efficiency standpoint (55% true shooting) but showed enough as a spot-up shooter and on-ball defender to warrant consideration in the back half of the second round if he opts to leave Houston.
Grimes sinks big trey late as Houston advances to Final Four
Houston holds off Oregon State’s late comeback as Quentin Grimes drills the 3-pointer, and the Cougars never look back en route to their first Final Four since 1984.
He shot just 39% from 2-point range in five NCAA tourney games, went 4-for-12 overall against Baylor and still looked quite rushed as a decision-maker. Still, Grimes knocked down 18 3s during Houston’s March Madness run, finishing the season at 40% from 3 on over eight attempts per game — one of only two players in our top 100 to reach such a feat. It was good to see that Grimes didn’t run from open shots in Indy, as that was part of what plagued him during his freshman year at Kansas. He’ll still panic dribble and turn a rhythm 3 into a contested 2, but his confidence is clearly trending in the right direction, at least as far as shooting the ball is concerned. He has yet to recapture some of the playmaking chops he showed glimpses of in high school and can stand to improve as a finisher in traffic if he does opt to return for his senior season.
With measurements similar to Josh Hart‘s, Grimes is a sturdy on-ball defender with quick feet and a good activity level, even if he isn’t overly rangy and is a bit erratic, at times. There’s certainly a market for players with his shooting ability and defense, and the fact that he was a major contributor to one of the best teams in the country this season helps his standing among NBA scouts. Should Grimes at least test the waters, it would be interesting to see what he looks like in a 5-on-5 combine setting, as scouts will want to see how good of a shooter he is in pressure-packed moments. But it’s safe to say he is far more prepared now than he was as a 19-year-old at the 2019 combine.
Drew Timme | C | Gonzaga
Top 100 ranking: 79
Timme’s phenomenal NCAA tournament run ended with his worst game of the campaign. He committed a season-high five turnovers while looking virtually unplayable defensively for much of the game, forcing Gonzaga to go to a zone to try to hide him — to no avail. For as high as Timme’s skill level is as a post player, finisher and creator inside the arc, he still has a ways to go to modernize his game to become more attractive to NBA teams. That has to include incorporating a 3-pointer into his arsenal, becoming a better rebounder and obviously doing whatever he can to maximize his effectiveness defensively, particularly defending the pick-and-roll. For now, Timme looks likely to return to Gonzaga for his junior year to work on his weaknesses, as he is no lock to get drafted.
Jonathan Givony is an NBA draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and international teams.
Mike Schmitz is an NBA draft expert and a contributor to DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and international teams.
Oop! There it is: How NBA players build the perfect alley-oop tag team
THE SECOND THE basketball slips into Lonzo Ball‘s hands, he’s got one target in mind.
It’s March 1 and the New Orleans Pelicans are down by six to the Utah Jazz early in the third quarter. After a Mike Conley 3, Pelicans wing Brandon Ingram takes the inbounds pass and shovels it on to Ball, who immediately swivels — and scans. Ball immediately spots a 6-foot-7, 284-pound 20-year-old streaking down the sideline, outrunning three Jazz defenders who see the play coming but can do nothing to stop it.
With one flick of the wrist, Ball sets everything in motion from the opposing free throw line, launching a 65-foot dart toward his bullseye. From the left side of the lane, Zion Williamson leaps toward the rim, catches the nearly floor-length pass and softly lays it in.
The play is months in the making. Years, really. Building up that chemistry takes time. It started the moment Williamson and Ball first played in a pickup game at the Pelicans’ practice facility in 2019. In the years following, the duo has emerged as one of the most devastating and explosive in basketball.
“Literally, the moment 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 alley-oops barely last a second. But basketball’s most exciting play is far more intricate than simply a lob and dunk. It requires trust between teammates, built over years — involving nonverbal tics, intentionally terrible passes, audacious finishes.
It requires time, strategy and, from time to time, even chants for tropical fruit.
FOR SOME PLAYERS, it’s a look. For others, it’s a nod. Others, a subtle point. Every great alley-oop starts with a conundrum: How does one player let his teammate know he’s about to go flying through the air to the rim without making it obvious to the defense?
