Defensive effectiveness has historically been difficult to adequately measure. Even in the modern NBA age of advanced analytics and sophisticated tracking data, individual defensive value within the context of team defensive scheme can be difficult to quantify.
Identification of prospects’ defensive contributions to winning intelligent, instinctual team defenders has historically been a market inefficiency within the context of NBA Draft prospect analysis. Traditional box score statistics (steals and blocks), their affiliated possession-based rate statistics (STL % / BLK %), and overarching defensive metrics (DBPM, Defensive Rating, etc.) are only a minor piece of the defensive translatability puzzle. A keen scouting eye and hours of in-depth film analysis is the only way to obtain a full understanding of a prospect’s acumen as a team defender, and whether their combination of skill, communication, athleticism, versatility, and instincts will translate to an NBA defensive scheme.
As such, we have gone through the exercise of a team defensive deep dive in the film room. In doing so, we have identified a handful of 2019 NBA Draft prospects that have shown to be consistently impactful team defenders in ways that could potentially translate to the next level.
To provide some context, let’s first lay out a few examples of current NBA players that have proven to be effective team defenders:
NBA Rookies and Sophomores: Kenrich Williams, Wendell Carter Jr., Lonzo Ball, Gary Clark, De’Anthony Melton
NBA Veterans: Marcus Smart, Robert Covington, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Anderson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah
Recent NBA Retirees: Kevin Garnett, Andre Kirilenko, Tim Duncan, Shane Battier, Tayshaun Prince
These lists are not meant as rankings, and are certainly non-exhaustive, but serve the purpose of providing some familiar examples of players who have shown high-level defensive instincts, positioning, and a knack for covering up for others mistakes. They consistently do the little things that don’t show up in the box score, but certainly contribute to the overall effectiveness of their given team’s defense.
Within the 2019 NBA Draft class, there are certainly a handful of prospects that stand out as consistently impactful team defenders. Gonzaga junior forward, Brandon Clarke, has been the keystone of the Bulldogs defense. While his blocks are more than apparent in the box score, it is the combination of his defensive instincts, help-side awareness, situational reads, and anticipatory reactions that lead to the highlight blocks and help prevent seemingly easy looks. Washington senior wing, Matisse Thybulle, also sticks out as an elite team defender as highlighted within a PBC Senior Spotlight here.
Below, we will highlight three 2019 draft eligible prospects ranked outside of the top 45 on consensus big board rankings that have excelled in various NBA-translatable ways as team defenders, as well as provide an in-depth look into the various elements of effective team defense:
Wing | 6’4’’ | 210 | Senior | Penn State
PBC Consensus Ranking: 84
Josh Reaves (#23) is one of the best off-ball defenders in the country. His activity, length, and instincts on the defensive end make him a menace as an impact playmaker and passing lane disruptor. Reaves’ effectiveness as a team defender is primarily catalyzed by his quick, instinctual reads. We highlight several examples of Reaves’ instincts and reads in the video above, the most prominent being the first clip, which perfectly encapsulates Reaves team defensive acumen when he anticipates Indiana’s Durham finding Phinisee off the back screen. Reaves sees this action developing and fluidly jumps the passing lane for a steal.
Reaves’ off-ball team-defensive instincts, IQ, and awareness in conjunction with his length and athleticism give him a chance to quickly adjust to an NBA defensive scheme. It will, inherently, take some time to adjust to the faster pace at the next level, but Reaves’ activity, intellect, and feel to make quick reads and disrupt passing lanes make him a fairly seamless defensive fit with a chance to contribute to winning basketball.
Big | 7’1’’ | 260 | Junior | Michigan
PBC Consensus Ranking: 113
Michigan has one of the best defenses in the country. Their defense is up there with Virginia and Texas Tech’s and Jon Teske (#15) is the main reason why. Teske might have the most impactful defense in all of college basketball because of his defensive positioning, rotations, awareness, IQ, communication, rim protection, and more. The first clip in the video above almost captures everything that is so great about Teske’s defense. His positioning and rotations throughout the possession are as close to perfect as you can get. He’s also talking and pointing out offensive movement constantly. In addition to that, Teske’s head is on a swivel between ball and man. Teske finishes the play by switching onto someone on the perimeter and staying with them as they drove to the basket. In addition to Teske’s team defense, he’s also a good defender in the post.
There are only 9 NBA players standing at 7-foot-plus and 260-plus pounds, and Teske moves exceptionally well for a young big man of that stature. It is rare for a prospect of this size to possess the defensive IQ, positioning, communication, and instinctual prowess, and these qualities give Teske a chance to translate defensively in the NBA.
Forward | 6’10’’ | 205 | Senior (RS) | Texas Tech
PBC Consensus Ranking: NR
Like Michigan, Texas Tech boasts one of the toughest defenses in the country, anchored by grad-transfer forward, Tariq Owens (#11). Owens’ most prominent strength from a team-defensive perspective is helping from the weak side. Owens has a great feel for reading/anticipating when the opposition’s perimeter players are going to attack the rim. Owens typically takes a few anticipatory steps beyond the help-line, but doesn’t over-commit too early on or leave his man as an obvious kick-out option. Owens cheats over until the driver is fully committed to attacking the rim, completes his rotation from the weak side, then explodes into his two foot gather to either alter or block the driver’s attempt. In the video above, we highlight Owens’ help-side defensive awareness, impeccable timing, and effectiveness as a team defender at the rim.
In the modern NBA, the context of the value provided by defensive rim protection has been altered by the court-spacing and shooting gravity of modern offensive schemes and lineups. Rim protection is certainly still valuable, but the required skill set to fulfill a rim-protecting forward/center archetype has rapidly changed. Big, slow, plodding centers that anchor themselves near the rim are being played off the court due to their lack of quick-twitch athleticism, functional reactive athleticism, and ability to both adequately guard stretch-big perimeter shooting threats while still being able to provide help-side rim protection. Owens’ combination of athleticism and help-side rim protection instincts highlighted within the clip above are potentially translatable to the next level.