25-under-25, Cleveland Cavaliers

Jarrett Allen is doing defense his own way

Jarrett Allen has become one of the most dominating interior defenders in the entire NBA. And he’s done it all with a characteristic smile on his face.

All due respect to Jarrett Allen, but he doesn’t exactly conjure a sense of intimidation. The afro adds some soft, non-threatening curves to an otherwise angular frame. He’s built like Jack Skellington but smiles with the warmth of Tommy Pickles. He’s the closest thing the NBA has to Bob Ross, seriously. You just kind of want to give him a high-five or a hug, and then go get a coffee and a bagel with him and talk about Dragon Ball Z.

Even Allen understands that intimidation isn’t really his thing. In a 2018 Q&A with The New York Post he said:

“Q: But you’re like the least intimidating person I’ve ever met.
A: It’s not about intimidation, it’s about not being able to score the ball (chuckle). That’s how I picture it.

Q: Your mentality on the court … do you turn into a different person?
A: Not really, I’m still me. I don’t like using that I turn into like a monster on the court or anything, that’s not my thing to say. I become more focused.”

And yet somehow, this smiley, string bean has become perhaps the NBA’s most effective rim protector.

Only six players defended more shots per game inside six feet of the basket last season. Of the 200 players who defended at least 200 shots inside of six feet last season, no one allowed a lower field goal percentage on those shots than Allen. He has moved into the realm of players whose mere presence is an unbelievable deterrence. A half-hearted jump with his arm barely raised above his shoulder can force a shot into a wild launch angle.

Make no mistake, last year was a breakout defensive performance for Allen. He contested a similar number of shots the season before and allowed a defensive field goal percentage nearly five points higher. Although his actual blocks were down slightly this season, the Cavs interior defense was better and he set a career-high in steal percentage.

Allen’s symbiosis with his more versatile frontcourt partner, Evan Mobley, is a big part of the story but it’s not just Mobley making him look good. The Cavs’ defense was roughly the same when either player was anchoring the defense alone and the success of their partnership is driven by a lot more than just Mobley’s mobility.

Allen has become increasingly comfortable shutting down open space in the middle of the floor, disrupting dribbles and passing lanes and using his length to close out effectively on the perimeter.

Jarrett Allen is dominating defense without the rough edges

The NBA’s most legendary defenders often have an edge about them. Dikembe Mutombo’s imposing size and taunting finger. The incessant jawing and pressure of Draymond Green and Gary Payton. Ben Wallace’s mean mug. Dennis Rodman’s whole thing. Even the silent stoicism of Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard was weaponized.

Defense is hard, physical work performed by charismatic villains and brooding anti-heroes. The basic acts themselves are antagonistic — the blocks, the deflections, the disruptions, swallowing open space with the implication that anything but a hasty retreat will be met by force. Defense isn’t supposed to be fun, it isn’t supposed to seem joyful.

But there is Jarrett Allen.

Placidly dropping into drop coverage. Hedging on a screen with a subtle smile. Grinning playfully after a big block, emotion with no intention. Not smiling to intimidate, or to grandstand, to pump himself up or grind an opponent down. Just smiling because basketball is fun and Jarrett Allen is good at basketball.

I don’t mean to obsess over his defense and miss exactly half of what made him so great last season. He ranked in the 79th percentile in efficiency as a post-up scorer, leveraging duck-ins, dump-offs and dramatically improved footwork. And has become one of the league’s most efficient paint scorers, with a mix of soft touch and increased dunking range. I mean, the man made some damn posters last season.

But watch him run back up court in the clip above. No part of his reaction is for the crowd or for his opponents. He just smiles to himself, perhaps replaying the yam to himself in his head, as if he has to convince himself that he really just did that. You get the sense that he’s enjoying it as much as we are.

And that feels like the real beauty of Jarrett Allen. He’s as integral to the Cavs success as Evan Mobley or Darius Garland. He has become a suffocating defender and an offensive force in the middle of the paint. He is making beautiful basketball plays all over the court. But he’s not doing it for anyone else.

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