Draft consensus is that Andrew Wiggins is likely to be an elite defensive wing in the NBA, as in theory his stellar physical tools ensure lock down D. But there is more to defense than running fast and jumping high, so I am going to use available NCAA data to measure him against my favorite defensive guard prospect in the draft: Marcus Smart. Let’s starting by assessing the inventory around them.
Coaching: Bill Self vs. Travis Ford
Coaching has a huge impact on team defense, so let’s get a feel for which coaches historically built the best defenses prior to landing their respective stars. The table notes each team’s NCAA rank (out of ~350) in adjusted defensive rating as per kenpom.com:
|Season||Ford Team||Ford D Rank||Self Team||Self D Rank|
In a nutshell: Self always builds elite defenses whereas Travis Ford doesn’t. Self’s worst defense pre-Wiggins was 15 slots higher than Ford’s best pre-Smart. Of course, this doesn’t prove that Self is a smarter defensive coach than Ford, it only suggests it at a loud volume. But Kansas is a name brand school and it stands to reason that Self should have some advantage given his access to superior talent. Fortunately, Dan Hanner shared his process for making NCAA projections (which he does well) and included coaching as a significant portion of defense projection.
In Step 15 of his article, Hanner notes that he makes projections for defensive statistics (block rate, steal rate, D-Reb rate), prices in recruiting rankings, and gives a boost for players that mysteriously play high minute totals with poor stats (since these types are often are defensive specialists). He also notes that these factors alone do a poor job. Using a 10 year sample from 2003-2012, he measured the greatest impact coaches after adjusting for the aforementioned factors and shared his top 15 defensive coaches. Bill Self rated #1 on his list. Travis Ford didn’t crack the top 15 because he offers no value beyond the ability to attract enough talent to make himself seem competent to athletic directors.
It is common for people to blame Bill Self for Wiggins’ shortcomings, but this is misguided. Self consistently gets stellar regular seasons from players who do not go on to NBA stardom, as his teams tend to outperform their talent before disappointing in the tournament. It is safe to declare that Bill Self completely waffle crushes Travis Ford at building NCAA defenses.
After coaching, the highest impact players on defense are the tall ones. They provide rebounding and rim protection, so it should be no surprise that height correlates with defensive success. Good college defenses are often anchored by good rim protection, so let’s compare the two sets of bigs. Note that total includes each stat’s minute-weighted average for the collection of bigs.
Oklahoma State’s bigs were undersized and unfit to do good things on defense. The Cowboys were rated as the #5 kenpom team with a 12-1 record when Mike Cobbins went down for the year due to injury. Without him they were forced to play small, as Hammonds was largely worthless and when Murphy was on the bench 6’7″ Le’Bryan Nash played C and Marcus Smart was often forced to defend opposing PFs. I’d wager that Smart spent more time as a defensive PF than Wiggins in spite of being a PG who is 5.5 inches shorter. Not only did the small lineup make it exceptionally difficult to protect the rim, but Smart was forced to be used as an undersized post defender instead of putting pressure on the ball on the perimeter. Consequently, Oklahoma State went 9-12 without him and dropped from #5 to #26 in kenpom’s overall rankings.
Meanwhile, Kansas had the defensive player of the year in Joel Embiid whose his size and mobility made him an interior force. He only played 23 minutes a game and missed a handful due to injury, but Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor offered more value as defensive replacements than OKC’s small bigs without Cobbins. This is another clear advantage for Kansas.
Let’s see how each team compares in terms of guard and wing impact on defense outside of Smart and Wiggins.
Finally, an area where the Cowboys have an advantage. Non-Smart Oklahoma State guards did not offer a ton of value on D, but at least Brian Williams and Markel Brown had the athleticism to occasionally make a play and Stevie Clark generated some steals in limited minutes before getting kicked off the team. Meanwhile, Kansas trotted out two small PG’s and Wayne Selden, who has an elite body but has yet to figure out how to use it for good on the basketball court. Kansas’s guards were certainly weak links on defense.
This advantage for Oklahoma State is less significant than each of Kansas’s advantages in big men and coaching. Forte was an undersized and unathletic, and Brown and Williams aren’t defensive stoppers, just athletes who sometimes make athletic plays. Kansas’s guards were bad, but guard defense isn’t high enough leverage to weigh this discrepancy more than others given that Oklahoma State didn’t have a second perimeter stopper.
