Only a select few appreciate the craft of shot-blocking
If for some reason you ever find yourself amongst a gathering of particularly large NBA players and need to identify which ones are shot-blockers, look at their fingertips.
This advice comes from Alonzo Mourning , who holds up his own hand as evidence. "Blood blisters on the tips from hitting the backboard," he says. "They'll turn purple."
If this doesn't work, check out their pinkies. Spend a lot of time swiping at balls near the rim and, inevitably, you're going to miss the former yet hit the latter. Adonal Foyle , shot-blocking specialist for the Warriors, has dislocated his pinkie after clanging it against the iron. Mark Eaton , the former Jazz center and human skyline, once broke the little finger on his left hand when he jammed it against the bottom of the rim trying to swat a shot. Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko , who was second in the league in blocks last season, hasn't tweaked any fingers but has sprained his ankle on numerous occasions upon landing awkwardly after flying in for a block. He's also hurt his back.
Being a dunkee is part of the deal for elite shot-blockers, that rare breed of NBA player who possesses the height, timing, quickness and requisite humility to challenge the league's high-fliers and interior leviathans night after night. As I chronicled in a story in this week's magazine , they are a vanishing breed. This season, only one player -- Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal -- is averaging three blocks a game and, if the season continues at its current clip, the league is on pace to average the fewest per-team blocked shots since 1975.
Most grew up with a gift for it. Okafor said he was "blocking shots before I knew what a block was." Kirilenko played point guard as a boy in Russia but still averaged "probably three blocks a game." Mourning remembers violently spiking anything that came near him as a teen (he's since learned to tap the ball gently, to keep it in play). The 7-foot-4 Eaton, who still holds the single-season record with an average of 5.56 per game in 1984-85, is a different story. An aspiring auto mechanic who was persuaded to play basketball at a junior college, then sat the bench at UCLA, he was largely ineffective before reaching the pros. In the summer of 1981, while playing a pick-up game at UCLA, he received some unsolicited advice from Wilt Chamberlain , who was then in his forties but still running the floor against men half his age.
"I remember we had a guy on our team named Rocket Rod Foster , to this day the fastest guy I've ever seen," says Eaton. "He'd get to basket about the same time that I got to the top of key. So I was standing there, huffing and puffing, and I felt a large hand on my shoulder. It was Wilt. He said, 'You're never going to catch that man, first of all. Second, it's not your job to catch him. Your job is to guard the basket, then cruise up to half-court to see what's going on. Because if a quick shot goes up, you have to go back.' "
Eaton pauses. "That day, a light bulb went on. I figured out my niche in basketball. This is my house, the paint, this is where I live."
Eaton was the prototypical low-post shot-blocker. The Jazz funneled opposing players to him, allowing their own guards to gamble for steals. Today, with so many running teams, not to mention big men who can shoot threes and the defensive three-second rule, few shot-blockers can afford to stay rooted near the basket. They have to show on the pick-and-roll, cover out to the three point-line and get up and down the floor. This explains in part why blocked shots are down -- as does the trend of glorified power forwards playing center -- but Mourning thinks there are also fewer players who have the requisite desire.
Of course, it depends on who it is coming to the basket. Mutombo stresses the importance of knowing your opponent. Some players look for contact ( Gilbert Arenas and Paul Pierce , whom Kirilenko rates the easiest "good" player in the league to block), while others such as Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade hide the ball, only to expose it at the last minute. Certain big men like Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph (No. 1 and 2 in the league in having their shots blocked) like to muscle inside, then go straight up, affording ample opportunity to pick off the ball from behind. Dirk Nowitzki likes to fade on his jumper, so Kirilenko says the way to pick off his shot is to sneak in from behind and time the release. The easiest targets are rebounding specialists whose effort is more commendable than their offensive skills. For example, Denver's Reggie Evans has 18 percent of his shots swatted, the highest rate in the league.
Offensive players, in turn, study shot-blockers. When Jason Richardson came into the league, he repeatedly had his shot blocked in practice by Foyle. So he started picking his brain.
"OD taught me that if you show them the ball, they go get it. You gotta get into them with that body," says Richardson. "Or if you're going up against a shot-blocker, don't go up with two hands, because you always get blocked with two hands. Just the other game he was telling me, 'If anybody goes up with two hands, I always get it.' Trevor Ariza comes at him and it's two hands and sure enough, OD got it."
Wade agrees. "It's all about timing," he said after a recent Heat game. "I ain't got the hops that J-Rich got, but I got a little hang time, I can hang in the air and maybe use my body to get a shot off. It's tough with a guy like Alonzo because he waits for you to get the shot off, then goes and gets it, so I'm glad I don't have to go up against him."
Wade smiles, looks across the locker room at his teammate. "I would dunk on him once in a while, though." Mourning, immersed in a postgame chicken wrap, misses the jibe.
Shot it straight up in the air and it hit nothing but net. Then he ran back down the court with a little smirk on his face."
For Kirilenko, the most memorable sequence came when he blocked Bryant three times in a row, a feat made even more difficult because he was guarding him one-on-one, though a foul was called on the third block ("three times in a row, same attack," Kirilenko says, "and the third was a pretty clear block!").
His most satisfying ones come against big men, however. He rates Tim Duncan as a frequent target -- though he's quick to point out that Duncan will also burn you with a pass if you commit too early. And he as well has a Shaq memory.
"One time I blocked Shaq," says Kirilenko, who pauses to savor the moment. Then he laughs, "The next attack, I get elbowed in the face. It is part of the business."
article found @ cnnsi.com by Chris Ballard