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How John Wall turned the jump pass from a cardinal sin to a deadly weapon

Basketball players are taught to never jump to make a pass. John Wall shatters that stereotype.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

John Wall made two incredible passes to Marcin Gortat in the Wizards’ Game 4 victory over the Celtics. One of them has been all over any highlight show on TV.

Amazing play, no doubt. But I’d like to talk about the other one, because it reveals Wall’s secret, unique skill.

Wall not only can pull off a jump pass that would be frowned upon by any youth coach, but he’s also discovered a way to use it as a weapon to force defenders to make a decision. He uses his eyes to freeze his opponents and capitalizes on their reaction, all while floating in mid-air.

Nobody else does this. Almost nobody else really can. It’s one of many skills that makes Wall such a special player.

Let’s talk about that latest example.

During the Wizards’ 26-0 third-quarter run, Wall found himself drifting towards the baseline with Avery Bradley and Al Horford containing him. As Wall picked up his dribble, Amir Johnson sunk off his man, Markieff Morris, to stop Gortat’s roll to the basket. That left this situation.

There’s an obvious open pass to Morris, a decent, but not elite three-point shooter. Almost every point guard makes that pass, and indeed the Celtics defended Wall as if he’d do the same. The plan was to give it up and have Johnson close out to Morris knowing that he’s not the Wizards’ best three-point shooter.

Wall knew this as well, as do most other great point guards that have years of experience reading elite defenses. But unlike any other point guard, Wall could actually do something about it with a jump pass.

The reason coaches discourage jump passes is that it forces the ball-handler to commit to making a certain play. If that opening isn’t there, he’s screwed because he’s already in the air. That’s why you always hear the familiar refrain to never jump before making up your mind.

On the surface, then, Wall’s dish looks reckless and lucky. Slow it down, and you see that it’s actually the exact opposite.

In the span of a split second, Wall calculated the Celtics’ coverage, digested their possible reactions to his jump, and took what they ultimately gave him.

The key is that Wall looked straight at Morris from the jump. He knew the Celtics expected him to make that pass and tried to telegraph his intentions. Boston covered the play in a way to bait him into that decision, and he wanted to make them think their plan worked.

But Wall also knew that Johnson, like most players, is too disciplined to fall for a simple look away. The only way Johnson would move is if he believed Wall committed himself to the pass. That’s why Wall needed to jump and keep his eyes peeled to Morris. The leap was the bait.

Without jumping, Johnson would have stayed still. Instead, he leaned just a tad toward Morris, creating the lane to drop the lob pass over Horford’s arms and into Gortat’s waiting hands.

If Wall didn’t jump, Johnson would have stayed with Gortat and surrendered the pass back to Morris. It’s only when Wall leaped that Johnson believed Wall was kicking the ball back out. That jump froze him and created the pass Wall wanted to make all along, the pass the Celtics’ coverage was specifically designed to take away. Without jumping, that pass wasn’t open.

You can’t really blame Johnson for falling for a trick no other point guard in the league pulls off with regularity. No other point guard has the athleticism, size, court vision, and touch to make that pass. Over the years, Wall has used the jump pass as a means to fake a delivery to a three-pointer shooter and open a dish to the roller.

In fact, Wall got the Celtics with this very move in Game 1 as well. Watch Avery Bradley scurry away.

He also put the Hawks away in Game 1 in 2015 with a similar maneuver to freeze DeMarre Carroll.

There are tons of examples from this season. Here are just a few:

Wall got JaMychal Green in the Wizards’ second game of the season.
He froze Kawhi Leonard with this look away in late November.
He got James Harden, too.
Jabari Parker, come on down!
Wall can use the jump pass to find one cutter instead of another, as he did with Jason Smith.
Plus, he can do the inverse of his Celtics pass and jump-fake to the roll man to find a three-point shooter.

No coach should ever train a player to try this move. It’s risky, it’s counter-intuitive, and it’s incredibly difficult to actually pull off. It can get even Wall into trouble when he goes to it too much.

But it’s also a major weapon that Wall has mastered over the years. What is a cardinal sin for most is just another tool that Wall uses to pick defenses apart.