Kobe Bryant. LeBron James. Dwight Howard. Amar’e Stoudemire. Emeka Okafor. JaVale McGee.
Every time word gets out that another acolyte has ventured into the temple of Hakeem Olajuwon, the high priest of fancy footwork, the questions are all about offense.
Did he teach you how to spin like a top to get free for a layup? Did he show you how to tie David Robinson into more knots than a pretzel bakery with two, three, four different head fakes? Did you learn the secret of the Dream Shake?
For Kenneth Faried, the most valuable lessons learned from Olajuwon over the summer came at the other end of the floor.
“Everybody thinks it was about offense, learning how to score,” said Faried, who worked out in Sugar Land, Tex. with Olajuwon and his Nuggets teammate McGee. “But I think what is going to help me the most are the things that Hakeem showed to help me with defense.
“The footwork and me just doing the twirls and spins, learning how to keep my feet moving constantly are things that can make me a better defender.
“I can read people defensively and react to them or anticipate and get to a spot ahead of my opponent. And he showed me that I can get out there and play perimeter guys and still at the same time I can shut down the biggest bigs on the inside.”
Olajuwon was a five-time member of the All-Defensive Team, was named Defensive Player of the Year with the Rockets in both 1993 and 1994 and averaged 3.1 blocked shots and 1.7 steals over the course of his 18-year NBA career.
“People forget Hakeem was a great defender,” said Denver coach George Karl. “He won Defensive Player of the Year. For me, our big guys are really rebounders and defenders first. The offense comes to them through our guards attacking and making plays for them as much as giving them opportunities to make plays for themselves.”
From Bryant to Howard to James, the primary reason that most of them seek out Olajuwon as a tutor is to glean a few tips from his unique footwork to create space down in the low post that makes it easier to get shots off. But from the time that he first took up the game back in Nigeria, Olajuwon’s first love was always protecting the basket as a shot blocker. It was his penchant for jumping into the passing lanes and going down onto the floor to make steals that led to Hakeem wearing what became his signature large red knee pads.
Faried played a key role in the Nuggets’ help defense in Wednesday night’s win at Houston, frequently cutting off and contesting James Harden’s drives to the basket. He made a timely block of Harden’s try for a layup with 47.9 seconds left in the game that helped seal the win.
Though the 6-foot-8 Faried’s offensive range is limited and his style is to simply attack the basket and the pursuit of rebounds ferociously, he is trying to expand what he can.
“It helps a lot to get the finesse game,” he said. “It helps you as a person to not have to dunk everything at the rim. You can sometimes, when somebody’s fouling, learn how to maneuver or finesse it up for a layup or just know how to go through contact without always dunking.
“But for my role on our team, I found Hakeem’s defensive help and his philosophy and style of moving in order to always stay in front of his man to be the most valuable. That’s a way I’d like to play.”