Improved aggression: This is the biggest improvement in Lopez’s game and it’s not even close. On the boards, Lopez is much more aggressive and concerted. As a defender, he’s more willing to step in and alter an opponent’s shot, no matter who it is driving the lane. Last week, he altered shots by Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in one game. On Tuesday, he blocked/altered two of Kobe Bryant’s shots. The common theme? He has his arms up and makes these guys shoot over the top. Even the best finishers have trouble converting when there’s an active 7-footer in the paint.
Timing of help defense: To be able to make these plays, Lopez has to be in proper position. His help-side (and strong-side) defense is much improved. More often, he sees the play unfolding earlier and is willing to leave his man and make a play on the ball, which has helped Brooklyn this season.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT
Defensive aggression: Lopez has improved his aggression but still has a long way to go. He is ‘averaging just 2.1 fouls this season (2.9 for his career) and even though he is a valuable piece, he has got to learn how to give a hard foul and knock an opponent on his rear end so he and his teammates second-guess going to the basket.
For Lopez to become the dominant center Brooklyn and its fan base wants, he has ‘to become more aggressive as a defender. He is not tenacious, which is why the Nets staff has to be applauded for bringing in Evans, Humphries and Andray Blatche as complements to his game. That being said, wouldn’t it be nice if the Lopez proved he could not just hold his own, but dominate in the middle?
Is it possible? I’m not sure, but to take the next step in his development, Lopez will have to become an enforcer in the paint.
Lateral speed: It’s not the best. As Zach Lowe of Grantland pointed out earlier this season, the Nets tried to have Lopez hedge on screens to make things tougher on opponents, but it didn’t exactly work out (see example below).
Since Carlesimo has taken over, the Nets have gone to a more conservative approach that allows Lopez to trail the screener and “show” himself to the ballhandler, which has had mixed results. Sometimes, Lopez gets caught in no-man’s land in pick-and-roll situations and there’s no help (second play, below). Sometimes he does a good job of just being in the right spot and being 7 feet tall.
It is one of the hardest things for a player to develop, but Lopez has to make a concerted effort to improve his foot speed and positioning to help his personal and team defense. If he ever gets drastically better at this, it will be between seasons. This would not be an overnight adjustment.
Perpetual “under” in P&R situations: Because of Lopez’s lateral foot speed, Carlesimo has used him in the manner we just discussed. Therefore, if an opponent understands how to come off of an isolated P&R that involves Lopez (or slow big men in general), he can steal a few easy buckets. Last week, Lopez attempted to guard the Marco Belinelli-Taj Gibson P&R combo and, they exploited this matchup for a few dunks.
From years of experience playing against Lopez, Gibson knew that if he rolled quickly enough, he’d lose him and would just have to beat the help-side man to the rim.”He rolled hard and I messed up a few of my pick-and-roll coverages and he finished well,” explained Lopez. What can he do better to ensure less breakdowns? “Just communicate with the other guy in the pick-and-roll. We really want to guard it with just those two guys. We really don’t want help from the three other guys.”
Slow close-outs / reactions to shooters: Lopez often droops his hands down to the side of his body when guarding big men and they make him pay. Simply put, he has to do a better job of being prepared for big men who have a mid-range jumper. Just last night, Gasol drained one in his face when he failed to recognize his shooting prowess.
Soft finisher: Lopez has a variety of hooks that he loves to use, but sometimes he overutilizes them. When you’ are a 7-footer, you have to draw as many fouls as possible (especially as a capable free throw shooter). Instead of flipping up a four-foot hook, go up like a grown man and draw a foul. I’m not even close to a Nets fan and this infuriates me at times.
Passing: Lopez averages 1.5 assists for his career. With his scoring ability, he should be more proficient at hitting the open man. He needs to slow down with the ball in his hands and read the defense better. If you are in the low post as often as he is and have capable shooters, you have to get them more open looks. This has to be a prime area of improvement for Lopez if he wants to be the focal point of an offense.
Screening: Lopez sets weak off-ball screens. Sometimes it appears he is a bit too concerned with his own cuts rather than getting his teammates open. If he sets a better screen, there’s a better chance he will be open as well. The screener usually gains more space than the player getting the screen. If Lopez sets harder screens and seals his man, it could go a long way.
Jeremy Bauman is an aspiring scout and shooting coach who writes columns and blogs for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.