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Dealing with Rejection

Part art and part science, shot blocking is in increasingly short supply in the NBA. Why aren't more big men doing it? Because it can't be taught

Posted: Monday January 29, 2007 11:15AM; Updated: Monday January 29, 2007 11:15AM
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• Photo Gallery:  Top 10 Shot-Blockers
Okafor (swatting the Hawks' Marvin Williams), says that shot blocking was
Okafor (swatting the Hawks' Marvin Williams), says that shot blocking was "my first basketball skill."
David E. Klutho/SI

When Charlotte Bobcats forward Emeka Okafor leaps to block a layup, he often turns sideways, like a waiter navigating a crowded room, so that he can extend his right arm as far as possible. When he leaps to block a dunk, however, the 6'10", 252-pound Okafor tries to go straight up, the better to neutralize his opponent's momentum. Considering that a blocked dunk is one of the rarest feats in basketball -- at week's end there had been only 113 in 603 NBA games this season -- this is easier in theory than in practice.

On this January night in Charlotte, Okafor has no choice but to jump at an angle to challenge a dunk. During the third quarter Mikki Moore, the New Jersey Nets' lanky 7-footer, receives a scoop pass on the right baseline. From the other side of the rim Okafor can take only one long stride before lifting off. As the players meet above the rim, Okafor's right palm hits the leather with a thud. Such moments are violent and potentially dangerous: Meet the dunker too close to the basket, and the shot blocker risks having his hand slammed back into the iron, an easy way to break a finger or a wrist. With a powerful follow-through Okafor stuffs Moore and sends the ball spinning to the floor. The listless crowd of 13,077 fans is momentarily roused, though it's unlikely that many appreciate what they have just seen. It is only Okafor's 12th blocked dunk of the year, which leads the league.

It takes a certain type of player to challenge at the rim, and Okafor fits the mold. He's top-heavy, all torso, with thick shoulders, a 7'4" wingspan and wide hands. Growing up in Houston, Okafor's favorite sport was football; he only began playing hoops because his father enrolled him at the local Y. Still, as he remembers, "blocking shots was basically my first basketball skill." At Bellaire High he averaged six blocks as a senior. In three years at UConn he blocked 4.3 per game. Now a third-year pro, Okafor was averaging 2.95 through Sunday, behind only Jermaine O'Neal of the Indiana Pacers (3.06). In a Jan. 12 game at New York, Okafor blocked a season-high 10 shots by the Knicks. Asked which of them he liked the best, Okafor smiles. "They were all good," he says. "I love all my children."

Whereas the NBA was once home to a corps of towering, lumbering giants, today's shot blockers are a disparate group consisting of undersized centers, lanky forwards and the occasional old-school pivot, and they are blocking fewer shots than ever. The league-wide average has declined in four of the last five years to 385.3 per team last season, the lowest since 1975-76. At week's end teams were on pace to average 384.5. "You need the mentality to do it," says 36-year-old Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat, the league leader in blocks per 48 minutes (5.84). "I don't see a lot of guys having it today."

Also to blame: 7-footers who play 20 feet from the basket; the increasing popularity of the three-pointer; teams that rely on running more than posting up; the defensive three-seconds rule; and coaches unwilling to start a purely defensive center. "Teams are caught up in points per possession," says Nets coach Lawrence Frank. "People will tell you the best shot is a layup, the second is a corner three, the third is another three not in the corner. There's such an emphasis on having offensive players on the floor that if a shot blocker isn't multidimensional, then it's hard to put him out there. Plus, shot blocking is a very hard skill to find."

But it can be a useful one to have. Take 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo, who ranks second alltime in blocks to Hakeem Olajuwon and has started for the Houston Rockets since Yao Ming broke his right tibia on Dec. 23. Despite being a creaky-kneed 40 years old, Mutombo has had a profound effect on Houston's defense. Through Sunday opponents had averaged 96.5 points per 100 possessions and shot 39.6% when Mutombo was in the game; when he wasn't, they'd averaged 102.3 points and shot 43.2%.The Rockets were 16-11 when their All-Star center went down; with Mutombo (and his enormous, wagging E.T. finger) in the lineup they have gone 9-5.

So why doesn't every team take a 7-footer and develop him into a designated swatter? Talk to the master practitioners and they'll tell you that the craft of shot blocking can be studied and refined but, as it turns out, rarely taught.

The NBA didn't keep statistics on blocked shots until 1973-74, but if it had, Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, who retired in 1969, would have put up astounding numbers. The 6'10" Russell played as if he'd sworn an oath to protect the basket, using quick leaping and superior timing and anticipation to contest every shot. "I remember there were times when Russell wouldn't come past the top of the key on offense," says Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom Mutombo recently relegated to third on the career blocks list. "He'd let the Celtics run the fast break and stay back because that's where he thought he belonged."

