What are the keys to being an elite shot-blocker? The NBA's best rim protectors share their secrets

What are the keys to being an elite shot-blocker? The NBA's best rim protectors share their secrets

Longform

What are the keys to being an elite shot-blocker? The NBA's best rim protectors share their secrets

An elite shot-blocker is extremely important in today’s NBA. They’re the second line of defense that can cover up teammates’ lapses on the perimeter, and a great rim protector can turn an average group of defenders into an elite unit.

While they block a lot of shots, many of their contributions don’t show up in the stat sheet, such as the shots they alter or every time an opponent settles for a worse shot because they know entering the paint and challenging the big man won’t end well. Like a three-point shooter who spreads the floor just by standing on the perimeter, a rim protector’s interior presence alone affects opponents.

But what are the keys to being a great shot-blocker? How does someone improve that aspect of their game? HoopsHype talked to some of the league’s best rim protectors – Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Myles TurnerKristaps PorzingisDraymond Green and Kevin Durant – in order to learn about their craft.

RUDY GOBERT, UTAH JAZZ

Gobert is averaging 2.4 blocks in just 29.8 minutes per game (as he eases back from a knee injury). Because he has only played in 20 games, he doesn’t currently qualify for the statistical leaderboard, but if he did he’d be tied with Kristaps Porzingis for the most blocks per game in the league.

Last season, he led the NBA in total blocks (214), blocks per game (2.6) and block percentage (6.4). When he’s healthy, he’s easily one of the most dominant rim protectors in the game. He has averaged at least 2.2 blocks in each of the last four seasons.

Even if he doesn’t record a single block, his presence alone can wreck an offensive game plan since he alters so many shots, gets into the opposition’s head and directs his teammates on defense to ensure they’re always in the right position. Gobert contests the second-most two-pointers in the league (10.5), trailing only Karl-Anthony Towns (who plays six more minutes per game).

“If I block shots, that’s good, but my goal is just to play good defense whether I get a block or not,” Gobert told HoopsHype. “Good defense usually leads to a turnover or a bad shot. Sometimes, guys won’t even shoot; they’ll see me and [rather than challenge me], they’ll just pass it to someone else (laughs). That usually ends pretty badly for them. I love blocking shots, but the mental aspect is the most important to me. It’s a mental game.

“Now, [because of my reputation], I feel like I’m in my opponent’s head before the game even starts. They know what I can do. And getting in their head is bigger than any block. When you get in the other guy’s head, you know you’ve already won the battle.”

Gobert believes one of biggest keys to being a dominant shot-blocker – beyond being blessed with a 7-foot frame and freakishly long arms – is just caring about that aspect of the game and putting in the necessary effort.

“Primarily, I’d say the main quality you need to have is pride,” Gobert said. “If you don’t have pride, you’re going to give up on the play and not get the defensive stop. You have to want it. Then, of course, there are the physical attributes that you need. But the mental attributes are very important too.

“There’s definitely good positioning when you’re blocking shots too. It’s all about angles. If a guy is going up with his right hand, you have a better shot at blocking him with your left hand, for sure. And vice versa.”

Entering the NBA, big men are often labeled either “good” or “bad” when it comes to protecting the rim, with little expectation that they’ll be able to significantly improve that aspect of their game if it’s a weakness of theirs. Gobert believes big men can improve their interior defense if they just work on it, swallow their pride and study film.

“My advice would be to learn about your opponents by watching film and don’t be scared to go get it,” Gobert said. “Nowadays, there are too many guys in the league who are worried about being dunked on; they’ll usually step away if someone is going to dunk. That’s not what you do if you want to win. I’ve been dunked on sometimes, but I’ve blocked quite a few more dunks than the times I’ve been dunked on. The highlights may just show the play where I got dunked on, but I’ve saved way more points than I’ve allowed. I’ve ended up on posters; it happens. You just can’t care about that, but a lot of guys do.

“Also, watching film of yourself helps a lot. Film always helps. You have to watch all of your mistakes and look for ways to improve. That’s a big part of getting better, for sure. Before the game, I watch my opponents too, so I know what to expect in the game. The more you know your opponent, the more you can contain them and get in their head.

“The other thing is staying measured and knowing when to go for a block. Sometimes, a guy will want to block everything and chase every shot, even if he’s out of position. Then, he might miss a rebound or touch it after it’s hit the rim [and goaltend]. Those things hurt the team, so you have to stay measured. Over the years, that’s something that I’ve had to learn – when to go get it and how to be smart about it.”

Gobert said his all-time favorite block was his game-winning rejection to beat the Phoenix Suns in January of 2017.

