On Norris Cole the Defensive Disciple

Norris Cole
Photo Credit: Gary Dineen

'Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.' – Henry Ford

There was a time when Henry Ford, father of the American automobile industry, knew nothing about machines. One of the most influential figures in the history of this country didn't grow up building future cars on his family farm in rural Michigan. He began by taking apart small mechanical devices – many, many watches – and trying to figure out how they worked. He experimented with making his own functional machines. Some worked, some didn't. While this was a common thing to do in the late 19th century, Ford left the farm to take on an apprenticeship in Detroit.

Ford learned, we can surmise, because he knew what he did not know. A brilliant mind can get you far in life, but an open mind is one of the most potent tools a human being can possess. Ford was intelligent, but he supplemented that intelligence with knowledge. And that combination helped change America.

'Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.' - Henry Ford

We're being a bit romantic here, of course. Norris Cole is not Henry Ford. He is a second-year bench player for a sports team trying to win a championship, and those two years have seen plenty of struggle. Since Cole was drafted, the Miami HEAT were generally outscored when Cole was on the court – particularly early in second quarters that had a dragging effect on the team's efficiency – and the lineup data reflected that. Last year, he lost his rotation minutes in the playoffs when Erik Spoelstra went with different matchups.

Cole has also been a young player in unique circumstances. Thrust onto a team with championship aspirations in the middle of a lockout, the HEAT didn't have the practice time available to properly encourage Cole's development. Assistant coach Dan Craig worked with Cole daily, but the team kept things simple. They wanted him to play his game, and they didn't want to overwhelm.

Once this year – Cole's true rookie year, in a sense – began and the team began throwing more information at him, it turned out that Cole couldn't get enough. He was ready to learn.

"He's a student of everything," Spoelstra said. "You can't give Norris too much. He's one of those guys, he's so dedicated, so diligent. That's why you're happy for a guy like that to have success because you know how much time he puts into it behind the scenes. One of the biggest reasons last year he didn't have similar type of improvement is we simply did not have the practice time, the film time, shootarounds. And now you're getting the result of a full season of that.

"What it is, is steady improvement. It's not dramatic jumps. It's every single day. It's very similar to 'Every Day Ray.' Ray is not shooting 5,000 shots a day, but he has his routine every single day. He's going to get his shots up, rain, shine, snow, flu, injury. He's going to do it. Same thing with Norris. Every day he'll do his shooting routine. Every day he'll watch film with Dan Craig about decisions that he can make, watch film on the opponent and how he can defend in our system. He's picked a pretty complex system and a complex position. Point guard is tough enough in the NBA, but it's tough in our system with hybrid wings. He's picked that up as relatively quickly as you can."

Slowly but surely, Cole showed the signs of a player figuring out the league. He struggled mightily finishing around the rim a year ago, but Cole gradually began refining his shot selection. He wouldn't force a layup in traffic just because he was fast enough to beat everyone down the floor. He stopped trying to get shots over shotblockers at the rim and instead worked on both using the rim for protection and on finishing a step or two earlier in the paint with a floater. At first it was surprising to see Cole passing up shots in the paint after he beat his man off the dribble, but it has gradually become the expectation rather than the exception.

The results didn't always represent Cole's maturing game, but he was coming along. His bench lineups began to generate corner threes with regularity as the season wore on, and even when the shots weren't falling the shots that Cole was taking had you nodding your head more often than scratching it. He wasn't becoming an All-Star, but he was becoming an NBA player.

What kept Cole on the floor in the meantime was his on-ball defense – some of the best in the league among point guards.

"Right now, defense is my strong point," Cole said in December. "That gets me minutes, that gets me out there and that gets me into a rhythm of the game. My offensive game will continue to develop and continue to come. I learned how to dominate the college game through years and repetition, so this is a different game and it's taking me I guess a little longer."

Just about every starting point guard in the league had to deal with Cole at some point, and few found consistent success. Quick enough to get to a spot and cut off a ballhandler, Cole also just played hard, sprinting to the ball whenever he found himself behind a play. Hard and smart, we should say, because even when Cole was torched – Will Bynum says hello – he was forcing tough, uncomfortable shots he knew his opponent didn't like.

'Before everything else, getting ready is the secret of success.' – Henry Ford

Cole plays smart because he is prepared, and it's been showing against Brandon Jennings. We can't speculate too much on the HEAT's gameplan, but Cole is forcing Jennings into inefficient zones. Push him left into help defense if possible because Jennings struggles to finish around the rim, push him right into a dribble jumper, just keep the ball in front of you and out of the middle of the floor. Jennings is shooting just above 33 percent with Cole on the floor in this series – though Jennings isn't shooting well against any defender – but in Game 3 what stood out was that Jennings mustered just three field-goal attempts with Cole on the floor.

