Technique of the Week is a HoopSpeak feature that highlights the technical nuances that makes great players special and role players meaningful
Technique: Going Straight Up
Why it’s important:
Being able to lock down the opponent’s top offensive threat is great, but what’s even more valuable these days is a defender who can also stop his teammates’ assignments from scoring near the rim. The NBA players who do that best do so by challenging at the hoop without fouling—by going straight up.
It’s almost impossible to stay in front of the big, ultra athletic wings and guards in the league today. As a result, many teams have developed complex defensive schemes designed to keep as many bodies as possible between the ball and the basket without drawing a defensive three second violation. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on rotating defenders to not only get in position to offer resistance, but then actually affect the shot. The increasing value of that role is why light footed big men with little to offer offensively like Tyson Chandler and Joel Anthony seem to be overpaid but probably aren’t.
This technique is rarer than one might assume. Sure, there are plenty of players who can protect the hoop by hacking anything with a pulse that enters the lane. The JaVale McGees of the league enforce a “no easy buckets” policy that reroutes driving players to the freethrow line, but the reality is that there may be no easier NBA bucket than the points earned at the charity stripe. The name says it all—it’s an efficient and reliable method of scoring that truly great defensive teams, like the San Antonio clubs in the mid 2000s, take away.
How they do it:
It all starts with active mind and feet. The rotating defender often has to start moving toward help position before the offensive player completely commits to a drive or catches the ball cutting to the hoop. For example Kevin Garnett is still a strong presence despite slowing down considerably in the last few years because his mind is as sharp as ever, and that allows him to be proactive in taking smart angles to insert himself between the shooter and the rim.
Usually there is a team concept that directs the player’s reactions and helps him to predict where he’ll be needed. That’s why teams like the Bulls, Lakers and Celtics will gladly surrender a baseline drive from the perimeter: the goal is to limit the ways that help defense can be engaged by an attacking offensive player. A middle drive guts even a great defense, while a “planned” baseline drive can lead to turnovers and tough shots.
Once in position, things get surprisingly tricky. Raise your own hands high and you’ll notice that your shoulders naturally put your arms in a position that is not quite vertical. (Now put your arms down before people start staring.) Think about that: in order to be perfectly vertical, players need to actually reach backwards. That’s part of why you so often see players demonstratively display their surprise at a foul call in this scenario, though the tape shows otherwise.
One way that defenders who do this well prevent themselves from accidentally fouling is by meeting oncoming players with a puffed out chest. That posture helps pop the shoulders backward to provide a physical rebuff without risking a bailout call.
Some players will even jump backward slightly to make sure the collision with the driving or cutting player doesn’t appear to be a foul. Doing this also carries the added benefit of forcing the offense to shoot without the space created after bouncing off a defender’s chest.
Who does it best:
Joel Anthony, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Joakim Noah, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, Udonis Haslem
Who needs to work on it:
JaVale McGee, Ian Mahinmi, Aaron Gray, Derrick Favors, DeMarcus Cousins, Amir Johson
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