Mitch McCarron is getting defensive

Mitch McCarron was not happy.

Scotty Hopson launched a shoulder onto McCarron's chest, creating just enough separation. Using that as leverage, he pivoted into a fadeaway jumper along the left baseline. Usually, that provides a clean look. Not this time.

United's defensive savant recovered, and bounced up to contest the shot with an outstretched hand. Hopson made the shot anyway, because that's what long, athletic scorers do. They get buckets, as they say.

Moments later, Dean Vickerman sent Stanton Kidd into the game to defend Hopson, reasoning that Kidd offered additional length. What Vickerman did not imagine was the response of McCarron.

"Mitch was pissed at me," he tells ESPN. McCarron was furious at what he construed as Vickerman changing the match ups. He wanted that assignment. Vickerman saw the funny side of it.

"I guess they're the kind of things that when you talk about good defenders," says Vickerman, "that's the kind of reaction that you want from people - to continue to want that challenge."

Both Andrew Mulligan and Casey Frank marvelled at McCarron's defence on Hopson during the Sky Sport broadcast. For Frank, it was McCarron's work rate.

"The amount of work that he was putting in just pushing Scotty Hopson outside of his spots - the catches were six, seven, eight feet outside of the three-point line," says Frank.

"The way he was chasing around screens, just getting really physical, up tight and in. And then when 'Hop' would try to put the ball on the floor to get by him, his ability to just stay with him was just really impressive."

Mulligan admits that he hasn't studied McCarron much, but left the arena impressed by United's Swiss army knife. Hopson had been on fire since returning from injury, getting to the cup, bullying in the post, and rising over defenders to shoot with a clear line of sight at the rim.

"His ability to clear space was hampered because of McCarron's doggedness," says Mulligan. But it was the footwork and tenacity that caught his eye.

"Just from chasing him [Hopson] around the perimeter through screens, over screens, and even if he was forced under screens," he says, "he would always fight through."

This last point should please Vickerman. Navigating on-balls was one of the key improvements he wanted of McCarron.

"We felt he had some difficulties dealing with on-balls and just not quite getting the ball pressure when the screen came and being able to bust through it a little bit," he says. "But that's highly improved. He's become elite at dealing with the ball screen."

"It's a good challenge," McCarron tells ESPN about his desire to check the opposition's best. "It's a challenge that I want."

Frank and Mulligan's praise of McCarron should not surprise - he's had an extraordinary individual defensive season. He has always been a great rebounder, but now, he's a more complete defender, able to provide a number of different coverages. Vickerman has deployed him to douse all manner of threats. He trusts him.

A lot of basketball pundits salivate at the prospect of scorers matching up in a mano a mano duel - think NBA star power. But for McCarron, the prospect of an elite defender trying to outduel and outwit an elite scorer - like Shane Battier taking on the challenge of Kobe Bryant - is more interesting.

"Hopson's been a fun one for me because he's bigger, he's longer, he can score in a variety of ways," says McCarron. "It's a challenge to slow him down. He's really good at getting to his spots and getting into his rhythm."

McCarron rattles off the names of other scorers off the top of his head. Terrico White. Bryce Cotton. Lamar Patterson. He watches a tonne of basketball. Once the round is over, he is already looking forward to the next challenge - the next duel - in the upcoming schedule. He has a fair idea of who his primary assignment will be.

Vickerman and his coaching staff consider the potential match ups for Melo Trimble and Chris Goulding, before delegating the most onerous assignment to McCarron.

"He's going to get the dominant scorer or the dominant playmaker out of those three guys when he matches up," says Vickerman.

McCarron likes to re-watch film of himself. It reminds him of how much he has improved, and how far he feels he still needs to go. The learning is constant.

He thought he defended Terrico White and Bryce Cotton well during the regular season last year.

"And then I got my butt kicked in the [Grand] Finals series just being late off pin-downs," he says. "Or being overly aggressive in certain actions, and they would rip me."

He is constantly picking apart his game. He does not yet conceive of himself as an elite defender - merely good.

"I always enjoyed defending people on the ball," says McCarron. "But off the ball, it is something that I really want to continue to get better at, and just being an elite defender in being able to help my teammates and then cover mine as well."

In college, McCarron would lose his man, or be late to help, because he was watching the ball, instead of being more on a swivel.

"I still catch myself sometimes just doing a little bit of that," he says. "It's a hard habit to break."

Derrick Clark, McCarron's college coach at Metro State, implored him to work on his defence if he wanted to become a pro. As a kid, McCarron was slow-footed and had tight hips. Whilst everyone was getting faster and more athletic, McCarron struggled to slide and keep in front of opponents. He found the weight room and reworked his body.

Clark would watch film with McCarron and pinpoint every defensive mistake.

"He'd stay on me every single day about that," says McCarron.

The value of playing defence was only reinforced in his first pro gig. Signing with Palencia in Spain's second division straight out of college, McCarron was thrust into a point guard/on-ball heavy system and asked to slink to the corners. He struggled to get involved.

He knew that the only way to gain the trust of his teammates and coaches was to play defence.

"I will take literally anybody you want me to," he told the team. And he did, whether it was ones through to fours.

