The Disruptor And Virginia Defense

A few years back, I started using the terms "Horizontal Disruptor" and "Vertical Disruptor" to analyze frontcourt players in Tony Bennett's Packline defense. What do those terms mean?

One of the things that I love about defense is that there is no statistic or set of stats that can satisfactorily rate the quality of an individual player's defense. Many have tried to develop "advanced metrics" to fill in where the box score stats let off, but they all - to be blunt - suck. The only way to accurately evaluate individual defense is to watch a lot of film, and even then you have to use good evaluative criteria.

What makes a player a good defender varies widely from system to system and from position to position within each system. What a 2-3 zone demands of a post player is so different from what a man-to-man demands of a point guard is so different from what the Packline demands of, well, anyone. The context matters.

This issue is salient when evaluating big men in the Packline. No defensive system places more demands on a player than what the Packline places on big men. Not only do they have to defend the rim, grab rebounds and guard their man, but they also have to blow up ball screens beyond the top of the key. Nothing in defense is more difficult than hard hedging a screen near midcourt, then getting under the rim to challenge a shot.

The Ultimate Disruption

Mamadi Diakite was a freshman

Has there ever been a more spectacular defensive play in college hoops? The block was amazing, but what really blows the mind is the amount of space Diakite covered from the hedge to the block.

What Mamadi did in that play was disrupt the offense, first with the hedge, then with the block. This play perfectly illustrates what Bennett's defense demands of a big man, and how special it is when that big man executes it perfectly. First, he must cover a lot of ground on the floor, disrupting plays along the length and width of the defensive zone. This is what I call "Horizontal Disruption": the ability to move horizontally and blow up the opponent's sets.

Then, the big man must get back under the rim and disrupt attempts at the basket. He needs to get long, get tall, give opponents a vertical barrier to surmount: "Vertical Disruption."

These team defensive responsibilities are even more important for big men to fulfill in the defense than the usual responsibility of guarding your man. They can shut their man out, throw a goose egg at him, and the defense will still fail if they are unable to cover the ground.

Is it any coincidence that Bennett started to have success when Akil Mitchell mastered the defense? Mitchell was the prototype Horizontal Disruptor, to be followed by Darion Atkins (ACC DPOY), Isaiah Wilkins (ACC DPOY), and Diakite. That Diakite was not ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2019-20 was a crime against humanity. Of those Horizontal Disruptors, Diakite was the only one who was also a great Vertical Disruptor. Atkins and especially Wilkins could block shots, but neither bothered shooters as much as Diakite.

A Vertical Disruptor does not need to block shots. A Vertical Disruptor can disrupt offenses around the rim by simply being big and making it difficult to get around or shoot over him. Mike Tobey and Jack Salt are two excellent examples of defenders who could be Vertical Disruptors despite not being big-time shotblockers. When Tobey walled up in the lane, he took up a lot of space and was tough to shoot over. When Bennett modified the defense to reduce Tobey's Horizontal Disruption responsibilities, he became a respectable Vertical Disruptor. Salt did so by being tall and excellent at timing his jumps with his arms straight up to make that vertical barrier even more imposing.

One of the biggest reasons the Virginia defense fell off after Diakite and Braxton Key graduated was the loss of that Horizontal Disruption factor. Jay Huff was maybe the best Vertical Disruptor at Virginia other than Ralph Sampson, but he was no Isaiah Wilkins on the horizontal plane. Kadin Shedrick perhaps had the potential to be a Dual Axis Disruptor like Diakite, but he never developed, chiefly due to his inability to stop committing dumb fouls. Shedrick was a good Vertical Disruptor.

So when watching Virginia play and making your forecasts for a team, ask yourself: Does Virginia have a great Horizontal Disruptor on the floor? Do they have a great Vertical Disruptor? If both answers are yes, that is going to be a very good Virginia Defense. If both are in one player - a Dual Axis Disruptor - that player is probably the best defensive player on the floor.

Seattle Hoo
October 2, 2023