Andrerson Varejao and the NBA’s best pests

Anderson Varejao put up 35 points and 18 rebounds against the Nets without executing a single post move. He has great hands and rolls to the basket with uncommon grace, but he posted a statline that has only been matched 16 times in the last 10 years mostly just by out-hustling the Nets lethargic frontline. Loose balls, offensive rebounds, that space in front of the rim — that’s Varejao’s specialty. Varejao is a skilled athlete, but he’s an irreplaceable player in because he’s always looking for little ways to use his quickness and length. Even those floppy charges he takes only happen because he moves his feet well enough to get in position over and over.

Even though it wasn’t a bucket or a rebound, here’s the play that sums up how Varejao got to 35 and 18:

After a Cavs miss, Brook Lopez cleared the rebound about 15 feet from the hoop and everyone took off up court. Watching from home, I looked down at my laptop to check on Twitter or a box score or something and then I heard Ian Eagle announcing that Varejao, who was now on the ground, had somehow relieved Lopez of the ball when everyone else had given in to the routine.

He’s a pest, the kind of player who rejects the idea that there are times to compete and times to just jog back on D. And as he showed last night, even in a league full of superhuman athletes with brilliant skill, being willing to get nasty possession after possession can be a very good thing. There are moments when everyone on the court seems to agree to exhale, reset, get ready for what’s next. These moments of vulnerability are when pests strike, when they subvert unwritten rules for their team’s profit. There’s something affirming about players who go about (and often earn) their hyper-glamorous jobs this way. They are a testament to the idea that “anyone can do it” (this does not include you) and that good old-fashioned hardwork and sticktoitiveness really do make a difference even in the NBA. Of course, that obscures the reality that this particular kind of hustle is a talent in itself, just one that’s easier to emulate on the pick-up court.

Here are some others of this species:

J.J. Redick

Most pests make their mark on defense, but Redick is the rare offensive-minded pest. He’s won the Orlando’s “Iron Magic” fitness test for the past several years, and he puts that boundless energy to work on the court by running through and around an endless number of curls and hand offs in the Magic’s motion-heavy offense. If his defender loses track of him, or just gets slightly out of position for a moment, Redick flashes to the rim. You know how physically and mentally exhausting it is to guard someone who runs around a lot and can shoot when you’re playing pick-up? That, to the nth degree, is Redick … except he also went to Duke.

Avery Bradley

There’s something thrilling about watching an NBA player defend the opposing team’s point guard full court. And not that token, make the dribble turn a few times defense, but slap-the-floor, find out what size shorts he’s wearing defense usually reserved for mean AAU teams and Louisville. It’s an affront to the gentleman’s agreement in the NBA that’s sort of like how soccer players don’t pressure the ball like crazy in most leagues besides the EPL — everyone acknowledges the general level of talent is such that such a pursuit is a waste of time and energy. But not for Avery Bradley. This freak of lateral movement can dismantle an offense by completely shutting off the primary ball handler — and increasingly vital role vis a vis pick-and-roll offenses — from receiving the ball back after he gives it up to avoid dealing with Bradley for 45 feet in the backcourt.

Tony Allen

Oooooh Tony. Playing against him looks absolutely miserable (so does playing with him, sometimes). Those long arms and strong hands, the singleminded devotion to making his opponent uncomfortable. He’ll make guys, even really good players (think Kevin Durant, 2011 playoffs), just stop trying rather than go through what it takes to fight for space to catch the ball, then create a good angle for a shot, then get a shot off without Allen disrupting it with an outstretched paw. And that really helps his team, even if he’s a punchline on the other end. There’s no more frightening sight for a ballhandler than Allen and Mike Conley closing in on a trap. Just pick it up and call time out.

Matt Barnes

I just get the sense he’s one of the least-liked players in the NBA. That he’s not a very dynamic offensive play but such a brilliant cutter that defenders must nonetheless pay him serious attention probably doesn’t help. He’s also just super chippy and does stuff like this:

Tyler Hansbrough

This guy makes the list because he’s just throwing his body around like crazy all game, sometimes it seems like for no particular reason. Actually, the reason is obvious: Hansbrough is 6-6 with short arms and middling athleticism. His one asset is strength and his willingness to use his body to neutralize the athleticism of the competition. Unfortunately, because he hasn’t shot consistently as a pro, his game leads to more bruises than buckets.

Andrei Kirilenko

Kirilenko is a walking deflection who specializes in annoying opposing players and fan bases by always being wide open under the basket. His reaching his hands attend plays to which he was not invited and the same recognition and quickness that serves him so well on back cuts to the rim also aid in taking charges. Kirilenko specializes at punishing opponents’ lack of attention to detail, his game is one giant “Did you remember to pick up the milk?” No, you did not. And that’s why he just jumped the passing lane, or got a fingertip on your layup, or is all alone 3 feet from the rim. What were you thinking?

Who else belongs on this list? Put it in the comments!

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