If you pay attention to hoops analysis, you'll notice it tends to focus on offense a lot more than it does defense. Whether the analyst prefers to watch games and ignore the numbers, watch the stats and ignore the games, or find some happy medium in between, the emphasis is on what happens with the ball, not without it. This is in part because the only defensive measures recorded are blocked shots, steals and defensive rebounds. Yes, I would argue that defensive rebounding should be included in the evaluation of defense, because it directly results in preventing scoring. I would also concede that defensive rebounding is a different kind of defense, since unlike the other two measures, it only matters after a shot has been missed. So that leaves us with just blocks and steals to tell us about a player's ability to disrupt the opposing team's offense before a shot is launched.
Complicating matters is that blocks and steals are so rare. Big-time shot blockers will record a rejection on about one in ten possessions. We don't know their impact on the other nine. That's just talking about the top shot-blockers in the nation. What about the less proficient big men who still rack up blocks, but on one in 20 possessions? It's even more difficult to assess a player's impact based on his steals. The best at forcing steals will do so on about one in 20 possessions. That leaves 95% of the player's possessions unaccounted. What if a player is going for steals all the time, and putting himself out of position when he's not successfully causing a turnover?
So it's difficult to accept that block and steal rates are a foolproof way to identify who is making an impact on the defensive end. I am more than willing to accede to traditional scouting in this area. However, one thing I have noticed in the brief time I have been gathering tempo-free individual defensive statistics is that being proficient at both blocking shots and forcing steals is a strong indicator that a player is doing disruptive things on those possessions where he doesn't get credit for doing either.
Specifically, the numbers I look for are a block rate of at least 6.0 with a steal rate of at least 2.5. In fact, these benchmarks are probably too lofty. I've been tracking these stats for the past three seasons, and only two players playing at least 24 minutes per game in power conferences getting have been able to reach these figures. Those players are Joakim Noah (who did it twice) and Shelden Williams, who were both among the best defenders in recent years.
I've called this the Renaldo Balkman Rule for a reason, though. Balkman, you'll recall, was a junior forward at South Carolina during the 2006 season. After the season ended, Balkman decided to test the NBA waters and put his name in the draft. This was met with widespread mockery and derision, at least by the people who bothered to care. Later in the spring, Balkman decided to leave his name in the draft, which was met by more mockery and derision. When he was selected in the first round by the Knicks, again you had mockery and derision. This time it was directed towards Knicks GM Isiah Thomas.
During his final college season, Balkman posted a block rate of 5.9 and a steal rate of 4.1. He didn't quite qualify for the rule I created in his name, but against a difficult schedule, he was close enough to deserve some attention. And even though he's been playing for the Knicks, his career has been consistent with with being one of the top collegiate players on defense that season. In fact, by some advanced measures, he was one of the best defenders in the NBA last season. You could say that Thomas and Balkman got the last laugh on their critics, except that both have bigger things to worry about, like being associated with a team that is on the brink of becoming a laughingstock. However, Balkman's decision to join the NBA should have been taken more seriously from the beginning given his block and steal numbers.
So far this season, there are just three players from power conferences meeting the Balkman threshold: Kansas sophomore Darrell Arthur, Nebraska senior Aleks Maric and LSU freshman Anthony Randolph. Arthur actually met the benchmarks last season as a part-time player, and Kansas should be able to maintain its status as the best defensive squad in the land with him as its anchor. Maric is the unlikeliest member of this trio because he has never qualified in either category in his previous three seasons in Lincoln. So far this season he has 15 blocks and 13 steals. All of last season, while averaging nearly 30 minutes per game, he had 33 and 15, respectively.
However, the player to focus on is Randolph. In a year with so many impact freshmen, it's becoming clear early on that the 6'10" Randolph has a case for being the best of all of them on the defensive end. The season is young, but Randolph's block rate is at 11.2 (30th in the nation) with a steal rate of 2.9. LSU's early schedule has had its share of cream puffs, but Randolph has proved his defensive worth against the more skilled opponents he's seen. Against the Tigers' three best opponents so far--Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Villanova--he's posted a 9.3 block rate and a 1.3 steal rate. The steal rate has particularly suffered, which indicates he's a longshot to be a member of the Balkman club by season's end, but he shouldn't be dismissed as a potential defensive stalwart.
Randolph's impact came to light during the Villanova game last Thursday. It was an epic victory for Villanova, as they overcame a 21-point deficit over the final 8:48 to beat LSU 68-67. The final 4:08 of that comeback came without Randolph on the court, after he picked up his fifth foul. Villanova would have the ball ten times from that point on and they scored nine times for a grand total of 19 points. At the end of the game, Randolph's defensive presence could be quantified like so: In his 50 defensive possessions on the floor, Villanova scored 33 points, and in his 23 possessions as a spectator, the Wildcats scored 35 points. In his 28:11 on the court, Randolph finished the game with a plus/minus of +21 on a night when his team was -1.
Anthony Randolph isn't Tyrus Thomas, and LSU isn't going to the Final Four with this freshman shot blocker. However, for a team that was picked next-to-last or dead last in the SEC West by just about everybody, there is reason to believe that this season could be much more interesting than that. What is more certain is that opposing SEC teams are going to struggle to put up points against LSU assuming Mr. Randolph stays healthy and out of foul trouble. He can block shots and get steals, and when he's not doing either he's still making it difficult for the opposition to score.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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