How Oregon's Jordan Bell evolved into college basketball's best defender

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Before he became an NCAA tournament hero, a social media sensation and one of the pillars of Oregon’s first Final Four team in 78 years, Jordan Bell used to drive his high school coach crazy with his unwillingness to shoot when he was open.

One day in practice when Bell was a junior, Long Beach Poly coach Sharrief Metoyer halted a 5-on-5 scrimmage to implement an unusual rule. Either Bell had to shoot every time he touched the ball for next five minutes, or the entire Jackrabbits team had to run.

“We ran like 10 times,” Bell said sheepishly. “I just didn’t want to shoot it. Finally I just threw it up at the rim. I was like, ‘Here you go.'”

At a time when most basketball players are worried about how many touches they get, how many shots they take or how many points they score, Bell remains a glaring exception. Stopping the opposing team from scoring has always been the long-armed, bouncy-legged 6-foot-9 forward’s top priority, a mentality that has helped him evolve into college basketball’s most versatile, intimidating defender.

One half of the nation’s premier shot blocking duo during the regular season, Bell has embraced greater responsibility since fellow Oregon forward Chris Boucher suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 semifinals earlier this month. Bell has averaged 12.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks during the Ducks’ four NCAA tournament victories, spearheading the program’s deepest run since it won the inaugural event in 1939.

Bell’s ability to alter shots at the rim was the key to Oregon’s upset victory over Kansas in the Midwest Regional final last Saturday night. He swatted away eight Jayhawks shot attempts, inspiring a Twitter account devoted to things he could block, from the comet that killed the dinosaurs, to LaVar Ball from a microphone, to the Auburn field goal that beat the Ducks in the 2011 college football national title game.

When Oregon and North Carolina clash in the Final Four on Saturday night, the Tar Heels will have to account for more than Bell’s ability to protect the rim. Not only does Bell choke off passing lanes with his long arms at the head of Oregon’s 2-2-1 press, his presence also allows the Ducks to switch every ball screen because he is mobile enough to stay in front of opposing guards.

“Anytime he switches onto me during practice, it’s always really tough because the dude’s 6-9 and he moves like a guard,” Oregon point guard Casey Benson said. “He has meant so much to our defense. He’s always flying around, being so active and bringing so much energy.”

Bell owes his style of play in part to his football background.

A fearsome pass rusher in football as a kid, Bell naturally gravitated toward defense when he began playing basketball competitively for the first time in eighth grade. Outside shooting and low-post scoring were foreign to Bell, but altering shots around the rim felt natural.

Bell honed his shot blocking ability during high school with two of his favorite activities — playing Guitar Hero and dabbling as a middle blocker for Poly’s boy’s volleyball team. Learning when to leap to contest a point at the volleyball net obviously fed into Bell’s basketball development, but believe it or not, he insists Guitar Hero is actually more responsible for his impeccable timing as a shot blocker.

“In Guitar Hero, you have to hit the keys at the exactly right moment,” Bell said. “Shot blocking, you also have to wait for the right moment. To me most people try to finish the same way. You can’t jump too early or jump too late or you’re going to miss your chance.”

Jordan Bell celebrates Oregon’s first Final Four bid since 1939. (AP)
Jordan Bell celebrates Oregon’s first Final Four bid since 1939. (AP)

Whereas Bell didn’t finally develop into a scoring threat until his senior year at Poly, he was a defensive weapon for the Jackrabbits from the start. In practice during his first year playing varsity basketball as a sophomore, Bell would routinely challenge Poly’s senior star Ryan Anderson, who went on to have a decorated career at Boston College and Arizona.

“He gave Ryan all kinds of trouble in practice,” Metoyer said. “Ryan is two years older than him, and Jordan would be blocking his shots and making it tough on him to score. I would still have to yell at him on offense for not shooting enough or turning the ball over, but on the defensive end he was already a factor.”

Watching Anderson become an impact player at the college level has been emotional for Metoyer. The former Long Beach Poly coach remembers a time when Bell was in jeopardy of not even earning his high school diploma.

As a freshman at Poly, Bell had his phone and wallet stolen from his locker. Convinced that one of his football teammates was the culprit, Bell retaliated by stealing from that player’s wallet when it was left unguarded, but he was caught and kicked him off the team.

Without football to motivate him to keep his grades up, Bell lost focus and became a distraction in the classroom. School administrators eventually became so frustrated that they removed him from regular classes and put him in a program for students with behavioral issues that started every day at 2 p.m.

Bell remained in that program for more than two months before Metoyer came to his rescue. Having gotten to know Bell a bit while he was a member of Poly’s freshman basketball team, Metoyer went to bat for him with the school’s principal and asked for him to be reinstated.

“I saw a kid who needed some discipline, needed some structure and basketball was something he was passionate about,” Metoyear said. “I asked the principal, if he was my responsibility and I made him accountable, would he let him back into school? The principal brought him back under that condition.”

To get Bell back on track, Metoyer had to serve as the father figure the young forward was lacking.
Metoyer made a set of rules for Bell — that he’d have to wear a tie to school on game days like his teammates, that he’d have to be on time for every class and every practice and that he’d have to keep his grades up. Then Metoyer held Bell accountable by having the whole Poly team run anytime Bell did not comply.

Sometimes Metoyer had to drive Bell to campus on days when his mother left early for work. Other times Metoyer would have to hunt Bell down on campus after learning that Bell talked back to a teacher or had his phone out in class. But gradually Bell made real progress, whether it was paying attention in class, handing his assignments in on time or keeping track of what was due in a daily planner.

Bell eventually graduated from high school on time. After a year of prep school, he qualified to play for Oregon, something he says would not have been possible without Metoyer.

“He has been very influential in my life,” Bell said. “He’s been more of a father figure than just a basketball coach for me. Even after high school when most coaches aren’t as involved in their athletes’ life, he stayed with me. He’s been there since high school, keeping me on the right path.”

Bell’s path has been a steady ascent since he got to Oregon, from key role player, to Pac-12 defensive player of the year, to stalwart of a Final Four team. While Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey will be expected to carry the load offensively for Oregon against North Carolina on Saturday, there will be pressure on Bell to be the Ducks’ backbone on defense.

North Carolina is the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing 41.9 percent of their own misses. With Oregon going small in Boucher’s absence, Bell will often be the lone true Ducks big man battling Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Luke Maye in the paint.

It will be a tough challenge, but the Oregon coaches have confidence in Bell.

“He’s matured a lot, he’s grown up a lot and he’s figured some things out,” Oregon assistant Kevin McKenna said. “Jordan’s not a malicious kid. He’ll still lose focus sometimes, but he’s a fun kid to be around and he’s as good a kid as I’ve coached. I’ve enjoyed watching him grow as a person and a basketball player the past few years.”

More Final Four coverage from Yahoo Sports:
UNC coach’s folksy lingo keeps players loose
Pat Forde: How David is slaying Goliath in college basketball
Why UConn coach smiled after 111-game win streak ended

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!