Elite Rim Protector
As usual Joel Embiid has sole custody of the stud tier of my draft rankings. Center is the position with the highest leverage defensive impact, and Embiid’s upside does not appear to be limited on this end. His primary advantage is that he is enormous, as he measured 7’1″ with a 7’5.75″ wingspan and also has a good frame and strength for his age. Further he’s mobile, athletic, coordinated, and has good shot blocking timing in spite of his limited experience. He also is good at using his length to get in the passing lanes to generate steals.
His only weakness is his lack of experience, as he is still getting a feel for defensive fundamentals. He looks like an awesome learner who plugged the leaks in his defensive game as the season progressed, and I feel that it’s only a matter of time before he catches up to speed and becomes one of the top rim protectors in the NBA. That said, I am not certain that a lack of repetitions during his developmental years won’t hold him back in some capacity. And given that he is likely to miss most or all of his rookie season and likely won’t have the durability to rack up big minutes once he’s healthy, it is worth pondering the possibility that he may not get the necessary repetitions to become truly great on this end. Embiid’s defensive development will be an interesting case study regarding the importance of experience since it’s his sole limiting factor outside of health.
Elite Perimeter Defenders: Aaron Gordon, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart
These three all have as much defensive upside for their relative positions as Embiid does at center, they merely play less important positions. On paper, Gordon and Wiggins are fighting for the #2 defensive prospect in the draft. They have nearly the same dimensions (same height, Wiggins 1/4″ longer), and similar steal and block rates in college. Wiggins is more athletic, as he can jumper higher and is faster and quicker and was the superior NCAA on ball defender. Gordon is stronger and a much better defensive rebounder (part of this is that he was used as a small ball PF more often, but he also rebounds out of his zone more frequently). Gordon is also 7 months younger and his impact was more apparent in his team’s bottom line efficiency on that end as he played a significant role in the #1 NCAA defense. Gordon is smarter and more competitive, which may have contributed to the team discrepancy (although the discrepancy in each player’s surrounding talent also played a role).
Smart is 5.5 inches shorter than Wiggins and Gordon as well as the least explosive of the trio, so on the surface he is clearly the weakest of the trio. But he has awesome length and unique strength for a guard, as he weighs even more than Gordon. Further he has razor sharp instincts that led to a higher steal rate than that of Gordon and Wiggins combined. He is intensely competitive on defense and it shows in the team’s bottom line, as Oklahoma State was good defensively in both of Smart’s seasons without any obvious help from either the coach or surrounding talent. Even though he’s short for a SG, Smart’s strength and length enables him to play bigger and he defended PF’s in college. He should be able to defend both guard positions in the NBA.
Smart’s defense is unrelenting and he will do whatever it takes to scoop up as many pennies of edge as he can. Wiggins vacillates between disruptively active and passive, as sometimes he appears to be in position to make a play and doesn’t. In college this wasn’t costly because his athleticism alone enabled him to make plays and be nearly unbeatable off the dribble. But now he won’t be able to lean as heavily on his physical tools, some leaks may start to arise in his D. A good example comes when there was no physical reason why Isaiah Canaan should be able to beat Wiggins off the dribble and finish over him in such a crucial juncture of the game. It looks like Canaan simply caught Wiggins off guard.
The fact that Wiggins was able to perform well defensively in college and make it look almost effortless is indicative of his immense defensive upside. He can afford to have an occasional lapse and still be an good defender because he has a unique ability to cover a ton of ground on D. Smart’s defensive processes inspire more confidence and make him feel safer on that end, although he is aided by being a year older and more physically developed. In terms of what each prospect can do physically, they rank Wiggins > Gordon > Smart. But based on what they actually do it wouldn’t surprise me if they peak in the opposite order in the pros. Smart is my personal favorite of the trio, but maybe I’m crazy for loving him as much as I do. All three are great defensive prospects in their own right, and it’s difficult to rank them with certainty.
Good Perimeter Defenders
KJ McDaniels was a one man wrecking crew defensively for Clemson. He was a SF that led a top 20 defense by tallying 45% of their total blocked shots and 24% of their steals, but only 14% of their total fouls. He’s long, explosive, has great instincts and timing, and looks like he can be a good defensive role player in the pros. But he is only 6’6″, and much of his shot blocking will be lost in translation. He only weighs 196 so his height/strength combo isn’t ideal for a SF, and his skill and quicks are not ideal for a SG. Also he’s a 21 year old junior so his defensive dominance is less impressive than that of the young guns. My take is that his tools are good enough and the man knows how to play defense, but there are reasons to temper expectations for his NBA impact.
Jerami Grant has the tools to guard both forward positions, he rocked in the back of the Syracuse zone, and he apparently has done well in man to man coverage in the past. Whether we get to witness his defense over a large NBA sample hinges on his ability to fit in offensively.
Elfrid Payton is quick with good height, length, and instincts defensively. He competes hard and generated a good steal rate in college. He appears on track to becoming an above average NBA defensive PG. I rate him in a tier below Marcus Smart due to Smart’s superior instincts and vastly superior strength.
