2023 World Cup Preview: The Defensive Schemes (Part 2)

Predicting Canada's defensive coverages at the 2023 FIBA World Cup

In Part 2 of the Defensive Schemes breakdown, we’ll analyze what Canada’s preferred defensive coverages were both on-ball and off-ball since the 2021 Olympic Qualifying Tournament. We’ll look into what Nick Nurse liked to do with the personnel made available to him as well as what Jordi Fernandez has elected for thus far in Canada’s 2023 FIBA World Cup exhibition tour.

If you’re interested in more X’s and O’s breakdowns, check out the rest of my 2023 World Cup Preview series: Roster Profiles, Part 1 and Part 2 of the Offensive Playbook analysis, and Part 1 of the Defensive Schemes deep dive. I re-watched every game the Summer Core was involved in since Nick Nurse took over in 2019 as preparation for this series, and truly went deep into the details and nuances.

PnR Defense

The focal point of any strong defense, getting the coverages right for defending the PnR is the single most important decision Jordi Fernandez will need to make at the 2023 FIBA World Cup. As I wrote in Part 1, “designing a defensive scheme that is effective for your team’s personnel and against your opponents personnel is vital to the success of any team.”

In this section, we’ll look specifically at how Canada has decided to defend PnR’s, with the analysis focused on the coverages employed for each Canadian big. There’s obviously more layers to PnR defense (think POA defense, tagging the roller, other rotations, etc.) that are factors as well, but I find it’s the bigs’ strengths and limitations that factor in the most into the decision to play specific coverages.

Dwight Powell PnR Coverages

Listed at 6’10” (by NBA.com) and boasting a reported 7’0″ wingspan, Dwight Powell will be the starter centre for Canada in Jakarta. As an undersized big in FIBA, Dwight Powell has had his fair share of struggles playing drop coverage for the SMNT over the years. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t have the size (I really doubt he’s 6’10” based on the film, he just feels smaller to me) to be able to deter drives and recover to the rolling big effectively to contest the shot. When Canada is able to bring help from the nail/corners, Powell’s drop defense looks a lot better. But this is involving 3, sometimes 4 Canadian defenders to defend 1 action and that’s a numbers game that will eventually catch up to Canada.

Powell is especially vulnerable to the lob pass because of his lack of size. Whether it was Nick Calathes with Greece or Dennis Schröder with Germany, Powell was routinely stuck in no-man’s land and the lob to the roller was wide open. With Rudy Gobert and his ridiculous catch radius waiting for Canada on August 25th, this is a concern that France will look to exploit.

While his physical tools limit his effectiveness in drop, they actually make Powell versatile enough to switch PnR’s effectively. It was Nick Nurse’s half-time adjustment in 2021 vs Greece to switch every ball screen that totally stifled the Greek offense and powered Canada to a 97-91 victory (they were trailing 46-50 at halftime, meaning this adjustment was key in the +10 point turnaround).

Will he get beat on switches by guards from time to time? Of course, but compared to most FIBA bigs, Powell at least has some utility in switching the PnR. That’s valuable defensive versatility. For example if we look at the exhibition game vs the Dominican Republic, Powell’s mobility at his size (and Shai’s size as the PG position) allowed Canada to freely switch PnR’s involving Karl-Anthony Towns, as pointed by Steve Jones Jr. These actions usually end up being pick-and-pop 3PT looks for KAT and minimizing that is a huge win for any defense.

Finally, Powell’s mobility allows Canada to blitz ball handlers in the right circumstances as well. All in all, while Powell does have obvious limitations as a PnR defender, he’s versatile enough in different coverages that he’ll be key to Canada’s defense in Jakarta.

Kelly Olynyk PnR Coverages

Unfortunately, Kelly Olynyk has some athletic limitations that limit his impact on the defensive end. He is pretty agile for a 6’11” player, but his footspeed and lack of vertical explosiveness are not ideal. As a result, Canada’s base PnR coverage with Olynyk was “at the level drop”. Notice how Olynyk is up to the level of the screen (he basically has 1 arm on the screener), before dropping back in the sequences below.

