Bruce Bowen and Raja Bell helped define the “3-and-D” specialist role in the early-to-mid-2000s. As far as basketball labels go, 3-and-D is the most transparent. A “rim runner” might take some time to explain, as might a “floor general.” But 3-and-D is simple: They excel at shooting 3s and defending. What isn’t simple is finding them, as successes have come from random sectors of the draft. Shane Battier was the sixth overall pick in 2001, and selflessly adapted to a complementary role. Danny Green popped out of nowhere as the no. 46 pick in 2009. The 3-and-D archetypes, Bowen and Bell, weren’t even drafted. They’re the not-so-secret sauce to title contenders, the glue that hold a defense together, and the gravity that keeps everything in orbit around their superstar — even All-NBA players need space to do what they do.
Shooting and defensive versatility are premium skills in this era, and the 3-and-D mold is becoming more of a necessity than a speciality for role players at wing and forward. There are loads of prospects in the 2017 NBA draft with the right traits for the job. There’s a reason these players remain such a hot commodity, but who ends up being a solid 3-and-D contributor is extremely difficult to predict. It’s one thing to identify a skill set. It’s another to turn theories into production. While some players come fully formed, others arrive incomplete, with glaring flaws that suggest a rocky transition at the next level. But part of scouting is projecting talent. The next great 3-and-D athlete could be a prospect who doesn’t come off the rack with shooting and defensive skill.
Watching the playoffs these past five weeks, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with an NBA executive prior to the 2015 draft. I told the executive how much I loved then-Arizona wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: His energy and ability to lock down multiple positions were — and still are — appealing traits. I recall saying he had massive 3-and-D upside if fixed his broken jumper. The executive’s response was, “But, realistically, even if his shot becomes average, who is he? Gerald Wallace? Don’t get me wrong, Wallace was a good player in his era, but how valuable is Wallace in today’s NBA?”
I paused to think about it. Wallace’s terrific defense might even be more prized now due to modern spacing and switching defensive styles. Prime Wallace was a damn good player, but his career 31.2 career percentage from 3 is a no-go.
The league has evolved. Teams are shooting 3s at a higher rate than ever before, attempting an all-time high 31.6 percent of field goal attempts from downtown this season. Over the past few postseasons, one-dimensional defensive stoppers have been ignored on offense. Thunder wing Andre Roberson was such a non-threat in the first round this year that the Rockets let James Harden get away with playing defense like this:
Keep your eyes on Harden, who floats in the paint worrying about three-second violations more than an open Roberson 3. How valuable is Wallace in today’s NBA? Just look at Roberson for an idea: His defense is exceptional, but his inability to space the floor cripples his team’s half-court scoring. From Roberson to Tony Allen to Luc Mbah a Moute, teams are willing to give those wings and forwards space, and live with the consequences.
Up and down the draft, from the lottery to the prospects likely to fall out of the draft completely, there are players you look at and say, “Well, he can defend. But is his shot for real?” This question applies to first-rounders like Josh Jackson and OG Anunoby, or unheralded prospects like Jaron Blossomgame, Sindarius Thornwell, and Kostja Mushidi. Blossomgame is a tremendous, fiery defender who rebounds extremely well for his size, but in four years at Clemson he was a 31.5 percent 3-point shooter with a 72.3 free throw percentage.
Blossomgame’s form is inconsistent: He shoots out in front of his face, and his release is low. He front-rimmed or air-balled a ton of shots, just like he did in the clip above. Scoring will be an issue at the next level. As a senior, Blossomgame shot only 33.8 percent on shots outside of 5 feet, according to Chart Side data provided to The Ringer.
Blossomgame, Thornwell, and Mushidi, among others, will need to prove their perimeter scoring can translate in the same way that of players like Danny Green, Jae Crowder, and Trevor Ariza has. Second-rounders and undrafted free agents aren’t afforded endless chances like lottery picks often are.
Look to Josh Jackson and OG Anunoby for examples. Jackson blends freak athleticism with court sense. OG is a gamer on D with the body to match. They’ll be successful. But to justify the lofty projections that they may have, they’ll have to shoot at a league-average level.
