Minute Basketball: Floating
|Louis Zatzman and Samson Folk||Jan 21|
Floating is different from flying. It’s more descriptive. Flying doesn’t connote grace. It’s absolute. That’s why so many people choose flight when describing a superpower they’d most want. Floating exists in the borderlands, in the space in between. You might be on the verge of flying. One more inch, one more fraction of a second, and you’ll take flight.
If you describe the difference in the aesthetics of action, flying is Goku hurtling through the air to save the world from Piccolo. Floating is Li Mu Bai bending treetops as he glides in trying to convince Jen Yu to become his student.
You can see the difference in the NBA, too. Flying would be unfair. It would break the game. But floating? That’s the sweet spot. The moment that players float is the moment that time vanishes like a popping bubble. Are they about to take flight? Logic says they won’t, but our senses are screaming at us that gravity doesn’t apply here.
They don’t land right away, either. There’s plenty that can happen in the sky above our heads before the possibility of flight dies. Games are won and lost during the float.
It’s where Ja Morant proves there’s no one like him, when he’s on the cusp of flying, like Li Mu Bai, effortless and immensely powerful at once. He gains an advantage in the air, where everyone else is on the verge of collapse. Floating, too, is how Tyrese Maxey has distinguished himself from all others, even though it’s his rookie year. Floating is the border between the rim and the ground, the sacred and profane. Winning in that No Man’s Land is where the fun comes into the game of basketball.
This week in Minute Basketball: floating.
Folk - Floating, Flying, and the Death-Defying Ja Morant
It isn’t easy to make passes or decisions in the air. The reason being? Well, your body is in motion, you’re tethered to *checks* nothing, and the amount of time you spend there is typically quite fleeting. When you leave your feet to pass your body language is now communicated at a 2nd grade level - everybody is reading it. Defenders can explode off of the hard court to reach your less than powerful passes that have been robbed of the power of your lower half and squirt harmlessly out of your arms.
What if you’re trying to finish over a big man? As your ability to levitate subsides and you move lower and lower beneath the bucket, you see him growing taller and taller in comparison. There’s a lot of players in the NBA who can hang and extend in-air, but teams can usually handle that. Truthfully, the more valuable currency in the NBA is balance and control from floor bound players. Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul - they all do their work on the ground and with their brain. However, every once in awhile the NBA finds a player who transcends *one* thing in particular, and Ja Morant is more dangerous in-air than maybe any player before him.
Against the Suns, Morant dished out 10 assists. Of those 10, 5 came after he left his feet. Morant’s incredible athleticism has allowed him to turn a cardinal sin in basketball, into a feature of his game - and a good one at that.
1 minute left in a tied game. This isn’t even a bad play from Booker. Given where Morant takes off from, Booker has the corner pass closed off - and the ability to crowd the cutting Clarke - but with Morant’s ability to hang he eventually gets the angle and fires it to Allen for the go-ahead triple.
As Morant continues to work on his jumper, he leans into the part of his game that is most intuitive, and that’s his unbelievable burst and athleticism. Players like the aforementioned Paul, and Lowry have worked for years figuring out how to engage the help-side defender. Changing feet, pump-fakes, drop-dribbles and the like. Sure, Morant is capable of those things too, but oftentimes Morant engages the help-side defender by attacking them relentlessly in-air. And it’s at the apex of his jump where Morant has more time than anyone else in the world to decide what he wants to do. Finishing touch, a basketball brain that makes decisions rapidly, and the ability to outlast anyone who wants to duel with him in the clouds. He is singular in this way. Truly, a flying-type Pokémon (floating type???) against a grass-type trainer.
This play, if done by most other players, would end up on their career highlight reel. For Morant, it’s just another bucket.
Strong-side help is in the air. Weak-side help is in the air. The ball? Out of Morant’s hands and into his teammates for a layup.
Something you might notice everywhere in the world - outside of those contesting the shot, a lot of defenses freeze when the player with the ball leaves his feet. The Grizzlies are well aware of Morant’s improvisational bent when he’s airborne, and Brandon Clarke in particular loves to time his cuts in sequence with Morant’s leaps. Perimeter defenders beware, the Grizzlies know Morant is freezing you and they’re sending their players toward the bucket.
It could be true that I’m romanticizing this a bit. And Morant himself would probably tell you that he needs to get better at manipulating defenders without (leaving), or before he leaves his feet. And to that I say: Let me enjoy this, and you should too. A man who would be considered large in every country of the world is launching himself with the type of reckless abandon and explosion that is reserved for fireworks, and he’s doing it against larger men. He is a marvel, and I will continue to marvel at him.
Zatzman - The Floater
It’s not just players who float. The ball, of course, can as well. And you know what? The floater is in the middle of a renaissance right now.
Last season, Friend Of The Program Joe Wolfond wrote a magnum opus on the floater. I was fortunate to see Joe multiple times a week during the multi-month process of his gathering data and quotes for the piece. It was a treat. Every game included something related to his piece. The Miami Heat came to town, and we chatted about whether Goran Dragic was a ‘floater guy.’ (We decided he wasn’t.) The Brooklyn Nets came to Scotiabank, and we discussed how Jarrett Allen defended floaters. CJ McCollum, Mike Conley, TJ Warren: I was blessed to speak with Joe about the differences between all their floater games.
So, one point: I miss when media members actually saw each other in person!
But more importantly for our purposes here: it was clear last season that the floater was still an integral part of the NBA’s offensive diet despite the analytics revolution. This year, even more so.
Tyrese Maxey is a joy to watch because of the way he’s been innovating the game backwards. Fashion is cyclical, but so too is the fashion of basketball aesthetics. And Maxey may be throwback, but he’s also as cool as they come. So far during the season, a full 46 percent of his shots have come from the mid-range, an 89th-percentile rate. Maxey has actually made more than half of those, connecting on 51 percent, an 83rd-percentile rate.
You know who else has reached those marks in both frequency and accuracy from the mid-range? Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, Jaylen Brown, Nikola Vucevic, and not a single other soul. Maxey being in the top-10 of such a difficult shot -- a shot that differentiates, by the way, playoff superstars, is extremely telling. And Maxey is about as good at that self-created, in-between-the-defense shot as anyone else in the league.
That floater is half fastball, half knuckleball. No one throws a floater with more force at the rim, but Maxey is just as comfortable wrong-footing himself as he is pulling up for an open jumper. He takes floaters from deep range, deeper than anyone else in the league. He’s already mastered the skill, and that has tangible benefits.
As NBA defenses shift more and more to prioritizing rim protection and turnover creation above all else, the competitive advantage no longer lies in three-point range. There’s money now to be made from the unassisted mid-range (there always has been), even if not at the team-wide level. Maxey is already taking long, confident strides down the road to pay-dirt. His floater is one lofty reason one.