"No matter what I'm doing on the court, the defense is gonna be there."
That one sentence has defined the spectacular career of Anadolu Efes Istanbul center Bryant Dunston. With that mindset, Dunston has won the EuroLeague Best Defender Trophy twice, been selected to the All-EuroLeague team, become the competition's all-time leader in blocked shots and played in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Championship Game with two different teams.
"When someone drives to the basket, you don't want them to score at all."
"When I first won the defensive player of the year award, my dad told me that I have to maintain this for the entirety of my career because once I stop playing defense, then I become a less valuable player," Dunston said. "He said, 'Find what you're good at. Find what you do and just focus on that.'"
That focus on defense has accompanied Dunston on a professional career that started in South Korea and took him to Greece, Israel and Italy before he got his first taste of the EuroLeague at age 27. In the eight seasons since, he has been the competition's most-feared rim protector with a EuroLeague-record 273 career blocked shots.
According to Dunston, the key to his success as a shot-blocker comes down to being willing to sacrifice one's body for the team.
"It's timing. You have to have a little luck. You have to be able to jump a little bit. But it's more you have to be willing to do it," he explained. "You know there's been times where I wanted to block a shot. And I wasn't as willing so I didn't jump as hard and I didn't extend my arm all the way so I didn't get it...
"When you see your teammate get beat and you want to make up for his mistake… You want to help him, then you'll go block the shot. You'll do everything you can to stop that other player. When someone drives to the basket, you don't want them to score at all."
Experience also plays a role in knowing when to go all out for a block.
"My dad used to tell me when I was younger that I have to stop trying to block every shot because I would get in foul trouble a lot," Dunston recalled. "He's like 'You want the score to be 100-0. But sometimes you have to let it go. You have to know when to let the shot go.' "
Of course, blocking shots can be about much more than protecting your basket and denying the opponent 2 points.
"It's also sending a message to the other team," he agreed. "It's not gonna be easy. I think our last couple of years, we had really good toughness on the inside so a lot of teams were forced to take outside shots because they didn't want to drive to the basket so much."
On an Efes team with so much firepower, the balance has worked well for Dunston to put more effort on defense.
"I like contributing on both ends of the floor," he said. "I might sacrifice some offensive stuff because I'm giving so much on the defensive end. For me, there's no problem because our team needs something on defense. It's all about that balance and I just try to find out every season or every game how to help our team win."
"I thought it was going to be a long relationship with this team, but I could never imagine it being as good as it has been for me."
Perhaps it's a little bit easier for Dunston to find that balance in a place where he has become so comfortable. After playing his first two EuroLeague seasons with Olympiacos in 2013-14 and 2014-15, he joined Efes and has been with the club ever since.
"When I got to Olympiacos, I wasn't planning on leaving. I said, 'Okay, this is where I want to be.' And you know, I met my wife there, she was my girlfriend at the time but I said okay, she's the woman I want to be with. I was like this is the place I want to be and then… things happened," Dunston explained.
"When I got to Efes I said okay, I'm here. I see a team that has potential.' We had a really, really good team. I said, 'They're trying to do something here. I can see it.' You know? So as long as the organization is committed to winning and they're putting the team in the best position to win, I want to be here for that. So it kind of happened that over the years they saw that I want to win and I could still be a productive piece for them. At the time I thought it was going to be a long relationship with this team, but I could never imagine it being as good as it has been for me."
Indeed, it's been a historic run for Dunston. His 167 games played for Efes are second-most in club history behind only team captain Dogus Balbay (208). Dunston is also Efes's career leader in scoring (1,554 points), rebounds (859), and, naturally, blocks (203).
And as one might have guessed, with so much experience and great play on the court, Dunston has become a key team leader off the court just as much as he anchors the team on the hardwood. But that also was a lesson learned the hard way.
"Initially my first year, we had a lot of talented guys on the team and I was just one of the guys. So I figured that I would just lead by example and I wouldn't have to say too much and the guys would understand what we need to do to win. But in the end, thinking back, it's probably the leadership that wasn't there that we needed to get to the next level," Dunston lamented. "With the roster that we had, we could have easily made the Final Four.
"There were times where I could have said something and I didn't, so I had to grow as a leader. Now at that time, they saw me. I just came from a EuroLeague championship team who made it to the Final Four the year before and they were looking for me to be more vocal and give more guidance to the younger players. I didn't do it so I just learned from that and try to continue to tell people, even if they know it already. Sometimes you have to speak because they might not know it, and then there's an opportunity that you missed to teach somebody something you know."
After helping Efes reach the playoffs in his second season during which they blew a 2-1 series lead and lost in five games to Olympiacos, thus missing the playoffs, Dunston was also there the next season when Efes hit rock bottom and finished last in the league with a 7-23 record. But over the past three seasons, Efes has won the second-most games in the league. It reached the 2019 championship game and was atop the standings by a comfortable margin when the 2019-20 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It feels amazing, you know, going through that journey of trying to build a culture here and then having a lot of bumps along the way. First I just said okay. If I have a talented enough team, if we have enough time with the talent here, we can win, but it's more than just talent. So the first year we had talent, but we didn't succeed. We didn't get to where we want to go. The next year we had great chemistry. But we lost in the fifth game," Dunston detailed.
"I'm definitely very thankful and you gotta take advantage of every opportunity that you get. They don't come around very often and the organization has always been committed to winning and they've been proven that the last few years. Coach has made sure that all the guys have been refined, that we built the core here and he saw the chemistry from the beginning from the first year when we were all together how important that was, and how it played out... The talent is there. Everything is in place and now we just need some things that go our way."
That starts for Efes on Dunston on Tuesday with a Game 5 winner-take-all showdown against Real Madrid for a ticket to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four.