Jackson shot 37.8 percent from 3 at Kansas, but on only 90 attempts. We’re working with a small sample size, and his 56.6 percent rate from the free throw line is more troubling. Put the stats down and look at the film:
Jackson’s form looks different each time he shoots — his elbows stick out, his guide hand hovers over the ball, and his release is slow — and it can all lead to some wild misses. Sometimes it looks like he’s never shot a ball before. The 20-year-old needs to overhaul his mechanics, but trying to fix a jump shot in basketball is about as hard as trying to fix someone in a relationship. For every Kawhi Leonard success story, there’s a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Stanley Johnson, and Justise Winslow — and many more.
Where’s the D?
A role player needs to hit 3s to be effective offensively, but to even be on the floor he needs to defend. In an offense-obsessed league, it’s easy to forget the “D” in 3-and-D. When the Cavaliers traded for Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith in January 2015, the initial response was predictable: “The Cavs got these guys to help LeBron James!?” But it’s worked out magically. Both players have transformed themselves into 3-and-D players. They’re not perfect — just look at their miscommunication at the end of Cleveland’s Game 3 loss to the Celtics — but they’re very good.
“I knew personally that when we made the trade for J.R. and Shump that we was getting guys that would sacrifice and do whatever it took to win,” LeBron James said earlier this month. “Shump has the DNA of a defensive stopper. And I just had to challenge J.R., and the team all challenged J.R., and that’s what he is now.” Situations can often play an integral role in success. Shumpert has been an impactful defender dating back to college, but Smith often saved energy on the defensive end, possibly for his night out after the game. Being on a winning team, with Dad Bron, changed all that. I asked Smith after Game 1 in Boston what the key was to his development, and he said, “Having guys in the organization in back of you. It’s totally different in this situation. I give credit to my teammates.”
There are players in this year’s draft who undoubtedly can shoot the ball, like forwards Andrew White (who played in Syracuse’s zone), Vince Edwards from Purdue, and V.J. Beachem from Notre Dame:
They may, however, need to fall into the right situation to help them develop a defensive identity. They all have upside. Beachem has long arms and good quickness, but he’s not as effective against physical players, and takes a lax approach to closing out and boxing out.
Similarly, Edwards tends to take a passive approach to defense. You’ll rarely find him digging in and grinding like the opponent stole his lunch money and he’s ready to battle to get it back.
You can easily see the potential. Edwards is 6-foot-8 with a thick frame and long arms, and his positioning on this possession is fine. But coaches I’ve talked with always say effort and intensity are what make measurables matter. Smith was a zero on defense until he got to Cleveland. Players like Beachem and Edwards have the tools, and in the right situation they might be forced to defend, or else they’ll perish.
Accepting the Role
Some draftees will enter the NBA looking to prove themselves as more than just role players. Others will come in with a mind-set of accepting their roles, and then building on top of them — this subtlety can determine successes and failures. That’s why a prospect like Miami wing Davon Reed is so appealing as an early second-rounder. There’s no doubt Reed, who sports a fast and high release in his mechanics, can shoot. But he also plays with a badass mind-set on defense. Reed battles through screens, chases 50–50 balls, and has a super-long wingspan that’ll allow him to defend guards, wings, and some forwards.
“Being a ball hawk defensively and making the other team’s offensive player’s job hell, that’s what I’m looking to do,” Reed told me at the NBA combine in Chicago. “I’m a grinder, but it’s more about effort than anything else. It’s a will to want to stop somebody. That’s what drives me.” Reed also said that he’s learned throughout his college career that he’s capable of doing more, but he’s “willing to embrace” the 3-and-D role. Accepting a bit responsibility isn’t always easy for players. Some come from backgrounds where they received a heavy usage from an early age. Iman Shumpert had to make that transition throughout his career, and looking at his up-and-down shooting numbers, it still appears to be a hurdle.
“It’s an adjustment,” Shumpert said last week when asked about adjusting to the 3-and-D role after the Cavaliers beat the Celtics. “I’m one of those guys — I was always a rhythm guy. I always had the ball, getting my rhythm, never having to force anything, never having to feel like I ran out of options with the ball.” Some of this year’s draftees will undoubtedly need to make that type of adjustment, but they’ll need to understand that it’s for the best. “[If] you get thrown into this role right away, you can reject it because it can make you feel so uncomfortable and make you feel so unaggressive,” Shumpert said. “But you gotta get to the point where you develop a mentality where everything is for wins.”