For Philadelphia 76ers center Dwight Howard, the recipient of 984 alley-oops in his career, it’s a word.
Yes. Pineapple. For most of Howard’s career, he relied on a series of nonverbal looks — developed over time with his Orlando Magic teammates Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson — that led to him to sprint and launch toward the basket. But playing on his sixth team in nine seasons provides no such time to develop the nonverbals. So he resorts to fruit.
“Pineapple! Pineapple!” he said. “Something crazy to throw the defense off.”
For Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, it was dessert: ice cream.
“‘Ice cream’ would be if you’re a guard and you’re in front of me — then I say, ‘Ice cream.’ That means when you get close to the backboard, throw it anywhere,” O’Neal said.
Not everyone is so sneaky. Teammates used to tease Jazz center Rudy Gobert because he would egregiously point in the air, believing he was open for the lob.
“You feel like you have the opportunity to catch the alley-oop, you get excited,” Gobert said. “So you point up.”
Utah guard Donovan Mitchell, who has thrown 65 lobs to Gobert over the past four years, helped put an end to all that excessive pointing. Through practice and film sessions, he has developed a feel for when Gobert should and will launch his 7-foot-1 frame at the basket. Now, Gobert can keep his fingers from giving up the ruse and count on Mitchell delivering.
There are few better at this hidden art of spotting a good lob opening than Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who, per Second Spectrum data, trails only Draymond Green in efficiency on alley-oop assist opportunities.
“As a passer, I’m always looking at the second line of defense in a half-court situation,” James said. “There’s always a bottom guy or someone that’s ready to try and help on the lob. I want to put my offensive player in a position where all he has to do is go up and go get it.”
If anyone has as much institutional knowledge on the alley-oop as James, it would be his longtime friend and Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, who has thrown the second-most alley-oops in NBA history since the league began tracking the stat in 1996. Get Paul started and he can give a full-on lecture on the delicate intricacies of a perfect alley-oop setup.
“The screen, the right angle, you got shooters on the wing,” Paul said. “It’s all about setting angles off the screen and reading the low man … ”
Then Paul paused.
“To tell you the truth, I’m probably making it sound easier than it actually is.”
LaMelo, Bridges link up for alley-oop from beyond half court
LaMelo Ball lobs to Miles Bridges from distance and the duo connects for an alley-oop layup.
NO ONE HAS assisted on more alley-oops in the NBA over the past five seasons than James Harden, whose 475 lob assists are more than double that of second-place Trae Young (235) and third-place Russell Westbrook (233).
Part of what has made Harden’s lob so unstoppable is it looks just like his floater, something he perfected with his former teammate Clint Capela and is working on with new Brooklyn Nets vertical threats DeAndre Jordan and Nicolas Claxton.
“Being a 3-point threat and able to get to the basket and draw attention, I learned how to just place the ball and communicate with my teammates,” Harden said. “When I drive, this is what you need to be ready for.”
For Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Harden’s ability to deliver that pass on the drive makes him nearly unstoppable.
“When you know that a guy is not a great passer or he’s unable to find good angles, it’s way easier to guard,” Gobert said. “[Harden] was able to, as soon as I was over helping, throw the lob over the top. Clint was always at the right spot.”
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio, for his part, said he keeps track of which teammates like to jump off one leg or two, left side or right side, high or low lobs, clean finishes or acrobatics. Howard, though, likes to keep it simple, making the target as clear as possible for his lob throwers.
“I tell them to hit Jerry West or the flag and I’ll go get it,” he said, referring to the stickers placed on the bottom corners of every NBA backboard.
But some situations don’t allow for a perfect setup. When Harden drives, he’s scanning for long defenders in a position to jump up and disrupt his dimes. Those obstacles can derail what would be otherwise perfect deliveries — though James argued that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“The worst passes are some of the best alley-oop finishes,” he said. “It challenges the guy who is receiving it to actually contort his body or jump a little higher than he wanted to, stretch out his wingspan and actually come down with it and be able to finish either with the left hand or the right hand.”
Lonzo Ball aims for the same spots Howard loves, though pinpoint delivery is not always his goal.