Gobert explained that in games like that, he feels a lot like a shooter who can’t miss – except he’s on the other end ensuring that every single shooter does miss.

“When I’m in that zone, I just feel like no one can score. It’s not shutting down one player – nobody can score,” Gobert said. “It feels like anybody who comes in the paint is going to miss or have their shot blocked. You know when a shooter has a hot hand and they’ve made a few shots in a row and they feel like every shot is going to go in? It’s kind of the same thing defensively. I’m anticipating everything, I’m completely locked in and I’m ready to shut down anything the offense tries.”

HASSAN WHITESIDE, MIAMI HEAT

Whiteside has one of the best modern comeback stories in all of sports and a major reason why it was even possible is because of his shot-blocking ability.

In college, Whiteside was an outstanding rim protector. In his lone collegiate season at Marshall, he averaged an incredible 5.4 blocks per game in just 26.1 minutes. (That’s 8.2 blocks per 40 minutes!) He easily led the nation in blocks per game as well as total blocks (182) and block percentage (18.8 percent).

However, he slipped to the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft and was out of the NBA in 2012 after just two seasons with the Sacramento Kings (who played him a total of 19 games and just 111 minutes). He went on to play for multiple D-League teams, several Lebanese teams and two Chinese teams before finally getting another NBA opportunity when the Miami Heat called him up from the D-League in 2014.

And how did he manage to stick on their roster and carve out a spot in their rotation? By blocking every shot attempt that was anywhere near him. He averaged 2.6 blocks and 10 rebounds in just 23.8 minutes in 2014-15. Whiteside was making plays all over the court, making sure the Heat had no choice but to keep him. The following year, he easily led all NBA players in blocks per game (3.7) and total blocks (269). That’s when he recorded a career-high 12 blocks against the Chicago Bulls.

This season, he was limited early on due to a bone bruise in his left knee, yet he’s still blocking 1.9 shots per game. Now that he’s healthy, his month he’s played 10 games and averaged 2.9 blocks in 25.8 minutes and he currently ranks third in the NBA in block percentage (6.3 percent).

Whiteside offered some tips to those hoping to improve their shot-blocking.

“The No. 1 key to being a great shot-blocker is positioning,” Whiteside told HoopsHype. “Try to stay in front of the ball. If the ball is in their right hand, use your left hand to block the shot; if the ball is in their left hand, use your right hand. Always block with the opposite hand.”

Like Gobert, Whiteside tries his best to intimidate his opponent and play mind games with him.

“If you keep blocking a guy over and over, or keep altering a guy’s shots over and over, you’ll get in his head,” Whiteside said. “That happens all the time [and then they aren’t a factor].”

The 28-year-old does study some film, but he believes just getting on the court and playing is the best way to improve. (Some desperation and hunger go a long way too, as Whiteside’s story proves).

“Watching film can help, but in-game experience is really the best teacher,” he said.

Whiteside has been getting plenty of experience dating back to childhood. When asked about his single-game high in blocks at any level, Whiteside said he once recorded 25 blocks (!) in a high school game.

But at the end of the day, blocks are just a stat. Whiteside stressed that playing solid defense and making your opponent work for every point should be the real takeaway.

“If you can’t get the block, make sure to alter the shot,” Whiteside said. “Altered shots are just as important as blocked shots.”

MYLES TURNER, INDIANA PACERS

Turner realized at a very young age that he’s an incredible shot-blocker. It’s something that always came naturally to him. Strangely, just like Whiteside, it was a 25-block game that made him realize he had a gift.

“There was this one game when I was playing at the YMCA and I had, I think, 25 blocks,” Turner told HoopsHype. “My dad told me, ‘You’re one hell of a shot-blocker and we can build off of this.’ I think from there, I just took pride in it.”

Turner led the league in blocks per game for much of the season, but he recently dropped down to second in the NBA behind Kristaps Porzingis and now he’s sidelined with a ligament sprain in his right elbow. The 21-year-old is still averaging a very impressive 2.2 blocks per game and he could reclaim his top spot when he returns from injury.

Turner recorded a career-high six blocks in a recent win over the Brooklyn Nets, and he has multiple blocks in two-thirds of the games he’s played in this season. Turner is leading the league in block percentage, swatting away 6.7 percent of all field goal attempts when he’s on the floor.

“A lot of it is just timing and anticipation,” Turner said. “There are certain aspects of shot-blocking that you just can’t teach – things like knowing where to be at the right time. A lot of it has to do with mechanics though. Like when a guard is driving, I like to try to strip the ball first and then block the shot because when you strip it, they’ll lose control of the ball and throw up a bad shot. Then, it’s easier for me to go up and get it.”

