Defense is half the game, so why don’t NBA teams value the best defensive prospects the same way they value the best offensive ones?
This is a loaded question, but the brunt of it is answered through three key ideas:
- Drafting the best offensive player available is easy to explain to owners, season ticket holders, and fair weather fans.
- The top offensive players are generally viewed as scheme changers and franchise altering players. The top defensive players are not.
- It’s viewed as easier for a single offensive player to affect the game positively, while quality defensive play involves commitment from all five players.
At the heart of the NBA mentality, offense still reigns supreme. The average draft position for All-NBA players on the first and second team in 2015-16 was 11.3 overall. For All-Defensive first and second team players? 25.2. Strong defenders are simply valued less than those that put the ball in the basket. And that’s okay. The Denver Nuggets must simply take advantage of that fatal flaw in the NBA’s draft system.
The Nuggets, as it happens, are perfect for this exercise, a team that excels on offense behind an offensive superstar in Nikola Jokic. The way for Denver to improve is to add quality defenders, undervalued players overall, that won’t negatively affect the stellar offense. A variety of players can help the Nuggets out here. Here are the top 10 defenders (in my eyes) in the 2017 NBA Draft in reverse order.
Honorable Mentions: P.J. Dozier, Justin Patton, Bam Adebayo
10. Donovan Mitchell - PG/SG, Louisville
Donovan Mitchell clocked in at a chiseled 211 pounds at the NBA Combine. Include his 6’10 wingspan, the fastest 3/4-court sprint in this class, and the best standing vertical leap, and Mitchell certainly has all of the physical tools to succeed as a defender.
The question will be which position he is forced to defend. His standing reach is actually three inches shorter than De’Aaron Fox, a point guard. While offensive position is clearly shooting guard at the next level, he may not have the same luxury defensively. Still, a 6’10 wingspan is longer than Gary Harris’ 6’6.75 number back before the 2014 draft, and Harris continues to profile as a quality defender in the NBA.
I feel comfortable with Mitchell translating to a quality defender in the NBA. He may not have a defined position defensively, but he should be able to guard all lead ball handlers, while also making life incredibly difficult for big wings with his thick frame. The numbers may not be there immediately, a lot like Harris, but they should come later in his career if he continues to work hard. There’s a lot of Avery Bradley in his demeanor, and attitude usually translates.
9. Zach Collins - PF/C, Gonzaga
Zach Collins measured in at a round seven feet in shoes with a 9’3 standing reach. He didn’t do any athletic testing at the combine because he didn’t need to show anything athletically. On tape, it’s clear when watching Gonzaga film that Collins is the best and most athletic defender on the floor.
Collins is a stout rim protector, showing length, quickness, and the understanding necessary to read and react to different plays. He’s nearly always in the right place at the right time to contest shots, and the ones he doesn’t block, he seriously alters or forces the opponent to earn it at the free throw line. His foul rate is a little high, but he’s still young and can improve in that facet. Collins also shows promise as a defender in space, and while his hips are stiff at times, he reads and reacts well when switching onto guards or simply covering the pick and roll. Only one other player on this list (the next player, actually) could reasonably play center full time, and Collins is nearly three years younger. He has time to improve and fill out his frame, and once he does, he will be formidable.
8. Jordan Bell - PF/C, Oregon
Jordan Bell measured in at 6’8.5 in shoes with a 8’8.5 standing reach at the combine, but don’t let those numbers deceive you: Bell is an incredible defender. At Oregon, he anchored the defense and covered up for poor defenders in Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, and Payton Pritchard. Bell accumulated a 9.0 Defensive Box Plus-Minus, matched in 2016-17 by only four other players. He won PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year and ended the year with an excellent tournament performance, so his resume is loaded.
Bell impacts the game with insane agility combined with understanding of offensive schemes to cover the entire length of the floor.
The quickness with which he slides across the paint to accumulate blocks and alter shots is very impressive. Even with a small reach compared to most big men, Bell doesn’t need the extra few inches of length slower prospects like Ike Anigbogu and Jarrett Allen have in spades. Instead, Bell shows a tremendous understanding of the fundamentals defensively, and having him as a part of a 5-man group will certainly elevate a team’s defensive profile. With his length issues, the only question is how much?
