Basketball is a complicated game. While easy to understand the basics, everything gets more and more complex the closer you look at it. Like any fractal image, each element of basketball can have its own little complexities and details that need to be examined. Today, let’s look at one of those elements and try to flesh it out with some depth to, hopefully, increase our overall understanding of the game.
Defense is one of those things that often gets talked about in binary terms. Someone is either a good or bad defender. There is occasionally more depth discussed, but there tends to be a lack of understanding of what makes a good or great defender beyond size, strength, and athleticism. While there is plenty of room to talk about elite on-ball defense, today, I want to start with rotational defense. Let’s breakdown what makes a player a competent off-ball defender and how teams ask players to execute within a scheme.
With Great Defense, There Must Also Come Great Responsibilities
The first thing to breakdown when discussing off-ball defense is what each player’s responsibilities are. The easiest way to discuss responsibilities is to watch one play and break it down from the perspective of almost every player on the floor. Washington States go-to pick-and-roll coverage was a high catch and this is important because each scheme requires players to do different things.
Let’s watch a play and start to understand what each player is doing and why.
The play always starts at the point of attack. Here, Justin Powell is guarding the ball-handler and he is executing an over. He is trying to force the handler to use the screen and get picked up by the big. Powell is going over as well, which is not always the case with high-catches, but it is to ensure that the handler cannot cross back over and attack the rim with the big out on the floor.
Powell was just generally solid at executing all of last season, but I think it is notable that WSU was having him go over. This separates a high-catch from a hard-hedge in a lot of ways because a hedge is usually accompanied by an under from the point of attack defender and a hard recovery from the big. Instead, WSU’s high-catch can be more versatile. Sometimes, it is a high drop where the big defender will try and stay behind both the handle and the roll-man. It can also be a full hard-hedge, which would allow the roll-man to get below the level of the big defender and force him to sprint in recovery.
The other element at the point of attack here is with Adrame Diongue, the big defender. Diongue’s job is to get high up at the level of the screen. Contain a drive or force the handler to pick the ball up, and recover back to the paint to prevent an easy pass to the middle of the floor and to provide help should the perimeter shell break.
Diongue executes all of these effectively, starting with getting to the level.
He then forces the handler to kill their dribble.
His recovery prevents an entry pass to the big.
He finishes the play in good help position and that helps to kill any potential advantage that the offense could gain.
The next thing of import to watch are the wing defenders away from the ball. In this instance, it’s Carlos Rosario and DJ Rodman. Notice their positioning at the time of the screen. As Rodman is positioned at the opposite block so that he can provide resistance at the rim should the screener dive hard.
Rosario is in a gap that will allow him to do multiple things. If the big floats or pops, he can be there on the catch to provide resistance and allow a time cushion for Diongue to recover. If a skip pass goes over the top to the wing, he can be there on the catch as well. Should the big dive hard, Rosario can be there to double or cut off a pass. Perhaps his most important duty would be to handle the initial x-out rotation should the handler be able to turn the corner on Diongue and Powell.
Brief interlude to explain x-outs, because they are a fundamental part of wing rotations. The basic tenant of an x-out is the shape. The player closest to the person receiving the pass is there on the catch, regardless of whether it is his man or not. This allows more time for the defender with the most ground to contest a shot as the ball swings. This is fundamental to any defensive scheme, but especially ones that require intense low-man help like high-catches.
Every single defensive play in basketball can be broken down into this series of decisions and responsibilities. Good defenders execute with minimal mistakes and have a good feel for risk mitigation, bad defenders get lost and lose assignments, and the truly great defenders will consistently make rotations that are schemed as well as ones that cover up for the mistakes of others. Understanding what a players’ responsibilities are on any given possession is vital to understanding their defensive impact as well as understanding what makes for a good rotation on any given play.
It would take a much longer article to breakdown every type of rotation, so today, we’ll focus on low-men. Low-men are vital to a solid rim-protection defense and there are two kinds of low-men; bigs and wings. By taking a look at each type of player and the rotations they make, we can begin to understand more about how teams succeed at preventing and altering opponents’ rim field goal attempts.
Each position has their own specific rotations that shift based on scheme. The most important rotations in any given defense are going to come from the big man, especially for a defense-first team like WSU. The bigs can be forced to guard in the main action as pick-and-roll defenders - which will be discussed in a future breakdown article - but their rotations near the rim are vital for the success of a good defense.
