The Guy You Don't Want Guarding You

It is not uncommon for rookies, particularly those drafted onto playoff teams, to suffer from a bit of identity misplacement early in their careers.

You get to the NBA and you’re fast, but you’re not the fastest. Where you could once finish around the rim there now roam giants – and they all have a taste for leather. Your jumper, you discover, needs work.

Your team isn’t necessarily worried about all of this. They don’t want you to be the high-usage scorer you were in college. They want you to be a player that will help them win, but such a player might not be anything like who you know how to be. You try to figure it out, but after months of being forbidden from contacting your new coaches, you’re thrust into a lockout-shortened season, a two-week training camp away from five-game weeks and a back-to-back-to-back.

A year later, Norris Cole knows who he is, at least for now.

“Right now, defense is my strong point,” Cole said. “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.”

While Cole will eventually have to evolve into a dependable spot-up shooter – his shot looks significantly smoother but the results have yet to come – the defense didn’t take him too long to figure out. Cole was a major defensive addition during the playoffs, until then he was still feeling his way around the league.

“It was always there,” Bosh said of Cole’s ball pressure. “The energy of the playoffs really just gets you and he started to get up into it and that was like ‘Okay, I can do this.’ You know as a rookie you have some, maybe too much respect for some guys.”

“When you don’t know [other players], you’re kind of cautious,” Cole said. “That [playoff series] did give me some comfort to let me know that I could be one of the top defenders on the ball.”

This year, he isn’t tippy-toeing around anyone.

Cole vs. The World

Of all players to have defended at least 100 possessions this season, Synergy Sports has Cole giving up the third-lowest points-per-possession in the entire league, just behind noted stalwart Tony Allen. That’s nice, but Synergy’s defensive numbers lack context. Cole could have been lucky enough to be the closest defender on 50 jump shots, simply as an example.

Here’s a better gauge of his effectiveness:

Focusing on the more highly regarded point guards Cole has defended this season, he has been on the courts against Deron Williams, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Brandon Jennings, Raymond Felton and Goran Dragic for a total of 116 minutes. In that time, those points guards have shot 4-of-32 and scored 16 points. Put another way, the best six point guards Cole has faced are scoring 4.96 points per 36 minutes and shooting 12.5 percent with Cole on the floor.

Yes, he’s missed out on Kyrie Irving and Tony Parker – add Patrick Mills and Jeremy Pargo to the mix and Cole comes out even better – and he didn’t play much against the Grizzlies, but Cole can only defend the man in front of him. And so far, he’s been a giant in his own right.

“He’s a ball hawk,” Dwyane Wade said. “He keeps his body in front of guys. Sometimes his defense on the ball is so good that we can’t even get into what we’re trying to do because he’s so much on the ball. So we have to adjust to him a little bit.”

What Wade is getting at is that Cole has been so consistent staying on the ball, especially in pick-and-rolls, that sending an aggressive help defender at the ballhandler isn’t a necessity.

“We also have to be aggressive too,” LeBron James said. “We can’t just have one guy out there ball-hawking the ball and everybody else just relaxing. We all have to pick it up as well. I’m a defensive guy too, so I love when he comes in the game and picks up that tempo and pressure. It kind of activates our quick twitch as far as our defensive pressure.”

A Defensive Catalyst

Cole's ball pressure was on full display against the Hawks when Cole earned himself a full 12 minutes in the fourth quarter. This isn’t on-ball, but watch Cole chase Lou Williams around two Zaza Pachulia screens on this possession:

Not only does Cole get over the first screen before Pachulia can make contact – he spent years defending pick-and-rolls in practice in a pro-style system at Cleveland State – but he catches up to Williams on the cut and gets into the passing lane, forcing Williams to retreat and come back to the ball. This attracts another Pachulia screen, which draws a little contact, but it’s entirely possible here that Shane Battier didn’t need to provide as much help as he did given how quickly Cole was closing.

“Sometimes, I guess, when guys try to get a screen, if I get over, they’re surprised that I don’t get hit sometimes,” Cole said. “But that’s a good thing. When there’s no trigger, you don’t have to help. That’s what I try to do. I try to keep everyone being able to play man-to-man without using a lot of help.”

The idea of a team feeding off the energy of one player is always going to be difficult for us to quantify, but just because it’s something we may as well classify as intangible mysticism that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

“When you see a guy working his tail off like Norris does, I know as a big, I'm going to do my best to show and give him the best chance to go over and fight on a pick-and-roll,” Battier said. “Versus a guy who may die on a pick-and-roll. Whenever you see your teammate work hard, you want to do your part.”

The evidence isn’t perfect, but the fact that teams score less than 100 points per 100 possessions whenever Cole is on the floor – only Battier and Joel Anthony have better on-court marks – at least tells us he is affecting the game. And when Battier and Cole are on the floor together, the HEAT give up fewer points than the best defense in the league.

Return for a moment to the above possession. It ends with Cole being whistled for a foul, but when Ray Allen has to cover the corner shooter, Cole is there to meet Jeff Teague and get him off the three-point line. Miami’s recent struggles with three-point defense hasn’t been that guys aren’t making rotations, but those rotations have been a step slow. Cole, throughout this season, has been most timely.

A few minutes after that possession, Cole is once again up on Teague, this time gambling on a bad pass and still recovering to get in front of the ball – this time, without fouling.

“Once you see guys two or three times a year, you figure out what you can get away with, what you can't get away with, tendencies,” Battier said. “He's a smart defensive player. He's going to make a lot of money in this league for many years with his brand of defense because it's tough. When he gets in somebody, you better be ready for a fight.”

You also better be ready to get a little annoyed.

“He's just That Guy. He's short and into you. He can be annoying and he is very good at that,” Bosh said.

There will be other, better examples as the year wears on, but here’s a case of Cole being pesky without even being the primary defender on the play.

Imagine you’re Josh Smith here. You want to turn middle from the post, but you have this short guard hopping around like someone put firecrackers in his shoes about five feet away. Whether Cole ever gets a hand on the ball is irrelevant; he’s forcing Smith to think a little bit more. In this case, it’s enough to help push Smith toward the baseline.

Surely by this point many of you are starting to think that Cole should start over Mario Chalmers, but that’s a little beside the point. While Chalmers hasn’t been completely on with his jumper, he spaces the floor better than Cole and is the superior playmaker at this point, making him the better fit with a starting lineup that, with Battier, has been very strong defensively. We all tend to want to push strong role players into a starting role once they start playing very well, but as he continues to develop his jumper and especially his shot selection, Cole’s best fit right now might just be as a change-of-pace, defensive guard.

Some nights that will mean Cole plays heavy minutes in the fourth quarter, others will find him on the bench, but whatever the scenario, it looks like Erik Spoelstra has himself a known commodity, and Cole has himself a role. No small feat for any young player.