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The Evolution Of Frontcourt Defense

John Henson does not get his shot blocked often.

At 6’10, 220 pounds with a 7’4 wingspan, it’s physically impossible for the average college big man to contest the release point on his jumper, much less block it. When he extends his arms, he is playing on a different plane than the rest of the sport: he had nine blocks against Michigan State, including three on perimeter jumpers.

So when he found himself alone with the ball in his hands and less than 10 seconds left in North Carolina’s 73-72 loss to Kentucky on Saturday, the last thing he was worried about was someone blocking his jumper. You would have to be as long and as quick as Henson to do that, and college basketball had never seen someone as long and as quick as John Henson before. That is, until Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, a 6’10, 220 forward with a 7’4 wingspan of his own.

In a game between two of the best teams in the country and two of the most storied programs in the history of the sport, a game that featured as many as 15 future NBA players, it’s fitting that the final play came down to the two players who literally stood above the rest.

While UNC and Kentucky have combined to win 12 national championships, they’ve never quite won like this before. Both teams are built around the shot-blocking prowess of their 6’10+ forwards, but while the best shot-blockers used to be centers who stationed themselves on the low block and protected the rim, Davis and Henson can roam around the court, capable of erasing any shot taken from within the three-point line.

While there are a lot of subtle nuances to playing defense, it’s fundamentally a matter of physical ability. In a game of one-on-one between two equally skilled players, there’s nothing a slower and shorter player can do to defend a taller and faster one: the shorter player’s outstretched arms might as well be a chair for all they can do to stop the taller player from getting a clean look at the basket.

That’s why it’s usually easier to score on taller defenders on the perimeter, where any height advantage is minimized by the necessity to cover space laterally. It’s the theory behind the games of “stretch 4’s” like Rashard Lewis, perimeter-oriented forwards who can force traditional big-men out of their comfort zone by making them defend out to the three-point line.

Twenty years ago, the NCAA’s leading shot-blockers were guys like Shawn Bradley (BYU) and Shaquille O'Neal (LSU), players incapable of getting in a defensive stance and defending three-point shooters. Shaq’s Lakers were notoriously poor at defending the pick-and-roll, as Shaq refused to play more than 10-15 feet from the basket. Don Nelson assembled a roster of 6’11+ three-point shooters in Dallas (Dirk, Raef LaFrentz, Wang Zhi-Zhi) in the early 2000’s precisely to exploit that weakness.

Before the jump shot was invented in the 1930’s, there was no need to seriously defend the area outside of the paint. Now, 80 years later, the perimeter jumper has gone from art to science, as 7’0 power forwards like Dirk Nowitzki can convert an open 20-footer almost as efficiently as 7’0 centers like George Mikan could convert an open lay-up.

Henson and Davis are the inevitable defensive response to the wave of super-sized jump-shooters that has emerged over the last generation. In essence, they’re similar to the new types of offensive tackles that began to appear in the NFL to combat the emergence of pass-rushers like Lawrence Taylor in the 1980’s.

If the best 6’10+ offensive players are no longer interested in banging in the low post, why should the best 6’10+ defensive players bulk up to 240-250 pounds? What’s the point of emphasizing core strength if you’re spending most of your time chasing players around the perimeter? Why not stay lean in order to emphasize lateral quickness instead?

It does no good to bring Davis and Henson out to the three-point line, as they can smother front-court players who try to beat them off the dribble with their combination of length and foot-speed. Henson averages 3.3 blocks this year; Davis averages 4.5 blocks and 1.4 steals.

Instead, it’s easier to use their length against them, by bringing them back into the low block where their high center of gravity and lanky frames make it difficult to hold position. But there aren’t many players in college basketball with the combination of physical ability and skill to pull that off.

Most freakish athletes, like Kansas’ Thomas Robinson and Florida’s Patric Young, don’t have the foot-work and skill-level to dominate equally athletic defenders, while most fundamentally sound post players, like Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, don’t have the size and athleticism to finish over the top of Henson and Davis.

At the end of the game Saturday, Davis rose to Henson’s challenge, flying across the paint and blocking his shot far above the rim. Any team that hopes to defeat North Carolina and Kentucky in March better have a front-court player who can do the same.

 

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