Elite Defenders  –  How They Tick

By Mason Waters

Elite defenders have the following traits in common: length, athleticism, effort, awareness, and intelligence. That’s pretty obvious. In this article, we’ll go beyond those few characteristics and learn from one of the NBA’s best defenders, Tony Allen, and we’ll see the traits that make great defenders.

  • Elite defenders guard the best offensive player on their team in practice as often as possible. When Tony Allen played in Boston, he did all he could to shut down prime Paul Pierce. Defenders don’t get any better guarding the 14th player on the bench in practice. Defenders will only get better by defending good offensive players in practice.
  • Elite defenders are prepared and anticipate the moves of their opponent. Elite defenders know how their opponent will try to score by watching film of their opponent. Tony Allen said this in an article with Bleacher Report, “The day before a game, I have Grizzlies video coordinator Dan Hartfield edit the previous two or three games of whatever scorer I’ve got, and I watch him on my iPad. I want to see how he’s scoring, so I can be ready for those sets. I know every team’s plays before the game. Even when I’m in a team huddle, I only need to hear the play and I’m up from the bench ready to play.”
  • Elite defenders are relentless. Just because the opposing offensive player makes a few baskets, doesn’t mean an elite defender is going to slow down. Elite defenders don’t get discouraged. When guarding a special offensive player, they realize it is impossible to completely shut them down. When Tony Allen was guarding Kobe, he knew Kobe was still probably going to get at least 20 points. I’d imagine the defensive motivation for Tony Allen wasn’t to keep Kobe scoreless, that’s never gonna happen. Rather, I’d bet Tony wanted to do everything he could to make Kobe’s scoring as difficult and challenging as possible.
  • Elite defenders play great defense without fouling. A debilitating possession is one where the team plays phenomenal defense for the first 25 seconds of the shot clock or possession, and then commits a stupid foul sending a shooter to the line. Elite defenders aren’t satisfied with playing solid defense for most of the possession, getting a block, or getting a good closeout. Elite defenders know that a great defensive possession requires 2 closeouts, a contest, 3 slides, a box out, and a hard pursuit for a rebound. If a defensive possession finishes with a foul or includes an offensive rebound, it’s not a great defensive possession.
  • Elite defenders contest as many shots as possible. I’d be curious to see the FG Contest % of the NBAs first team defenders. We have easy access to their FG%, the percentage of shots they make on offense, but what percentage of shots do elite defenders contest of the offensive player they are guarding? I don’t have any numbers, but I’d guess elite defenders have a hand in the opponents face when they shoot about 90% of the time.
  • Elite defenders are consistently vocal. Elite defenders communicate the entire time of every possession. They don’t stop communicating after the first pass. They let their teammates know what is going on in the court. They call out the opponents play, they call out screens, they scream, “Shot!”, they let their teammates know they’re in help position,
  • Elite Defenders Don’t Want Help on Defense. If the defender has to call for “Help!” it means they got beat. Elite defenders take too much pride in their defense than to ask for help. When a defender calls for help, they not only confess to getting beat by their man, but they are also asking a teammate to leave their man. Kobe Bryant said this about Tony Allen, “He’s fundamentally sound defensively and he plays harder than everybody else defensively. He has a competitive desire to compete individually. That’s very uncommon. Most defensive players I face want help all the time. I’ve never heard him ask for help. He likes taking the challenge.”

What would you add in this list? Thank you for reading and as always, please share this article! Would mean a lot to me if players came across this article and improved their games!

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Mason Waters is a recent college graduate from the University of North Georgia, and an assistant coach at West Forsyth High School transitioning into the college game. You can find out more about him by visiting www.masonwaters.live.
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