Here’s another instance of Olynyk playing “at the level drop” during the 2023 World Cup exhibition game against Germany, conceding the pullup 3 to Schröder.

In that second exhibition game against Germany, Olynyk was targeted in PnR by Schröder to great success in the 3rd quarter. To be quite honest, Olynyk was getting eviscerated. So how did Jordi Fernandez respond?

Well, one of his adjustments in the 4th quarter was to take Olynyk completely out of the PnR action. Fernandez had Olynyk guard Andrea Obst, a 6’3″ German guard, while Dillon Brooks slid up and defended Mo Wagner. This meant, that Canada could switch PnR’s involving Franz Wagner since Brooks and Barrett are similar sized defenders. This is the type of proactive problem solving I love to see from Fernandez.

I am most comfortable with Olynyk playing the 4 exclusively this summer. Given our big-man depth and roster construction, I think it just makes sense to have Olynyk share the court with another Canadian big. His size at the 4 brings some extra defensive value and his athletic limitations can be masked if he’s not the primary rim protector on the floor. Thus far, Fernandez has gone to more offensively-slanted lineups with Olynyk at the 5 here and there, but I think these lineups have struggled to tread water on the defensive end.

Kyle Alexander PnR Coverages

If you’ve read any of my World Cup preview coverage, or listened to my episode on the Raptors Show with Will Lou or seen any of my tweets, you’ll know I have been driving the “Kyle Alexander as the 3rd big in the rotation” agenda. He’s just so good on the defensive end, especially defending the PnR. Alexander has the length, mobility and vertical pop to be a dominant rim protector.

In PnR, the base coverage for Alexander is to play drop. Compared to Powell or Olynyk, Alexander is so much more effective at playing both the ball handler and be able to recover to the roller in time. The defensive possession in the first clip below is astonishing, his recovery time and vertical contest while flipping his hips is otherworldly.

As seen in the last defensive possession above, Alexander can switch and hold his own on the perimeter as well. Even if he is beat initially off the dribble, he is so good in rearview pursuit thanks to his length (7’5″ wingspan).

The offense may still be a question mark for Alexander, but regardless he needs to play consistent minutes at the 2023 World Cup if Canada is going to be a strong defensive team. He is the only big on this roster capable of being a true defensive anchor.

Zach Edey PnR Coverages

After watching the first 5 exhibition games, I am more confident in Zach Edey being a situational rotation player, rather than a solidified contributor who will be the first big off the bench. My main concern would be opposing teams going after him possession after possession in the PnR, like we saw in the DBB Supercup Finals against Germany. Now, Canada’s group doesn’t have quite a dynamic guard like Schröder so I think it will be possible to find minutes for Edey, but the concern is still there.

Edey exclusively plays drop defense, keeping his massive frame closer to the basket to contest shots and further away from the perimeter, where his slower foot speed can be exploited.

Interestingly, thus far in the exhibition games, Fernandez has had Edey play a much higher drop than I was anticipating. He’s a couple steps behind the screen (compared to Olynyk who was right at the level), but I wouldn’t define it as a deep drop. Compared to Brook Lopez for example, Edey is much higher up in drop.

As a 7’4″ human being, Edey isn’t be able to flip his hips or stunt and recover as fast as other smaller players. In other words, his change-of-direction speed, while good for a 7’4″ center, isn’t good enough to contain defenders in space. The closeout to Theis in the sequence below puts him completely out of the picture as he can’t stop his momentum and recover in time.

While the above defensive possession was Edey’s first of the summer, running Theis off the line is never the right defensive strategy. I’ll chalk it up to being jittery and excited, but I still think the clip above highlights Edey’s weaknesses defending in space.

In the summer of 2022, Nick Nurse tried to insulate Edey’s mobility limitations by running a shapeshifting 2-2-1 zone. With no 3 second violation in FIBA, parking Edey in the paint is an innovative approach to maximizing his defensive value.

