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The 5 Toughest Players I've Ever Guarded

Nov 26 2019
Photo by
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Photo by
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Presented By
Marcus Smart
Boston Celtics
Nov 26 2019

When you’re looking for the true experts, you don’t have to look any further than those who play the game every day. The Players’ Tribune, in partnership with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, an original series available on Prime Video, presents “5 Toughest,” a series where players break down other players, from the most unstoppable at their position to those they play against week in and week out.


T

he most physical, most annoying games I ever played in my life were against my brothers growing up. 

You know how brothers be. Always fighting — for the ball on the court, space in the bathroom, the TV remote … everything. And in our house, a closed mouth didn’t get fed. You had to speak up. Stand up for yourself. So when we got on the court together, darn near every game ended up in a fight.

I’m the youngest of four, but I’m nine years younger than my next-oldest brother, Michael, and more than 20 years younger than my other two brothers, Jeffrey and Todd. 

So I was the youngest by a lot — basically a little kid out there playing with grown men.

A lot of the way I play today can be attributed to those games with my brothers. I had to be clever. I had to compensate for my lack of … pretty much everything … by playing smart and doing all the little things most guys don’t like to do. Diving on the concrete for a loose ball. Bodying up on somebody way bigger than me. Getting beat up, run over, knocked down … and then getting back up.

That’s just how I learned how to play.

It’s how I was raised in this game.

That’s one of the reasons I pride myself so much on my defense — being able to guard the one through the five. Anybody you put in front of me, I’m gonna go to work on them, same way I did against my brothers back in the day. 

And I’ll be real with you: I think I can match up with just about anybody. There’s not a lot of guys in this league who are tough for me to guard. It’s a short list.

But there are a few who make my job extra difficult. Guys who even the best defenders have trouble with. Guys who are basically unstoppable.

Here’s a few of them.


Kawhi Leonard, F, Los Angeles Clippers

The first time I played against Kawhi was in 2015, during my rookie year, when he was in San Antonio. I just remember him being so quiet. Real unassuming. Like if you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was just a regular guy coming off the bench. He had that vibe about him.

Then the game started.

I got matched up on him, and right off that bat he took me down to the post. The first time he backed me down, he had some body behind it. I was just feeling him out, like, O.K., this guy is kinda strong

Then he bumped me again and knocked me back a step, and I was like, Dang … he’s way stronger than I thought.

Next thing you know, he’s just pushing me around in the post, having his way. It was like I was back on the concrete court with my brothers getting worked. 

He scored over me so many times my coach took me off of him. And for me, somebody who prides himself on his defense and being able to hold his own against anybody? That was tough to stomach, man. It also really opened my eyes to the rare talent that Kawhi is. Dude is remarkable.

And what’s crazy is, in these last few years, he’s developed his all-around game even more. Somehow, he keeps getting better.

Trying to guard Kawhi on an island by yourself is tough. You gotta take the basket away and push him to your help. You want him to take a contested shot as far away from the basket as possible, because his mid-range game is phenomenal. He brought back the 15-footer, no doubt. That’s a lost art in this game, especially in the age of analytics. Everything on paper says the 15-footer is a bad shot. But for Kawhi, it’s money. And he’ll kill you with it if you let him. So all you can really do is get him shooting from distance and contesting it.

But he can still shoot at a high clip from range, so it’s like … what do you do?

I’ll tell you this much: One thing you can’t do against him is take a play off. Because he’ll sniff that out and flip a switch. If you’re playing lazy defense — or if his team is behind, or if it’s late in the game, or if his team needs somebody to make a play — he’ll turn it on. And when he really gets going, can’t nobody stop him.

I would definitely say he’s the most unstoppable player in the league right now. The way he can score the ball at his size — he can take you off the dribble, post you up, shoot the mid-range or shoot the three — it’s wild.

Kawhi is just … different.

He’s out of this world.


Paul George, F, Los Angeles Clippers

Paul’s game is all about rhythm. It’s like when guys see a shot fall once, then twice … that momentum builds. It’s real. Being in the zone is real. The hot hand, being on fire — it’s all real. 