There aren’t many sure-bets for the 3-and-D role in this year’s draft. Reed stands out as a good one — so does Villanova wing Josh Hart and the SMU duo of Sterling Brown and Semi Ojeleye. They’re all hiding in plain sight: Brown could go undrafted, and Ojeleye is likely a late-first-rounder at best. Ojeleye in particular, with his chiseled, Wreck-It Ralph body, has remarkable potential. There’s little doubt he will be able to effectively defend multiple positions. He also plays with intensity, which manifests in chase-down blocks like this:
Ojeleye shot 42.4 percent from 3 and 78.5 percent from the line, and he has simple one-motion mechanics with a nice, high release. His release isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, but it works. Basketball doesn’t always need to be pretty. “I have the strength to hold off forwards from getting good positioning, and I can rebound,” Ojeleye told me at the NBA combine. “I can stretch the floor a little bit, so I think with more time, more work, more reps, I can fill that 3-and-D role.”
I asked Ojeleye to describe why 3-and-D players are important in the NBA. “It’s extremely valuable,” he responded with confidence. “Guys like that can guard multiple lineups, especially you see in the playoffs you need guys who can fill in on the fly. It gets late in the game, it’s extremely valuable to play multiple positions and do different things.”
If a role player doesn’t want to be a starter, and a starter doesn’t want to be a star, there’s something off. The players who look to maximize their potential are the ones who tend to achieve it. You need a vision to chase — and the maturity to be accepting along the path. Not all players will achieve their dreams of hitting a game winner in the Finals, but some will. Once Kawhi Leonard started showcasing a reliable 3-pointer just a few years ago, he was thought of as a potential 3-and-D player; so was Klay Thompson once he showed off his individual defense. They leveled up and achieved superstardom.
Some teams have the same hope for Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac. At 6-foot-11, with long arms and quick feet, Isaac projects as a forward who can rebound and defend every position on the floor. That’s not an exaggeration. Watch him swat away fellow likely lottery pick Jayson Tatum:
Isaac isn’t a true knockdown shooter, but for a 19-year-old, he’s good enough. He’s a safe pick in the sense that there’s a low probability of absolute failure. Isaac will produce. The real question lies in the heights he can reach offensively. Isaac has small hands, and he bobbles a lot of passes. High-degree-of-difficulty shots don’t come easy to him. He’s passive, too — and sometimes he looks like he gets frustrated when things don’t go well offensively. I’m not sure he has the mental makeup of a go-to scorer. But then again, he can make plays like this:
Watching Isaac use a hang dribble straight into a pull-up 3, it’s hard not to see him as the kind of developmental outlier that players like Kawhi and Paul George turned out to be. He has the size and the athleticism, and he’ll certainly receive the opportunity as a high draft pick.
Other players deep into the draft fit the same criteria. Potential first-rounders Terrance Ferguson, Justin Jackson, and Kyle Kuzma all have 3-and-D tools and show flashes of reaching a higher level. Into the second round, the same is true for Jonah Bolden and L.J. Peak. These players are scattered throughout the draft. Some of them will fade away, never reaching even the fringes of an NBA roster. Others could become the next Jonathon Simmons, a player teams can trust in good times and bad.
Keep your eyes are on Devin Robinson, a junior wing from Florida. He’s tall and lean, at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He can shoot. He can defend. He bounces out of the gym.
The problem is, at 22, he’s still raw, and all his positives are plagued by inconsistencies. Robinson told me he knows he’ll likely slide into a 3-and-D role early in his career, and from there, he’ll need to take advantage of his opportunity and keep building. “Right now I’m heavily dependent on my teammates getting me the ball to knock down the shot,” Robinson said at the NBA combine. “But right now I’m working on creating my own shot so I can be successful at the next level.”
The flashes are there. Robinson gets high elevation on his jumpers, both off the catch and the dribble, and he’s a terrific finisher at the rim. The team drafting Robinson will have a player who has work to do to stay on the court. But like Isaac, his upside is intoxicating.
The key for the team is to have patience, and for the player, it’s all about buying in. Not every player on a team can or will be the star. The league is mostly role players, just like the body is mostly water. And you don’t have to tell someone how essential water is to survival. The 3-and-D player is integral to the fabric of winning organizations, and as the NBA continues to evolve, their importance will only grow.