Before the 1980s, centers were generally expected to do a little of everything. But then a couple of giants carved out careers by becoming shot blocking specialists: 7'4" Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz and Manute Bol, the 7'7" Sudanese tribesman turned NBA scarecrow. Because of their height, neither man had to jump, so pump fakes were useless. While with the Golden State Warriors, Bol twice blocked eight shots in a quarter. Eaton (of whom the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray memorably wrote, "The Empire State Building has grown arms") still holds the NBA record with 14 in a game. In 1984-85 he rejected an amazing 456 shots -- or 71.5 more than the projected team average this year -- for 5.56 per game, both single-season records.

Eaton and Bol gave way to a golden age of multitalented centers stretching into the early '90s, including Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and, later, Mutombo, Shaquille O'Neal and Mourning. A decade later Mourning remains, tellingly, one of the league's most-feared big men. On a recent Friday night in Oakland he rejected two inside shots by the Warriors in the first half, then bode his time to flick away a Mike Dunleavy Jr. floater. For the game Mourning finished with five blocks and altered, by one unofficial count, nine more -- a total of 28 potential points denied. "It's timing and pursuit," he said afterward, sitting at his locker. "Even when I could probably get there a little earlier and prevent them from taking a shot, I'll wait for a guy and make him think he has an opportunity to get a shot off. Then I'll go get it."

The bait-and-block is one of many tricks of the trade. A primer might read: Watch your man's jersey rather than his eyes to determine his intent ("The eyes lie," warns Eaton); wait until after the ball is released to jump; and swat with the hand opposite the shooter's for better extension. Studying players' idiosyncrasies also helps: Lay off the near-unblockable floaters favored by guards (like Tony Parker); know your pump fakers (Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady are especially good); and beware of those who like to jump into shot blockers. On this last count Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas is probably the most notorious, so much so that Okafor says he won't even try to block Arenas's shot, instead backing up to avoid the foul. ("Wait, no," adds a suddenly worried Okafor. "Don't use Gilbert's name, because he'll read [and learn], This is what Mek does against me.")

For visceral impact no block is more impressive than the one that whistles six rows deep into the stands. Of course, such spikes have minimal value. One of the first things a shot blocker is taught is to keep the ball in play, preferably by tapping it to a teammate. Russell was a master at this, as was a later Celtic, Kevin McHale. Eaton developed soft hands by pretending he was tipping a jump ball. Mourning had to learn to rein himself in, and now, in his 14th season, he says he sometimes taps the ball too lightly, sending it back to the player who shot it. Others are naturals: Last season Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh blocked 74 shots without sending one out-of-bounds.

Another mistake is being overzealous. Flail at too many jump shots, and you're out of position for the rebound; gamble too much on the weak side, and your man will get open for a layup. Likewise, a goaltend gives away free points (Philly's Samuel Dalembert is the most egregious offender this season, with 20), and committing a shooting foul is not much better. This makes more disciplined players like Mourning (first in the league, at 2.00 blocks per shooting foul) and the Atlanta Hawks' Josh Smith (second, at 1.86) more valuable than, say, the Detroit Pistons' Nazr Mohammad, who averages 0.51.

Those who excel without fouling have varying styles. Mourning and Mutombo wait near the rim, like human gargoyles, while the Warriors' Adonal Foyle (4.45 blocks per 48 minutes in his career) and Okafor use lateral quickness and anticipation. Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, who leads the league in fast-break blocks with 11, prefers to come from behind after hiding "in the shadow of my teammate," as he puts it. Jermaine O'Neal spent the summer watching tape of Olajuwon and attributes his success this season to starting his motion with his hands up, rather than at his sides.

There is one trait that all great shot blockers share: They're willing to get dunked on. As Okafor puts it, "Sometimes you get got." All agree that it's easier to block power dunkers who expose the ball ("You start advertising, someone's gonna buy," says Okafor) and two-handed dunks (which provide a bigger target), whereas players with hang time pose the biggest challenge. Mourning, who was most famously posterized (or is it now YouTubed?) by Nets swingman Vince Carter on a ridiculous hook dunk in November 2005, calls it a necessary sacrifice. "I could care less if somebody does something spectacular that maybe puts me on the highlights," says Mourning. "Unfortunately, that particular dunk will be remembered for a very long time. But, hey, that's a part of the game."

As easy as rejecting shots comes to men like Mourning -- who once blocked 27 in a high school game -- it remains a confounding skill to many NBA players. To watch Bobcats center Primoz Brezec in action is to see a physiological mystery. At 7'1" and 252 pounds he rarely blocks a shot, though not for lack of effort. Last season, in 27.5 minutes per game, he averaged 0.41 blocks; this season he's up to 0.46. Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff says of Brezec, somewhat charitably, "He's more about providing a presence," but Brezec has no illusions. "I'm a terrible shot blocker," he says. "I think it's just about timing. You just have that ability or you don't. I don't."

