How Gary Trent Jr. reinvented himself defensively

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TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 27: Gary Trent Jr. #33 of the Toronto Raptors goes after a ball against Oshae Brissett #12 of the Indiana Pacers during the second half of their basketball game at Scotiabank Arena on October 27, 2021 in Toronto, Canada. User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

In the Nick Nurse era, the Toronto Raptors have been an outstanding defensive team. The well-traveled head coach and his collection of assistants have brought a depth of knowledge and wide-ranging experience to the franchise, which in turn has led the team to experiment with nearly every defensive concept under the sun.

The stereotypical player that this staff has longed for is a versatile wing with length who can guard multiple positions.

So when the Raptors moved Norman Powell (6’4″ with a 6’11” wingspan) for Gary Trent Jr. (6’6″ with a 6’9″ wingspan), it seemed as if the front office had begun to move away from Nurse’s blueprint.

While Trent Jr. possessed an excellent wingspan, he was not considered a strong defender.

In Portland, he slowly built himself into a rotation piece, and by the Orlando bubble, he had become a spot starter.

Despite never eclipsing 0.9 steals per game with the Trail Blazers, Trent Jr. quickly saw his steals average jump to 1.1 SPG during 17 games with the Raptors in 2020-21.

Fast forward to the present day, and Trent Jr. sits fifth in the NBA with 2.6 SPG and leads the league in total steals with 18 — ahead of defensive stalwarts like Jimmy Butler (17), Paul George (17), and Alex Caruso (16).

He also is making game-winning steals now.

How did a player who couldn’t average one steal a game while playing 30-plus minutes a night for Portland suddenly morph into one of the league’s best pickpockets?

For that answer, we turn to the film.

Jumping the Passing Lane

One of the most common ways defenders get steals is by anticipating an action happening before it does.

In most cases, this bears out when a player can intercept a pass as they rotate defensively.

Trent Jr. almost looks like a defensive back in the halfcourt at times.

In the first two clips, he merely attacks the pass as it comes toward the player he’s guarding, reacting faster and getting to the ball first.
The final clip is where you can see him read the play before it unfolds.
As Justin Holiday starts his drive, the Raptors defense is in full-on scramble mode. Khem Birch executed his job and ran Holiday off the three-point line. However, Dalano Banton has already gotten to the basket to cover Malcolm Brogdon, allowing Svi Mykhailiuk to bump out to stop Holiday’s penetration.
Scottie Barnes is defending Torrey Craig on the ball side wing, and that leaves Trent Jr. alone on the weak side to deal with the remaining two Indiana Pacers.
Myles Turner decides to make a 45 cut from the opposite wing to the basket, and Brad Wanamaker relocates to the slot as Holiday drives to the basket.
Since Trent Jr. was already in proper help, it seems to Holiday that The awaiting Raptor will stonewall Turner’s cut. Trent Jr. even moves into what would’ve been Holiday’s passing lane to Turner.
However, it’s not Turner who Trent Jr. is worried about.
Toronto does a great job of closing out to shooters. Either running them off the line — as Birch did to Holiday — or getting a hand up and contesting shot attempts.
Trent Jr. is prepping to close out on Wanamaker should Holiday give him the ball. His work early in the possession allows him to knife between Turner and Craig (who also cut to the basket) unseen by Holiday. By the time Holiday’s pass makes its way to Wanamaker, Trent Jr. is there to snatch it away.
Given Nurse’s preferred defensive scheme, these are the types of steals that the Raptors actively search out. The fact that Trent Jr. has adapted to this as well as he has is why the team felt comfortable investing $54 million into him over the summer.

Active Hands

As a rotational defender, Trent Jr. doesn’t always try to sneak his way into steals.

Certain moments call for him to attack the ball as the help defender.

Against Romeo Langford and Oshae Brisset, Trent Jr. lurks on the outskirts of the action and then snaps into motion as soon as the basketball is let loose on the court.

The second clip is more about Trent Jr.’s aggressive mindset on defense.

It’s the fourth quarter, and though the Raptors have a healthy lead, six minutes is a lot of time for either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown to get hot.

In this play, Tatum isolates against Birch — advantage Tatum — in the left corner. Trent Jr. is in the proper help position, and because of that, it allows him to take a gamble. As Tatum gets into his move and looks to drive past Birch, Trent Jr. springs on him from the baseline and swipes the ball away as Tatum attempts to spin out from the double team.

The aggressiveness for Trent Jr. doesn’t only apply to help scenarios. Fans can make an argument that he is the team’s most aggressive on-ball defender too.

Trent Jr. loves to use his hands defensively. This was something that showed in spurts while he was a Trail Blazer.

Immediately when Al Horford receives Marcus Smart’s pass, Trent Jr. is right on top of him. Not only that, but he has his hands in Horford’s hips, forcing him to take the ball away from his body and place his leg in between the ball and Trent Jr. This keeps the Celtics big man square his shoulders to the basket.

Often, you’ll see defenders relax at this point. Their initial job done, they corralled the pick-and-pop.

Not Trent Jr. He remains tight to Horford, invading any sense of personal space, and keeps his hands active in their search for any opening to take a stab at the basketball. As Horford sweeps the ball back across his body, it meets Trent Jr,’s hands which can then knock it loose.

The same takes place with Robert Williams III in the second play. He can leap above Trent Jr. and secure the rebound, but the moment Williams drops the ball below his waist Trent Jr. pounces on it and slaps it loose before recovering it on the floor.

Then, against Jaylen Brown, Trent Jr. looks to be beaten on the initial drive but ultimately can get back in front of Brown. Trent Jr. sneaks in a steal attempt on Brown’s first gather, which deters the Boston swingman from rising into a pull-up jumper. However, once Brown begins to scan the floor for an outlet Trent Jr. bade his time before reaching in and jarring the ball loose from Brown’s hip.

This final play is a personal favorite. Similar to the previous play, Brogdon can get a step ahead of Trent Jr. off the dribble. However, instead of cutting off Brogdon’s drive, Trent Jr. sees that Precious Achiuwa is in help position and instead follows the play from behind and can poke the ball free before Brogdon retrieves it passes it to Domantas Sabonis.

Once again, Trent Jr. recovers to guard Sabonis now. After leaving his feet for Sabonis’ pump fake, Trent Jr. again can make contact with the ball by hitting it from behind as Sabonis attempts to dribble.

Post Entry

This move isn’t as standard on a nightly basis, but when Trent Jr. can pull it off, it is such a chef’s kiss of an action.

It should come as a surprise to no one that he knows his way around the low block; his father was known as “The Shaq of the MAC” during his playing days.

Like his father, Trent Jr. is built sturdily, and though he won’t be confused for one of basketball’s most impressive physical specimens, he has the strength to hold his own in the post.

However, instead of over-relying on that aspect of his physique, Trent Jr. will often use his foot speed to win battles in the post when he switches onto a bigger player.

For forwards and centers, posting up is a sort of dance. Most don’t run to the low block and then about-face to receive a pass. Instead, there’s some arm wrestling, tugging, and fighting for positioning that occurs before an entry pass is made.

Trent Jr. knows this dance well and often lets his opponent go through a few steps before he swims around them and disrupts the incoming pass.

In both clips, Montrezl Harrell and Kristaps Porzingis think they have Trent Jr. pinned against their backs, but he can maneuver around them and get to the basketball first.

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