Scotty Hopson's defensive consistency key to Breakers success

New Zealand Breakers import Scotty Hopson began the NBL 2019/20 season showcasing traits which have been a consistent part of his long international career: smooth elevated shooting, highlight dunking and an ability to get out in transition.

The versatile forward is a proven scorer, who once dropped 52 points in a G League game. After going undrafted in 2011, Hopson has played everywhere from Europe to China. With the quickness, athleticism and size to excel on offence, Hopson has averaged a team-high 18.5 points in his opening four games with New Zealand, three of which have ended in losses. He has also announced himself as a potent rebounder, averaging 8 rebounds for the season to rank fourth behind centres Andrew Bogut, Shawn Long and Daniel Johnson, per spatialjam.com.

With centre Rob Loe suffering from a fractured skull, the Breakers moved swiftly to sign former Sydney Kings power forward Deng Deng. A breakout game from Arizona alumni Brandon Ashley seems to hint that Ashley might be the primary option helping out at the centre position. The Breakers need more impactful defence from Hopson, and there's signs to say it shouldn't be an impossible fix.

For a player who offers electrifying pace in transition, perimeter shooting and impressive passing skills, his opening two games established questions over an ability to affect games without the ball. Hopson needs to improve on an area that requires great attention to detail. Consistency on defence has been a weakness, and it's something that has plagued his performances dating back to his college years.

As described in Hopson's NBADraft scouting report prior to him becoming draft eligible: 'Hopson has undeniable offensive talent and nice athleticism, and it manifested itself with some explosive games over his [college] career. He still lacks a bit of polish and plays too lax on the defensive end.'

There's a deficiency in the way Hopson applies himself on man-to-man defence . It became more evident during a back to back against the Kings; Hopson would suddenly lose interest in his direct opponent, offer little urgency closing out on shooters, or give lacklustre half-arm lunges towards opposition blitzing through the lane. His disregard for help defence and lethargic attempts to steal quickly casts a shadow over a stellar offensive mindset.

His athleticism and quickness might have helped cover defensive lapses at times - averaging 1.5 steals through four games - but defence demands unceasing effort and discipline, along with an understanding of how offensive plays develop.

Take this instance from New Zealand's season opener on the road. Hopson is late to react, offering zero help covering Shaun Bruce. The Kings guard beats Brandon Ashley off the dribble and draws a three-point play opportunity.

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It's a single example and somewhat harsh to nitpick, despite the fact that it was a key possession late in the third with the shot clock expiring. Had Hopson read the earlier screens better, he could have stepped in to disrupt the driving lane forcing Bruce into a dangerous pass out wide, or to shoot over an outstretched hand. All he needed to do was to create a little confusion for the player penetrating, and utilise his 6’11” wingspan.

The Kentucky native also showed an inability to remain aware of his defensive assignment's movements, leading to further lapses down the court. There was a moment where Hopson lost Casper Ware, who abruptly blitzed into the key, forcing the Breaker to foul inside.

Tracking players may be an area of improvement looking ahead, but there were several plays throughout the round where Hopson discovered himself in poor spacing.

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Here, Hopson elects to go for the highlight block on Brad Newley, unaware that Craig Moller would be perfectly placed for the offensive rebound and easy follow up two.

Minutes later, Hopson made up for that defensive lapse with some sublime isolated defence on Moller. As Hopson face-guarded the Kings forward into the half court, he used his outstretched arm to regain possession. Within seconds, he had left Moller in the rear view for an easy slam plus the foul. Ultimately, Hopson's defence hasn't had enough time to emerge, but we are seeing glimpses of encouraging intensity and desire to become impactful.

For Hopson, areas of growth will be relying on him to deny space for the opposition to execute, aggressively amp his on-ball defence up, and use his athletic and physical tools against smaller guards and wing players. Hopson opened both games in round four tasked with the assignment of Aaron Brooks and Melo Trimble respectively, so there's evidence from the Breakers in relying on Hopson to shut down the opposition's most prominent scorers down.

Against the Hawks, the Breakers' first unit came out with a much grittier intensity at either end -manifested from that wild RJ Hampton block on his Next Star opponent. Restricting the Hawks to no more than 19 points for any quarter, New Zealand went on to chalk their maiden win of the season.

Two nights later, Hopson and the Breakers travelled across the Tasman to face Melbourne United. Defensively, we saw flashes of improvement from Hopson, including a play against United where he stole a wayward Melo Trimble pass, that resulted in a New Zealand transition bucket. There are times like this when Hopson may gamble on a steal attempt, and there are stages where he has shown genuine physicality when matching up on a bigger opponent to force a steal, defensive consistency isn't that farfetched for the 30-year-old.

In his first year as the Breakers head coach, Dan Shamir will look for small signs of developments as his side continues to blend and coexist. Relying on Hopson to gradually decimate any defensive holes –like glimpses shown in round four- will largely benefit a coaching panel that has suffered plenty of inner turmoil in recent months.

There isn’t much concern for New Zealand offensively, who scored 103 and 98 points in both games from round four. The team enjoys breaking out in transition, with Hopson leading the charge. Per Jordan McCallum's play-types, on 15 transition plays this season, Hopson produces 1.45 points per play as he glides downhill.

It’s definitely not all bad news, and far from worrying signs for Breakers fans. As widely alluded to in recent weeks, the athletic Hopson is a scoring threat and will continue to create shots for himself and others. Fixes on the defensive end could prove of utter importance, given the Breakers have gone down in three games by an average losing margin of seven. Hopson relies on his shooting form to stay involved, but locking down on defence will prove key to New Zealand having continuous success and longevity this season.