In my 13 years as an NBA player, I've guarded many perennial All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers. I’m talking about the best of the best. I've tried to contain them and tried to get under their skin.
Fans don't realize how good these NBA stars are. The 15th man on an NBA team is a really good basketball player. It's really, really hard to play in the NBA; there are no slouches. If you're a superstar in this league, you’re special.
What is it like to guard these superstars? Here’s a player-by-player breakdown. Today, we’ll focus on the active NBA players I’ve matched up against, then I’ll look at the retired legends I’ve guarded in part two:
Man, LeBron is a difficult guard just because he's so smart. He does everything well. I always wanted him to take jump shots. If LeBron's shooting jumpers on me, I'm actually happy because he's unstoppable -- really unstoppable -- when he drives. He's bailing me out if he's taking the jump shot. It's not that he can't shoot. He can shoot; he's improved his jumper. But I want him shooting the jump shot 100 percent of the time because when he drives to the rim, he's scoring every single time or he's gonna make a play for somebody else because his vision is amazing.
If he's getting to the rim, if a guy has to help, he knows what play to make before it even happens. If a big steps up, he throws it to the rim. He's whipping it to the corner, making passes that most people can't make. That's the way I feel when he's out there. When he gets in transition, there's really nothing you can do. You just try to get in his way. Like, really try to get in his way. But half of the time, he's just gonna go through you.
LeBron’s basketball IQ is why he’s so great. Don't get me wrong, he's probably the most athletic guy to ever play the game, but his basketball IQ is incredible. People ask, “Who’s better: LeBron or Michael Jordan?” His basketball IQ is why he’s in that GOAT conversation. He's so smart, and it makes him so hard to defend. What can you do? Even when you think you got him to do something else, he has a counter for a counter. He's gonna be like, “Oh, he wants me to go there? Well, I'm gonna go here. And I know the corner pass is open because this guy moves here and that guy moves there.”
Defensively, his basketball IQ helps him get so many steals; he knows what guys wanna do. So, for example, he knows that you want to make a certain pass when you go right, so he's in the right spot to intercept it. And he's calling out every play. He's been in the league so long, he knows the plays from every coach and he knows every guy's tendencies. And that's why he's LeBron James!
So, guarding LeBron, all day I’m thinking, “Please shoot a jump shot!” Every time. If I can make him shoot jumpers, I did my job. When he's going to the rim -- when he's making plays for everybody else and getting his teammates involved -- they're gonna win 100 percent of the time.
Giannis is tough. He’s still young and he's getting better, too. Each time you play him, you can see that he's getting better and that he's adding stuff to his game. He's one of those guys where anytime you play him, you're like, “Man, this is gonna be a long night...” He knows his game. He wants to get to the basket. He knows if he gets in the paint, it's two points. That length, that athleticism and that strength? Good luck slowing him down. Since he’s put on the weight and muscle, it made him almost unstoppable when he gets in the paint.
Now, he has to get a jump shot. I'm glad he can't shoot because if he was a knockdown shooter, he would be unguardable. Literally unguardable. But he is improving. Even his post game is getting better. When it comes to the Euro steps, athleticism and getting to the rim, that’s easy for him. Once he gets a jump shot -- and he's gonna get it because he works his butt off -- we're gonna see his game go to another level.
It's really great to see a guy like that reach that level. As a rookie, he was a skinny kid. It was kinda like, “Oh, he could be good. Yeah, we'll see... He could be good if he works on his game.” Then, all of a sudden, he puts on the weight, he works his butt off and he gets the confidence. Confidence is such an important thing in basketball. When you work your butt off and you're confident, it goes a long way. That’s what allowed Giannis to become Giannis. He got stronger, he got better and, most importantly, he got his swag. Once he got his swag, it was clear that we were watching a superstar who was going to get better every year. I do think his game is gonna go to another level. That may seem crazy to say about a two-time MVP, but I mean it.
Right now, if I’m guarding him, I want to make him shoot jump shots. I'm gonna try to gap him, but you can't gap him too much because then he gets a full head of steam going to the basket. So you just try to get close enough to make him shoot contested jump shots. That's how you guard him now. But Giannis is one of those guys who works really hard, so he’s gonna keep improving. In three years, I feel like the scouting report is gonna be completely different. And when he adds a jump shot, it's gonna be crazy.
