Art of the alley-oop
By Thuc Nhi Nguyen || Photos by Kaia D'Albora || Videos by Simon Fox
Nigel Williams-Goss glances toward the paint. It’s open. He drives. He lobs the ball up.
Robert Upshaw slams it down.
An alley-oop is a perfect connection engineered in a split-second, through a subtle head nod or a wide-eyed look, which results in a rim-rocking dunk that unleashes a thunderous roar from the crowd. The arena rumbles under jumping fans, shaking dust off the rafters of an old basketball program that has fallen on rough times.
After a few years without a dominant above-the-rim presence who could bring the house down with such a dunk, the Washington men’s basketball team is bringing the alley-oop back to Montlake just in time for the UW’s best start to a season in almost a decade.
“When you have guys like Shawn [Kemp Jr.] and Rob, they’ll catch them all the time,” junior guard Andrew Andrews said. “… So every time we get into the lane, and if we don’t have anything, we’re looking to throw it up.”
During their recent three-game slide in which they lost to Stony Brook and started Pac-12 play with consecutive losses, the Huskies have continued to look for the lob. However, they’ve done so almost to a fault. Turnovers have killed the UW in those three losses, and many of those mistakes have come from trying to force the ball down low. Against Stanford, the Huskies committed a season-high 19 turnovers, including five in overtime.
But the allure of the alley-oop is hard to shake.
“Any time you get a big play like that, you get filled with adrenaline,” Andrews said, “and you’re ready to make another spectacular play.”
It starts small: a sleeping defender, a quick point to the basket, a glimmer in the eyes. That’s when Andrews knows to throw it up.
Sometimes it’s less subtle.
“Rob’s looking for a lob every play,” Andrews said. “With him, he’ll tell us all the time, ‘Yo, just throw it up and I’ll go get it.’”
Andrews and Williams-Goss, the UW’s primary ball handlers, have worked to develop a stronger chemistry with their big men to understand when, where, and how to throw up a perfect lob. An alley-oop is an art that takes time and practice.
“I definitely think we’ve gotten better as the season’s gone on,” said Williams-Goss, who leads the Pac-12 in assists. “At the beginning of the year, [there was] some mistiming. I may throw it too soon when he wasn’t expecting it. He may be looking, but I don’t really see it. But as you see it, you’ll start to figure out more when he’s most open and you guys will be on the same page.”
Characteristic of head coach Lorenzo Romar’s UW teams of the early 2000s, in which the Huskies pushed the ball up and down the court in a purple and gold blur, the UW used the transition bucket to help fuel its 11-0 start. The Huskies have been outscored in fast-break points only twice this year with many of those points coming from transition dunks and alley-oops, where the almost telepathic connection between teammates is most evident.
When the UW faced an outmatched Grambling State team Dec. 17, Andrews and Kemp opened the scoring with an alley-oop in transition. Andrews grabbed the defensive rebound on a missed 3-pointer and pushed the ball up the court. He looked off the defender, directing traffic with his eyes to draw the defender away from Kemp toward another teammate, and floated up a pass from the top of the key.
Kemp did the rest.
“Even though I don’t see eye contact, we can be in a fast-break transition, and I’ll be running and I know he’s about to pass it up before he even looks at me,” Kemp said. “He’ll see me going down the court looking, kind of angling up toward the basket.”
Kemp said establishing that connection between passer and dunker is the most important step of an alley-oop. It sets everything in motion and from there, the fun starts.
Williams-Goss’ floater — his go-to move in the lane — was born mainly to give the 13-year-old kid playing with 17-year-olds a chance to score. A happy side effect for the Huskies is that his lethal floater can also turn into a lob.
Guards will often drive the lane when alley-oops happen in the half-court, beating their defender on the perimeter and drawing the big man’s defender up and away from the basket, which leaves someone open for a dunk. When Williams-Goss drives the lane, defenders must pick their poison: Either give up the floater or step up and give up the dunk.
Williams-Goss said a fair amount of acting goes into the alley-oop on his part: look at the basket, look like you’re scoring, look aggressive in the lane, then dump off the pass.
“You have to be a threat and you have to draw the defense,” Williams-Goss said. “Then as soon as you see him forget about his man. You have to throw it right away.”
Andrews and Williams-Goss target their passes to the bottom corner of the backboard, at or slightly below rim-height so the dunker can catch it on the way up. For players who don’t have as high of a vertical, the pass has to be exactly on point. But when it’s Upshaw or Kemp, who have the two highest verticals on the team, as long as the pass is in the general area of the backboard, they can get it.
Don’t throw a line-drive and make sure to put some air under it, Andrews said.
“That’s all that we do,” the junior from Portland, Ore., said with a shrug.
After the defender is drawn and the pass is up, the guard’s job is done. All he has to do is wait for the two points to go up on the board, and the assist to come to his stat line, easy as that.
“Those are easy points, and it’s hard to come by easy buckets,” Williams-Goss said. “When you got a guy you can just throw it down to and get a bucket, it’s a luxury. … It kind of gives you a play off in a sense.”
One after another, Upshaw threw down every pass Williams-Goss threw up. The gym was dark, cameras snapped, and video rolled. A few more, the pair of players were prompted. Hands on hips, Upshaw, a 7-foot center whose gregarious personality fits his stature, said half-jokingly: “Big man is getting tired!”
If the guards have the easy job, then it’s the big man’s task to do the heavy lifting. They’re rewarded with the heavy praise.
“After you dunk it, clearly it feels good, but getting the crowd going, it makes you feel even better,” Kemp said.
Kemp, the son of a certain Seattle basketball icon who perfected the art of the alley-oop with Gary Payton, and Upshaw are two of the most athletic big men Romar has had at the UW. Their presence in the lineup and above the rim has Andrews and Williams-Goss looking for lobs more often than in years past. It’s also a reason for Kemp’s best year as a Husky so far.
He’s started every game this season, averaging a career-high 10.5 points per game while shooting a team-high 62.9 percent from the field, which is third in the Pac-12 for players with more than five field goal attempts. Approximately one-third of Kemp’s made field goals this season have been dunks.
Now healthy after being diagnosed with Graves’ disease last season, Kemp runs the floor in transition constantly with the goal to be the first player down the court. He knows easy buckets await on the other end if he makes it there first.
For Upshaw, his athleticism is almost unmatched for someone of his size. Even Kemp marvels at it sometimes.
“Rob, for his height, he has ridiculous athleticism,” Kemp said.
But athleticism isn’t the only thing that finishes an alley-oop.
“It’s all about timing,” Upshaw said. “I can jump and grab the ball but I probably won’t put it in the basket every time. … It’s all about anticipation.”
In the flow of the game, the exact symphony of connecting the pass to the dunk happens without hesitation. Throw it, catch it, dunk it.
And the crowd goes wild.
Reach reporter Thuc Nhi Nguyen at email@example.com. Twitter: @thucnhi21