Definition: A brief lunge by a perimeter defender toward a posting up offensive player intended to bring secondary ball pressure without double-teaming.
Explanation: According to traditional defenisve principles, the primary help defender traps the box by sliding over into position once the on-ball defender has been beaten with a no-middle drive. With anticipation and early two-nining, this helper can even prevent drives before they occur without actually leaving his original man.
Trapping the box sets off an avalanche of rotations in behind — including sinking and filling as well as possibly x-ing out — because there is time to cover the gaps. The post-up, which is an isolation of its own kind, does not afford this luxury. Given that the posting up offensive player is so close to the basket, defensive help decisions are more binding.
The only in-between recourse similar to the two-nine is the “dig,” in which a perimeter player lunges back and forth between the posting up player and his own man. The idea is to cause discomfort by constantly feigning a double-team. At best, this might lead to a fruitless kickout by the post player as the digger darts right back out to his man. Sometimes the digger can cause mishandling of the ball as the post player moves middle through the dig. Other times the post player might fade toward the sideline to relieve himself of the pressure. With a proper dig, there are many positive outcomes.
As for who the digger is, it’s always the nearest perimeter defensive player to the “punch” action — NBA terminology for a post-up. Also important is that the dig is not a sneak attack from the weak-side, because that would result in far too long a distance between the digger his man. If the post player sniffs it out, he can throw an easy skip pass for a wide open three-point shot.
When a dig takes place is also of great importance. The best digs occur after the post player has put the ball on the ground, because this naturally limits his passing vision. Even though most NBA players are able to dribble with their heads up, they are much better passers pre-dribble. Not only can they see the entire floor, but the dribble can still be used as a weapon to escape pressure. Once the post player dribbles, however, he must at least keep part of his concentration on ball control — and therefore be more easily unsettled by a dig.
How To Dig
With the offense typically cutting off of punch actions, digging as a whole is fluid. On one post possession, the defensive digger might change multiple times. Most commonly, the post feeder cuts through after dumping the ball inside to give his back-to-the-basket teammate space. The post feeder’s defender, however, must be ready to dig if he stays put, but also prevent a quick pass to the feeder should he cut.
This is why the most critical part of the dig is the orientation — that is, the directionality of the digger’s body. While this might not matter for the dig itself, it is crucial for the denial of basket cuts. Given that the digger is straddling the post player and his original man on the perimeter, he must remain cognizant of his man trying to slip into the paint. To accomplish this, a technically sound digger faces the strong-side sideline with his back to the basket, as this keeps every potential cut by his man within his vision while still allowing him to dig. In short, it allows him to maintain a ball-digger-man alignment regardless of a cut.
Here’s a good example involving the Boston Celtics, in which Al Horford — who starts off as the most logical digger — follows the post feeder, Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers. Notice how, as Simmons cuts through, Horford keeps the ball and Simmons within his peripherals. He never turns his back until a pass from the post player, Joel Embiid, becomes impossible.
Had Horford flipped around and faced the rim, Embiid could have slipped a bounce pass underneath or a lob overtop an unsuspecting Horford. By continuing to face the strong side, Horford keeps everything in his vision — and is therefore prepared to deal with any offensive decision.
Once Simmons clears out to the weak side and drags Horford with him, a new digger emerges for Boston: Jayson Tatum. As Embiid backs down, Tatum begins swiping at him without actually abandoning his man, Dario Saric, on the perimeter.
At the last moment Saric begins to dive to the rim for offensive rebounding position. But because of Tatum’s proper body orientation, Saric is never able to cut behind Tatum. Instead, Tatum bodies him up and stops him in his tracks.
Now consider the opposite scenario: After Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets feeds teammate Nikola Jokic on the block, Murray immediately makes a basket cut on his man, P.J. Tucker of the Houston Rockets. But instead of keeping the ball and his man in his vision, Tucker twists around as he follows Murray into the paint. Not only can he no longer see the ball, but he also does not create a physical barrier to disrupt the basket cut. The result is an easy two points for Denver.
The actual process of digging comes down to depth, and is usually divided into two categories: the hard dig and the soft (or short) dig. In a hard dig, the digger lunges closer to the post player to more sufficiently threaten a double-team. Better diggers can even get away with a swipe at the ball, which ideally can frustrate the post player and upset his post rhythm.
Reasons for a hard dig are numerous. The digger’s man may be a poor shooter, limiting the consequence of the hard dig; the post player might be a very dangerous offensive player, have deep post position or struggle to see the floor. Regardless of the impetus, the hard dig lasers the digger’s focus on the punch action as opposed to his own man.