Kansas has a much better coach and better bigs, whereas Oklahoma State has less leaky guards alongside their star. If the two players made similar impacts, Kansas should have a much better overall defensive rating. Yet they barely finished with a higher defensive rating, as Kansas finished with the 31st adjusted D-Rtg (out of 351) at 96.3 and Oklahoma State finished 37th at 96.6. The two defenses were roughly dead even, and once you remove the 3 games missed by Smart (Oklahoma State went 0-3), Oklahoma State was a shade better than Kansas.
If we look at Big 12 games only (noting that Smart missed 3 games, Cobbins missed all 20, and Embiid missed 5), Oklahoma State had an adjusted defensive rating of 95.9 vs Kansas’s 96.2. If we throw out the 3 games that Smart missed, the Cowboy D-Rtg drops to 94.9 to widen the gap by a point. By all measures these two defenses were similarly effective over the course of the season, and if anything it appears that Oklahoma State had the edge when Marcus Smart was in the lineup. Given the advantages that Wiggins had with respect to coach and cast, this strongly suggests that Marcus Smart was the better and more impactful defensive player. Let’s look at individual stats to check to see how it aligns with the longwinded route. Note that adjusted D-Rtg is individual D-Rtg (as per sports-reference.com) adjusted for team SOS:
In spite of all of Wiggins physical advantages, Smart accumulated more than twice the steal rate. Instincts and aggressiveness are key traits on defense, and this is where Smart shines the most.
Individual D-Rtg takes team D-Rtg and adjusts for individual steal rate, block rate, and defensive rebounding rate. Because Kansas gets so much production out of their bigs and Oklahoma State gets so little out of everybody other than Smart, Smart destroys Wiggins. This is the short hand version of my analysis, except it doesn’t account for coaching disparity as there is more team level credit to distribute for well coached teams. Bearing this in mind, there is an argument to be made that individual D-Rtg actually understates the difference between Smart and Wiggins.
What About Age?
It is fair to point out that Smart is a year older than Wiggins and perhaps should make a greater impact given his additional year of experience. But if we look at Smart’s freshman year, the defense was even better as Cobbins was healthier only missing 5 games and contributing 728 minutes total. Many of Brian Williams minutes went to 6’10” Philip Jurick, and Le’Bryan Nash was able to swing between the 3 and 4 instead of being asked to be a full time 4/5. Smart was able to spend all of his time hawking the ball on the perimeter, and the Cowboys finished with the #15 defense in the country.
Smart’s freshman individual adjusted D-Rtg was 85.6, showing that the gap between him and Wiggins widened once he actually played with serious big men. The Cowboy defense should have been a joke this year, and it’s quite the feather in Smart’s cap that they were able to keep pace with Kansas with such little size.
The Coaches’ Perspective
Big 12 coaches vote on the best defensive players in the conference after each season. As both a freshman and sophomore, Marcus Smart was a unanimous selection to the 6 person team. He was the only non-Kansas big to be chosen unanimously (Jeff Withey and Joel Embiid each shared the honor) over these 2 years. Wiggins was left off the team altogether, which surprised me given the level of hype and attention he received. I suppose the Big 12 coaches weren’t as impressed with his defense as draft narratives would suggest, even though he was a unanimous selection to the All-Big 12 first team for his overall play.
Based on every piece of information available and every angle from which it may be analyzed, Marcus Smart was a vastly superior NCAA defensive player to Andrew Wiggins. He was a one man wrecking crew on defense, whereas Wiggins was merely a solidly good defensive player. Given the predictive power of steal rate and the fact that Smart has the tools to become an impact defensive player in the NBA, this should weigh heavily into Smart’s NBA defensive projection.
On the other hand, this should dispel the myth that Wiggins is a guaranteed defensive stud. Hype does not equate to truth, but people seem to treat it as such. It is common for people to seek narratives to justify Wiggins’ hype instead of looking for the actual truth in data that is free of bias. I believe the hype was justified: a 16 year old kid with his size, mobility, and explosiveness is a rare commodity, and it’s worth getting excited over him. But when at age 19 he has shown zero signs of development or impact that were projected, it’s time to scrap the hype and brace for the likely scenario that the person inside the body doesn’t have what it takes to convert the potential into reality.
If Wiggins was truly a high impact defensive player, there would likely be data supporting it. There is data supporting Smart’s impact and there is data supporting Aaron Gordon’s impact, which is why I have them as the top two perimeter defensive prospects in the draft. Wiggins believers can have their 44″ vertical snapshots, I’d rather get Smart and take the guy who produces results.