Even when he was beat with a dribble once – after a crafty burst-of-speed steal – Cole made sure it didn't happen again:

"To be honest it's just instincts," Cole said. "Playing defense is one of my gifts, my lateral quickness. So I just try to keep a guy in front of me, cut him off and close the distance so he can't raise for a shot. It's been effective so far."

Jennings drew a few fouls, yes, but for the most part Cole kept Jennings from being the playmaker Milwaukee needs him to be.

"I know his tendencies," Cole said of Jennings. "I've studied the film, the game plan. I know his numbers. I know his percentages, where he likes to score the ball. So I just use my instincts, my gifts, my speed, my anticipation. I know where the help is, as far as our defensive system."

Sounds familiar, that bit about tendencies, doesn't it? Turns out that Cole has taken on a bit of an apprenticeship himself, taking full advantage of having one of the game's best defensive minds sit right next to him in the locker room.

"I don't know if it's because he's from a younger generation so he's been surrounded by it more, but he understands trying to gain an edge wherever he can," Shane Battier said. "That's what the numbers tell you. So he's been picking my brain, and it's been fun to see.

"We sit next to each other in scouting reports, we talk about different scenarios and what the numbers mean and given two similar numbers what's the choice. That's how I learned. By picking some guys in Houston's brain."

If Battier the teacher is anything like Battier the interviewee – one of the most valuable resources in the league if you're trying to learn about the intricacies of the game – then Cole is in fine hands. As is Battier, blessed with a willing student, who says he's never spoken to another young player like he does with Cole.

"Not like Norris," Battier said. "You have to have the right mindset and take the numbers in context, be able to take them within a team concept. It's not easy. It takes years. But he's got an interest. As long as you have an interest and continue to work at it, you'll figure it out."

'History is more or less bunk.' – Henry Ford

It would be wrong to tell you to ignore how Cole has played in the past because it helps inform the present, but the truth is constantly changing for young players. A year ago, Cole didn't have NBA range. Not used to being a spot-up shooter, Cole would try to strongarm the ball to the rim every time he caught it. He worked with Dan Craig (who previously worked with Mario Chalmers) on getting his legs underneath him, and in the preseason Cole looked like he was getting more loft underneath the ball.

That arc would come and go, but Cole finished the season almost as a league-average shooter – a far cry from a year ago. We're not going to throw out percentages because the sample sizes are tiny, but what matters is that Cole became a more confident, comfortable shooter.

"I shoot until it feels right then I shoot more after it feels right," Cole said.

Now, though league defenses won't respect him with beneficial spacing until Cole proves himself over the long run, the shot looks fluid. If the ball finds him in the corner or on the wing, Cole is a legitimate option.

He's now an option not just to take a shot, but turn opportunity into a positive play by creating for his teammates. Here's Cole creating along the baseline and later earning himself a hockey assist.

The combination of offensive maturity, more reliable shooting and his usual defense – along with a positive matchup with Jennings and Monta Ellis – has been enough to keep Cole on the floor for long periods of time in the playoffs, his minutes rising to almost 24 per game after being at less than 10 last year. And nearly half of those minutes have come in the fourth quarter.

"Norris is a hard-nosed defender," LeBron James said. "He loves to take the challenge against some of the best point guards that we have in our league. He continues to take the challenge throughout the season and throughout the playoffs thus far. His energy, his effort, he's getting smarter by the day, getting into the film room and actually seeing what he can do better to help our team and it's paying dividends for our team on the floor."

What are those dividends? The HEAT are outscoring the Bucks by 22.3 points per 100 possessions when Cole is on the floor, a higher mark than James in this young postseason, and only Chris Andersen (tops in net efficiency) has the team playing stingier defense when he's on the court. Even better, the pairing of Cole and Ray Allen is outscoring the Bucks by 26.3 points for every 100 possessions after that duo struggled to find balance throughout the regular season.

It's three playoff games against the Bucks, yes, but they're three important games for Cole. He could still lose minutes in possible future rounds if the matchups don't favor him or if he simply doesn't play this well – again, the peaks and valleys of youth – but beyond providing Spoelstra with a capable option off the bench, Cole has his career pointed in the right direction again.

What that career will be is tough to predict, but right now Cole is taking advantage of every opportunity he has to maximize his own potential. And whether his potential turns out to be that of a star or a career rotation player, that means becoming a player that sticks in the league for a long, long time.

Long enough, at least, for another young player to come along some day and ask Cole how to force other players into bad shots. Until then, however, Battier still has plenty to teach him about variance and the random game.

"A little bit," Battier says with a knowing smile. "He understands a little bit."