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Dealing with Rejection

Jan. 29, 2007
Jan. 29, 2007

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Jan. 29, 2007

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Dealing with Rejection

Part art and part science, shot blocking is in increasingly short supply in the NBA. Why aren't more big men doing it? Because it can't be taught

When CharlotteBobcats forward Emeka Okafor leaps to block a layup, he often turns sideways,like a waiter navigating a crowded room, so that he can extend his right arm asfar as possible. When he leaps to block a dunk, however, the 6'10",252-pound Okafor tries to go straight up, the better to neutralize hisopponent's momentum. Considering that a blocked dunk is one of the rarest featsin basketball--at week's end there had been only 113 in 603 NBA games thisseason--this is easier in theory than in practice. ¶ On this January night inCharlotte, Okafor has no choice but to jump at an angle to challenge a dunk.During the third quarter Mikki Moore, the New Jersey Nets' lanky 7-footer,receives a scoop pass on the right baseline. From the other side of the rimOkafor can take only one long stride before lifting off. As the players meetabove the rim, Okafor's right palm hits the leather with a thud. Such momentsare violent and potentially dangerous: Meet the dunker too close to the basket,and the shot blocker risks having his hand slammed back into the iron, an easyway to break a finger or a wrist. With a powerful follow-through Okafor stuffsMoore and sends the ball spinning to the floor. The listless crowd of 13,077fans is momentarily roused, though it's unlikely that many appreciate what theyhave just seen. It is only Okafor's 12th blocked dunk of the year, which leadsthe league (chart, page 54).

This is an article from the Jan. 29, 2007 issue Original Layout

It takes a certaintype of player to challenge at the rim, and Okafor fits the mold. He'stop-heavy, all torso, with thick shoulders, a 7'4" wingspan and wide hands.Growing up in Houston, Okafor's favorite sport was football; he only beganplaying hoops because his father enrolled him at the local Y. Still, as heremembers, "blocking shots was basically my first basketball skill." AtBellaire High he averaged six blocks as a senior. In three years at UConn heblocked 4.3 per game. Now a third-year pro, Okafor was averaging 2.95 throughSunday, behind only Jermaine O'Neal of the Indiana Pacers (3.06). In a Jan. 12game at New York, Okafor blocked a season-high 10 shots by the Knicks. Askedwhich of them he liked the best, Okafor smiles. "They were all good,"he says. "I love all my children."

Whereas the NBA wasonce home to a corps of towering, lumbering giants, today's shot blockers are adisparate group consisting of undersized centers, lanky forwards and theoccasional old-school pivot, and they are blocking fewer shots than ever. Theleague-wide average has declined in four of the last five years to 385.3 perteam last season, the lowest since 1975--76. At week's end teams were on paceto average 384.5. "You need the mentality to do it," says 36-year-oldAlonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat, the league leader in blocks per 48 minutes(5.84). "I don't see a lot of guys having it today."

Also to blame:7-footers who play 20 feet from the basket; the increasing popularity of thethree-pointer; teams that rely on running more than posting up; the defensivethree-seconds rule; and coaches unwilling to start a purely defensive center."Teams are caught up in points per possession," says Nets coachLawrence Frank. "People will tell you the best shot is a layup, the secondis a corner three, the third is another three not in the corner. There's suchan emphasis on having offensive players on the floor that if a shot blockerisn't multidimensional, then it's hard to put him out there. Plus, shotblocking is a very hard skill to find."

But it can be auseful one to have. Take 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo, who ranks second alltime inblocks to Hakeem Olajuwon and has started for the Houston Rockets since YaoMing broke his right tibia on Dec. 23. Despite being a creaky-kneed 40 yearsold, Mutombo has had a profound effect on Houston's defense (chart, page 54).Through Sunday opponents had averaged 96.5 points per 100 possessions and shot39.6% when Mutombo was in the game; when he wasn't, they'd averaged 102.3points and shot 43.2%. The Rockets were 16--11 when their All-Star center wentdown; with Mutombo (and his enormous, wagging E.T. finger) in the lineup theyhave gone 9--5.