It’s worth noting that Sam Hinkie seems to share my affinity for defense, as he drafted all 3 players in this tier (he traded Payton but he was likely comfortable keeping him if necessary) as well as my top defensive prospect in the entire draft. Considering that Nerlens and MCW were his 2013 lotto picks, it’s clear that Hinkie places a premium on defense in the draft.
Solid Perimeter Defenders
Nick Johnson is the one player in this tier who might belong in the tier above this. He is an explosive athlete who played a huge role in Arizona’s #1 defense along with Aaron Gordon. But he is also 21, limited to defending PG’s and small SG’s, and he appears to be beatable on this end from what I saw in summer league.
Gary Harris was a good college defensive player, and he has the instincts to become a good NBA defensive player. But he also has poor size for a SG and isn’t exceptionally quick or athletic to offset this. It’s hard to envision him becoming a high impact NBA defensive player given his mediocre physical tools.
Russ Smith is old and tiny and may not even be good enough to have an NBA career. But he is quick with quick hands and I think he has some deceptive defensive potential in spite of his size disadvantages. He reminds me of a Kyle Lowry lite.
Spencer Dinwiddie isn’t athletic enough to have great defensive upside, but he has acceptable SG size and quicks and is smart enough to become above average on this end. I am interested to see how much his intelligence can overcome his average physical package playing for an awesome defensive coach in Stan Van Gundy.
Weird Defensive Prospects
Jusuf Nurkic isn’t that long and can barely jump off the ground, but he has a surprisingly solid Adriatic and Eurocup block rate anyway. His real appeal is that he has exceptionally quick feet for a man of immense girth and he racked up loads of steals in the Adriatic. He certainly isn’t your traditional rim protector, but that can add up to something.
Mitch McGary is more athletic than Nurkic, but because he’s shorter with shorter arms he managed to get barely more than 50% of the NCAA block rate as Nurkic’s Adriatic/Eurocup average. That may be a statement regarding Nurkic’s shot blocking instincts more than anything. McGary shares Nurkic’s strength, quick feet, and high steal rate for a center. Both of these guys are also foul prone, and the steals may have to diminish with the fouls. But they are a similarly unique brand of defensive center and are worth tracking as a tandem.
Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson at this point are renowned for being partners in draft weirdness. They both do their damage defensively by being smart and long and present concerns by being slow and lazy. Anderson is exceptionally slow and it seems really important that he adds enough strength to defend PF’s, because it’s hard to see him not getting badly burned defending the perimeter on the regular. But he’s so long and smart, maybe he can find a way to make it work playing for the best coach ever. Adams is smaller but looks more natural on the perimeter as he is quicker and has exceptionally quick hands. That said, I’m not sure if he quite has the quicks or the interest to stay in front of his man. Both of these guys are really difficult to project.
Zach LaVine is the UCLA player who is weird in the opposite way. He’s skinny without great length or instincts, and this caused him to have a poor steal rate in both high school and college. He atones with elite athleticism and quickness, and based on summer league he looks like he wants to be good on this end. He has the ability to contain penetration, but he needs to add enough weight to avoid getting picked off on every screen and getting bullied a la Kevin Martin. He is better suited to defending PG’s, which is disappointing since SG’s in such greater demand and he’s not really a PG offensively.
Mystery Box Defensive Prospects
Clint Capela has elite upside on paper, as he has great physical tools to go along with great rebound, steal, and block rates playing for France. He still needs to add strength but he seems to be a strong rim protector prospect. Of course that is forgetting that everybody who ever sees him in person hates him (I have only seen glimpses), so maybe he is bound for disappointment.
Walter Tavares is a giant who seems like a good rim protector prospect to nab in the middle of round 2, as it sounds like he did quite well in the ACB. But he also has limited experience for his age and this might hold him back as a pro.
Damien Inglis seems like a swell defensive prospect since he’s exceptionally strong for his age with good height and length and acceptable athleticism. DX believes he performs well on defense, and I see a lot to like. But he did have a surprisingly low block rate in his France sample, indicating a bit of athletic limitation. Since I have only seen him play in short stretches, I can’t make any strong statements. But I like the way he sounds on paper.
TJ Warren has the instincts and good enough physical tools to become a good perimeter defensive player. But it seems that he didn’t play up to his potential defensively for NC State, probably because he was busy rocking a 35.5% usage. He is likely going to be racing up and down the floor in transition trying to rack up buckets as a pro, so his defense largely depends on whether he has enough energy to become good on that end while still scoring a bunch.
Dante Exum has elite upside on paper. He’s bad defensively now, but his combination of size, length, and quickness is awesome and he appears to have quick hands and the instincts to develop into a good defensive guard who can defend positions 1-3. I believe that if he committed to becoming a defensive specialist, he would succeed. But he is an offense creator first, and given his questionable physical conditioning, it’s worth wondering if it’s realistic for him to become good on defense. He still needs work to learn to fit in offensively, and he may be inclined to focus on mastering that end first. And if he becomes good enough to carry an NBA offense, will he have enough remaining energy to make an impact on defense as well? I’m not sure, he seems like a candidate to follow the James Harden school of no defense.
