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  • Writer's pictureRicky

SlamBall and the Skill Explosion

Darius Clark, 25, is a highly decorated long jumper who holds the Guinness World Record for the highest vertical leap with a running start, jumping 50 inches in Salt Lake City on June 28, 2022.

Adam Stanford is known for his performance in the classroom just as much as his performance on the court.

What do these two have in common?

That’s right, they both play SlamBall!

SlamBall is basketball with trampolines and football pads where the dunks are worth three points.

We know what we're incentivizing.

It’s an obvious Bush-era attempt to make video game highlights happen on live TV. And it’s back!

SlamBall brings together college hoopers, football players, and track and field athletes in a surprisingly subtle game of timing you have to see to believe. Will you root for “the Breathin’ Vegan,” or the coach’s son drafted 7th overall? It’s an extremely chaotic league you gotta check out.

In the previous incarnation of SlamBall, Stan “Shakes” Fletcher was the Man. He would dunk and mean mug on anyone. Delightfully 11-years-ago-on-youtube highlight reels asked if Stan was the greatest SlamBall player ever.

But in 2023, SlamBall has changed. Today, Shakes, 43, is SlamBall’s Vice President of Operations.

Here he is with the NBA logo, Jerry West.

And he has competition for GOAT (Greatest of All Time) status:

Bryce Moragne [MO-rang] was the first name called in the 2023 SlamBall Draft. SlamBall co-founder Mason Gordon said, “Bryce Moragne looks like the most complete player that we’ve ever seen in SlamBall.”

I don’t know what to make of Bryce, who sports pedestrian college statistics and an odd dearth of mind-blowing online highlights. But I’m willing to trust there’s something I’m not seeing here. Where Stan was 6’3/180, Bryce is 6’5/225 with an MBA.

And basketball has changed a lot in the last decade-plus.

Ever since Steph Curry set new standards for outside shooting and ball handling, the sport has been experiencing a skill explosion—everyone’s getting way more skilled all the time—that can’t be fully explained away by official rule changes or soft officiating. (I’ll complain about those another day.)

So what else happened?

Well, a lot of interconnected feedback loops where skill begets more skill.

So, this is the power of the Handle God.

Around the time I was in high school, a bunch of basketball nerds made a startling discovery: NBA players make about 40% of their long twos, and about 35% of their threes. That means the long two is worth 0.8 points on average, while the three is worth 1.05 points—over 30% more. So you should shoot more threes instead of long twos. By 2023, offenses have shifted their training and shot selection, and they’ve never been more efficient in NBA history. The average NBA team today scores 114.8 points per 100 possessions, on par with the very best seasons by Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, or Jordan’s Bulls. (The league had hovered between about 104-108 for decades.)

This improved shooting has given coaches new threats to leverage, and they’re absolutely taking advantage of it. Modern offenses use motion and misdirection to dare defenses to communicate and recover perfectly across longer and longer distances. Fall a step behind, and you’ll get eviscerated by the best shooters we’ve ever seen as they launch from further and further behind the three-point line. Even though modern defenses are more sophisticated than ever, they still can’t keep up. You have to run hard to contest these shooters, which opens up the floor for them to blow by you. That’s its own feedback loop:

(This role player from Turkey averaged 3.8 points per game.) Oh yeah, talent pools have expanded globally, inspired by the success of last generation’s international legends like Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili. The current league MVP is from Cameroon, and the last one was from Serbia, and the guy before him was the Greek Freak. Today, young hoopers are picking up basketballs all over the world, so that’s another feedback loop. And the international guys play differently. American hoopers are all pushed to play the same highlight-chasing AAU basketball that draws attention from college scouts. But Luka and Jokic’s passing genius has been fundamentally shaped by soccer, and that kind of cross-pollination of athletic wisdom will only spread. Just like kids try to shoot like Curry, they will try to pass like Jokic:

Giant brutes who were brought in to rebound and foul Shaq can’t make it anymore; now, you have to be skilled, too. In 2023, you have to be able to pass, dribble, and shoot, at least a little bit. But if everyone on the floor can pass, dribble, and shoot, then everyone on the floor is a point guard. Talk about feedback loops. Suddenly, you have five guys who are all able to make a play. Whenever they get the ball, they can make dynamic reads with it, and when they don’t have it, the defense still has to respect their ability to move and shoot outside. That creates even more space in the middle of the floor for others to go to work. It doesn’t all have to start with a single point guard. Now, once anyone gets an advantage, everyone can work together to extend and capitalize on it. The collective level of decision-making and skill is so high that before you know it, you can get a great shot almost every play. When there’s more skill on the floor, everyone’s skills become more dangerous. And hyperskilled star players benefit most; this year, a record fifteen guys dropped a 50-point game:

This is the evolutionary outcome of teams realizing that playing two point guards together could not only be viable but lead to great offense: The next generation of players developed point guard skills at every position. In 2023, there’s more skill in basketball than we’ve ever enjoyed before. And SlamBall will benefit, too. With better strategy, a larger, more diverse talent pool, and a bevy of skill at every position, I’m expecting a much higher level of play than I remember. There’s almost certainly a new GOAT, and I wanna see if it’s Moragne. The first game’s on ESPN tonight at 7 EST. You better believe I’ll be checking it out.

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