And Paul George will stay hot all night if you let him.

With Paul, timing is everything. His game is so smooth. So on the ball or off the ball, anything you can do to keep him from getting to his spot and into a rhythm — to throw off that timing — you gotta do it. You have to make him uncomfortable. Make him miss. 

Notice I didn’t say hope he misses. 

I said make him miss. 

For me, the best way to do that is to stay up on him. No clean looks. I know he wants to shoot over me — he’s got five inches on me — so I have to be there to contest every shot. He’s one of those guys where you’ll risk the foul every now and then to let him know you’re there and mess with his rhythm. Giving a foul is just the cost of doing business. 

And I’m a stronger guy. It’s tough to move me. So while I try to use my physicality to stand my ground and stay up on him, at the same time, I’m trying to force him left — to his off-hand. 


Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I’m always trying to force a guy to his weakness. Paul is a great finisher with his right hand. He can still finish with his left, but it’s not his strength. And he knows that. So if I can force him that way — trusting that my help is there and knowing that, at the very least, I’m making him do something he doesn’t want to do — I’m controlling his game instead of letting him dictate. It gives me an advantage. If I try to guard Paul out on the perimeter the whole game, he’s going to get his, and it’ll be a long night for me.

When you have Kawhi and Paul George on the court at the same time — two guys who can really score the ball and who you can’t guard on an island — you need to rely on your help. It’s tough because if one guy is on Kawhi and I’m on Paul, I’m not leaving Paul to come help with Kawhi, and vice versa. There’s just less help to go around.

It’ll be interesting to see how they exploit that once they really get going together.


Kyrie Irving, PG, Brooklyn Nets

There are a lot of things that make Kyrie’s game unstoppable. But his ability to ad-lib and come up with things on the fly is special. 

That’s why I like to call Kyrie’s moves “last-minute moves.” 

It’s like, when the shot clock is winding down and he’s gotta do something. As a defender, you’re running through Kyrie’s arsenal in your mind, narrowing down what you’ve seen him do and what he might pull out at that moment, based on where he’s at on the court. He’s short on time, so his options are limited.

Then literally at the last second, he hits you with something you weren’t expecting. And you’re like, Dang … how did he even think of that?

He’s really good at going to his second and third moves when you cut off his first, or when he doesn’t have time to set something up. 

He’s able to do this because he works really well in small spaces. He might have one guy on his hip and another in front of him, and he’ll split them — he’ll throw the ball between them and somehow come out on the other side with it. He’s got the best crossover in the game. He can step back. There are so many ways he can get you turned around or off balance and create separation.

It all comes down to his ball control. He’s got the ball on a string. It’s never too wide, never too tight. He uses the ball to make you think. To capture your attention and get you out of position. He can manipulate the ball — and with it, the defender — like nobody else. He just moves it around, waits to see what you give him and then strikes at the right time. And with his ability to dip his hips, switch up the pace and change direction in an instant, he can get to any spot on the floor. So he really makes the defense choose what it’s willing to give up, and then he exploits it very well. 

And as a small guard, his ability to finish at the rim is ridiculous. Like I said with Paul George, I try to send a guy to his weak hand whenever I can. But everything Kyrie can do with his right, he can also do with his left. 

So what do you do?

All you can really do is stay up on him. You can’t fall for all the shakes. He’s gonna throw a lot of moves at you and pick his spots. So you gotta stay on your toes. Stay disciplined.

And be ready for anything.


Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

There’s no such thing as a bad shot for Steph. He can hit from anywhere. He’s liable to shoot from half-court and hit it. And he doesn’t need a lot of space to get his shot off. He’s got a quick trigger. Even when you’re right up on him, that little inch of space you leave because you think you’re close enough? 

You’re not. 

He’ll still get his shot off.

So you have to deny him the ball. Stay connected to him at all times. Which is tough because when you play against Steph … bring your running shoes — it’s a track meet. It’s a true 48-minute game. The moment you relax, he’s got you. So every time we score the ball on our end, I’m immediately turning, like, Where’s Steph at! Because I know he’s leaking out, and his teammates are trying to get him the ball. 