When McCarron first arrived in the NBL with the Cairns Taipans, Aaron Fearne made a point of exposing any defensive deficiency to him. He would run McCarron through series of complex, half-court actions and point out each mistake he made.

"On the ball, he was very good," Fearne tells ESPN. "But off the ball, he just lacked a bit of concentration and needed his arse kicked a little bit, really."

Fearne would give McCarron examples of elite defenders, and what made them elite. Damian Martin. Cedric Jackson. Scottie Wilbekin. Aaron Grabau. He explained to McCarron that someone like Martin actively anticipated how the play would unfold, and how he would disrupt it. He would expound upon the virtue of making quick off-the-ball decisions, without over-helping.

"I would always say to Mitch, 'you cannot be a reactive defender. You have to be a proactive defender,'" says Fearne.

"It's definitely not at a level that I'm comfortable with," says McCarron.

Fearne was someone that believed players earned their minutes through trust. That trust had to be developed through playing defence - your teammates had to know you had their back. Actions had to be defended within a certain framework. Every. Single. Time.

Fearne would tell his team, "if you can execute the rule, then we can trust each other."

"I feel as though I earnt those [minutes] by just defending my butt off and eventually they grew," says McCarron.

Nowadays, Vickerman wants McCarron to stand still. Stop moving. Sometimes, in his eagerness to help, McCarron will fidget and find himself in the wrong spot.

"Mitch is a constant mover," says Vickerman. "Sometimes that puts him out of position on offence, and possibly puts him out of position on defence at different times as well. I think when he's off the ball, there's a moment where we actually need him to pause for a second - you are in the right spot right now, don't move for a second. Yes, have activity with your feet, but again, he can allow himself to just shift out of position a little bit."

McCarron understands. He wants to master the art of straddling that line between shutting his mark down, but also to be in help position - on time, every time - without fail. He believes it's like a game of cat and mouse: Can he fool the opposition into believing he's somewhere when he's not?

"It's just about how well can I not allow my guy to be open," says McCarron, "but also be in the help spot and that's somewhere where I need to continue to grow. It's something that I didn't do well in the past."

McCarron idolised Brad Newley. Growing up in Alice Springs, McCarron would constantly hear his parents talk about Newley and his exploits - whether it was making his NBL debut, or going to the Olympics and World Championships.

When McCarron arrived in Spain, he was told how much Spanish coaches and clubs loved Newley - McCarron had found the perfect guy to model his game around.

"They just said how hard he plays," says McCarron. "He plays for the team. He does everything. He defends. He leaves it all out there. He's a good teammate. And that is extremely valuable."

Like Newley, McCarron relishes crashing the defensive glass - he rebounds like a power forward, after all - and then pushing the ball, exploring open court opportunities. He would quietly delight in 'stealing' rebounds off his bigs and then start the break. Vickerman sees that quality as one of McCarron's greatest assets.

"When we talk about when Mitch McCarron's great for us, that's the first thing that we talk about," he says. "We talk about him being a defensive rebounder. Him being a facilitator and a pusher, to get others and himself some early buckets. We've been more successful when he's up around that six, seven, eight kind of mark at defensive boards. That gives us an extra three to four buckets."

"I love that kind of game where you get a rebound, you get that big, first push dribble, and I get to throw a kick-ahead," says McCarron. "Or I get to attack a guy one-on-one in trans, and maybe cause an advantage."

There's an interesting inflection point when it comes to how we determine the league's best individual defender. Should the Best Defensive Player come from strong defensive teams?

The narrative for United this season has been inconsistency, but also one that is steeped in collective, defensive woes.

"We weren't a team that was built for defence this year," says Vickerman. "We've tried to put a high scoring team together that could be really serviceable defensively, and we're still continuing to change, and use more zone and do different things defensively to continue to cover."

The Sydney Kings and the Cairns Taipans are the two best defensive teams in the league this season.

"Do you look at guys from their team more?" asks Vickerman. "I think you would. But again, he's got to be in the conversation because of his individual efforts on our team."

But should McCarron be penalised for this? Isn't this an individual award? As such, shouldn't it be for the one who has owned the best individual defensive season?

For the record, McCarron won't hear of it. He considers himself to have had a solid defensive season.

"I think my struggles come from the fact that we as a team haven't defended that well. So, it's hard for me to sit here and say, 'oh man, I've been such an elite defender' when we as a team haven't got the job done," he says. "If I was that incredible, maybe we're in a better position."

But that's not how team defence works - it's a collective concept. No one individual defender - no matter how transcendent - can reshape an entire team's identity. Consider the great Damian Martin, in his prime, was flanked by tough, intelligent defenders. He was the head of that snake, but that snake was mean.

Aside from Shea Ili, who else is an above-average defender in this United squad who has played major minutes?

McCarron has done everything possible, shape-shifting weekly to plug a leaky defence. Based on this alone he should be (very) firmly in the mix.

"Yeah, absolutely," says Vickerman. "I think he's in the mix. I guess it's what you value. Any time in a defensive player, do you think shot-blocking is the most important thing? Do you think steals is the most important thing? Or is it your ability to cover multiple, different people? And I think if you value that one, that he can guard one-through-three, some four, then he's in the real conversation about being in that defensive player of the year."