So why doesn'tevery team take a 7-footer and develop him into a designated swatter? Talk tothe master practitioners and they'll tell you that the craft of shot blockingcan be studied and refined but, as it turns out, rarely taught.

The NBA didn't keepstatistics on blocked shots until 1973--74, but if it had, Boston Celtics greatBill Russell, who retired in 1969, would have put up astounding numbers. The6'10" Russell played as if he'd sworn an oath to protect the basket, usingquick leaping and superior timing and anticipation to contest every shot."I remember there were times when Russell wouldn't come past the top of thekey on offense," says Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom Mutomborecently relegated to third on the career blocks list. "He'd let theCeltics run the fast break and stay back because that's where he thought hebelonged."

Before the 1980s,centers were generally expected to do a little of everything. But then a coupleof giants carved out careers by becoming shot blocking specialists: 7'4"Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz and Manute Bol, the 7'7" Sudanese tribesmanturned NBA scarecrow. Because of their height, neither man had to jump, so pumpfakes were useless. While with the Golden State Warriors, Bol twice blockedeight shots in a quarter. Eaton (of whom the late Los Angeles Times columnistJim Murray memorably wrote, "The Empire State Building has grown arms")still holds the NBA record with 14 in a game. In 1984--85 he rejected anamazing 456 shots--or 71.5 more than the projected team average this year--for5.56 per game, both single-season records.

Eaton and Bol gaveway to a golden age of multitalented centers stretching into the early '90s,including Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and, later, Mutombo,Shaquille O'Neal and Mourning. A decade later Mourning remains, tellingly, oneof the league's most-feared big men. On a recent Friday night in Oakland herejected two inside shots by the Warriors in the first half, then bode his timeto flick away a Mike Dunleavy Jr. floater. For the game Mourning finished withfive blocks and altered, by one unofficial count, nine more--a total of 28potential points denied. "It's timing and pursuit," he said afterward,sitting at his locker. "Even when I could probably get there a littleearlier and prevent them from taking a shot, I'll wait for a guy and make himthink he has an opportunity to get a shot off. Then I'll go get it."

The bait-and-blockis one of many tricks of the trade. A primer might read: Watch your man'sjersey rather than his eyes to determine his intent ("The eyes lie,"warns Eaton); wait until after the ball is released to jump; and swat with thehand opposite the shooter's for better extension. Studying players'idiosyncrasies also helps: Lay off the near-unblockable floaters favored byguards (like Tony Parker); know your pump fakers (Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGradyare especially good); and beware of those who like to jump into shot blockers.On this last count Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas is probably the mostnotorious, so much so that Okafor says he won't even try to block Arenas'sshot, instead backing up to avoid the foul. ("Wait, no," adds asuddenly worried Okafor. "Don't use Gilbert's name, because he'll read [andlearn], This is what Mek does against me.")

For visceral impactno block is more impressive than the one that whistles six rows deep into thestands. Of course, such spikes have minimal value. One of the first things ashot blocker is taught is to keep the ball in play (chart, right), preferablyby tapping it to a teammate. Russell was a master at this, as was a laterCeltic, Kevin McHale. Eaton developed soft hands by pretending he was tipping ajump ball. Mourning had to learn to rein himself in, and now, in his 14thseason, he says he sometimes taps the ball too lightly, sending it back to theplayer who shot it. Others are naturals: Last season Toronto Raptors forwardChris Bosh blocked 74 shots without sending one out-of-bounds.

Another mistake isbeing overzealous. Flail at too many jump shots, and you're out of position forthe rebound; gamble too much on the weak side, and your man will get open for alayup. Likewise, a goaltend gives away free points (Philly's Samuel Dalembertis the most egregious offender this season, with 20), and committing a shootingfoul is not much better. This makes more disciplined players like Mourning(first in the league, at 2.00 blocks per shooting foul) and the Atlanta Hawks'Josh Smith (second, at 1.86) more valuable than, say, the Detroit Pistons' NazrMohammad, who averages 0.51.

