Coach’s Notebook: Dissecting DeMarcus, Utah’s Unorthodox Approach
Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst and coach Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Coach Macri serves as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, working with a variety of NBA players on their skills and game understanding. The Coach’s Notebook appears on HOOPSWORLD every Thursday.
Dissecting DeMarcus in the Post
Some players come into the league and need to be taught a great deal about how their position plays differently amongst men. They struggle because they have used their size or athletic advantage their entire lives, and now that this advantage is neutralized, they have to learn the game all over again. This is not the case with Kings rookie forward DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins possesses a beyond-his-years approach to post-up situations. With work in a few areas, he can become the next great back-to-the-basket player.
One of the first things Cousins can improve on is his body position just before and on the catch. Growing up, many post players are taught to catch with their back to the basket, typically straddling the block or the hash mark above the block. This is fine when playing against unsophisticated defenses and against mediocre players. However, as players compete against more capable opponents, their positioning should change on many possessions to catching with their back to the baseline. This allows them to use their inside arm as a shield (an "arm bar") against their defender and to see the defense and the rest of the floor on the catch. They still have the ability to go to a regular backdown move or to face up. It simply allows more options, and with the talent that Cousins has, this can only lead to positive things down the road. Cousins does vary his catch position to some degree, but a heavier dose of back-to-the-baseline should be included.
After the catch, Cousins demonstrates a great knack for when to use feel and when to face up. In his feel game, Cousins uses his size to locate the defender – his shoulders, hips, and legs are all sensing the defenders position – and then Cousins uses that against the defender by way of his agility and dexterity. He attacks the middle of the floor relentlessly, seeking prime real estate on more than 75% of his post catches. This sets up his counter moves toward the baseline, and forces defenders to sit on his high shoulder more of the time. Cousins has developed a great feel for the quick spin baseline as well, and uses it whenever he feels the defender is off-balance. In the post with his back to the basket, Cousins is truly at his best. Though he sometimes overcommits (a post player should avoid crossing the midline to get off a shot, as it becomes a tougher angle, gives them little chance on the offensive boards, and invites additional defenders), this is a flaw that is easily solved in the offseason.
When the defender backs off on his catch, Cousins can no longer feel him with his body. This is traditionally the best way to handle a post player with his skills. He does respond with a pivot and face-up. This face-up allows him to see the floor, preventing double teams and making life difficult on his individual defender. After the face-up, DeMarcus usually defaults to feel mode by returning to a back-to-the basket middle attack. This is a solid approach for now, but as he continues to develop, eh will need to add a few more weapons to his face-up attack. A short jumper (maybe with the occasionally freeze fake) a la Duncan would be the first thing to add, as it completely changes the way a defense can play against him. After that, adding elements of a jab and attack series, quick rip and go, and even a rocker step (the Kevin Garnett jab, shot fake, attack combo) would all be appropriate. With his level of coordination and athleticism, there is little doubt these moves are possible, but the confidence and willingness to add them in game situations needs to happen.
While his talent is undeniable, his attitude does leave much to be desired. He competes hard most of the time on the floor – he is physical, willing to hit people, initiate contact, and generally does not give up on possessions. However, his body language is mostly poor, and often very bad. This may limit how far he can go, as over time it turns off coaches and teammates. He does so many things well – some things that it can be hard to teach any player – that it is hard to see him not eventually "getting it." With polish and experience, and a dose of maturity, he should become one of the best post players in the league.
Pressure Up to Slow ‘em Down
In the first half of the their game against the New York Knicks, the Utah Jazz utilized an unorthodox strategy which managed to keep the high-powered Knicks offense off balance. Most traditional defensive approaches against aggressive, fast-breaking teams is to retreat back and guard the paint. Prevent interior baskets first, then build out from the lane to guarding the perimeter.
The Jazz, however, opted for a different approach. They pushed up defensively, sometimes even with full court defense where appropriate, and guarded the perimeter hard by extending their ball pressure even higher. This is a significant difference, and it appeared to have a net positive effect for the Jazz. By having to deal with extended pressure for most of the first half, Knicks lead guard Raymond Felton appeared fatigued. It prevented the Knicks from getting into rhythm, and definitely pushed their spacing out further than normal. By pressuring the perimeter and staying up in passing lanes, New York could not develop a head-of-steam and get out on the run easily. The back of the Utah defense could mainly guard the paint and rebound, and in general this allowed the Jazz to force New York into shooting lower percentage shots. The Jazz took advantage, often rebounding and getting runout opportunities at the other end.
The overall strategy was effective. New York, which came into the game shooting over 37% from three as a team, shot only 18% from long range in the first half. They appeared disjointed and out-of-sync, and while the game was high scoring, the Utah defense was effective in preventing the Knicks from getting into a comfort zone.
In the second half, the Jazz took a more traditional approach: mostly backing off and protecting the paint, they allowed the Knicks to get a little more freedom on the perimeter. The Knicks were much more comfortable offensively in the second half, with the pressure lower on their guards, they largely operated as they had most of the season. In the second half, the Knicks were 12 of 19 (63%) from three, and looked more like the team they’ve performed as for the last few weeks. Utah’s saving grace was simply outscoring the Knicks – not an easy task, but one they managed to carry out this time.
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