DETROIT — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s mother, Rhonda, still jokes with her son today that it was hard to get him to come inside the house when he was younger. The Pistons’ starting shooting guard never wanted to watch TV. He just wanted to be active outside.
In fact, at Greenville High School, Caldwell-Pope never let up going from football to basketball to baseball to track season—and he played some of the fastest positions: cornerback and wide receiver, guard, centerfielder and runner, respectively. Coincidentally, one of his favorite video games now is Need for Speed.
That all rubs off on the court. The third-year player is averaging the second-most minutes per game in the NBA (37.4), narrowly trailing Jimmy Butler (38.3). While Caldwell-Pope, 22, has upped his scoring to 14.9 points per game, he’s quickly jumped into the conversation for the All-Defensive First Team this season.
“Phenomenal. That kid is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league—KCP locks up,” said his teammate Reggie Jackson earlier this season. “It’s not a fluke—what KCP does on defense night in and night out is not a fluke.”
After a -0.8 and -0.9 Defensive Box Plus/Minus in his first two seasons, respectively, he’s now hovering around 1.0, as he’s averaging 1.5 steals per game. This season, the 6’5″, 205-pound Georgian has limited some of the game’s best perimeter players—point guards, shooters and swingmen—from the field, including Stephen Curry (39 percent), Russell Westbrook (36 percent), James Harden (41 percent in two games), Dwyane Wade (30 percent in two games) and Paul George (35 percent in three games).
When Caldwell-Pope was growing up, he wanted to shoot like Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton. His freshman year in college at Georgia changed his career—from a defensive standpoint.
“My college coach used to pick on me a lot about me getting beat up on defense, like everybody scoring on me,” said Caldwell-Pope, who goes by KCP or The Pope. “I would start the game and I would have two quick calls, and I had to sit on the bench through the second half. But the next year, he couldn’t say anything. I put in the effort. I’m not going to get two quick calls. I’m going to play great defense—just moving my feet, not using my hands much. I made that a big emphasis, and after I did that my offense just came.”
Caldwell-Pope’s goal is to become one of the best defenders in the league. Now, just more people need to notice—even in Detroit. He laughs about an ongoing experience at his local Chipotle.
“People just stare at my face,” he said. “One of the workers—I’ve been coming there for three years—hasn’t figured out who I am. I’ll get noticed one day. It’s all about just keeping that confidence going. LeBron James and I share the same agent, and we’ve talked a couple of times. He said, ‘Keep playing the way you’re playing. Just be the best you can. Not a lot of people are going to talk about you yet, but who cares.’ I don’t have a big name, but I do have a name for myself.”
Over dinner in mid-January, the day after the Pistons upset the Warriors, the NBPA met with Caldwell-Pope for dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Troy, Mich.—around 15 miles south of The Palace of Auburn Hills—to get inside the defensive mind of one of the most intriguing and under-covered young players in the league. Below are 12 of his defensive tenets gleaned from the conversation, presented in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length. He also shared his scouting report on his top five toughest matchups.
1. Just be grimy.
Don’t let up, just play hard with a lot of intensity. That’s pretty much what I’ll be telling myself before the game after shootaround and when the game starts—just to get the confidence going. When I walk in the gym, I’m already listening to my music. I’ve got a playlist that’s everywhere—rap, slow, R&B, it doesn’t matter—and that helps keep my mind focused on the game. I’m going to make mistakes on the defensive end, but that means I’m going hard, I’m playing hard. That’s what it’s about.
2. Make your opponent play to your defensive strengths.
Make him play the way you want him to play. I try to make opponents play to my speed—just speed them up a little bit. It’s not going to be the whole game like that because great players are going to find a way to score. But just by making them play my way for one or two quarters, that’s good, because one or two quarters can give us a lead. Defense is effort, but it’s also a lot of skill because you have to have the mindset of knowing who you’re guarding, knowing what they do. When they catch the ball, is he about to shoot, is he about to drive, is he about to jab step? You’ve got to be ready for all of that.
3. Pressure is paramount.
Most players don’t like pressure. I try to keep them from getting the ball, try to disrupt their rhythm a little bit. If they have it, I try to pressure the ball and try to get it out of their hands. For people that can score the ball, I try to pressure them as much as possible because nine times out of 10 they’re getting their shot when somebody’s playing off of them. That’s how they get into their moves—they get you going one way and then they just pull up. It’s just breaking their rhythm and just keeping the pressure on them.
4. Knowing when to apply pressure is also important.
Sometimes I get tired because I’m working so hard on defense, so it’s just all about who you’re playing—pressure the people you have to pressure. Like with Stephen Curry, you have to pick him up when he crosses half court because he can shoot from there. You have to play tight like that. Steph is probably one of the hardest people I have to guard because he can do it all. But somebody like Dwyane Wade, he doesn’t shoot threes, so I can play tight while he has the ball, but once he passes I can sag and play help defender.
5. There’s a key trick to adding extra pressure.
Sometimes you can get away with a little quick move, a little quick hold if the refs don’t see it. My trick is when they are coming off a screen, I just try to stay as close as possible and by the time we both get to the screen, I nudge him a little bit so he won’t be able to curl. Former Pistons guard Rip Hamilton taught me that when I met him during my rookie year. I’m disrupting the player’s movement off the last screen. I’m just bumping him a little bit—not as much where it’s going to be a foul—but just a little nudge so that I’ll be able to get through the screen as well.
