Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective skills.
In this fifth installment, Mat goes in-depth on one of the most versatile defenders of all-time: Andrei Kirilenko. He explains what made him different from other off-ball rovers who came before him, with insights from his former coaches, teammates and more.
No player in this series has garnered more anticipation than Andrei Kirilenko. A quick survey of the internet yields countless articles and YouTube videos that are all centered around the same premise:
Kirilenko would be a perfect fit in today’s era.
Did Kirilenko serve as the prototype for the modern-day defender? During his prime, was he a revolutionary and a superstar?
Let's find out.
WHAT MADE KIRILENKO SPECIAL?
In baseball, a "five-tool player" is bestowed this label if they display excellence in five categories: hitting for average, hitting for power, fielding, speed and throwing.
Similarly, Kirilenko excelled in five different defensive disciplines.
Tool No. 1: Man Defense
“His technique was fundamentally instinctive,” said Gordon Chiesa, Kirilenko’s former coach in Utah.
Kirilenko touted great length, reflexes and an active ‘tap-dancing’ stance (see clips below) that enabled him to keep the ball in his line of sight at all times.
On top of that, he mastered the ‘flick-hand technique,’ which aims to force ball-handlers to dribble East to West rather than North to South (since it's harder to get in the paint when you can’t move forward).
"[Your] defensive hand is on the ball side, and [you're] flicking [your] hand up towards the ball – without losing [your] balance – to make their dribble lateral, so that it's more protective [rather than] more downhill," Chiesa explained to Basketball News.
Tool No. 2: Versatility
While Kirilenko’s primary assignments were forwards, he was capable of guarding shiftier speedsters and gargantuan bruisers as well.
“You could literally put him on just about anyone,” recalled Michael Ruffin, Kirilenko’s former teammate who is now an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns. "[He] had the speed, quickness, length to keep up with guards… on the perimeter. That’s who he would end up guarding a lot [of the time].”
Kirilenko even developed antidotes to deploy when going up against the more powerful, low-post big men of the time.
“Even on the post with a bigger, banging guy… he could make it difficult for them to get the ball deep by fronting them,” said Charlotte Hornets assistant Tyrone Corbin, who coached Kirilenko in Utah. "What he would do is put the work in early [in the post] to make the catch a little further out, so they wouldn’t catch it so deep in the paint.”
And if the big man somehow managed to receive the entry pass?
“He would go after the ball and keep them off balance that way,” Corbin explained.
Tool No. 3: Off-Ball Disruptor
“The thing I remember about him most is that he [was] a defensive playmaker,” Chiesa said.
Each season from 2001 to 2011, Kirilenko finished in the 96th percentile or higher in Cerebro Sports’ Defensive Statistical Impact metric (which measures defensive playmaking).
“What made Kirilenko brilliant, I call it early eyes,” Chiesa explained. “He could read plays before [they] happened… and he was able to be cat-quick and jump in the passing lanes to steal the ball, block a shot or pickpocket somebody.”
Among other things, Kirilenko was adept at doubling down from the perimeter – the concept of rotating over from the perimeter to double a player on the low block (which was particularly important during that era considering the high volume of post-ups).
“People never understood how long he really was,” Corbin said. “He could be at the nail/elbow, and a guy could get the ball in the post and turn to dribble or make a move, and he’s on top of them knocking the ball out.”
Tool No. 4: Motor
Legendary Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was known for stressing the importance of conditioning in all his practices.
“That’s one of the biggest sticklers with Coach Sloan: you had to be in great shape,” Corbin emphasized. “Most of the things that we did every day involved some kind of drill [with] conditioning as part of the drill.”
Upon reflecting on his experiences, Ruffin agreed with Corbin’s assessment.
“The philosophy of the team… was that every time you stepped on the court, you go hard,” Ruffin said.
Kirilenko did not deviate from this mission statement. During his iconic run in the 2003-04 NBA season (more on that in a bit), he finished in the 94th percentile in minutes played. And he spent every second of those nearly 2,900 minutes stalking the terrain at a frenetic pace.
Tool No. 5: Shot-Blocking
Kirilenko was a human eraser of the highest order, and his acumen as a shot-blocker is what separated him from the likes of Shawn Marion – the other multi-faceted forward of that time.
During his career, Kirilenko posted a whopping seven seasons with a block percentage of 4% or higher. Marion, on the other hand, never surpassed 3%.
With his condor arms, impeccable timing and recovery speed, Kirilenko was terrific at swatting away attempts.
“Super timing. Super, super timing," Corbin said. "And his ability to recover – to get from point A to point B – especially off the ball when he could be on the weakside. A guy could drive thinking he was open; [Kirilenko] would get from where he was to the ball quickly before the guy could alter his shot or see him coming.
“As good as he was on the ball, he was better coming off the ball because guys couldn’t see where he was coming from.”
Prior to the 2003-04 NBA season, ESPN writer Frank Hughes predicted that the Utah Jazz would lose more games than any team in NBA history.
Not only did Utah outperform these not-so-lofty expectations, they came within one game of the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference.
So, what happened?
“When things like that usually happen, you look back, and you’re like, ‘Oh, we missed on three or four of those players. They were way better than we thought,'” said David Locke, who has been the radio voice of the Jazz for 13 years.
“I don’t think that exists on [the Jazz’s] roster. I think the only one we missed on was a 22-year-old Andrei Kirilenko [who] was just a way better player and more important than people realized.”