Bruno Caboclo looks pretty clueless on defense and the Raptors summer league team was a mess with him on the floor. But he is young and has a 7’7″ wingspan so maybe he learns to do something with that.
Questionable Defensive Prospects
Jarnell Stokes is full of limitations, as he is undersized and underathletic, and it shows in his steal and block rates. He also doesn’t have the best awareness, but he works hard, rebounds well, and provides a big body to match up with bullies. I suspect he’ll be below average defensively but not a complete sieve.
Tyler Ennis doesn’t have the quicks or athleticism to be an impact defensive player on the perimeter, but he does bring solid length, intelligence, and quick hands. It’s possible that he leverages these to become a respectable defensive PG in spite of his athletic deficiencies.
PJ Hairston‘s physical profile and college steal and block rates suggest that he could go either way as a positive or negative defensive NBA wing. Based on my observations of him (which admittedly aren’t as plentiful as others) I’m betting on him being below average. He doesn’t have the best awareness and seems more interested in getting buckets than playing D.
Jabari Parker isn’t completely hopeless on defense: he has the size to match up vs NBA PF’s as well as decent athleticism and instincts as shown by his NCAA rebound, block, and steal rates. But he still wasn’t a good defensive player as an NCAA freshman, and his block and rebounds were padded by him playing as an undersized center. Also he was willing to gamble for steals. His laser focused passion on getting buckets + not great freshman performance points in the direction of liability much more often than not.
Noah Vonleh and Adreian Payne are the same exact mold. Both stretch 4’s with really great wingspans, solid athleticism, and surprisingly not great steal and block rates in spite of their length. They also have bad assist:TOV ratios suggesting poor feel for the game, and both struggled big time in summer league. They key difference is that Vonleh is 4.5 years younger and has a much longer window to improve his feel. I’m not optimistic for either defensively, but at least Vonleh has a chance of becoming alright. Payne really feels like bad value at 15th overall.
James Young does not appear to have much defensive upside based on his college performance. He’s not exceptionally quick or athletic and he had disappointing steal and block rates. He wasn’t good defensively and his instincts appear to be limited. I have a hard time envisioning him as a useful defensive pro, but he is young with good length and strength and landed with a good defensive coach. Maybe he shows considerable improvement during his developmental years.
Glenn Robinson has the tools to be good defensively and his steal rate isn’t bad, but whenever I watch him he doesn’t appear to have much in the way of defensive IQ or awareness. Like most 40th overall picks, he’s probably a bust.
Dario Saric doesn’t sound like he has the physical package to fit in defensively as a pro, but he is 6’10 and maybe he makes it work in his own weird way. I haven’t watched him and he is a mystery to me. Hinkie taking him might bode well for his defensive projection, or maybe he really is a lock to get traded before he ever wears a 76ers uniform.
Bad Defensive Prospects:
Shabazz Napier has a good steal rate, as he has quick hands and good anticipation skills and he might not be completely terrible as a defensive player in the NBA. But he’s both unathletic and diminutive, and that is a crippling combination of weaknesses. It’s hard to see the abuse he takes defensive not handily outweighing the value of the steals he creates.
Julius Randle is strong with quick feet, and he competes on defense. I think he has solid potential as a man to man defender. But his lack of length, athleticism, and woefully slow reactions resulted in low steal and block totals for Kentucky that indicate his immense struggles as a team defender. I believe his poor team defense will outweigh whatever positive he brings in man to man and rebounding, but maybe he develops well enough such that he’s not a horrible liability.
Doug McDermott is smart and tries hard, but his physical limitations are extreme. He has solid height for a SF at 6’8″, but his length, strength, athleticism, and quickness are all below average. It’s hard to do much in the NBA when your physical tools are bad across the board. Given his lack of strength and length I think he’s drawing dead to defend NBA PF’s at any acceptable level. It would be comical to watch him try to stop Blake Griffin or Zach Randolph. SF is the position where he has a chance of fitting in, but he’s slow to rotate, can’t affect the passing lanes, and is below average at containing penetration even though he moves his feet better than you’d expect. He may be smart enough to not become an all-time bad defensive player, but defense is going to be an expensive cost to get his offense on the floor.
Nik Stauskas is smart with surprising leaping ability, but his body and length are both lackluster and he is neither fast nor quick. Like McDermott he might manage to limit his impact with smarts and effort, but it’s hard to see him peaking as anything other than a clear liability on D.
Rodney Hood is quicker and more athletic than Stauskas and McDermott, but he also appears to have worse instincts than either. He was easily faked out and beaten off the dribble playing for Duke, and he also is limited in terms of length and strength so he can’t playing the passing lanes, block shots, or fight through screens. The Jazz are clearly gambling on his defense improving to a more respectable level by taking him in round 1, but since he’ll be 22 at the start of his rookie season it’s hard to feel too optimistic.