What It Means When a Player Says He Worked On Defense

The Thunder’s offseason player development program is tailored in such a way that every player should return to Oklahoma City a better player than when he left.

That encompasses just about everything one could imagine: players returned better shooters because they shot hundreds of jumpers a day. They came back in top condition because they participated in conditioning drills. They came back better ball handlers because they worked on various dribbling drills. And they returned as better defenders because … well, because they worked on their individual defense.

As difficult as it might seem to quantify, it’s certainly possible. When a player says he worked on his defense over the summer, he’s not reciting some company line. He actually did drills that improve defensive technique. But those aren’t things we usually hear because, to an outsider, it might not be as interesting as hearing how a player shot 500 free throws a day for 90 days during the summer.

Head Coach Scott Brooks and his coaching staff travel the country – in Thabo Sefolosha’s case, they went transatlantic – to spend time with players on and off the court. And that included dedicating time to defense.

“It’s like a sore thumb on the court when you’ve got other players out there working on defense because it’s something that doesn’t happen often, but we like to do it,” Brooks said. “You can’t just work on your shot, you have to work on your closeouts and your (shot) contesting, also.”

The time and effort the Thunder put in on the defensive end last summer helped make a smooth transition for what the team wanted to accomplish during training camp. And as the team continued to practice and repeat the same defensive principles and fundamentals throughout the season, it continued to get better. By the end of the season, the Thunder was the only team to rank in the top 10 in steals, rebounds and blocks, which contributed to the significant strides the team made as an overall defensive unit.

But it all goes back to the individual work each player put it during the offseason and training camp, which allowed everyone to contribute in some way on the defensive end.

This summer, it was more of the same.

Even with a summer commitment to USA Basketball, the coaching staff still paid a visit to Kevin Durant, who said he worked on defensive principles with resistant bands.

“Brian Keefe and Dwight Daub came to visit me and we were step sliding side to side and doing close out drills,” Durant said. “We did that every day for a week when they were with me. Once they left, they left me one of those bands and I’ve been doing it all summer. I feel good with my defense and hopefully I can just continue to get better.”

Closing out on a shooter and staying in front of an opponent were two things the coaching staff worked on with every player, Brooks said. The focus on defense went beyond actual practice, too.

“Even when I had conversations with them I talked to them about defense,” Brooks said. “It’s important. You can’t turn it on and off as the days go by. You have to always think it and live it and do it and not talk about it.”

When the coaching staff visited James Harden, the shooting guard was shown several clips of game film that highlighted areas he could improve defensively. Then they went out and worked on them.

“They did that a couple times a day and it really helped me,” Harden said. “In training camp it’s improving a little bit more and I’m still learning.”

And that seems to be a point of emphasis throughout the first week of training camp: there’s always something to learn, something to work on defensively.

The last drill of practice on Tuesday provided the perfect snapshot. The coaching staff put the entire team through one-on-one drills, with each player having to close out his man at three spots on the floor: both wings and at the top of the key. It provided some intense moments, from Durant laying out for a loose ball, to players colliding under the basket, to teammates hooting and hollering whenever someone came up with a stop. But by the end of it, players had worked on technique and footwork.

“You can kind of break up the defense into a lot of different areas, different movements, different things you do regularly and closing out on the perimeter is something you find yourself in a lot,” Nick Collison explained. “Any time there’s a drive and a kick out to a perimeter player there’s a close out. That’s something that happens a ton of times during the season and I do think it translates and carries over here.”

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