By Mike O’Connor
Kentucky Freshman Malik Monk’s defense offers a polar opposite scope compared to that of his offense. While Monk’s elite shooting alone makes him a tantalizing cog in most offenses, his oft-maligned defense is held together by several adequate habits that hope to keep him afloat as an NBA defender.
But let’s examine exactly what Monk might bring to an NBA defense, and how his strengths and weaknesses may impact a defense. To start, we are going to proceed under the assumption that Monk will be defending point guards. Standing 6-foot-3 with a slender frame, Monk is simply unprepared to defend NBA shooting guards.
Now, Monk’s defense is littered with issues. That has been well documented. I hope to then make this discussion more about their impact than the issues themselves, mixed with how some of his issues could get corrected.
But before we get to that, let’s do an overview. He has some bright areas that might surprise. Starting with his on-ball defense. His good plays always come from his elite quickness. He moves his feet very well and isn’t an easy blow-by in one-on-one situations.
He gets into a nice stance and you have to like his effort and tenacity in these situations.
You can tell he takes one-on-ones personally. That’s a good thing. He likes being a pest, which will pay major dividends.
That being said, his footwork needs some work. An intricate ball handler will generally have their way with Monk.
Overall, I’m not too worried long-term about Monk being a major one-on-one liability as a point guard. He’s long enough, very quick and competes.
Off-ball is a much more complicated story. He has a tendency to disengage from his matchup. When not pressed with one-on-one situations, he relaxes. He likes to think his job is done after the first time his matchup exits the primary action:
There are far too many times where he feels like he can relax. In transition, that’ll really burn you:
But the evaluation comes back to the difference between recognition and focus. Is he being lazy, or is he unable to interpret what’s going on? I lean towards the former, and that’s why I think he’ll still be a passable off-ball defender.
For as much as he relaxes, he makes a lot of smart plays off-ball. He generally does a great job of helping the helper.
He understands the principle of cutting off one pass away. And we’ll come back to this clip.
His quickness gives him great close-out speed returning from or going to help. That is a huge asset for an NBA defense.
It also allows him to bump down on roll men/cutters and still recover to contest his man.
So outside of the focus problems, I generally like his off-ball potential and ability to work within a defense. But we need to return to this clip. Monk bumps down and helps the helper, then gets smashed by the screen.
And therein lies the rub. Monk is a huge liability in all screening actions. On or off-ball. It’s common to see a screen take him out of the play for three to four seconds. He’s just physically outmatched.
But wait, he’s quick, right? His quickness allows him to skirt around screens a lot of times.
But his inability to absorb any screen contact will lead to inefficient detours, like these:
In the cases where he’s able to get around the screen, Kentucky tried rotating to recover:
But this puts tons of stress on the back line of the defense. His Center has to be ready to bump out any time a screen is set:
Though, a long, athletic center could do wonders to cover up Monk’s issues:
But the slightest mishap blows it up. It’s just so much stress for the back line.
Which leads me to the core point: any team that drafts Monk will have to switch everything. Monk simply cannot swim around most screens
And if any team can do this, it’s the Philadelphia 76ers. With Joel Embiid there to swallow up pick and rolls, and Robert Covington and Ben Simmons there to facilitate secondary switches, it becomes much easier to hide Monk. Covington and Simmons will play crucial roles in these situations because the switches will have to have multiple layers in them. Monk cannot be switched onto a big shooting guard, let alone a center.
But with both a power forward and center that can switch pick and rolls, this is much less of an issue. To see how it can work, watch these 10 seconds of Nick Sciria’s video on how the Warriors make it work for Steph Curry:
The point here is that the Sixers’ defense, more so than any team in the top 10, is well-built to cover up Monk’s biggest flaw. Simmons and Monk also allow each other to play their ideal position on defense, just like on offense.
In a broader sense, Monk’s issues don’t project to be a condemning issue for any team. Point guard defense is the least important of the five positions. In this era of pick and roll frenzies, a big man that can defend in space is far more important than a point guard who can fight through screens. And while Monk’s issues are concerning and burdensome, they are far easier to hide than other positions.
To summarize, here are four things I believe about Monk’s defense:
- Monk projects as a solid one-on-one defender once he adds some weight.
- His focus issues could be a major liability, but not an indictment of his off-ball play. There’s a lot to like.
- Malik Monk might be the worst prospect and handling screens in the top 15. That’s a big issue.
- But many NBA defenses are built to withstand that, and Monk does enough well to not condemn an entire defense.
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