“If I see it in the game, I just throw it and hope for the best, honestly,” Ball said.
Hoping for the best might be something that runs in the family. According to brother LaMelo, he doesn’t aim at all.
“Nah, I just throw it,” he said. “I let God take the wheel, for real.”
Trae and Collins team up on another alley-oop
Trae Young launches the ball to the hoop with his left hand, and John Collins finishes the play with a two-handed dunk.
IT’S FEB. 21 AND the Atlanta Hawks have a comfortable fourth-quarter lead on the Denver Nuggets. Trae Young casually dribbles up the floor, crossing the ball over to his left hand as he passes the half-court line. He walks the ball toward the left sideline, with Nuggets star Jamal Murray tracking his every move.
Young is searching — waiting — for his favorite target, John Collins, to make his move. He’s been doing so since he first paired up with Collins some three years ago at the 2018 Utah Summer League. By the time the duo got to the Vegas Summer League a few weeks later, Young knew their connection was stone cold.
Collins, a springy 6-9 forward with a penchant for finishing any lob thrown in his orbit, is also scanning back for Young. They make eye contact and share a knowing nod. Collins fakes toward the perimeter, then cuts backdoor. He’s wide open.
Young coolly flips a lob to the front of the rim. Collins takes three steps and launches, catching the ball and then slamming it home, adding a pirouette off the hoop for good measure.
“I just made it up in my mind I was not coming down with the basketball and going back up,” Collins said. “I was finishing that one.”
For everything that goes into getting a basketball from one ground-bound player to another soaring his way to the hoop, the finish 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.
For Mike Conley, having someone to throw an alley-oop to was a new experience.
“It was getting used to the idea of throwing a lob to any big, because God bless Marc Gasol, but he’s not jumping above the rim for many lobs.” Conley said. “Now, my reads have changed from the floater to an alley-oop for Rudy [Gobert] and learning where his catch radius is.”
The appeal of the alley-oop goes way beyond its efficiency. Sure, there are few better ways to score than teeing up a teammate to drop the ball directly into the basket. But there’s a compounding effect too.
“It’s a little demoralizing,” Gobert said. “You end up getting dunked on, and at the same time it gives them energy to see it.”
That’s why these plays are so memorable for the duo executing them. Collins can’t help but remember an NCAA tournament game from four years ago against Kansas State when he broke a zone set up to keep him out of the post.
“The defender jumped early and I stayed on the opposite block and my point guard lobbed it over to me,” Collins said. “And as the defender saw that he was cheating and tried to jump back, he got bodied.
“I dunked all over him. That was cool.”
Bledsoe and Zion connect for monster alley-oop
Eric Bledsoe tosses it up in transition to Zion Williamson, who rocks the rim with a one-handed dunk.
When asked to recount his favorite alley-oop ever, Williamson pauses. He needs some time to think.
“That’s tough,” he said. He pauses again, rifling through a catalog years long.
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 steal.”
He continues, getting more animated by each passing detail.
“I was running on the right wing. It’s a close game, NCAA tournament play, so it’s very intense. I remember Tre just kind of saw me.
“He just threw it up. He put it up there. I had to go get it off one foot. I remember I caught it, the arena just went crazy. In my mind, I’m running back on defense thinking, ‘Man, this is NCAA basketball. This is March Madness.’ It was crazy.”
The anticipation for those otherworldly jams could not have been higher coming into Williamson’s rookie year. When he arrived at those first pickup games with Ball, Zion already had a plan.
“My thing was like, ‘All right, before I say anything, let me see if he’s gonna throw these lobs or if I post up full court if he’ll throw it,'” he said.
“I was doing that, and every time he does that thing where he flicks it up the court, and he’d do it every time.”
That’s how one of the NBA’s best new alley-oop duos was born — and even a preseason meniscus tear couldn’t slow them down.
“We didn’t miss a beat,” Williamson said. “I was like, ‘Just put it up there — I got you.”
That was all Ball needed to hear.
“Once you have trust with someone you know is gonna catch it,” Lonzo Ball said, “you can pretty much throw it wherever.”
ESPN’s Marc Raimondi contributed to this story.