Those who excelwithout fouling have varying styles. Mourning and Mutombo wait near the rim,like human gargoyles, while the Warriors' Adonal Foyle (4.45 blocks per 48minutes in his career) and Okafor use lateral quickness and anticipation. Jazzforward Andrei Kirilenko, who leads the league in fast-break blocks with 11,prefers to come from behind after hiding "in the shadow of myteammate," as he puts it. Jermaine O'Neal spent the summer watching tape ofOlajuwon and attributes his success this season to starting his motion with hishands up, rather than at his sides.

There is one traitthat all great shot blockers share: They're willing to get dunked on. As Okaforputs it, "Sometimes you get got." All agree that it's easier to blockpower dunkers who expose the ball ("You start advertising, someone's gonnabuy," says Okafor) and two-handed dunks (which provide a bigger target),whereas players with hang time pose the biggest challenge. Mourning, who wasmost famously posterized (or is it now YouTubed?) by Nets swingman Vince Carteron a ridiculous hook dunk in November 2005, calls it a necessary sacrifice."I could care less if somebody does something spectacular that maybe putsme on the highlights," says Mourning. "Unfortunately, that particulardunk will be remembered for a very long time. But, hey, that's a part of thegame."

As easy asrejecting shots comes to men like Mourning--who once blocked 27 in a highschool game--it remains a confounding skill to many NBA players. To watchBobcats center Primoz Brezec in action is to see a physiological mystery. At7'1" and 252 pounds he rarely blocks a shot, though not for lack of effort.Last season, in 27.5 minutes per game, he averaged 0.41 blocks; this seasonhe's up to 0.46. Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff says of Brezec, somewhatcharitably, "He's more about providing a presence," but Brezec has noillusions. "I'm a terrible shot blocker," he says. "I think it'sjust about timing. You just have that ability or you don't. I don't."

Others choose notto go after the ball. For example, 6'11" Michael Doleac of the Heat (0.25per game through Sunday) prefers to take a charge, as does Jason Collins of theNets (0.37). Jason's twin brother, Jarron, a Jazz backup, is so unsuccessful atswatting shots--he averages 0.10--that he says, "I've stopped jumpingaltogether."

Perhaps the mostdocile big man is 6'11", 285-pound Eddy Curry of the Knicks. Curry hastremendous strength and leaping ability, yet he has averaged fewer than a blocka game for his career and was at 0.55 at week's end. Among players who haveplayed in at least 25 games this season, 123 are averaging more blocks per 48minutes than Curry, including 6'4" Boston guard Delonte West. "He justdoesn't make the effort," one Eastern Conference scout says of Curry."He plays with his hands down, and he's not active defensively."

So why not instructhim? In a league that has free-throw-shooting coaches and mental coaches, thereis not a single shot blocking coach. Perhaps it's because, as Lakers assistantAbdul-Jabbar says, "it's mostly instinct." Foyle believes that you canteach strategy to those who already have the knack, but you can't teach timing.Eaton, now a motivational speaker in Utah, disagrees. "I don't know whymore people don't spend more time thinking about it," he says. "It canhave a profound impact on the game."

Perhaps it is thedesire that can't be taught. Take the game in which Okafor thwarted Moore. Thatwasn't the only dunk Okafor tried to block that night. In the second quarterCarter drove the right baseline and elevated. Okafor, who had earlier describedexactly how he would stop a hypothetical Carter dunk--"I'd crowd him, getto him early"--came late and had no chance. Bam: instant highlight. Atleast Okafor tried, though. The same couldn't be said for Bobcats backup centerMelvin Ely, who is 6'10", 261 pounds and a terrific leaper. In the thirdquarter, when Carter came flying down the lane, Ely threw up his hand andjogged under Carter, as if waving to some imaginary friend at the other end ofthe court. "Yeah," Okafor noted. "Mel got out of the way fast,didn't he?"