For me, I just try to use my size against Steph. He can create his own shot when he has the ball, but that’s not his game. He’s running around, coming off screens, trying to get open looks. So it’s my job to be physical with him — knock him off his cuts and get over every screen. If he’s driving to the basket, force him to my help and make him shoot over the bigs. Wear him down. 

It’s all easier said than done. But if I can keep bumping him and getting him off his rhythm, make him uncomfortable and, like I said, deny him the ball, that’s when I have the advantage. 

Yeah, man. Steph is fearless. As close to unstoppable as any shooter I’ve ever guarded.

And definitely the best shooter of all time.


Anthony Davis, C/PF, Los Angeles Lakers
Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF Milwaukee Bucks

I remember one of the first times I guarded A.D. He got me down in the post, but I had great position. I was using my strength to keep him away from the basket and I was forcing him to where I wanted him to go. I was feeling good.

And then he literally just turned and shot over me.

Like it was nothing.

That was one of the rare times where I thought, Wow, I can’t guard this guy….

I felt completely helpless.

When I get into a situation like that, I just have to go back to the drawing board — back to the concrete-court days with my brothers — and get a little clever. I mean, he’s a 7-footer who plays like a guard, and he can shoot right over you. I’m only 6′ 3″. I’m not going to beat him at his game. So I have to figure out a way to flip the odds in my favor and gain the advantage. 

And the way I do that against A.D. is to use my speed. That’s where I have the edge. 

Big guys are taught to not bring the ball down low against guards because, unlike bigs, guards can sneak in there and take it. So I’m always looking for that. Like I said before, I try to force guys to their weakness. And even though A.D. has a good handle, especially for a 7-footer, that’s not his strength. So I’m staying up on him, pressuring him, trying to make him be a ballhandler. 

And if he brings it down low, I’m using my speed to go down there and take it.

Just the constant threat of me being ready to shoot through and take the ball every time he puts it down is enough to give him something to think about. To make him uncomfortable. 

That’s what you have to do against a guy with that kind of a size advantage. Disturb him. Wear him down mentally as much as possible. And it’s getting a lot tougher to do that against A.D. because as he becomes a more experienced player, he’s getting more and more confident. You see that even now that he’s in L.A. and playing with LeBron. He’s blowing up. He’s always been a special player, but he was in New Orleans, and I think a lot of people didn’t get to see what he was really about.

Now he’s in L.A., and he’s putting people on notice.

Then you got Giannis.

The Greek Freak.

Another 7-footer with guard-like skills. 

But Giannis different. He’s out of this world. Yes, he can handle the ball like a guard. So can A.D. But with his wingspan, the way he can manipulate the ball and get you chasing it one way before coming back with it — because he’s also quick like a guard, so he can cross you if he catches you leaning … man, it’s special. Plus, he’s also ridiculously long and athletic. So where it takes most people four or five steps to get to the basket from the three-point line, it only takes Giannis like three. Plus he can jump out of the gym. Plus he’s strong enough to get through contact, so you can’t body him.

I could go on all day, man. 

They call him the Greek Freak for a reason.

He’s literally a freak of nature.

I’ve never seen a player with his combination of size and skill. 

Brad Stevens is really into analytics. He loves it. And he’s always preaching how, statistically, big guys don’t fare as well when little guards pressure them and annoy them. Like what I do with A.D., it makes them uncomfortable. 

Giannis is no different.

So the only thing you can really do with him is stay up in him and force him to shoot — make him try to beat you from the outside.

Force him to his weakness.

At the end of the day, he’s going to get his. He’s too talented not to. 

My job is just to minimize the damage and make it as difficult for him as possible.


I wasn’t kidding when I said I think I can match up with just about anybody. I take pride in being able to guard the one through the five. 

The guys on this list, though?

They’re different, man. 

They’re the ones you really get up for. The ones you measure yourself against, who motivate you to get back to the facility early the next day and get better. The ones who make my job fun.

I respect every one of them.

Marcus Smart
Boston Celtics