For the Cougs, the big’s primary role is to protect the rim. That did shift a bit when Mouhamed Gueye was on the floor - mostly to protect him from foul trouble - but it is the general rule of thumb for WSU. This often means roaming the paint and covering every drive, especially if the opposing big is just in the dunker spot. Notice Diongue’s positioning on this play. He gets around a seal in the paint to make sure that he has eyes on the handoff action. He then reads the split and executes a solid contest on the drive.
This is a subtle one, but Diongue perfectly executes as a gap big defender while guarding his man at the top here. He gives space and rises when necessary, always in position to rotate down to contest a drive or rise up should an action occur up top.
Understanding assignment is a huge part of big-man defense. Whenever bigs are guarding bigs who can space the floor, it can be a problem for them and they have to be active to make sure their man doesn’t get an open shot but also be able to barrel down for a contest or rebound in the lane. In general, Diongue does well here and his ability to not overcommit but to still be in the right spot helps him get the easy board.
Big-man rotations are incredibly complex and they could be the topic for a 40-page breakdown with clips from multiple schemes and multiple teams, but the general gist is that they have the hardest and most important job on the floor, even when not guarding pick-and-roll. Understanding where to be when guarding as the low-man, maneuvering around the paint to prevent getting sealed out, and recognizing where every fire might start and being able to put it out is a near impossible job, but the best make it look easy.
Wing Low-Man Rotations
My personal favorite defensive rotations to watch are low-man wing rotations. The low-man is the defensive player who is lowest toward the baseline during the play. Usually, that player is guarding someone in the corner and that can lead to a unique challenge. Balancing being a helpful paint defender with being able to prevent easy corner skips and execute closeouts is difficult and it takes a specific type of player to properly pull it off. Elite low-man defenders are often the best types of wing defenders, with NBA players like Draymond Green, Jaden McDaniels, and Giannis Antetokoumpno are all known for their secondary rim-protection as low-man help defenders.
WSU’s most technically sound low-man defender might have been their smallest; Dylan Darling. This is a perfect example of the proper activity level and awareness a low-man defender needs to have. Watch how he mirrors the ball, sticking with it as it swings. He stays on the balls of his feet so that he can explode to cut off a drive or into a closeout wherever needed. He is in a spot that eventually allows him to prevent a dumpoff pass to a cutter after a dribble pick-up on the baseline. Just textbook stuff.
While Darling might be the most technically sound low-man, Andrej Jakimovksi was WSU’s most effective low-man. His size and competence make him someone that can effect a lot of shots down there and his timing is great. Here, he is guard a very solid outside shooter, so he has to be cognizant of that threat while still being there to tag the roller. Notice his positioning during the pick-and-roll, staying low while the big rolls into the paint and then recovering to his man before the ball can swing.
Timing is everything to low-men, especially those that don’t have the athletic pop to sky for huge blocks if they’re late. Watch DJ Rodman on this play. He sees the post-action going on but reads that Jakimovski has it mostly covered, so he stays home. Then his man cuts through the play and this is where he executes as the low-man. When the handler rejects the screen and follows in the path of the cutter, Rodman peels off his man and meets the driver outside the charge circle. It could be argued that he’s a step late and that a more athletic driver would’ve got a layup, but he did recognize the drive in time and he played the action well.
Rodman was consistently a step late as the low-man, which would separate him from Jakimovski in terms of effectiveness at times. It is often the difference of micro-seconds, but it is a difference that matters. He is staring down the main action, but he is late to pounce on the action. He does barely meet the cutter outside the lane, but he still allows easy penetration and a kickout to the corner.
Low-men have to be acutely aware of an offensive players line of sight at all times. The easiest time to demonstrate this is with post-doubles. Notice where Gueye’s man is here as he goes for the baseline double. The big is in the dunker spot below the rim and an effective double would prevent a dumpoff to that player. As the double comes, a lot of pressure is put on Kymany Houinsou to read the backside quickly. He does recognize that Gueye’s man is rising to make himself more available for a pass, so he cuts off the topside to try and prevent that, however, he does lose track of the corner shooter. It is partially on Darling, as he needs to trust that Houinsou and Powell can cover the bunched set of players surrounding the doubled post-player, but that can very from team to team depending on what they ask of players as doubles come.
Overall, basketball is a complex game and every play is a series of decisions made by 10 different players at any given time. Understanding what each player is doing can help to make for a more holistic understanding of the game and what makes each player effective. There is, obviously, a lot more to low-man rotations than I mentioned here and a lot more that I don’t know about them, but hopefully this helps to give an overview of what goes through players’ and coaches’ heads while watching film.