6. Don’t have Kawhi Leonard’s hands? Not a problem. It’s about mastering the art of hand movement.
I wish I had some Kawhi Leonard hands—they’re huge—but I’ve got long fingers. Having great hands is a key to playing great defense, just trying to get a lot of deflections. Some people throw a lot of telegraph passes, some people throw no-look passes, so it’s just about getting your hands up. I keep one hand on the player so I stay close and I have one just moving, trying to disrupt him, trying to get him to throw an off-balanced pass or a bad bounce pass by trying to get my hand down there. Just like you’ve got to have quick feet, you’ve got to have quick hands—also with getting a hand up. If they make it, they make it; they’re in the league because they make shots. But it’s all about just getting a great contest.
7. Regardless of your individual assets, you need to know how to make different reads with your big man.
Whatever call he makes, we force the player to the right or left, and then as coach Stan Van Gundy says, “Try your best to get over screens, get into the ball and force him off the three-point line.” We call it “get skinny” by closing the space for him to come off the screen. But if it’s a non-shooter coming off a screen, you want to get under every time because he’s going to do nothing but drive. It’s all about the big helping us and us helping the big by getting over the screen, so they can get back and protect the rim.
Most of the time, if it’s a 5 man in a pick-and-roll, we won’t switch that; we just slide right through. But if it’s a shooting 4 man or a dribble hand-off, we’ll switch that because the shooting 4 is going to be able to pop back. Then we have to shrink the floor and help our big out. It’s a team effort in everything.
8. Watching film of your opponent always helps, but sometimes standout defenders only need to ask a simple question.
Sometimes I won’t even watch film. I just ask coach, “What does he do best?”And I just take it and keep it in my head. If you close out hard, he’s going to drive right. If he’s a strong right driver, close out to his right hand and make him go left. You can just tell me sometimes what they do and I can just go out and use my instincts. But usually if I haven’t played against him, I go home, get on my computer and watch NBA League Pass or just type up his highlights on YouTube, where it’s going to have his recent best game. I’m also watching film at our practice facility and reading our scouting report. Over the years, I’ve learned how most players score the ball and what’s their go-to move.
9. Stamina, legs, ankles—even your hands. Intense and specialized training matters in becoming a great defender.
During the summer in Atlanta, I start by working out for an hour every day on the court and in the weight room. My trainer is former NBA player Dion Glover. I try not to take so many breaks, and then I play pickup at game speed. You don’t get in shape by just running on the treadmill or getting on the bike. The game is a different pace than just moving on the bike. I run all day, and I can; that’s what I love to do. I’ll be running up and down the floor every time, and I can do that and not feel tired or feel dehydrated.
For my hands, I use weighted balls to make them stronger. I have these rubber band things for my fingers that help sometimes, so you don’t have many injuries. Back when I was in college, I used the rice bucket to work my wrists. And with my legs, I have to keep them strong because I’m using them the most—running, guarding, sliding, moving laterally—and I make sure my ankles are strong. I use the ice tub, ice my knees, get massages, do squats, a lot of leg work. So it’s all about just preparing myself because I know I’m going to be one of the best defenders every night.
10. Be prepared for the pain.
Sometimes I get tired. I try not to show it though—more the day after. But during the game, I might tell one of the trainers, “Give me a B12 shot,” which is an energy shot. But on the court, I try not to show it so much; I want to be out there. When you’re running through almost 50 screens a night, it takes bumps and bruises. After we beat the Warriors, my shoulder was aching and I had a thigh contusion. I feel it even in the game, but you have to fight through it. I’ve got to do it every night; I can’t let up. When I’m out there, it’s just giving me a challenge to see where my defense is. Sometimes I’ve got to pick my energy up.
11. What’s an added boost? The Pistons’ trademark defensive pride through the years, from the 1980s Bad Boys to the 2004 title team.
I heard so much about it when I got here in 2013. The former players talked about that pride a lot, so we want to bring that chemistry back—that Bad Boys atmosphere. I’ve talked to Rip, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, who I worked with my rookie year, and Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince, who both played with me my rookie year. Just having that leadership and those great minds, by picking their brains you use it to your advantage.
12. The ultimate goal is to be honored defensively like Ben Wallace, while rising to the level of two-way swingmen Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.
I want to be on the All-Defensive First Team this year. I’ve been really living off my defense since college, and that really gets my offense going. My biggest jump this season was me becoming a more offensive player and just being patient, not playing so much full speed on the offensive end. I used to rush a lot of shots, make bad decisions. So right now, I’m just playing under control and with so much confidence. I’m just becoming more of a playmaker. I know I can score the ball, I know I can shoot the ball; it’s all about me elevating my passing game, seeing the floor and just continuing to get my ball-handling to where I want it to be. My game is going to improve.
Kentavious’ Scouting Report on His Top Five Toughest Matchups
1. Dwyane Wade
He’s not a three-point shooter; going to drive. In the low post, he likes turnaround jumpers. He likes to shot fake a lot, so just stay down on his shot fakes. Cut off his right-hand drives; he’s going to go to his spin move.
2. Stephen Curry
You can’t go under a screen; he’s a three-point shooter. Great ball-handler; can drive with either hand.
3. James Harden
You can’t really put your hands on him, so you have to play with your hands out. He’s going to get the foul going up. Three-point shooter. Left-hand driver, but will drive right.
4. Russell Westbrook
His speed, so you don’t know what he’s going to do—is he going to pull up, is he going to drive? You’ve got to bait him into doing one thing—get him going one way and try to stop him or get in front of him. Nine times out of 10 he’s coming full speed, and at the three-point line if you back up a little bit, he’s got you. He attacks the rack right away when he sees gaps. He’s a freaky athlete.
5. Bradley Beal
We actually grew up together, so I know Bradley. Three-point shooter. Can drive with either hand. Won’t post at all. He likes to come off the screen and put his dribble down. He’s a catch-and-shoot guy off screens. You’re trying to force him into a tough two, and that’s with everybody.