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A Closer Look: Jaden Ivey showed defensive tenacity, awareness against the Magic

We take a closer look at Jaden Ivey’s surprisingly good defense on opening night.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When the Detroit Pistons drafted Jaden Ivey fifth overall, Troy Weaver filled a glaring hole on his team’s roster. Detroit badly needed a jolt of athleticism to complement its cerebral-leaning young core. Ivey was a sure-fire elite athlete who would naturally draw attention away from others and allow Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, and others to use their basketball IQs to exploit the advantages Ivey creates.

Ivey might be a high lottery pick, but like all lottery picks he is by no means a perfect prospect. There are shooting concerns that could resolve in either direction. And his defense was, frankly, not very good at the college level.

The defensive concerns may, indeed, be more important than any shooting issues. Ivey is an electric athlete and, quite literally the definition of a one-man fast break. But if he can’t contribute to stops on the defensive end, those fast break opportunities will be few and far between.

On opening night against the Orlando Magic, Ivey’s athleticism and transition prowess were immediately and abundantly clear. He jumped off the screen whenever the ball was in his hands, regardless of whether it resulted in a made basket. Perhaps more importantly for his long-term success, he also seemed to hold up well on the defensive end of the floor.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what we saw from Jaden Ivey’s defense following Detroit’s win against Orlando.

On the Ball

Ivey’s slight build, part of what makes him an elite athlete, is a bit more of a concern when playing defense. If his counterparts can outmuscle him, attack him, or get him into foul trouble, it neutralizes the threat Ivey brings offensively.

The Magic seemed to know that, and that the Pistons are eager to switch as part of their defensive game plan. Orlando made several attempts to get Ivey switched onto Paolo Banchero. But Ivey held up surprisingly well.

In the second quarter, Banchero unsurprisingly put his shoulder into Ivey to begin his drive, but the Pistons’ rookie took the contact, stayed with his counterpart, and fed him perfectly into Jalen Duren’s awaiting long arms for a block:

In the second half, the Magic brought some help for Banchero with a high slip screen. Ivey trailed Banchero well and fed him into a waiting Isaiah Stewart, who forced a miss at the rim:

The above play may not seem like much, After all, Ivey doesn’t provide much resistance. But by trailing Banchero and forcing him (watch the little push with his right hand) to Stewart, he limits Banchero’s options. If Ivey simply switches back to the perimeter immediately, he allows Banchero to take his time and potentially dribble to the middle of the paint where Stewart would have to defend more conservatively. Forcing Banchero to the paint gives him a tough angle and a good rim protector to manage.

It’s also worth noting that Ivey can follow the ball-handler a bit longer in these situations because his quickness and recovery time allow him to either steal a pass back to the perimeter or make a good contest.

On the other end of a screen in the third quarter, Ivey again showed an ability to get over a screen and displayed his quickness in stealing a handoff attempt:

It’s also worth noting the amount of times that Ivey went over screens on opening night. After a lot of unnecessary switching last season and this preseason, it was refreshing to see some different coverage to help out the back end of the Pistons’ defense. Ivey’s quickness should bring some more variety in that respect.

Speaking of his quickness, Ivey did a terrific job in the first quarter getting into position and beating Jalen Suggs to the spot here:

This was called a block but certainly looks like a charge. The other thing to note is what a good job Ivey does in getting back to even have a chance at drawing a charge.

Suggs is sprinting off an inbounds pass and Ivey begins to backpedal at this point just before halfcourt:

Ivey backpedals from that point but still finds a way to get in a position where he should have drawn a charge. Not many NBA players would have even had a chance there, but Ivey’s elite athleticism gives him that opportunity if he combines it with effort, as he does here.

Help Defense

The bigger concern with Ivey defensively, though, is his tendency to lose focus and ball watch when he’s not the primary defender. There was very little of that against Orlando.

He did mess up this screen coverage, leading to a wide open three:

But he more than made up for it with the rest of his off-ball play.

The Magic, who certainly would have scouted Ivey’s defense leading up to the lottery and draft, tried to take advantage of Ivey’s ball watching on several occasions.

In the first half, Franz Wagner attempted to hit Caleb Houstan on a backdoor pass where Ivey appeared to be ball watching. But Ivey was ready for it, jumped into the passing lane, and made Orlando pay on the other end:

Orlando went back to that well in the second half and Ivey was again ready for it. He perfectly blocked off his counterpart and forced a turnover, even though he wasn’t credited with the steal:

And it wasn’t just Ivey’s primary responsibility where he was helping. We even saw him recognize a blown coverage on a Spain pick-and-roll and assist by contesting what would have otherwise been a much more open attempt from deep:

The large caveat with all of this, of course, is that this was just one game.

We will need to wait and see how Jaden Ivey’s defense plays out over the course of his rookie season. But one would hope that he would improve defensively, as most rookies simply aren’t very good defensively. If he can show the effort and recognition that he showed against Orlando and allow his athleticism to take over, his future might be even brighter than it appeared on draft night.