One other feature of the hard dig is the spot at which the digger initially plants himself. Because NBA defense is, on the whole, help oriented, defenders immediately sag off when their man gives up the ball. In a dig, the length of this sag typically corresponds with the digger’s intentions. In a hard dig, a digger might creep closer to the post player before digging hard.
Look at how close Kyle Anderson of the San Antonio Spurs moves toward Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves as he posts up on the right side of the floor:
Anderson reasons that Towns is a more dangerous threat than his man, Shabazz Muhammad, and decides to shift accordingly. By the time he actually digs, he’s almost on top of Towns and begging for a kickout pass. Clearly, this is the result for which Anderson is pushing.
Even though Anderson harrasses Towns in what mirrors a double-team, notice his body orientation. He never actually turns to attack Towns, but instead gives himself a chance at recovery. When Towns submits to the pressure and fires a pass out to Muhammad, Anderson is still able to recover with a healthy contest.
Using a combination of timing and athleticism, an especially savvy digger can stick close to his man before unexpectedly lunging at the ball. By keeping his intentions secret, he can surprise the post player and cause a mistake.
The danger with this approach, however, is momentum. If timed improperly, the post player can catch the digger moving the wrong way and throw a kickout pass for a wide open three. Edging closer to the ball before the dig is safer because it minimizes the time required to stop, pivot and recover. If a digger is coming from farther away, he has naturally built up more speed he has to counteract in his recovery.
A soft dig has the exact opposite focus of the hard dig: the perimeter player. Instead of prioritizing the punch action, the soft digger wants to limit kickouts to his man for an open three-point shot. As with hard digs, reasons for a soft dig are numerous: The post player could be a limited scorer or far away from the rim, the post defender could be especially stout, or the defense might not want to dig too much off of a specific player. Still, most defenses do not completely ignore digs in these situations. They will pressure the ball with a dig as far as they can without instigating consequences — particularly when digging off of a great three-point shooter.
In terms of starting depth, a soft digger usually hugs closer to his man on the perimeter. While he does have some leeway in terms of inching closer to the ball — the soft digger does not actually confront the ball, making it easier to pivot and recover more quickly — he knows his priority lies on the three-point line.
The key to a soft dig is finding balance between getting into the post player’s vision without actually giving up anything on the three-point line. Movement naturally catches the human eye, and so the soft digger wants to make his presence somewhat felt. Even if he never truly brings pressure to the post player, the threat of it can still cause discomfort. For some post players, it might even cause them make a move baseline — away from where he (incorrectly) thinks some help might come. This is of great advantage to the defense, as it is always looking to keep the ball away from the middle of the floor.
Here’s an example of a good soft dig by Jamal Murray of the Nuggets, who is guarding Sean Kilpatrick of the Milwaukee Bucks at the top of the key. As Kilpatrick’s teammate, Giannis Antetokounmpo, backs down Wilson Chandler, we can see Murray take a more neutral position between the ball and his man — as opposed to Kyle Anderson from above, who was more clearly targeting the post action.
Murray knows that Kilpatrick is a very good shooter and does not want to abandon him. Still, as we can see in the play below, Murray lunges at Antetokounmpo twice: he doesn’t want to leave his teammate, Chandler, completely one-on-one. So Murray pushes his soft dig boundary as far as he can without compromising himself.
We can see the true intentions of Murray by the way he darts back to Kilpatrick after each dig: there’s a certain urgency to the way he returns to the three-point line, which indicates that it is the part of this play about which he is most worried.
Dig To Double
On occasion, a dig will turn into a double-team. Sometimes this is by design, because the defense determines that a particular post player cannot deal with significant ball pressure once he has put the ball down. Other times it is organic, such as when a hard digger actually contacts the ball, or creates so much pressure that returning to his original man does not make sense. Take a look at how this dig by Zach Lavine of the Chiacgo Bulls morphs into a double, and the immense pressure pushes Joel Embiid into a tough turnaround and baseline fadeaway:
No matter the style, every dig is an exercise in KYP: know your personnel. And this doesn’t just mean knowing opponent tendencies. On any given post play, a digger must ask: Is my man a shooter? Can my teammate guard the post by himself? Is the post player a good scorer? Is he a good passer that can take advantage of my dig? All of these questions must be answered instantaneously, and the best defenders can turn knowledge into appropriate reaction.
Film Study: “Dig”
Below is a video compilation of various examples of NBA defenders digging. Pay particular attention to the depth and style of each dig, and how the offensive post player reacts. Is the dig too early? Too late? Is it necessary given the personnel involved? Is the digger’s body oriented properly? All of these questions contribute to the success of the various digs below.