it leads one towonder, Who will challenge the dunkers of the future? The three dominant shotblockers of this era, Mutombo, Mourning and the Celtics' Theo Ratliff (who hasmissed all but two games this season with back trouble), are at the tail endsof their careers. Of the remaining players with a talent for it--includingJermaine O'Neal, Okafor, Camby, the Chicago Bulls' Ben Wallace and theMinnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett--none are true centers. Orlando Magic7-footer Darko Milicic is long enough but has yet to earn starter's minutes.The 7'6" Yao is hindered by short arms and has yet to average more than hiscurrent 2.22 blocks. Andrew Bynum, Abdul-Jabbar's protégé in Los Angeles, hasexcelled in limited minutes but is raw. Mourning, for one, thinks the nextgreat swat artist has yet to enter the league. "There's going to be a bitof a void," he says. "Though I think [Ohio State freshman] Greg Odenwill be a great one. Just watching a couple games that he's played, I've seenhim block dunks, and that's what I like to see. You have to have thatmentality."

As he says this,Mourning is seated at his locker. He's spent the better part of a half hourholding forth on the art of the block, recalling his favorites and dispensingtips, but he can't help himself. There is something he'd like to clear up, afundamental truth he can't let slip by. "That dunk that Vince had onme?" he says, referring to the YouTube special. "By the way, we wonthat game. And"--he pauses for emphasis--"I blocked a bunch of othershots."

Helping Hand

SENDING A SHOT into the stands fires up fans but givesthe ball back to the opponent. According to 82games.com, here were the best andworst at keeping their blocks in play at week's end, plus those who excelled atswatting a shot and then grabbing the board.

LOWEST PERCENTAGE OUT-OF-BOUNDS

Dikembe Mutombo, Rockets 5%
Andrew Bynum, Lakers 6%
Joel Przybilla, Trail Blazers 7%
Al Jefferson, Celtics 7%
Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz 7%
Dale Davis, Pistons 7%

HIGHEST PERCENTAGE OUT-OF-BOUNDS

Tim Duncan, Spurs 28%
Rasheed Wallace, Pistons 27%
Elton Brand, Clippers 25%
Dwyane Wade, Heat 24%
Tyrus Thomas, Bulls 24%

REBOUNDING OWN BLOCK

Josh Howard, Mavericks 26%
Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves 22%
Al Jefferson, Celtics 22%
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavaliers 22%
Marcus Camby, Nuggets 21%

Ultimate Intimidators

THE KNACK for preventing a dunk and the ability toforce opponents out of the paint are two of the more significant ways tomeasure a shot blocker's talent. According to 82games.com, these were theleague leaders (through Sunday) in blocked dunks and deterrent factor, whichshows how frequently opponents attempt inside shots when a certain player is onthe floor.

BLOCKED DUNKS

Emeka Okafor, Bobcats 12

Alonzo Mourning, Heat 11

Amaré Stoudemire, Suns 6

Joel Przybilla, Trail Blazers 5

Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves 4

DETERRENT FACTOR

Dikembe Mutombo, Rockets 26.0%

Brendan Haywood, Wizards 29.0%

Yao Ming, Rockets 29.2%

DeSagana Diop, Mavericks 30.2%

Amaré Stoudemire, Suns 30.3%

EXTRA

Sultans of Swat

Read more from Chris Ballard about shot blocking andcheck out a photo gallery of the top 10 shot blockers in the NBA.

ONLY AT SI.COM

Jazz center Jarron Collins is so unsuccessful as a shotblocker--he averages 0.10--that he says, "I've STOPPED JUMPINGaltogether."
PHOTODavid E. KluthoTHE NATURAL Okafor (swatting the Hawks' Marvin Williams), says that shot blocking was "my first basketball skill."PHOTOVICTOR BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESTHE CONSTANT Mourning has at least one block in 702 of 786 NBA games and is 10th on the alltime list.PHOTOGREG NELSONPHOTOBILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES