It’s no secret that Arizona had one of the stoutest defenses in college basketball last year. By most metrics, they were among the best in the country. After all, the Wildcats claimed an NBA sized front line and numerous athletes to boot.
But you might be surprised to find out that despite all the size Arizona trotted out, they actually weren’t that good at blocking shots. According to Kenpom.com the Wildcats ranked 87th in the nation in terms of block percentage, a respectable mark but a far cry from the NCAA’s elite blocking teams.
So then how did Arizona’s size result in great team defense without much shot blocking?
The short answer would point out the significant amount of blocks contributed by Arizona’s perimeter defenders, namely Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Nick Johnson. Playing along side 7-0 Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-9 Aaron Gordon, and 6-9 Brandon Ashley, it was the 6-6 Hollis-Jefferson who led the Wildcats in blocked shots.
But a more nuanced answer would highlight that the Cats simply didn’t allow many shots at the rim, instead forcing offenses into two point jump shots, an area in which Arizona’s defense shut opponents down. Kenpom.com tracked the Arizona defense allowing just 40% on two point shots, second best in the country.
That’s not to undermine the importance of the shots Arizona’s perimeter defenders contested. Hollis-Jefferson averaged 1.1 blocks in just over 25 minutes per game, amassing 40 rejections over 38 games. Gordon finished the season with 39 blocks while Tarczewski had 35.
Johnson, at 6-3, was the fourth leading shot blocker on the team, sending back 25 opponent attempts. The athleticism and defensive timing of Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson was a huge reason why Arizona was able to play so effectively without a real shot blocking presence at the power forward or center spots.
There’s a far more intriguing stat than total blocked shots, though. According to Hoop-math.com, Johnson blocked 10 of his 25 shots at the rim. By comparison, Gordon blocked 13 of 39 shots at the rim, while Tarczewski sent back 16 of his 35 from the interior. It’s incredibly rare to have a guard blocking rim attempts as frequently as a 7-footer and a 6-9 freak athlete, and it was Johnson’s unique ability that made Arizona’s defensive effort so staunch.
But while Johnson, Tarczewski, and Gordon were swatting shots at the rim, Hollis-Jefferson was doing something different. Just 8 of RHJ’s 40 blocks came at the rim, two of those in one game. But he blocked a whopping 30 two point jumpers, accounting for 75% of his total blocks. This was far and away the most on the team.
Think about that. Hollis-Jefferson blocked almost as many two point jump shots as Tarczewski did total shots. That’s insane. And it’s made more insane by the fact that Hollis-Jefferson was a reserve for most of the season.
There’s an extra layer of brilliance to Hollis-Jefferson’s shot blocking prowess. After a blocked shot, his opponent’s offensive rebound percentage was just 35%, meaning he was blocking shots and turning them into offense. Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon were the only significant shot blockers under 40% opponent offensive rebound percentage after a block.
This examination poses an interesting question going into next year — with two of Arizona’s top shot blockers poached by the NBA, who will fill the void left behind?
The short answer is no one. Johnson’s shot blocking from the guard spot is unlikely to be matched by any player next year, even if incoming freshman Stanley Johnson starts in his place. And while Ashley has great length, he’s not natural shot blocker nor does he provide weak side blocking.
But a more nuanced answer is that Sean Miller’s team defense will once again force opponents into two point shots, thereby limiting the need for shot blocking big men. And they will funnel opponents to the right areas of the court to allow this to happen. It’s not a coincidence that Arizona was excellent defensively without a dominant shot blocker, it was by design. Miller can and will do it again.
That should be an exciting prospect for Hollis-Jefferson, who is poised to play 30+ minutes per game after locking down defenders from two point range. With this added opportunity, and the likely absorption of much of Gordon and Johnson’s defensive responsibility, don’t be surprised to see RHJ lead Arizona in blocks and push 1.5 bpg.
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