DO NOT BOTHER WITH a fist bump or high five. Extend your hand for a shake and get an immediate idea why Ieasia Walker is the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball defensive player of the year. If she does not pilfer your fingernails without you notcing, Walker will at least leave an impression that her hands are strong and rugged.
“They’re perfect for basketball,” says Walker’s South Carolina coach, Dawn Staley.
Normally, talk about someone’s defensive prowess in basketball starts with his or her feet. Effective defense, you’ve probably heard or been told, is played with the feet. Walker has quick feet, no doubt.
But what makes her stand out on defense are her hands. With those hands, Walker is part thief, part magician.
“Opponents drive to the basket on her and she can very easily take the ball out of their hands and she can go start our fast break,” Staley says. “It’s so quick, I don’t even think the officials see what’s happened. I don’t think it’s a foul, but it happens so quick. I don’t even think the offensive player recognizes that she no longer has the ball sometimes.”
Walker ranks second in the SEC in steals with 2.7 per game, and her 251 career thefts are the fourth-most in USC history. This truly is a case, though, where numbers do not come close to telling the story.
What tells Walker’s story is her relentlessness in attacking an opponent. She prides herself in applying pressure on the opponent who possesses the ball. She plays with great anticipation and has made herself into a skilled reader of an opponent’s moves.
There is no part of playing defense that comes from God-given talent. It is a learned practice. Staley says defense is about making a decision to work harder than your opponent.
Staley found the perfect student of defense in Walker, who recognized in high school in Amityville, N.Y., that playing solid defense would endear herself to her teammates and to college scouts. Then she arrived at USC four years ago to the harping of Staley about the importance of defense to a team’s success.
“Defense, defense, defense,” Walker says she constantly heard from Staley. “So when I got here, I knew that defense was going to keep me on the floor if my offense wasn’t going. It just stuck with me throughout my four years.”
By the end of her junior year, when she was named second-team All-SEC for a second consecutive season, Walker set her sights on being a first-team member of the league’s all-defensive team.
That meant becoming more knowledgeable of the game and its defensive nuances. For Walker, that has meant making a science out of the game. Listen to her.
“When I’m on defense, I can begin to read the rhythm of the (opponent),” she says, “when they are going to pass, or when they are going to pick up their dribble. You try to get a beat on their pass or when they’re going to cross over (dribble). I count in my head, two dribbles and a crossover, pickup and pass. I go for it.”
Walker gets the assignment before every game of covering the opponent’s point guard. Because USC often plays with smaller post players than its opponent, Staley has placed an emphasis on guards pressuring the ball. That pressure eliminates clear passing lanes to the post, thus negating the opponents’ size advantage inside.
There are times when Walker will switch to guarding an opponent’s top scoring guard. The best example of that working came in USC’s early season victory against Drexel, which featured guard Hollie Mershon. In falling behind by 14 points in the first half, USC struggled to contain Mershon. Midway through the second half, Mershon had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Drexel led 47-40.
USC guard Sancheon White, herself a top-level defender, was having a difficult time forcing Mershon to dribble to her left. White and Walker decided — on their own — to switch, with Walker taking over the assignment of guarding Mershon.
“That was probably the sole reason we won the game,” Staley said of the switch. “It was really impressive.”
Walker held Mershon to four points on one-of-seven shooting over the final eight minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime. Mershon and Drexel did not score in the extra period.
“She wears our opponents down. That’s what it boils down to,” Staley says of Walker. “Their point guards are not as effective in the last four or five minutes of the game because of what she’s done the first 35 minutes of the game.”
It is what Walker has done to opponents for the past four years. Only now, though, is she being recognized for her defensive expertise. Give her a congratulatory handshake on that.