Turner also ranks third in the NBA in blocks per foul (0.82), meaning he’s able to swat away a ton of shots without getting in foul trouble and sending the opponent to the free-throw line. This is something he alluded to as he was discussing what to do and what not to do as a shot-blocker.

“Trust your instincts,” Turner said. “You don’t want to try to block everything. That’s how you end up falling for every pump-fake and jumping in the air over and over like a maniac. You have to trust your instincts, otherwise you’ll get beat or end up in foul trouble.”

Turner had a lot of in-depth advice to share.

“You have to put in the effort, you have to want it,” Turner said. “And you can’t be scared to get dunked on. That’s a big thing – a lot of guys don’t want to go up to block a shot because they’re scared of getting dunked on. But you can’t let that affect you. It happens; all great shot-blockers get dunked on. You definitely can’t have that mentality. If you do get dunked on, don’t think about it and don’t let it discourage you from trying to block that next shot.

“You need to be in weak-side help as quick as possible. You don’t want to try to time somebody and meet them in the air because at this level, guys are too athletic. When you have guys like Russell Westbrook and LeBron James flying down the lane, you have to be there early.

“Also, it’s important to do the stuff that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Things like altering shots or keeping guys out of the paint. Even something like making a guard change the arc on his shot can be big because that creates a long rebound, so you can just get it and go [right into a fastbreak].”

While Turner admitted that he doesn’t do any shot-blocking drills or watch much film focused specifically on interior defense because it comes naturally to him, he did point out that there are defensive drills and hand-eye coordination drills that up-and-coming players can do as they try to improve their shot-blocking.

One such hand-eye coordination drill involves a large board that flashes lights in different areas and the player must touch the lit-up spot as quickly as possible. It tracks how quickly the player can touch the different sensors, which are all spread out, so they can work to improve their reaction time. IMG Academy, where many NBA and NFL draft prospects train each year, uses one of these light-up boards to improve players’ hand-eye coordination.

When asked if he has a favorite NBA block, Turner answered with zero hesitation.

“My rookie year, I got a block on LeBron when he was coming down the lane and trying to throw it down,” Turner said. “He was definitely trying to dunk it and I blocked it. It was a game-changer because it was in the fourth quarter and it sparked our comeback, so that was a big block for me. It kind of put me on the map a little bit too.”

Now, he is firmly on the map and is a perennial contender to lead the league in blocks. He admits it’s a goal of his to lead the NBA in blocks per game – not just this year, but every year.

“I take pride in blocking shots, so I want to lead the league year in and year out,” Turner said. “Hopefully I’ll take that title home this season, but at the same time the most important thing is helping my team win. But when I get a big block, it gives my team a spark and it gets me going too.”

KRISTAPS PORZINGIS, NEW YORK KNICKS

Not only is Porzingis one of the NBA’s top offensive threats – averaging 23.5 points per game with the ability to score from anywhere on the court – he’s also currently leading the league in blocks per game (2.4) and total blocks (95).

Porzingis has been an effective shot-blocker from the moment he entered the NBA, averaging 1.9 blocks as a rookie and 2.0 rejections last year. Now, as he plays more minutes and has taken over as the clear-cut superstar of the New York Knicks, it’s no surprise that his block numbers increased again.

“I would say that the keys to being a great shot-blocker are being in the right position defensively, seeing the play as it’s [developing], and then having the right timing to be able to jump for it and block the shot,” Porzingis said. “And obviously you have to know how to use your length and your athletic ability. But, like I said, timing is very important in shot-blocking.”

Players are shooting just 48.6 percent at the rim against Porzingis, which is the league’s second-best mark in the league. The 22-year-old also ranks second in the NBA in contested shots per game (13.6) and block percentage (6.4).

“My advice to any shot-blocker would be to just keep working on your athletic ability because that’s very important,” Porzingis said. “Unfortunately, you can’t teach length and height (laughs).

“I would also tell them to watch film. Watching film allows you to see things developing early so that you can be in the right spot to get the block or at least contest the shot. I think those are the things to do if you want to improve as a shot-blocker.”

Porzingis is a big proponent of studying game tape – of himself and of opponents.

“Watching film is very important, especially watching myself,” Porzingis said. “A lot of times, I catch myself where I was half a second late or half a step late to block the shot and it’s very important to be [in position] on time. You have to be able to calculate how quickly a guard, or whoever is driving, will get to the basket in order to block the shot.

