Just Throw It Really High

The NBA is back tonight, and with it comes one of the most exciting plays in basketball - the LeBron James alley oop.

I was a very good dunker in college. Because I was also not a very good basketball player in college, I used most of my energy in the layup lines before the game throwing down windmills and 360’s, hoping to intimidate the other team. I say this not to brag, but to say that I can appreciate just how athletic this guy is.

I could dunk or catch alley oops, but this guy has options. In 2013 he was quoted as saying, “If you throw a lob, I'll just figure it out while I'm in the air." He’ll figure something out? He has that much time?

In all honesty the answer is no, he doesn’t. Of course, he has plenty of vertical ability (check out this in-game free throw line dunk), but the beauty of LeBron’s ability to catch alley oops actually doesn’t come from him launching himself in the air and hanging there long enough to “figure something out.” In reality, it comes from something more interesting and intelligible – an understanding of angles and great footwork.

When he has a free run to the basket and can jump however he wants, LeBron prefers to jump off of his left foot – even when he’s dunking with his left hand:

Or, because I couldn’t choose which of the two was cooler, like this:

Ninety-five times out of one hundred, this is the way you’ll see him catch an alley oop. Whether it’s the dunk on Jason Terry (don’t jump, JET!), or his baseline oop over John Lucas, this is LeBron’s favorite way to jump – for two reasons. The first is that he can jump higher off of one foot than off two. The second is that he can jump farther off of one (just about everyone can – look at the guys who compete in the long jump). This kind of jump gives him the biggest margin of error, allowing a pass to be off target.

Like on this one from Wade – it’s not a good pass, but there’s never a moment when anyone doubts this is going to get slammed in. Just listen to Mike Breen shout “JAMES!” before LeBron even touches the ball.

But what happens when even his insane athleticism isn’t enough? What happens when a pass is thrown too poorly for LeBron to catch?

As he says, he adjusts. But it’s not in the air. Instead, he changes his footwork, adding one more step in his run-up so that he jumps off of two feet rather than one. It’s a minute difference, really, but it slows him down enough that the ball can come down a little extra. It slows his momentum just enough that he can catch a lob that would otherwise have been behind him.

Like this one:

If LeBron had kept sprinting and jumped off one foot, the pass would have been too far behind him to catch or he would have run completely under the basket. Instead, he slows at the free throw line, timing the pass perfectly before jumping off two feet. He still has to reach back to catch it, but he wouldn’t have been able to at all if he’d jumped how he normally preferred to.

It’s just really good court awareness in general.

You combine his precise timing with arguably the best hands in the NBA and top-end speed, and all you’ve got to do is get it close… unless you’re Mario Chalmers.

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