Jarrett Allen's One-Man Paint Patrol

Jarrett Allen is playing a 1-man zone. Here's what that looks like in action.

On the December 19th episode of the Lowe Post podcast, Zach Lowe mentioned to FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring that Jarrett Allen almost exclusively plays a one-man zone.

This is, of course, notable.

Zone defense hasn't always had a home in the NBA. Until the 2001-2002 season, zone defense was strictly prohibited so that players like Wilt Chamberlin or Tree Rollins couldn't stand directly below the basket with their hands up. The NBA allowed zone defense, with the condition that no player could stand in the paint for longer than 3 seconds at a time.

Though the league is primarily a man to man league, many coaches developed hybrid defensive schemes out of necessity. Think about it. If the league were pure man to man at all times, what would stop a team from playing 5 out and letting their guards or wings drive to the hoop, not having to worry about a big body in the paint?

The reverse is true as well. With post-centric offenses in the '80s and '90s, teams would go 4 out, drop the ball off to their burly boy down low, and let him have a field day going one on one from the block. Players like Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, or Shaq could have their way, being not terribly worried about help defenders or perimeter players digging down.

The Brooklyn Nets are in a peculiar position, and head coach Kenny Atkinson is taking advantage of it. Stuck between intriguing talent and the wariness that comes from years of losing, the Nets have freedom to innovate.

So comes the birth of Jarrett Allen's one-man zone.

Allen is 20th in the league in blocks per game with 1.4. He's doing this while playing significantly fewer minutes than many of those ahead of him. Per 48 minutes, Allen is averaging 2.5 blocks per game, good for 12th in the league, in the company of fierce interior defenders like Serge Ibaka, Joel Embiid, and Marc Gasol.

Jarrett Allen gets his blocks in a unique way. Allen is playing a zone. Zach Lowe nailed it.

Video

Check this out. As the Nets are retreating in transition, you can see that by the time the ball has crossed mid-court, the Nets defenders have already marked their men. Allen has nothing to do with that and immediately backpedals to below the rim. Allen puts himself in position to close out on the closest shooter should they receive a pass, but mostly stays home. Allen is ready when Giannis charges toward the hoop, and he serves up a block.

The clip above does a great job of showing how Allen's zone works when defenders are around. Like any zone, when a cutter enters his area, Allen tags them for the duration of the time they're there. Notice where his focus is the entire time. He's looking almost exclusively at the ball.

Playing a zone allows Allen to mark defenders peripherally, but watch the ball totally, which yields very few instances when Allen isn't ready to meet the ball handler at the rim. By cleverly stepping in and out of the lane and marking the opposing player in his zone, Allen is resetting the 3-second clock all the time.

The clip above demonstrates how this sort of defense – and how dependable rim protection in general –translates to perimeter defending. Allen's teammates are rewarded a great luxury: the freedom to gamble. At the top of the key, Joe Harris is defending Luka Doncic. Harris plays Doncic tightly and decides to gamble on the incoming pass, jumping into the passing lane. Doncic is too smart for that and uses it to his advantage. Too bad for him, Allen is ready.

This is important. Though it failed above, having Allen man the paint affords the opportunity of aggressive defending on the perimeter. Were Harris to pop that ball out of the air, he'd have a wide-open layup. Those are free points, and they often decide games. These defenders are in a good position: they can go for the flashy defensive play, and if it fails, Allen is there to play janitor, cleaning up their messes.

The above is the perfect example of what Allen's zone looks like at its best. The play is swirling and orbiting all around the watching Allen, who's only major job is to be ready when the ball gets within 5 feet of the rim. Allen's timing is impeccable, and plays like this are a joy to watch.

Conclusion

What Kenny Atkinson and the Nets coaching staff have engineered is an advantageous and innovative way to maximize Allen's skills. He is an aware, smart, and quick-thinking big who can knock the wheel's off the offense he faces, all because he's been put in the position to succeed.

Defense is notoriously difficult to measure, and the eye test should play a prominent role in its evaluation. Allen passes with flying colors. He's altering several shots at the rim, and his dependability there lets his teammates rest assured that their defensive lapse from a gamble won't be punished.

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