Adonal Foyle, a terrific shot-blocker who was with me in Golden State, contends that shot-blocking requires courage.
"To be a good shot-blocker, you have to stare getting dunked on in the eye almost every time. People are going to attack you at the basket and you have to be confident enough to stay in there at the last second. Because one of these days you're going to miss, and eventually you're going to miss maybe two or three times in a row and you are going to get dunked on."
According to Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who blocked 3,189 shots in his NBA career, shot-blocking is "a dying art," adding that "people [don't] get excited about playing interior defense any more."
Former Jazz center Mark Eaton, a huge man at 7-foot-4 , 290 pounds, "holds the single-season record with an average of 5.56 [blocks] per game in 1984-85."
As Ballard writes, Eaton was "an aspiring auto mechanic who was persuaded to play basketball at a junior college, then sat the bench at UCLA, he was largely ineffective before reaching the pros. In the summer of 1981, while playing a pick-up game at UCLA, he received some unsolicited advice from Wilt Chamberlain, who was then in his forties but still running the floor against men half his age."
"I remember we had a guy on our team named Rocket Rod Foster, to this day the fastest guy I've ever seen," says Eaton. "He'd get to basket about the same time that I got to the top of key. So I was standing there, huffing and puffing, and I felt a large hand on my shoulder. It was Wilt. He said, 'You're never going to catch that man, first of all. Second, it's not your job to catch him. Your job is to guard the basket, then cruise up to half-court to see what's going on. Because if a quick shot goes up, you have to go back.' "
Said Eaton: "That day, a light bulb went on. I figured out my niche in basketball. This is my house, the paint, this is where I live."
Like Foyle, Alonzo Mourning, an intimidating shot-blocker who averaged nearly four blocks per game with Miami in 1998-99, says big men have to have the guts to challenge shots.
"You have to want to go after it," he says. "I've seen many guys who will be in the lane and guys will be coming full speed at them and they'll just get out of the way. You're 7 feet and all you got to do is jump straight in the air and you can make him change the shot or contest it. But you got to want to do it and you got to want to feel contact. Because you're gonna run into bodies."
As Ballard describes in his article, "blocking shots has surprisingly little to do with leaping ability. In fact, many of the NBA's best-jumping big men are surprisingly poor shot-blockers."
"Jumping's not even important, actually," says Mourning. "It's timing. I don't care how high you jump, you got to come down with the ball. You can jump as high as you want over the rim, but you're coming down. As you're coming down, that's when I time it and I meet you at the rim."
Writes Ballard: "What is important is the illusion of an easy shot. The savvy shot-blocker knows he has to entice an opponent to come to the rim. So many sit back and hide, sometimes behind teammates, hoping to flush out a point guard or an overly confident small forward."
The best shot-blockers have done their homework, studying an opponent's scorers in an effort to get an advantage. At the same time, "offensive players... study shot-blockers."
When Jason Richardson came into the league, he repeatedly had his shot blocked in practice by Foyle. So he started picking his brain. "OD taught me that if you show them the ball, they go get it. You gotta get into them with that body," says Richardson. "Or if you're going up against a shot-blocker, don't go up with two hands, because you always get blocked with two hands. Just the other game he was telling me, 'If anybody goes up with two hands, I always get it.' Trevor Ariza comes at him and it's two hands and sure enough, OD got it."
Eaton remembers how, against the Celtics, he'd blocked one of Larry Bird's shots.
"The next time we played them, he beat one of the players on our team, and as he drove into the middle, my teammate said, 'Mark, help!' And Larry in mid-stride said, "Yeah, Mark, get this,' and launched one of those runners, down the middle off of one leg. Shot it straight up in the air and it hit nothing but net. Then he ran back down the court with a little smirk on his face."
[Here's a good video about Eaton and what he's doing today.]