Max Christie's Defense | The Friday Screener
Max Christie is far more than just a shooter and has the defensive potential to make him a meaningful long-term starter.
Max Christie surprised a lot of people as he announced he was staying in the 2022 NBA Draft well before the June 1st deadline. The Michigan State Spartan wing was considered a name to watch as a one-and-done prospect entering the season, but his erratic performances left many skeptical about the viability of that option. Christie is often described as an off-ball shooter before the conversation devolves into tirades about not understanding shooting numbers. Despite the lackluster shooting numbers, Christie’s shot should still be viewed in a positive light, but it also shouldn’t be his only selling point. What so frequently gets slept on and is the key to him being a long-term starter is his defense.
Like all freshmen, Christie’s defense wasn’t perfect. There were times he struggled with the speed of the game, had happy feet, and made peculiar rotations. We’ll dive into the concerning aspects of his game, but there was also a lot to get really excited about going forward. Standing at just under 6’6” with an almost 6’9” wingspan, Christie has the size and length that should make him a versatile perimeter defender. Christie will need to add weight to truly contend with NBA wings as he is just 189 pounds. This will be an issue early on, but like all teenagers eventually do, he should get much stronger as he ages.
Having adequate size and length is a great foundation for a defender, but these traits also get incredibly overrated as the player still actually has to do something with them on the court. Sure, player X has a plus-7-inch wingspan, but how does he use it? If he doesn’t move his feet well or is always out of position, it doesn’t really matter how long his arms are. Thankfully in Christie’s case, he generally moves his feet exceptionally well and is mindful about making proper rotations.
To do this evaluation justice, covering the bad, along with the good, is a necessity and where we’ll start. Overall, I’m highly encouraged by Christie’s on-ball defense, but there is one glaring issue that persists: going left. A common theme with Christie’s on-ball defense was his inability to react to a jab step to his right, followed by a drive to his left. He tends to bring his right hip and foot around first instead of dropping his left foot and hip in sequence or sliding his left foot without opening up his hip, resulting in him moving square and not in stride with the ball-handler. Hopefully, this is something that gets cleaned up as he gets more comfortable with the speed of the game, but it will leave him susceptible to drives early on.
Even though Christie struggled defending the jab step to his right followed by a drive to his left, he wasn’t completely helpless defending attacks to his left. When he was already moving that direction, or the ball-handler didn’t fake the other direction first, Christie frequently showed how effective his footwork, acceptance of contact, and long strides could be.
Here, Johnny Davis attacks in transition. Despite a decent change of pace, Christie is able to react quickly since he is already shading Davis to the corner. As Davis drives, Christie uses his long strides to slide his feet perfectly and cut off Davis’s drive. The route that Christie takes here is essential to the success of this defensive possession and a reoccurring theme with him. Instead of dropping his left foot to the rim to stay with Davis, Christie uses his footwork and physicality to cut off Davis’s drive before it begins. This move forces Davis into a pull-up three. Since he stayed on balance, due to his quality footwork, after the contact, Christie is able to recover and contest the shot.
This time, Christie is facing arguably the most athletic player in the 2022 NBA Draft in Jaden Ivey. As Ivey brings the ball up, Christie turns his hips to fight through the screen, and his teammate hard hedges. This defense denies Ivey from going left but allows him to attack Christie’s high foot and attack towards his preferred right hand. However, as Ivey switches back to his right, there is a subtle pause that allows Christie to flip his hips back. Christie proceeds to slide his feet perfectly, cut off Ivey’s drive (a rare feat), and force the pass out.
Besides the inconsistencies in his ability to defend drives to his left, Christie also had a tendency to have happy feet. This term is frequently used as a slight on quarterbacks in the pocket, but it is applicable to basketball defenders as well. Having happy feet means that a defender overreacts to dribble moves and puts themselves in a poor position. In Christie’s case, this improved as the year progressed, and he became more comfortable with the speed of the game. However, the NBA is another huge leap in that realm, so it wouldn’t be surprising if we see this resurface early in his career.
Here, Christie reacts to the jab step with a slight two-footed hop to his left. This movement opens a potential driving lane to the middle of the floor for the ball-handler, and Christie must scramble to recover. In doing so, Christie’s hips become perpendicular to the baseline. The ball-handler quickly sees this and counters with a step-back three.