“And you obviously have to know the tendencies of different players that you’re playing against,” Porzingis added. “Some point guards shoot a lot of floaters and if you know that, you’ll be ready to jump early. Some players like to draw contact first [before shooting] and then you have to jump later. Those are the kind of things you’ll know if you watch film.”

Porzingis’ career-high for blocks in a single NBA game is seven, and he’s reached that mark on three different occasions.

DRAYMOND GREEN, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Since becoming a starter for the Warriors four seasons ago, Green has averaged at least 1.3 blocks and 1.5 steals each year. In that span, Golden State has had one of the best defenses in the league (if not the best) and Green is a major reason for their excellence on that end of the court.

Ask any opposing player and they’ll say that Green is one of the toughest defenders to face – on the perimeter or in the paint. The 27-year-old is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he finished as the runner-up behind Kawhi Leonard in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

“The keys to being an elite shot-blocker are positioning and timing,” Green told HoopsHype. “Half the battle is just being in the right position the majority of the time.”

Green takes great pride in being an absolute pest when guarding his opponent and he’s extremely active, as anyone who has watched him knows. He always knows where to be on defense and knows his opponents’ tendencies (and helps his teammates with these things as well). He says this is due to extensive film study, which he would recommend to anyone who wants to improve defensively – regardless of their position.

“It definitely helps to watch film of your opponents because knowing their tendencies allows you to be a step ahead of them,” Green said.

However, he added that aspiring shot-blockers should be looking for certain things when they’re studying their opponents’ tape.

“My advice to anyone who wants to improve as a shot-blocker specifically is to watch film on positioning and rotations,” he said. “Because once you’re there, it’s just about contesting the shot after that.”

Green is one of the most versatile defenders in NBA history, as he can truly guard every position. He’s just as likely to get a steal from a point guard as he is to block a 7-footer (since entering the NBA, he’s had a 10-block game and two 6-steal games).

The most blocks that Green has had in a single game at any level was seven when he was young. When asked about his favorite NBA block, two popped into his head.

“My favorite NBA block is the one I had on Noah Vonleh in the playoffs, with the Dame Lillard one a close second,” Green said.

Both of those blocks happened in Golden State’s Game 1 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Green had five blocks in that contest and ended up averaging 4.3 blocks in the four-game sweep.

Perhaps more than any other player in the league, Green strives (and often succeeds) at getting in his opponent’s head and under their skin. Because of his antics, many fans consider him a villain and Green has embraced the role with open arms.

However, he’s one of those players who you absolutely love when he’s on your team, and it’s no surprise that he’s a fan favorite among the Warriors’ faithful.

“There’s no feeling like getting Oracle going with some blocked shots,” Green said. “I’m sure it’s similar to how Steph [Curry] and Klay [Thompson] feel when they’re making threes, or how Kevin [Durant] feels after a monstrous dunk or a big three. It’s incredible.

KEVIN DURANT, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Green may be the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and largely considered the anchor of the Warriors’ defense. However, just a few weeks ago, Green himself praised Durant’s defense and said that his teammate is the runaway favorite to win this season’s Defensive Player of the Year trophy.

“I think he is [a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year], if not the leading candidate,” Green told The Athletic of Durant. “I don’t think it’s really a race right now. The way he’s been playing on the defensive side of the ball has been spectacular… Obviously, he’s helping our defensive tremendously with the way he’s playing on that side of the ball. So, if I had a vote, I’d vote for him right now.”

Durant is third in the NBA in both blocks per game (2.0) and total blocks (80), while also expending a ton of effort on the offensive end. Considering he has the fifth-highest scoring average in the NBA at 26.2 points per game, it’s extremely impressive that he’s also an elite shot-blocker.

Durant’s defense has improved drastically since he joined the Warriors. Opponents and pundits have noted this quite often, mentioning that his effort has improved and pointing out that he’s using his versatility to guard multiple positions and switch more often (much like Green). Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has also brought up Durant’s penchant for requesting to guard the opposing team’s best player.

When asked about the most important qualities for a shot-blocker to have, Durant largely echoed Gobert and Turner’s advice about not caring about being put on a poster.

“Timing is important and you can’t have any fear of getting dunked on and put in a highlight,” Durant told HoopsHype. “You can’t be worried about getting embarrassed. You have to let go of that. If you have those two things – the timing and the lack of fear – you’ll be fine.”

Durant recorded a career-high seven blocks three months ago in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, but that’s not his all-time best.

“The most blocks I ever had in one game was 11 during my sophomore year,” Durant said.

While Durant has been getting much more credit and attention for his defense and shot-blocking as of late, he brushes it aside.

“It’s just something I’m supposed to do,” Durant said. “It’s just my job.”

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

LATEST

More HoopsHype
Home