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Shot Blocking – Learn from the NBA’s Best

There’s a good chance you’ve heard an old basketball mantra: “defense wins championships”. If we try to take, say 10-15 all-time great defenses, there’s an even better chance we will see a dominant shot blocker on the backend, if not several shot blockers, or a scheme that emphasizes protecting the rim and sending everything into the defending big man.

So, what is the value of a rim protector? A great shot blocker allows his guards and wings to be more opportunistic on defense. A great shot blocker intimidates opponents. Finally, a shot blocker stops the most efficient shots in basketball. If the other team doesn’t get their lay-ups, it means you’ve probably lowered their offensive efficiency and given yourself a solid chance to win the game.

With that in mind, let’s proceed to some of the top swat machines in the history of the game, different forms of the art of blocking a shot, and professional tips that everyone can use to bolster their rim-protecting skills.

Top shot blockers in the history of the NBA

A quick note: it was borderline impossible to single out even these players among many monumental defensive stalwarts, and all five of them were brilliant rim protectors and huge presences for their respective teams, therefore they go in no particular order.

Hakeem Olajuwon

The Dream was a marvelous offensive player, everyone knows that. His post game and moves are legendary. But there’s something that’s been unfairly dropped out, and that’s his rim defense: Hakeem used his cat-like quickness and explosiveness to reject his fair share of shots in a highlight worthy fashion. Seriously, you don’t set the all-time total record with 3830 career blocks without putting in some effort on D every game.


Dikembe Mutombo

Or, should I rather say, Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo. Dikembe’s official name is as long, as his list of defensive credentials: three-time All-Defensive Second Team, three-time All-Defensive First Team, three-time NBA leader in blocks, four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Mutombo is an unofficial symbol of a shot blocker with his patented (yet outlawed) finger wag and “no,no, not in my house” line.


Manute Bol

It might sound like a stretch to call Manute one of the best specialists-type players ever, but trust me, he was truly special. Manute Bol wasn’t an intimidating offensive presence and earned his playing time solely on his basket protection. And boy, did he protect the basket. He set the second highest mark for total blocks in the season as a rookie, averaged close to 5 blocks per game in 1985/86, and oh, he had a couple of 13-blocks game and a couple game with 15 blocks.

Mark Eaton

One can film a good Hollywood movie based on Eaton’s story: a college coach drops his car at a car service in Anaheim, California, and there he sees a 7’4 (224 cm), 290lbs (132kg) young mechanic. A coach convinces the big dude to think about playing basketball collegiately, and the fella goes on to get drafted by the Utah Jazz, where in 11 years he gets selected to three All-NBA Defensive First Teams, and gets two Defensive Player of the Year Awards. And leads NBA in blocks 4 times. Oh, and sets a single season record for blocked shots too. Curtain drops, the end.


Ben Wallace

Ben Wallace is the shortest player on this list at 6’9, but he played a lot bigger than his size would indicate. He was already a good defender coming out of college, with the Wizards and in Orlando, but he really blossomed with the Detroit Pistons, anchoring that Bad Boys 2.0 defense, which routinely held opposing teams to 80-90 points. And for the record, they used to dominate the East before LeBron started doing what he’s doing now. By the way, Wallace shares an NBA record for most DPOY awards with Dikembe Mutombo (four).


Different art forms of a blocked shot

Like every facet of the game, shot blocking is a sort of an art. Like in every sorts and form of art, there’re people, who’ve mastered it to the point where the form becomes synonymous to their name. Here’re some of the forms:

Chase down blocks

Usually, when a guy turns an opponent over and runs the other way with the ball, he’s probably feeling pretty good and safe, thinking he’s got himself an easy two points… and then BAM, some nasty dude swats it from behind into the 4th row. That’s what LeBron James is famous for (well, aside from his social media shenanigans and being a great player overall)


Blocks on a jump shot

A clean block on a jump shooter is one of the hardest things to do, partly because refs tend to protect a shooter, but mainly because it takes a lot of concentration, coordination, quickness and some serious perimeter defense skills. Nowadays Kawhi Leonard mastered it. 3-4 years ago Tony Allen used to do that a lot. But to me, none was better at shutting great shooters down than Scottie Pippen.

Check out Pip’s D on the MVP of that game:


Weak side (help) blocks

With abundance of dribble penetration and pick-and-roll sets in the game now, the whole team has to be on the same page defensively. Breakdowns will happen on the perimeter, and when they do happen, the help man have to be able to rotate from the weak side and protect the rim. There were a number of bigs who’ve mastered it and most of them come from coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive school of thought: notably Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins during their time in Boston, Joakim Noah in Chicago and DeAndre Jordan in Los Angeles.


Under the rim blocks

Those are typically not something you will see on the NBA top 10 plays of the day, but there is a special beauty to them. Those under the rim blocks are made on timing and position alone, they require precision, awareness and reaction. They are usually reserved for players who are not particularly explosive, or older players who can’t (or shouldn’t) jump high. Alonzo Mourning, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace were Under the Rim block masters closer to the twilight of their careers. Right now Tim Duncan is their heir and the king of the “no-jump-blocks”


How to block shots?

You don’t need to be the tallest player to block shots!

We’ve sorted out tons of game film, pro basketball camp clips, interviews and chats of a number of notable shot blockers, from the greatest champion of them all in Bill Russell, to Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, Dwight Howard and even Dwayne Wade to come up with several tips to help you improve your defense close to the basket:

The first one is kind of obvious, but fundamental: be ready. Stay on balance and on the balls of your feet, be bouncy and store energy to go up when needed. But it is also important to remember that you shouldn’t commit to going up, if your opponent didn’t commit to going up yet. If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll get a ball fake, easy two points in your face and maybe a foul too.

The second one was especially stressed by Marcus Camby and Emeka Okafor: body control. Never jump out of control, never land out of control, it’s not safe; you don’t want your arms and legs all over the place. Don’t jump into the shooter and don’t swipe for the ball. You should be very vertical. Verticality is crucial: if you go up straight with your arms high, it’ll challenge opponent’s shot AND make it harder for refs to whistle you for a foul

The third point is your actual blocking technique. I know crazy rejections that send the ball out of bounds look good and can charge your teammates emotionally, but think about this: you’re giving the other team a chance to set and run their out of bounds play right underneath your basket.

Instead of going for a spike, try to reject or tip the ball as it’s leaving your opponent’s hand. One more thing Bill Russell and D-Wade among others tended to do: try to earn your team an extra possession by redirecting the ball to your guy and start the break.

The last but not the least: your basic positioning and awareness. You have to know where the ball is on the court to be able to put yourself in position keep it from going into the basket. Ideally, you also want to understand who are you guarding and what are his or her go-to moves.

And finally, Alonzo Mourning’s reminder of the day: even the best shot blockers can’t block everything. What you want to do is to try and make life harder for the opposing scorers and challenge every shot that you could possibly challenge. If you get a block – great, if you make them think about your presence, contest their looks and make them miss – you did your job just fine.

Enjoy your block party and stay safe out there.


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