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In Praise of the Ball Hawk:
Thoughts on Effective Man to Man Ball Defense

by Richard Ford, National Point Guard Camp assistant director

Duke's Sean Dockery and St. Joseph's Tyrone Barley; do these names register with younger players (particularly point guards) in the culture of new age hoops? Probably not, at least for those players who admire the "ankle breaking" dribbler, the 3 point shooting quick-fixer, or the "no look", behind the head, globetrotting passer. But for the younger player serious about developing crucial point guard habits in man to man defense that win games and inspire teammates, Dockery and Barley are two tough ball hawks worth emulating.

Last December, Duke played St. John's at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The St. John's game was also a hoops reunion for former Duke players. Duke won the game and afterwards, Coach K hosted a reception for the former players. We were milling around the Cameron concourse, talking about the game, and the exploits (athletic and otherwise) of our kids. The asst. coaches came up from the locker room to join the group, stats sheets in hand. I stood with a group of former players and parsed the stats sheet with them. We exclaimed nearly at once: check Dockery's stats! While he scored 12 points off the bench, but what really captured our attention was his seven steals! A truly amazing stat. One of the guys aptly observed: "can you imagine having Dockery in your face for 40 minutes?" Every point guard should aspire to be worthy of that simple, but high compliment.

While there is no doubt that both Dockery and Barley are exceptionally quick, strong guards, what sets them apart defensively from other quick, strong guards (and even less athletic guards who don't work as hard) is their relentless intensity of focus and effort on the ball. They bring a disciplined sense of urgency to every encounter with the ball handler. Their mindset is aggressive containment, and their goal is to make every pass, shot, or dribble as difficult as possible. They create steals and other turnovers by making the ball handler do things she/he doesn't want to do. The more options the ball defender takes away from the ball handler, and the more difficult she/he makes it for the ball handler to execute the remaining option(s), the more mistakes the ball handler will make.

Theirs isn't a "quick strike" philosophy on ball defense; indeed, most of the steals and turnovers these players create do not result from a perfectly timed reach or lunge at a dribbling ball handler. Instead, Dockery and Barley intelligently reduce the ball handler's options and never back off or back down. They get in the ball handler's discomfort zone (and head) and they stay there. They force quick and poorly executed passes, dribbles, and shots, which then result in steals and turnovers off the ball. The consistency of their intensity on the ball inspires confidence in the defenders off the ball and raises the level of the overall team defense. Their commitment to hawking the ball shapes their team's attitude immediately and positively. Their intensity issues the best of challenges to their teammates: "see if you can match this!"

