There's no appealing way to guard an NBA superstar. Many dangerous 3-point sharpshooters can generally be covered if a defense devotes enough attention. Straight-line drivers with suspect jumpers can be invited to shoot those jumpers. Some scorers can be marginalized with physicality, others by influencing them to their weak hands.
But with superstars such as Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Zion Williamson, there is only the lesser of many bad strategies. They dictate the terms of an entire possession. Guarding them is a game of whack-a-mole -- take away one option, and you leave yourself vulnerable to another. Commit too many of your defensive resources, and their teammates can punish you.
These three -- all transcendent shot creators in their own ways -- are increasingly establishing themselves as big problems, the kind of talents who keep coaches up at night. They have joined the group of live-with-it guys: Even if you execute your defensive game plan, they can still beat you.
Despite the degree of difficulty, opposing teams still have to take the floor with their schemes. We surveyed NBA coaches who have to come up with solutions for stopping three of the most talented young players in the league. With the caveat that the most meticulous blueprint can still yield a 35-point night, even if it's executed reasonably well, these are some of the more effective and interesting strategies.
Luka Doncic: Force tricky isolations
In skills and size, Doncic has the profile of a near-perfect NBA offensive player -- and perfection might just be a few percentage points of long-range accuracy away. With a 6-foot-7 frame, the vision of an owl and a magician's sleight of hand, Doncic can demoralize a defense any which way from any spot on the floor. But there are a few specific decisions that can improve an opponent's chance of survival.
Doncic compiled his lowest shot probability of the season in a loss to the Toronto Raptors in January. The Raptors threw -- among other things -- one of their clever junk defenses at Doncic for much of the night: a box-and-one, with orderly help within the box when necessary. The Raptors deployed blitzing situationally and switched pick-and-rolls, with the new defender assuming the role as the "one" in the scheme. Toronto limited Doncic as a playmaker and forced him to work less comfortably in isolation. He finished with only four field goals on 11 shot attempts, getting to the line for eight free throw attempts.