Switchable big men available for Hawks in draft fit NBA trend

The NBA’s pace-and-space offensive revolution is essentially complete, with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors as the undisputed masters of the form. Counters to the pace-and-space vary, but Golden State also might also be the best at executing a defensive strategy to slow it: switch every ball screen.

The league long ago embraced stretch bigs who can shoot 3-pointers. Now general managers and coaches talk about switchable big men: power forwards and centers who can guard smaller and quicker opponents on the perimeter when necessary.

The Hawks have the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft Thursday. If they keep that selection, and the Suns take Deandre Ayton No. 1 as expected, the Hawks may be able to choose from one of the other three big men projected to be selected near the top of the draft: Marvin Bagley (Duke), Jaren Jackson Jr. (Michigan State) and Mo Bamba (Texas).

In an increasingly position-less NBA, these power forwards and centers not only are scrutinized for their outside shooting and rim protection, but also their ability to guard on the perimeter.

“When you look at big guys in today’s game, they’ve got to be able to guard pick-and-rolls,” Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said. “If they can’t guard pick-and-rolls — even if they are a tremendous offensive player — it puts your team at a huge disadvantage.”

Switching isn’t the only way to guard pick-and-rolls, and it has some disadvantages. It’s also not easy to execute.

Switching requires defensive players to communicate clearly and quickly as they react to the offense. Coaches must constantly drill the rules for switches, then tweak them based on opponent. It takes a lot of time, practice and group cohesiveness.

However, all the other approaches to pick-and-roll defense have their own drawbacks against pace-and-space. Switching, done correctly and with the appropriate personnel, can be an effective counter.

New Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce is a proponent of switching, a strategy he used while running the Sixers’ defense as an assistant.

“The nature of the game requires you to switch,” Pierce said.

NBA offenses now feature so much skill, shooting and pace that it’s nearly impossible for defenders to help, recover and scramble fast enough over an entire possession to avoid giving up quality shots. That activity can play into the strengths of the pace-and-space style.

There are exceptions and variations, but in general, pace and space offense means putting at least four shooters on the floor. The ball moves faster than defenders can rotate, which eventually creates driving and passing lanes. Big men who can shoot from the perimeter force opposing big men away from help positions near the basket and, if they stray too far, make them pay the price with spot-up 3-pointers.

By switching on ball screens, defenders can reduce the number of rotations necessary. That means less space for drives and fewer long closeouts for help defenders getting out to 3-point shooters. That’s why NBA teams over the years have sought versatile guards and wings who can switch.

Now that trend has extended to power forwards and centers. The drawback is that, traditionally, such players typically don’t have the foot speed to stay in front of guards in space on switches. (Guards also can end up in mismatches with bigger players in the post but typically there is more help available closer to the basket.)

NBA teams are seeking a new breed of big man who both blocks shots at the rim and contains guards on the perimeter.

“You are looking at a (big) guy that is now in a unique situation on the floor and he’s got to switch on to a (point guard),” Pierce said. “The requirement is that you don’t want to give up 3-point shots so if your (power forward) who is defending a 3-point shooter can’t switch, you are in a lot of trouble because you are going to be late on a closeout. You are going to be late on a rotation, or you are going to put someone (else) in a rotation, and we want to avoid rotations at all costs.”

That scrambling creates space for skilled offensive players to exploit. Power forwards and centers who can switch on screens can stop or at least mitigate that chain reaction.

In some ways, the offensive evolution of big men may also be helping the changing nature of NBA defense.

Stretch bigs no longer are an NBA anomaly, thanks in part to the influx of international players over the years. Schlenk noted that now even lots of American big man prospects have worked on 3-point shooting by the time they get to the draft.

“When you go watch a junior high game, the first thing kids do is run to the 3-point line,” Schlenk said. “They don’t start inside anymore. Most of these kids have that skill set. Everyone wants to play on the perimeter.”

Big men who are comfortable dribbling, passing and shooting on the perimeter theoretically also should have the skills to defend away from the basket. They may have the lateral agility and fluidity necessary to get into a defensive stance and move well enough to make it difficult for smaller players to drive past them.

All the top big man prospects in this draft are considered switchable to varying degrees.

“It means they all are very athletic and can move their feet,” Schlenk said.