James Harden is one of the best scorers, if not the best scorer, in the history of the NBA. When I’m guarding him, I’m trying to make everything tough. I played with him, so I know what spots he likes to get to -- he likes to get to the rim, he's going left, he loves to shoot the stepback going right, he loves to put you asleep with his dribble and go by you. He's just so skilled with the ball. He knows how to take you to the rim and draw those fouls.
If I’m matched up on James, I'm trying to just switch it up at all times. I'm trying to pressure him. I'm trying to wear him down. But I'm also trying to not let him get to the rim; it's easy to say, but hard to do. So my mindset when I'm guarding James is to make it hard on him, but I also want him to take the tough shots. I kinda want him to shoot the stepback a lot. I know some people say it's his best shot, but I'd rather him shoot the stepback than go to the rim and get an and-one because that's an easier shot, in my mind.
James is a special player and when you're guarding somebody as good as James is with the ball, you have to take something away. For me, I want to take the rim away and make him shoot those stepbacks. He may beat me on some nights with the stepbacks, but he's gonna beat me every night going to the rim and drawing fouls.
I like to pressure him to wear him down, so I'm gonna pick James up 94 feet and try to bother him all over the court. As soon as the ball is inbounded, I'm picking him up and trying to wear him down because I feel like I can get an advantage by making him work for everything. Hopefully, by the fourth quarter, those stepbacks become a lot tougher than they were in the first quarter. Even if he's making some in the first half, I feel like if I'm playing hard enough and pressing him enough, those shots will be way harder in the fourth quarter and that gives my team a chance to win.
Kevin Durant has no flaws in his game. It's really hard to even say how you guard him because I never guard him the same way; you can't guard him the same way. I just try to throw as many looks at him as I can and hope he's having an off night.
I'm more focused on trying to get in front of him, trying to keep the ball out of his hands, which is almost impossible because he's so tall and guys are gonna go over the top. But I'm gonna front, I’m gonna do anything I can not to let him touch the ball. And if he does touch the ball, I want him to touch the ball way out on the perimeter. After that, you just hope and pray for the shot clock to run down or a situation where I can get a hand up -- anything I can do to defend him.
I'm just trying to do everything in my power to make him see me, just get in his way, challenge him, bump him -- anything to let him know I'm there. When he was younger, it was easier to bump him off his spot and get into his body and handle, but now the game has slowed down so much for him and he’s gotten stronger so you can’t do it much anymore. His handle has become unbelievably better, so you can't take the ball from him.
He’s great at making shots when the game is on the line too. He’s clutch. He’ll do whatever he wants to do, so you just better hope he's missing.
Guarding Steph Curry is a nightmare. When he passes half-court, he can shoot the ball and it's effortless. You have to guard him as soon as he passes half-court, so you have to push up. For me, having some length, I just try to get him to drive to the basket. I want to see Layup Steph Curry rather than Three-Point Steph Curry. If Steph starts knocking down threes, you're gonna lose every time. Not only is he gonna make it most of the time, his threes get the crowd into the game and teams can feed off that. From then on, he can do whatever he wants. Once he’s making threes and the crowd is going crazy, we'll try to double-team him. But that’s where his passing comes in - that's when he’s getting everybody else involved. Like I said, he’s a nightmare when he’s making threes.
He’s also one of the best decoys to ever do it because when Steph Curry's on the court, he gives everybody space. When he gets past half-court, again, you have to guard him. Even if he was just standing there at half-court, I'd probably be right there with him - still guarding him - so those other four guys are gonna be playing with a lot of space.
When I’m guarding him, it’s “please go shoot a layup.” That gives us a chance to win -- because if Steph is shooting threes and making threes, it’s curtains. He changed the game with the way he can shoot the ball. That's why all these guys are shooting off the pick-and-rolls, all these guys are shooting threes now. That makes him great. That's why he's a two-time MVP. That's why when people talk about one of the greatest shooters to ever do it, it's probably Steph. He changed the game, a true revolutionary when it comes to shooting that basketball.