Others choose not to go after the ball. For example, 6'11" Michael Doleac of the Heat (0.25 per game through Sunday) prefers to take a charge, as does Jason Collins of the Nets (0.37). Jason's twin brother, Jarron, a Jazz backup, is so unsuccessful at swatting shots -- he averages 0.10 -- that he says, "I've stopped jumping altogether."

Perhaps the most docile big man is 6'11", 285-pound Eddy Curry of the Knicks. Curry has tremendous strength and leaping ability, yet he has averaged fewer than a block a game for his career and was at 0.55 at week's end. Among players who have played in at least 25 games this season, 123 are averaging more blocks per 48 minutes than Curry, including 6'4" Boston guard Delonte West. "He just doesn't make the effort," one Eastern Conference scout says of Curry. "He plays with his hands down, and he's not active defensively."

So why not instruct him? In a league that has free-throw-shooting coaches and mental coaches, there is not a single shot blocking coach. Perhaps it's because, as Lakers assistant Abdul-Jabbar says, "it's mostly instinct." Foyle believes that you can teach strategy to those who already have the knack, but you can't teach timing. Eaton, now a motivational speaker in Utah, disagrees. "I don't know why more people don't spend more time thinking about it," he says. "It can have a profound impact on the game."

Perhaps it is the desire that can't be taught. Take the game in which Okafor thwarted Moore. That wasn't the only dunk Okafor tried to block that night. In the second quarter Carter drove the right baseline and elevated. Okafor, who had earlier described exactly how he would stop a hypothetical Carter dunk -- "I'd crowd him, get to him early" -- came late and had no chance. Bam: instant highlight. At least Okafor tried, though. The same couldn't be said for Bobcats backup center Melvin Ely, who is 6'10", 261 pounds and a terrific leaper. In the third quarter, when Carter came flying down the lane, Ely threw up his hand and jogged under Carter, as if waving to some imaginary friend at the other end of the court. "Yeah," Okafor noted. "Mel got out of the way fast, didn't he?"

It leads one to wonder, Who will challenge the dunkers of the future? The three dominant shot blockers of this era, Mutombo, Mourning and the Celtics' Theo Ratliff (who has missed all but two games this season with back trouble), are at the tail ends of their careers. Of the remaining players with a talent for it -- including Jermaine O'Neal, Okafor, Camby, the Chicago Bulls' Ben Wallace and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett -- none are true centers. Orlando Magic 7-footer Darko Milicic is long enough but has yet to earn starter's minutes. The 7'6" Yao is hindered by short arms and has yet to average more than his current 2.22 blocks. Andrew Bynum, Abdul-Jabbar's protégé in Los Angeles, has excelled in limited minutes but is raw. Mourning, for one, thinks the next great swat artist has yet to enter the league. "There's going to be a bit of a void," he says. "Though I think [Ohio State freshman] Greg Oden will be a great one. Just watching a couple games that he's played, I've seen him block dunks, and that's what I like to see. You have to have that mentality."

As he says this, Mourning is seated at his locker. He's spent the better part of a half hour holding forth on the art of the block, recalling his favorites and dispensing tips, but he can't help himself. There is something he'd like to clear up, a fundamental truth he can't let slip by. "That dunk that Vince had on me?" he says, referring to the YouTube special. "By the way, we won that game. And" -- he pauses for emphasis -- "I blocked a bunch of other shots."

Helping Hand

Sending a shot into the stands fires up fans but gives the ball back to the opponent. According to 82games.com, here were the best and worst at keeping their blocks in play at week's end, plus those who excelled at swatting a shot and then grabbing the board.

Dikembe Mutombo, Rockets 5%
Andrew Bynum, Lakers 6%
Joel Przybilla, Trail Blazers 7%
Al Jefferson, Celtics 7%
Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz 7%
Dale Davis, Pistons 7%

Tim Duncan, Spurs 28%
Rasheed Wallace, Pistons 27%
Elton Brand, Clippers 25%
Dwyane Wade, Heat 24%
Tyrus Thomas, Bulls 24%

Josh Howard, Mavericks 26%
Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves 22%
Al Jefferson, Celtics 22%
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavaliers 22%
Marcus Camby, Nuggets 21%

Ultimate Intimidators

The knack for preventing a dunk and the ability to force opponents out of the paint are two of the more significant ways to measure a shot blocker's talent. According to 82games.com, these were the league leaders (through Sunday) in blocked dunks and deterrent factor, which shows how frequently opponents attempt inside shots when a certain player is on the floor.

Emeka Okafor, Bobcats 12
Alonzo Mourning, Heat 11
Amaré Stoudemire, Suns 6
Joel Przybilla, Trail Blazers 5
Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves 4

Dikembe Mutombo, Rockets 26.0%
Brendan Haywood, Wizards 29.0%
Yao Ming, Rockets 29.2%
DeSagana Diop, Mavericks 30.2%
Amaré Stoudemire, Suns 30.3%

Issue date: January 29, 2007