While the attitude of relentless intensity that these players bring to their task as ball defenders is probably the most important weapon in their defensive arsenal, they also apply intelligent and basic strategic fundamentals to their ball defense which should be a model for all younger players, particularly point guards. Now that summer is here, younger players who are formulating their off-season priorities and are serious about improving the quality of their ball defense, can incorporate the following ball defense concepts into their pick-up and league games.
  1. Understanding Effective Man to Man Ball "Pressure"
    Everyone has a "personal space" zone that they protect reflexively. We've all been in social settings where someone comes up to chat and they stand just a bit too close, or perhaps they have the "touch" thing going. What is our typical response? We instinctively step back or turn away, or make a hasty, "gotta run" exit. In short, we don't like it when someone violates our space because we feel uncomfortable! While you don't want to be a space violator at a social function, that's precisely what you want to be as a ball defender. Your goal is to be a constant space violator that drives the ball handler out of her/his comfort zone every time she/he touches the ball. How close should you be? Close enough to cause discomfort! The NCAA rules define "closely guarded" as a distance not exceeding six feet from the ball handler. Is that close enough? Try measuring out six feet from a nearby wall (pretend that the wall is, say, Jameer Nelson) and then stand just less than six feet away from the wall. You'll likely conclude that if you were guarding Jameer, you'd be too far away to violate his space, make him uncomfortable, or increase the likelihood that he will throw a bad pass, take a bad shot, or dribble into trouble. A good rule of thumb is to be close enough to touch the forearm of the ball handler with an outstretched arm. That is close enough to reduce the ball handler's vision, dictate the direction of a dribble, alter a pass, get a "leather touch", or make a shot more difficult. If you are too close, you will make it easier for the ball handler to make you over-react to fakes or to simply blow by you with a quick dribble. Tyrone Barley carefully measures his distance with an outstretched arm and uses it a gauge for the discomfort zone. Remember, your goal is aggressive, relentless containment and control, with a view towards increasing the likelihood that the ball handler will make a mistake. The more consistent you are with your discomfort zone defense, the more effective you will be at forcing the ball handler to make a mistake.
  2. Technical Man to Man Ball Defense Skills
    Your goal is to stay in front of the ball handler and in her/his discomfort zone. To do this effectively, you need to be as maneuverable as possible. There are no perfect specifications for foot or hand placement or body weight distribution, but common sense, the options available to the ball handler, and the principle of maneuverability suggest the following:
    1. Feet
      Keep them wide enough to influence the direction of the ball handler, set up your body as a barrier to the basket, and reduce the ball handler's options. If you feet are too far apart, you lose quickness and maneuverability. If your feet are too close together, you may be too upright and vulnerable to a low, blow-by dribble, or a variety of fakes. Good, basic foot position is normally just a bit more than shoulder width apart. This position will allow you to slide your feet quickly and efficiently in any direction without getting tangled up by crossing your feet. How you position yourself in relation to the ball handler is likely a function of your coach's instructions. Many coaches prefer that you influence to the nearest sideline if the ball handler is not in the middle of the court, which would have you positioned at somewhat of an angle to the ball handler towards the nearest sideline. If you meet the ball handler in middle of the court, you should (in the absence of any contrary instruction from your coach) position yourself to influence the ball handler to her weak hand (for 9 of 10 players that will be to their left).
    2. Hands
      Your hands should be in a position to counter whatever options the ball handler has and to help you maintain body control and balance. If the ball handler has just received the ball, not yet dribbled, and is in shooting range, you may need to have one hand up to challenge a shot or pass (the hand of your front foot), with the other hand down (the hand of your back foot) to challenge and influence the dribble. If the ball handler is dribbling, you'll want to keep you hands low to bother the dribbler and to maintain control. If the ball handler has exhausted her/his dribble, you'll be able to use both hands as you close in tighter and challenge the remaining options (pass, shot) without reaching or fouling.
    3. Balance and "Closeout" Situations
      Control and containment are the focus here. A basic goal of the ball handler is to move the ball closer to the basket. Since you must stay between the ball handler and the basket, common sense dictates that you will need to have your body weight ready to move in the direction the ball handler is moving and in-balance. More often than not, this means you will have your weight tending towards your back foot, or, if moving forward or laterally, immediately prepared to shift backwards, without being off-balance and without retreating out of the ball handler's "discomfort" zone. This is true particularly in "closeout" situations where you go from help defense to ball defense (typically in the half court man to man setting) and move quickly to close the gap on the ball handler. Obviously, you will need to approach the ball, but you must do so intelligently. Many players simply fly out to meet the ball, and a smart ball handler will blow by them once the closing defender is too close to recover, shift weight backwards, and influence the direction of the ball.
      The best way to close out on the ball is to initially make up ground with a couple of bigger, faster steps, then as you near the ball handler's "discomfort zone", drop into a low, aggressive stance and close the remaining distance with very small, quick steps that will allow you to quickly shift weight to your back foot and keep the ball handler in front of you. If you close out to the ball handler's strong-hand side, you'll force her/him to try to beat you with her/his weak hand, which makes your closeout more effective. In a full court closeout situation, you'll need to take a somewhat different approach because of the increased space (and forward momentum) available to the ball handler. When closing out on a quickly approaching ball handler in a full court man to man setting, you are best served to pick a spot 10 - 15 feet ahead of him/her, and in her/his path, and begin your close-out to that spot. This will allow you to counter the ball handler's superior momentum without "over-running" her/him. Again, your first goal in this situation is containment, then "discomfort zone" pressure. In the full court closeout situation, it is almost always a good idea to close out to the ball handler's strong hand side so that she/he will be forced to negotiate your defense with her/his weak hand.
    4. Staying Low
      Another trait that Dockery and Barley share that makes them amazing ball defenders is their ability to stay low on the ball-handler. Staying low on the ball is crucial. By staying low, they never give the ball handler the advantage in maneuverability. How low should you go? As low as necessary to win that battle, whether it is keeping your head at least as low as the ball handler's head, or keeping your head focused on the ball handler's midsection. Stay low!
  3. Things to Avoid
    Reaching, slapping, lunging, jumping, giving up on a play when the ball handler beats you....all of these things equal bad defense on the ball and will take you out of the ball handler's discomfort zone, or out of the play entirely.
Sean Dockery and Tyrone Barley inspired their teammates this year with total commitment to ball defense in their teams' bread and butter man to man defensive systems. They weren't household names, and they didn't have autograph seekers hounding them after games; but they made their teams better and played indispensable roles in the seasons of two of the best teams in the country. Who noticed? Perhaps a few hoops junkies, a couple of journalists and commentators who understand what wins games, and, of course, their friends and family. But the highest, and most valuable recognition came from their coaches and teammates.....the people who understood best how important they were to their teams' mission and attitude. At Duke's end of year basketball banquet, Sean Dockery received the award for the Duke player contributing the most to team morale. A perfect and fitting acknowledgement. This message is important: defensive intensity improves team morale. Would you want Sean Dockery in your face for the entire game? Will you be the point guard that no opposing player wants to have in their face? Make the commitment; be the ball hawk; and positively shape the morale of your team!


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Excellent video with thoughts and drills on organizing your practices. Learn from one of the greatest coaches of the game, Coach "K".
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