It was beyond frustrating when Steph and KD were on the same team. As if that wasn’t enough, you’d have Klay Thompson on the court too. With all three guys, if they can see the rim, the ball has a chance of going in at a crazy rate. What do you do? You have to basically pick your poison, and you saw what happened. Look at the championships they won. They were almost impossible to guard. They all have high basketball IQs too, which makes it even tougher.
They played off each other really well. They were always moving, running and getting each other open. It's great to watch, but it's terrible to play against, terrible to guard. You're switching from one guy who can really shoot to another guy who can really shoot, so what do you do? Man, it's tough. That was one of the toughest matchups ever when those three guys were on the court together, or when you put Steph and KD in a pick-and-roll. Even if you're switching, if you've got a smaller guy on Steph, now KD has an advantage; if a bigger guy is on Steph, now he has an advantage. It's almost impossible to guard.
Even without KD, the Warriors will still be good when they get healthy! Klay got hurt and a lot of things happened this year, but they aren’t going anywhere. I'm not gonna say that they had a great run because it's not over yet.
Dame is a confident killer, man. When he comes off the pick-and-roll, his three-ball off the pick-and-roll is a thing of beauty. He's a scary guard, and he will go to the rim and dunk it. He will dunk all over you. You know it's gonna be a long night when you're playing him. And he's one of those guys where he just keeps getting better and better. Every time I’ve played him since he's gotten into the league, he's gotten better. Just the way he's shooting the ball, the way he's expanding his range is making him unbelievable.
He's showing you why he's a perennial All-Star. He's so good because of the way he shoots the ball off the pick-and-roll and the way he handles the ball. I just try to make him go to the rim and use my length against him. But he's tough. It's a different mentality. It's honestly more trying to fight off the screen and make him shoot tough twos, but he's so smart, he's gonna be able to get a shot off. That's what makes him so tough -- you really can't make him do what you want him to do. Dame talks too. Not only will Dame dominate, he’s gonna let you hear about it. If Dame can see the basket, he might score. He’s that good.
You've got to be on high alert the whole night when you're guarding Russell Westbrook. He's gonna come and keep coming no matter what. He just keeps going and going. It doesn't matter how many shots he misses, he feels like the next one is gonna be in the bottom of the bucket no matter what, and that makes him not only tough, but special. He's really hard to guard, especially when he’s driving to the basket. So you want him to shoot jump shots because that's basically him letting you off the hook. I really want him to shoot jump shots, but then again, I don't want him to make one because if he makes one, he may just get hot and go crazy.
He's tough; you want him to shoot, but you've gotta guard him tough. I just try to get a hand up and, hopefully, he tries to shoot over me. But man, when he gets it in transition, he’s one of the best to ever do it -- and that's why he's been an MVP and why he's still one of the best playing right now. When he's not hurt, he's a special talent.
Kawhi might score 40 points and just say, “Yeah.” With him, you basically just try to speed him up. It's easy to say and hard to do because he does everything at his own speed. He goes where he wants to go, he gets to his spots and I just try to contest everything he shoots. I try to get a hand up, be there and contest because he's gonna get to his spot. But I feel like if I can contest, hopefully he will miss.
He's another one of those guys where his mentality is just different from some of these other players -- he just never gets out his zone. He's always just the exact same way. He can make 10 shots in a row or he can miss 10 shots in a row, but he’s unaffected. He's gonna keep doing the exact same thing because he knows that's who he is.
I hated guarding Melo, man. The game has changed now, but when I first got in the league, Carmelo Anthony was impossible to guard. His footwork was great, but his strength and the way he could score the basketball were unbelievable. He would jab you and make the jump shot. Next time, he might take you down, back you in, throw it off the backboard, catch it and dunk it on you. Then, he might jab you, go by you and still dunk it on you.
Melo's a tough guard. He makes scoring the ball look so easy. He would just score it over and over, man. He's one of the ultimate scorers to ever play this game, and he was such a scary guard. He's still scoring the basketball at a high level. But I used to hate guarding Carmelo Anthony for sure; I'm a skinny dude, and he just wanted to punish me. I feel like he would just throw it off the backboard, get the offensive rebound and punish me on purpose. Some of the shots that Carmelo would make were crazy.
Be sure to check back on Saturday for part two, where Corey breaks down what it was like guarding retired legends such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and more.