Three Qualities of Elite Defenders

For a basketball nerd like myself, watching great individual defense is beautiful. Solid defense rarely makes SportsCenter, but I think a great defensive possession is just as fun to watch as a highlight dunk. But that’s just me. I’m weird like that.

I could write an entire post on this one clip of Shane Battier’s defense but that would probably bore you out of your mind. However, I do think my insights into what makes a great defender can be helpful to your game (and maybe not quite as boring).

This post examines the three most important qualities that I believe define how good an individual defender is. Check them out and let me know what you think.


1) Desire

It’s very simple, if you don’t want to be a great defender, then you won’t be. People who lack the desire to play defense end up looking like James Harden last season.

I just had to throw this video in here. James Harden's defense is so bad it's comical. Although, I will say that he’s picked up his defensive intensity this season.

Defense requires a high level of intrinsic motivation. It takes consistent effort and determination without the same rewards as playing offense. You rarely get to touch the ball, you never score, and good defensive plays aren't usually highlight worthy. So, the best defenders are the ones that are self-motivated to be great.

Let’s use Tony Allen as an example. Take a look at this defensive effort against Kevin Durant in the 2014 playoffs.

You can just tell that he loves playing defense. He’s constantly pestering KD, forcing him off his spots, and generally making his life a living hell.

His desire to defend is obvious and contagious. The dude just loves to get stops. I mean, look at this celebration after a forced turnover.

If this guy doesn’t love defense then I don’t know who does.


2) Discipline

Defense is a test of vigilance. Being a half step out of position for just a moment can cause a chain reaction of events that leads to a bucket.

Imagine you’re guarding a shooter in the weak side corner. For just a moment, you lose focus and the shooter drifts up a step. A half second later, you’re crushed by two screen-setting ogres. Since you're a step late, you lose contact with the shooter as he runs off the double screen. Before you know it, you give up a clean look to a good shooter.

In this scenario, the difference between a wide open shot and a defensive stop is miniscule. It all started with a half second of lost concentration where you drifted too far from a shooter. The best defenders are hyper vigilant. That vigilance allows them to maintain proper defensive positioning at all times, a feat that requires an incredible amount of discipline. Reckless gambling for steals or ball watching is a lack of concentration that good offensive players will exploit.


3) Instinct

Defensive instincts can manifest in a variety of ways. For example, knowing exactly when to jump a passing lane, predicting a ball-handler’s move from his body language, or knowing when to lean on a player and when to give ground. The list goes on.

Some players just have an innate understanding of positioning, angles and footwork that helps them on the defensive end.

Let's take a look at someone with unbelievable defensive instincts: Scottie Pippen.

Not only was Pippen long and athletic, but he used that athleticism to be a one-man wrecking crew. He was incredible at getting his hands on the ball. He had the kind of instincts you just can’t teach.

While instinct is more difficult to develop, showing desire and discipline are surefire ways to quickly improve your defense. But the best defenders in the world have a little something extra that makes them special. 

Did I miss anything? Are there any other qualities of elite defenders that I didn't mention?