This summer, Jordi Fernandez has only run 1 zone defensive possession with Edey on the floor and it was a vanilla 2-3 zone. Edey brings so much offensive value (as I covered in my Training Camp Profiles piece) that it would be a disservice to keep him on the bench all tournament long, without at least trying some creative defensive schemes to hide his athletic limitations while also accentuating his size. My hope is Fernandez was withholding all his niche coverages during the exhibition tour and we’ll see some janky defenses with Edey playing a role on the team.

Melvin Ejim PnR Coverages

Though Melvin Ejim is technically not a big, I think his role this summer will primarily be as a backup 4 so I have included a section on his PnR defense.

When Ejim is defending the PnR, Canada will switch every ball screen. In the video below, Ejim’s agility and change of direction skills are on full display as he forces Schröder into a miss at the rim. Jordi Fernandez even went to a super small lineup with Ejim at the 5(!) in order to switch every ball screen Germany threw at them.

Anthony Bennett PnR Coverages

Here’s a blast from the past, in the 2021 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, the 4th big in Canada’s rotation was Anthony Bennett. Bennett exclusively played drop, but was uneffective. He’s just way too small (listed at 6’7″) to recover and contest the roller, but also not mobile enough to switch ball screens.

Andrew Nicholson PnR Coverages

Just based off size alone, Nicholson was more effective defending the PnR compared to Anthony Bennett, which was the reason why he was the first big off the bench in 2021. That being said, Nicholson is also a very floor-bound player, so he didn’t offer much defense vertically. Despite the individual weaknesses of the 2023 World Cup bigs, they are all multiple steps up from the likes of Nicholson and Bennett.

Post Defense

In the 2021 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Canada was woefully undersized with a frontcourt rotation of Dwight Powell, Trey Lyles, Andrew Nicholson and Anthony Bennett. That size disadvantage forced Canada to swarm and bring multiple defenders over in rotation whenever the ball got deep into the paint.

Once teams realized Canada was going to overhelp on post-up possessions/paint catches, they could punish Canada by slingshoting it back to the perimeter for an open 3.

If the post-up possession was a little further out, Canada would send a double from 1 pass away. This has been a pretty consistent theme in Nurse’s defensive schemes over the years, especially when the Raptors were lacking a true centre for an extended period of time.

Doubling from 1 pass away puts an immense amount of pressure on the remaining 3 Canadian defenders to anticipate and rotate in time. To make matters worse, France looked comfortable having Moustapha Fall (7’2″ centre) be the playmaking hub in the post during their exhibition game against Australia. Split action, or just Fall hitting cutters, Canada’s off-ball rotations are going to need to be extra focused, disciplined and crisp on August 25th.

“Lock and Trail”

As I talked about in Part 1, Nurse continued to have Canada concede the usage of the ball screen and “lock and trail”. If you’re wondering why Canada would do this, here is what I wrote in Part 1:

Why would Canada ever want to concede the usage of the screen? It sounds counterintuitive to just give something up so easily. Well, offensive players have an array of ways to use an off-ball screen (think rejecting, curling, flattening the angle, etc.) and these different options makes it incredibly difficult to defend. Canada’s approach was to cut down on these options, essentially forcing the offensive player to always use the screen. Simplifying their defensive coverage and making it easier on Canada’s players as they only need to anticipate 1 possibility.

In the sequence below, you can see Kevin Pangos in position to “lock and trail” the opposing offensive player around the staggered screens. This technique is really similar to how football cornerbacks will play with “outside or inside leverage”, shepherding opposing receivers to run their route in a certain direction based on their positioning.

Extending Defensive Pressure

A very interesting strategy from Nick Nurse in 2022 was to have Canada’s bigs pressure and smother opposing bigs on the perimeter, even if they were non-shooters. With the rise in popularity of Delay action (see Part 1 and Part 2 of the Offensive Playbook if you want to learn more about this alignment) more and more bigs are initiating offense. This seems like the next logical adjustment from teams as they try and force opposing bigs into mistakes, deny the first option in actions run and eat up as much clock as possible.

Speaking of extending pressure, Nurse periodically would extend his defense and play some full court press as well. Trying anything to disrupt the rhythm and flow of opposing offenses.