Let this be a warning to the scorers, the players with the sweet three-point strokes or the quick-as-a-blink crossovers or the low-post package of jump hooks and turnarounds: You are not just shooters, you are also targets. It's going to be harder than ever to get your usual points this season, thanks to a cadre of elite defenders deployed across the land in a sort of full-country press. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, with varied temperaments and techniques, these stoppers have a common goal—to make life miserable for guys like you.
This is an article from the Nov. 23, 2009 issue
Some will hound you on the dribble, like pesky Washington guard Venoy (rhymes with annoy) Overton, or subtly bump you off your path when you cut to get open, a preferred tactic of Chris Kramer, Purdue's muscular guard. Others will extend their long arms into the passing lanes to deny you the ball, like North Carolina wingman Marcus Ginyard, or contest your jumper with hands so close to your face that you'll think they're trying to steal your corneas, √† la freshman guard Avery Bradley, Texas's defensive prodigy.
If you would-be scorers make it through those levels of resistance and arrive at the rim, you might have to contend with shot-blocking centers like Kansas's 6'11" Cole Aldrich; Virginia Commonwealth's Larry Sanders, who has a 7'7" wingspan though he's "only" 6'11"; or Mississippi State's 6'9" Jarvis Varnado (page 56). They will present you with a choice—have your shot swatted or loft it mezzanine-high to avoid them. Aldrich's ability to turn the area around the Jayhawks' basket into a no-fly zone is one of the main reasons Kansas is favored to win its second national championship in three years. "There are a lot of players out there who could be considered lockdown defenders in one way or another," says Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. "You tend to find a lot of them on the really good teams. That's no coincidence."
The prolific scorers of recent vintage, like Davidson's Stephen Curry, Texas's Kevin Durant, Gonzaga's Adam Morrison and Duke's J.J. Redick, seem to be in short supply this season, at least partly because there is such a multitude of quick, tough, smart individual defenders who—as J.T. Tiller, Missouri's pesky senior guard puts it—can't wait to "bust the pipes" of an offense and turn it into a frantic, unfocused mess. The emphasis on D undoubtedly warms the hearts of coaches, who have preached its importance since the first basket was scored. It has always been a hard sell because most of the glory has gone to the guys who put up the points. But players seem increasingly willing to buy into the concept lately, maybe because in recent years they've seen the rewards that a commitment to defense can bring.
They have watched big men with defense-first attitudes, like Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford, and Emeka Okafor of Connecticut, lead their teams to national championships. They have grown up watching NBA players who proved that playing defense can lead to cool nicknames (Gary "the Glove" Payton), badass reputations (Ron Artest) and distinguished pro careers even for the offensively challenged (Bruce Bowen). They have learned that D doesn't have to stand for drudgery. "Being from Minnesota, I loved watching Kevin Garnett play for the Timberwolves," says Aldrich. "He could score, obviously, but he was just as intense on defense—if not more so—blocking shots and protecting the paint. There's a lot of work involved in playing D, but he makes it seem exciting and entertaining, too." Aldrich and others have figured out that although the old saw about defense winning championships may be true, there are additional individual benefits to stopping the other guy as well.
• Defense earns scholarships. Contrary to popular belief, coaches sometimes recruit players more for their ability to get stops than to get points. Four years ago then Nevada coach Mark Fox (now Georgia's head man) was so impressed by 7-foot JaVale McGee's promise as a shot blocker that he decided to recruit him after watching a summer-league game in which McGee scored only one basket. McGee went on to block 122 shots in two seasons at Nevada before becoming the Washington Wizards' first-round draft pick in 2008.
• Defense brings playing time. Kramer, Purdue's 6'3" linebacker-tough stopper, thought he might be headed for a redshirt season as a freshman until then assistant coach Cuonzo Martin explained to him how he could avoid that fate. "He told me that if I played defense—I mean really dedicated myself to playing defense—I could play here right away," Kramer says. He followed the advice so well that he started 24 games in his first season and made the Big Ten all-defensive team.
• Defense wins awards. Or at least nominations. Tiller was named one of the 50 finalists for the Wooden Award for national player of the year even though he has never averaged more than 8.4 points per game. "It's tremendous that a single-digit scorer could make that list," says Missouri coach Mike Anderson. "It shows what kind of impact he has. Scoring a ton of points isn't the only way to make people remember your name. Good defenders can get themselves noticed."
They can also make would-be scorers wish they could obtain a restraining order—especially when they consider what torture a trip from baseline to baseline against some of these defensive demons would be.
