Monday , Apr , 12 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

New Jack Spring

The next time you’re watching an N.B.A. match, fix your eyes twelve to eighteen inches above the rim and it’s unlikely three minutes will pass before you see a hand come into shot to grab an errant ball, hammer home a dunk or deny a shot attempt. Hell, take a glance at the rim itself and you probably won’t go a quarter without seeing someone’s dome glide by.

New Jack SpringSorry, old-timers, but that’s just the way it is nowadays.

The game today is played above the rim, no longer the tactical war of attrition Naismith’s brainchild once was. If you want proof, just watch out for the next time you see a guard worm his way into the lane to loft up an eight-foot floater. You won’t see it drop. The next place you’ll see it come to rest will most likely be somewhere between the fourth and sixth rows. Want more proof? If you do look out for that, you might be a long time waiting. Guards know better than to put those shots up nowadays; they recognise that you need to start thinking of the game in three dimensions.

Recently I read an article entitled “Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade take the game to new heights”. I could smell the pun. It is our generation of rookies which has caused talent scouts to disregard a player lacking in athleticism, preferring to draft a “project” player with a vertical leap greater than his basketball I.Q. That isn’t to say that all the new players are nothing but phenomenal athletes dunking their way through the season, but it’s fair to say that if LeBron were slightly-built with a thirty-inch vertical, he’d have been little more than Prince James to the talent scouts.

In the past, athleticism was seen as a bonus, an additional string to a player’s bow. Much was made of “Air” Jordan’s hops in his early years because it was unusual for a player to be so athletic, even more so that he incorporated this athleticism into his game. Nowadays, a young star without freakish ups is about as common as a franchise player without a shoe deal.

Let’s look at how athletic ability has become a factor in the decisions made by General Managers on draft day and in the success of young players around the league over the past few years.

2002: Amaré (then Amare) Stoudemire – The kid ended up Rookie of the Year by dunking everything given to him, basically jumping over Yao Ming to the award. If ever there was an example of a player relying solely on ups, it’s this guy.

2001: Pau Gasol – This time a very skilful forward, but nonetheless a player who lived above the rim and wouldn’t be half the prospect he is without his ability to get up. If this guy had Luc Longley’s legs, he wouldn’t even have been thinking of the RotY award. He’d probably still be in Spain.

2000: The first three picks in 2000 were Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift and Darius Miles. Need I say more?

Whether it’s healthy for the game or not, the floor is now for the coaches only. If you’ve got dreams of making the L and you’ve never left a set of prints above the square or busted your head open on the rim, you have two choices: hit the gym or book your ticket elsewhere. Larry Bird types need not apply; no matter how smart you are, if you haven’t got the legs of a sprinter, you’re going to be rejected down one end of the floor and left standing on the other.

The next time you’re watching a high school All-Star game, fix your eyes a few inches above the rim. It’s not likely you’ll go more than a few minutes without seeing the head of the league’s next star rookie glide by.