Most good defenders have quick feet, are on their toes, and can react quickly. While having happy feet is an issue, it’s also a fixable one that tends to disappear with more experience. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened with Christie. Sure, he still overreacted to moves at times, but he more often displayed quick feet and hips that allowed him to disrupt ball-handlers.
Here, Christie gets switched on the much quicker Jeremy Roach. Christie reacts perfectly to a series of crossovers and step-backs by quickly moving his hips and feet in congruence to stay on balance. Even when Roach crosses over at the right elbow, Christie should be taken out of the play as he overcommits to the drive in that direction. This moment of vulnerability is a symptom of Christie overcommitting and Roach being incredibly quick. Instead of losing his feet or being nullified on the play, Christie rapidly pivots back, bumps Roach off his route, and contests the floater. The shot goes in, but the reactions, footwork, and position by Christie were exquisite.
Even though there are some idiosyncrasies that need correcting with Christie’s on-ball defense, none of them are permanent. Here, Christie starts the possession in a perfect defensive stance: bent at the knees (not hips), high hands, and shading the ball-handler to the outside. Christie is unfazed by the shoulder shimmy and slides his feet perfectly to keep the ball-handler out of the lane. After cutting off the drive, Christie mirrors the ball-handler’s movement, doesn’t foul, and uses his length to contest a tough fadeaway jumper.
On-ball defense typically gets most of the shine as that’s where our eyes get naturally drawn to, but off-ball defense is just as crucial to being a good defender. Having the ability to read, react, and rotate consistently and effectively is a special skill that not all players possess. Christie’s off-ball defense is far from special, but there is a lot to be really encouraged about on that front.
The issues we saw with Christie’s on-ball defense oddly enough show up with his off-ball defense. He can be overly jumpy like he had too much caffeine, show on rotations too aggressively, and play with almost a sense of panic when looking to switch back or recover. It’s almost as if his effectiveness would skyrocket if he just took a few deep breaths and settled down.
Here, Christie incorrectly picks up the opposing point guard in transition even though his teammate is at the top of the arc. As the ball swings to the corner, Christie moves to switch back to his man, but the timing and communication are poor. Christie is now out of position as the ball quickly swings back to his man, and he franticly scrambles to recover. Christie’s man easily exploits the frenzied closeout and gets to the rim with ease.
Even though Christie has boneheaded, perplexing defensive possessions like that, most of his off-ball defense is highly encouraging. Here, Christie does a good job of avoiding both screens even though the ball moves to the opposite side of the floor. As the ball enters the post, Christie’s teammates initiate the double. Christie quickly rotates down to the rim to cover the post. As the ball moves, Christie does as well as he recovers to his man before dropping to the post when the ball reenters the post. The ball-handler now has a better angle to make the skip pass, but Christie reads it correctly, recovers, and gets a solid contest on the shot.
This time we see Christie again defending the weak side on his own. As the ball enters the post, Christie sinks down to eliminate the skip pass to the corner shooter while also keeping his man in front of him. This positioning allows Christie to close out to his man under control once the skip pass is made. Christie’s man makes a nice touch pass to the corner shooter, who dispatches Christie’s teammate with ease on a subtle shot fake. Instead of being content with his own assignment, Christie digs at the drive to force the kickout. Still not content, Christie works to recover (aided by his teammate’s stunt that causes a slight hesitation) and at least gets a hand up on the 33% three-point shooter.
The concerns with Christie’s defense are symptoms of youth. The game can be fast for him at times, but he has a high work rate, great footwork, plays with physicality, and has encouraging awareness. When Christie is under control and using all of his tools, his defense is incredibly impressive.
Here, Christie pieces together everything we just went through for a perfect defensive possession. As Malaki Branham lifts out of the corner, Christie makes him work for the ball by playing on the top side and taking away the cutting opportunity. Once Branham receives the handoff, Christie expertly slithers over the screen and slides his feet to cut off the drive. Christie then denies the pass to Branham on the perimeter and on the cut as the ball is poked loose. After tracking Branham to the corner, Christie rotates middle to the cutter, who is wide open. The skip pass gets made to Branham in the corner, Christie recovers under control and gets a decent contest on the jumper.
Max Christie is often billed as simply an off-ball shooter. While I expect him to be a good shooter, I also expect his defense to be a game-changer. He moves his feet well and plays with physicality that should only improve as he gets stronger. As the game slows down for Christie mentally, he could become one of the most versatile perimeter defenders in the 2022 NBA Draft.