Start by trying to bring the ball up the court against harassers such as the 5'11" Overton, the 6'3" Tiller and his 6'4" backcourtmate Zaire Taylor, or 5'9" Devan Downey of South Carolina. "The first thing I try to do is think like the offensive player," says Tiller. "What moves does he [prefer]? Does he like to start to his right and then spin back left? Maybe I can anticipate that spin back and slide my feet to draw the charge. Once you've watched a guy on film or tracked him down the court a couple of times, you can get a feel for how he thinks."
Sometimes a persistent defender can even affect the way his man thinks. Overton, for instance, is a master of chatter, trying to rattle the player he's guarding with verbal tactics as well as physical ones. "It's my job to irritate him however I can within the rules," Overton says. "At the end of the game, if the man you were guarding likes you, then you probably haven't done a very good job." It's hard to imagine that any opponent feels too fond of Overton after facing him. He's been involved in altercations with a host of Pac-10 rivals, including dustups last year with Arizona State's James Harden and Washington State's Taylor Rochestie, each of whom, not accidentally, was his team's leading scorer. "I've had to step in and save his life a few times on the court," says Overton's teammate Quincy Pondexter. "He's a little guy who bugs a lot of people, and a guy like that needs a bodyguard sometimes."
But Overton seems more than tough enough to take care of himself. During a break in preseason workouts, Romar was tossing a football around with Pondexter when Overton jumped out on the court to cover Pondexter like a defensive back. On one underthrown pass from the coach, Overton dived to try for an interception, his outstretched body landing with a thump on the hardwood. "He's fearless," says Romar. "He'll take on anyone or anything."
Shake off the pests, and the next line of defense is made up of the shutdown defenders on the wings. They're the ones who not only are tough on-ball defenders but also make it nearly impossible for their man to get the ball in the spot he prefers, if at all. North Carolina welcomes back Ginyard—a 6'5" senior who missed almost all of last season following surgery in October 2008 to repair a stress fracture in his left foot—into that role; and though he's only a freshman, Bradley is widely expected to be among the nation's best perimeter defenders as well. He drew more raves for his defense during his recruitment than any perimeter player in recent memory.
Bradley was given uniform number 0 at his request. He chose it to represent starting from scratch at the college level, but it could also stand for his desire to shut out his opponent. "Defense is something that comes from deep inside of me," he says. "It's a way of feeling like I'm always doing something good on the court." His teammates notice his relentlessness just as much as his opponents. "You know how most guys play defense when there's two minutes left in the game and they're down by one?" says Illinois freshman guard D.J. Richardson, Bradley's backcourt partner last year at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas. "That's how Avery plays defense all the time."
Quick feet and long arms (his nickname is Spiderman) are Bradley's main assets, while Kramer, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, relies more on strength. "There are a lot of players who don't like the physicality of the game," Kramer says. "If you bump them off their cuts a few times or just let them know that you're willing to put a body on them, they get flustered, and then you've won that battle."
A former standout quarterback at Huntington (Ind.) North High, Kramer hasn't lost the football mentality. When an elbow to the face from Michigan's Manny Harris knocked him unconscious and left him with a nose that was bloodied and broken in two places last season, he was back in the game a few minutes later, after being fitted with a protective mask. "If I can walk, I can play," he says. And if he can play, he can defend. Two years ago Kramer was primarily responsible for limiting Indiana star Eric Gordon to 4-for-12 shooting in a 77--68 Indiana win, but he's proudest of helping harass Davidson's Curry into a 5-for-26 performance in a 76--58 Purdue victory last season.
"I prepared for him differently than any other player I've faced," Kramer says. "I had about 300 video clips of him that I studied for hours and hours. One thing I noticed is that other teams tended to let him rest at times on offense. I tried to make sure he never had a chance to rest, even when he was just bringing the ball up the court. I don't know if I wore him down, but I took a lot of pride in the job we did."
Even coaches who emphasize perimeter defense acknowledge that the last line of defense, the intimidating big man, is the ultimate insurance. "I'd want the big," LSU coach Trent Johnson said, given the choice between a shot blocker and a smaller ball hawk. "The game's at the rim. The percentages are at the rim." That's where Aldrich and the other protectors of the paint come in.
"Other than height, timing is one of the biggest keys [to blocking shots]," says Aldrich. "Some of that is just instinctive, but you can help yourself by studying the shooters, knowing how different guys are likely to come at you. Some guys go hard and want to dunk on you, and some are just looking to get a little floater over you. Others aren't really even worried about getting the bucket, they're just looking for the foul. If you understand the way guys are likely to approach you, it can help your timing."
The timing is particularly unfortunate for anyone planning to run up huge point totals. This does not seem like a good season to aim for your career high. Consider yourselves warned, shooters. Get a good look at the basket when you walk into the arena this year, because it just might be your last unobstructed view.