The youthful Lakers raced up the court, chasing a fast-break bucket against the Golden State Warriors. But Larry Nance Jr. remained near the rear of the pack, pacing himself, surveying everything before him, calculating space and angles, searching, most of all, for an open runway.
Throughout a game, the 23-year-old Lakers forward hopes for these moments, almost hunting them but not quite. He's learned that if he hunts too much, rarely do they unfold just the way he wants: culminating in a powerful, sky-scraping, momentum-shifting slam that blazes across social media and sends fans screaming out of their seats.
Above all, Nance, one of the NBA's highest and most exciting flyers, has learned patience. Most of the time, he doesn't have to seek these moments as they will often find him. He just needs to be in the right place at the right time and ready. When a shot goes up, for instance, Nance tracks its arc, then tries to position himself carefully among the rim's tall timbers so that he can snatch the ball if it ricochets. "Seven, eight times out of 10, I'm very certain of where it's coming off," he said.
Sometimes an opponent will try to box him out, then turn to look at Nance and notice that Nance doesn't seem to be going anywhere. If the opponent falls for this ruse, they will turn away and go chase the rebound. "And that's when you crash right on top of them," Nance says. Thus, the simple but effective formula for his signature putback dunks: lure prey into a false sense of security, then strike.
When it comes to fast breaks, Nance will trail the action -- not too much but enough that the opposing defense might lose sight of him for a split second. This allows him to slip into the lane unnoticed, where, if all goes as planned, a teammate will feed him a pass which he'll turn into a rim-rocking highlight. But first, Nance needs an open runway. If he sees one emerge, he'll start to pick up speed, lining up his steps just so, preparing for liftoff, which is what he did early in the second quarter against the Warriors on Nov. 4.
After receiving a pass from guard Jordan Clarkson, Nance exploded off the court, ascending skyward much like his famous father, Larry Nance Sr., the NBA's first slam dunk champion, did decades ago. The Lakers once measured the younger Nance's vertical leap at 44 inches, though they believed their devices weren't calibrated correctly and that he can actually jump higher than that -- and against the Warriors, Nance utilized every bit of bounce in his legs, taking off a few steps inside the free-throw line. Only Warriors forward David West separated Nance and the rim, and as Nance soared by, holding the ball in his right hand high over his head like a torch, he placed his left hand on West's head, almost palming it.
Then Nance dropped the hammer in poster-worthy fashion. Staples Center went wild; the Lakers' bench did, too.
For Nance, the dunk wasn't just a highlight, a viral sensation; he's had plenty of those -- so many that he says his teammates are "very used" to them and only offer him a high-five and a pat on the back afterward.
"Nick [Young] shoots 3s, I dunk," Nance said. "Everybody's good at what they're good at."
There are other aspects of his game that Nance excels at, too, such as rebounding or being a versatile defender. His offense has picked up steam, too, and he scored a career-high 18 points against Chicago on Nov. 30.
But his dunk against Golden State marked one of the biggest leaps forward in his young career, one of the first moments that he could trust his right knee since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in February 2014, when he was a junior for the University of Wyoming. Immediately after that injury, Nance, like many who have sustained it, wasn't sure if he'd ever have the same explosiveness again. All he knew was that it would take a while -- perhaps years -- to truly know.
During his rookie season with the Lakers, after being drafted with the 27th pick in the first round in 2015, Nance remained cautious. Understandably, he worried that his knee might fail him, so he didn't put much pressure on it when executing various moves. This past July, during summer league competition in Las Vegas, he planted his right leg and threw down a breath-stealing dunk against the Philadelphia 76ers, but even then, Nance still didn't feel like his explosiveness had completely returned. That changed on Nov. 4.
Before taking off against the Warriors, Nance planted his right foot and leaped, as he did before the injury, but it all came second nature, without worry -- and that was the first thing he noticed when he watched replays of his vicious slam after the game.
"You know, my knee didn't hurt when I did that -- it felt solid, it didn't cave in," Nance said he told himself. "That's pretty good."
Said Nance, "That was a page-turner for me, because I knew I was feeling well. I knew my legs were strong -- they were of equal strength and everything. When I planted on that right leg and was able to explode the way I did, it was [like] -- 'I'm good now. I feel great.'"
Nance believes his quickness and explosiveness have returned to his pre-injury levels, and now that they have, the next question on many fans' minds is whether he'll showcase his aerial acrobatics in the 2017 NBA dunk contest, which will be held in New Orleans. He received an invitation to last season's event in Toronto but declined in part because he physically didn't feel capable. Like many others in February, Nance watched Minnesota guard Zach LaVine and Orlando forward Aaron Gordon put on one of the most exciting dunk contests in the history of the event.
"On my way to do some lunges and squats..." Nance tweeted after, enticing those who hoped he'd follow in his father's footsteps and win the competition, perhaps as soon as this February.
"I've always maintained that at some point, I would love to," Nance said. "I just don't know when. I don't know if it's this year. I don't know if it's next year. I don't know at this point. I've just got to be ready."
And as for living up to his father? Nance says he feels no burden, largely because the 1984 contest his father competed in is far different than what's done today. "Man, they hadn't even thought of doing an under-the-legs dunk over a mascot," Nance said. "Guys do windmills in warm-ups now; that's nothing. It's a different contest."
He said he hasn't studied past dunk contests, hasn't really considered what he'd even do if he were in one. "Honestly, if they threw me in one right now, I'd get last place, because I have no idea what I would do," Nance said. "It would just take a lot of planning, which I haven't [done]. Instead of worrying about dunks, I'm trying to figure out my jump shot and stuff like that."
But, he pointed out, there are two kinds of dunkers -- those who are at their best during a game and those who are their best during a contest. Very few can do both. "I don't know if I'm that rare breed of both yet," Nance said. "I haven't really tried it." What he does know is that he's a in-game dunker. "I see somebody in front of me, and that's what I like to do," he said.
Larry Nance Sr., a three-time All-Star and 13-year veteran with the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers, told ESPN in January that if his son wants any help preparing for the dunk contest, "I'll do anything he wants." But, Larry Sr. pointed out, with a touch of pride, that his son is a far better high-flyer than his old man: "I could jump really well, but he's just so much stronger, and he just jumps so much easier than I did. I'll give it to him. I had my day. And nothing makes me prouder. Nothing makes me prouder, trust me, than if he just flat-out out-dunks me."
Larry Sr. continued, "All the little dunks I did, he can do them so easy; there won't be no tips on none of those. Two-hand ball dunk, he can do that. He can cup it and dunk it. If he ever gets invited to be in the slam-dunk contest, I'm sure I'll spend some nights awake trying to come up with some stuff. His chances of winning should be as good as anybody else's."
And what would Larry Sr. think of his son winning it all? "That would be awesome," Larry Sr. said. "That would be cool."
On that note, Larry Nance Jr. agreed. "It would be very cool," he said. "It would be a cool story and everybody would love it."
Nance Jr. added with a smile: "If and when the time comes, I will be ready."