EuroLeague Best Defender: Walter Tavares, Real Madrid

His blocked shots and intimidation no doubt forced Turkish Airlines EuroLeague head coaches to make adjustments whenever Real Madrid center Walter Tavares was on the court. 

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Now, those same coaches have chosen Tavares as the 2018-19 Best Defender Trophy winner, making him the first Real player to earn this honor. Tavares held a block party all season long, leading all EuroLeague players in rejections on average (1.7), in total (53) and per 40 minutes (3.3). And even when Real is famous for its offense, Tavares was a key to Los Blancos recording 27.0 defensive rebounds per game, the second-highest average in EuroLeague history. 

He ranked second on the team and eighth in the EuroLeague in defensive rebounds with 4.4 per game, part of his fifth-ranked average of 6.2 total rebounds. What cannot be quantified easily is how many shots Tavares changed or otherwise deterred, although the sight of opponents dribbling away from the basket when he was near offered a clue. His energy, presence, intimidation and mentality are among the many reasons that the coaches voted Tavares to be the 2018-19 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Best Defender.

The Best Defender Trophy is one of several awards to honor the best players in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. The first of this season's honorees was announced Monday when Mike James of AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan was confirmed as the winner of this season's Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy. On Tuesday, Goga Bitadze of Buducnost VOLI Podgorica won the EuroLeague Rising Star Trophy. 

The All-EuroLeague teams will be announced in the coming days. The EuroLeague MVP award will be revealed at the 2019 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four in Vitoria-Gasteiz. The Alexander Gomelskiy Coach of the Year Trophy and the Gianluigi Porelli EuroLeague Executive of the Year are post-season awards.

Following Tavares in the voting by EuroLeague head coaches were Nikola Kalinic of Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, who ranked second, as well as his teammate Jan Vesely and Bryant Dunston of Anadolu Efes Istanbul, who tied for third place.

One of the tallest players in EuroLeague history at 2.21 meters, Tavares forced opponents to use different strategies against him. In Round 7, Jordan Mickey of Khimki Moscow Region tried 11 three-point shots against him, although he never took more than 5 shots from beyond the arc in any other game. He had more than half (53) of Real's blocked shots (100) so far this season, earning the nickname "Sergeant Swat" from EuroLeague TV commentator Joe Arlauckas. With Tavares patrolling the paint, it comes as no surprise that Real forced opponents into a EuroLeague-low 49.1% two-point shooting. 

Indeed, since Tavares joined Real last season, the team has held its opponents to the lowest two-point shooting in the competition. Before he came, Real had never led the league in that statistical category.

Born in Cape Verde, Tavares did not play basketball until age 17, when he was discovered by Spanish side Gran Canaria. He joined its junior team in 2009 and was sent on loan to La Palma in the 2011-12 season. He came back to make his Spanish League debut with Gran Canaria in January 2013. Tavares earned All-EuroCup First Team honors in the 2014-15 season, helping Gran Canaria reach the finals. After two seasons in the NBA and the G-League, Tavares joined Madrid in November 2017, helping his new team win the EuroLeague titles and Spanish League titles in 2018.

Tavares is the second African player to be voted Best Defender. Gabonese big man Stephane Lasme was the 2013 EuroLeague Best Defender with Panathinaikos. He joins six-time winner Dimitris Diamantidis of Panathinaikos (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011), Bryant Dunston (2014 and 2015), who won the award in consecutive seasons while playing for Olympiacos, and Kyle Hines, who won it with CSKA Moscow in 2016 and 2018. In addition to those mentioned above, CSKA Moscow players Victor Khryapa and Andrei Kirilenko won the award in 2010 and 2012, respectively, while Adam Hanga took the trophy in 2017 with Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz.

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