The addition of Roy Hibbert should change the identity of the Los Angeles Lakers' defense, and it's in no small part because the former All-Star has honed in on his ability to use the "verticality" rules to his advantage. That's what helped shape the Indiana Pacers into one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, and helped Hibbert take hold of his career.
Verticality is the principle that a defensive player can absorb contact without being called for a foul by going straight up, which has made a giant wall like Hibbert one of the toughest players to score against in the paint.
When did the idea of mastering the ability to protect the rim this way kick in for Hibbert? ESPN's Baxter Holmes' in-depth profile of Roy Hibbert is a great journey into the Lakers' new defensive anchor's mind, and also has a variety of fascinating stories about the big man. One of those is the moment Roy decided he wanted to take be a student of the school of verticality, which happens to trace back to the 2009 NBA Finals.
Here's a small excerpt from Holmes' profile on Hibbert, who recalled a moment during the Lakers' championship run that flipped the switch to his defensive transformation:
The inspiration came during the 2009 NBA Finals, when Hibbert saw a Lakers player drive into center Dwight Howard. Howard jumped straight up, and while there was contact, no foul was called.
Hibbert was intrigued. Frank Vogel, then a Pacers assistant and now their head coach, explained to him the NBA's principle of verticality: A defender can leap straight up to absorb contact from a ball-handler so long as he establishes a legal defensive position before leaving the ground and remains vertical in the air.
Vogel designed a drill in which Hibbert was stationed at the hoop and players at the top of the key and in the corner would attack the rim. His goal was to get three consecutive stops without fouling. It taught him to always jump straight up.
And here's a look at that kind of training put to the test last season:
Yes, Roy is very much is still an elite defender. Yes, he'll probably save D'Angelo Russell a few times exactly like that play above.
Hibbert essentially turns into a floating skyscraper under the rim, which will have to be the foundation of this young team's defense. That he's dropped weight to adjust to the pace the game is being played at should only make him more mobile when he's sliding into defensive position.
Considering the Lakers' defensive efficiency hasn't been respectable since Mike Brown's first (and only) full season with the team, Hibbert should make an immediate impact in this area. Here's a look comparing the Lakers' and Roy's points allowed per 100 possessions over the last few seasons:
The Lakers have struggled to defend team-wide, not just at center, but it's clear that Hibbert's ability to protect the rim can be a cog in a successful defensive scheme. That he's focused solely on being the Lakers' anchor and wants to be known as an elite-center because of his ability to protect the paint should bode well for the purple and gold addressing this glaring issue. Roy isn't the first NBA player to defend with these sort of rules, and he isn't the last -- though he does call himself the "Godfather" of it after making it popular -- he's mastered the art of protecting the paint in a way few big men can match.
Hibbert should function like a free safety around the restricted area, covering the backs of a team that's seemingly been blindsided defensively over the past two seasons. Roy won't be able to do it alone, but having him as the focal point of the defense should help head coach Byron Scott impress consistent principles and a solid scheme to improve defensively. That alone makes Hibbert worth the investment of a future second-round draft pick.
Be sure to check out Baxter Holmes' full profile, which is a fascinating read bout who Roy Hibbert is, and what he's hoping to accomplish going forward in his professional career.