7. De’Aaron Fox - PG, Kentucky
De’Aaron Fox measured at the combine with the height of 6’3.25 and a wingspan of 6’6.5, reasonable numbers for a point guard prospect. What makes him special? His blazing speed, aggressive hands, and instincts to match.
Fox’s ability to slide in the pick and roll is his best quality. It truly is rare to see a player slide so quickly with the ball. While Fox will never gain the requisite weight to fight off stronger ball handlers, he will never be slower than the other player. His instincts, paired with some of the best stunting off-ball that I have ever seen, will translate to the NBA. There are definitely weight-related weaknesses, as well as the occasional focus mishap, but I trust Fox to be one of the few backcourt defenders that the offense will avoid attacking. He will collect steals, attack closeouts hard, and slide with his man all around the perimeter.
6. Sindarius Thornwell - SG/SF, South Carolina
I have a soft spot for Sindarius Thornwell, being that I am currently attending South Carolina myself. That said, Thornwell has proven over his four college seasons that his defense is no fluke. Measuring in at 6’4.75 in shoes with a 6’10 wingspan and 211 pounds, Thornwell has the requisite thickness and length to be a bother for point guards, shooting guards, and most small forwards.
Thornwell may be the most intelligent defender in this draft class. His understanding of where to be makes up for a lack of agility when compared to other top defenders. He knows where to place his hands when coming up with steals, and he knows when/where to rotate. There’s a reason that South Carolina was a top three defensive team in all of college basketball last season.
Thornwell is also one of just 16 players EVER in Sports Reference’s eight year database to post a 3% steal rate and a 3% block rate on heavy usage, both offensively and in minutes overall. None of the other players came from a high profile basketball school, and it shows just how versatile Thornwell is on the defensive end. Think of him as a Marcus Smart clone defensively. He will heavily impact the game with his ability to defend within a team scheme.
5. Josh Jackson - SG/SF, Kansas
This may be lower than most have Josh Jackson, but it simply goes to show the quality of players in this draft class. Jackson didn’t attend the draft combine, but he didn’t need to waste his time. What he showed on film was excellent and gave scouts enough confidence to make Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard comparisons.
Jackson possesses many of the fundamentals necessary to pester opposing ball handlers, as well as the physical tools to overwhelm them. With incredible feet and the proper use of his long arms, Jackson appears much bigger than he is on film, and it shows. Opposing players constantly lose their balance, or dribble into traffic, or simply pull up to avoid attacking the Kansas product head on. With proper refinement, Jackson could be a rare breed of wing stopper in the NBA, one of the most important positions today with a variety of excellent wing scorers.
4. Devin Robinson - SF/PF, Florida
Here’s my sleeper. Devin Robinson is a junior out of Florida who started strongly this season. He fell off a bit during conference play offensively, but he still showed excellent tools to become one of the next great forward defenders in the NBA. Robinson measured at 6’8.25 in shoes with a 7’0.75 wingspan, great dimensions for a small ball power forward.
The most tantalizing aspect in his game is his ability to switch defensively and move in space. Paired with his long wingspan, Robinson has excellent feet and hips. His ability to slide and mirror guards should intrigue everyone at the NBA level. Florida used him as a small forward offensively and a point guard defensively. He defended NBA caliber ball handlers like De’Aaron Fox and P.J. Dozier for the length of entire GAMES at Florida. Nobody in basketball shouldered the kind of defensive role that Robinson did (except perhaps Jordan Bell).
Now, imagine teams using Robinson to guard stretch fours and switch onto guards late in the shot clock. He has already shown an ability to do so full time, and he should continue to be excellent in the NBA. The only question mark is weight. Robinson measured at just 190 pounds at the combine and 3.2% body fat. He may not have a lot more room to grow to match the size of power forwards in the NBA. If NBA teams believe he can add another 25-30 pounds over the next couple of seasons, then his ceiling goes through the roof.
3. Frank Ntilikina - PG/SG, France
This ranking involves a bit of projection based on the spotty play for young players in France, but during the last two seasons, Frank Ntilikina has jumped off the page as a strong defender. With a 6’6 frame, a wingspan close to 7’0 in length, and athleticism to match, Ntilikina certainly has the tools to become one of the best defenders in the NBA.
His long arms and fluid movement help him mirror his man on-ball, and he truly is a terror when deployed off-ball. His instincts allow for him to gamble on steals frequently, and his success rate is high because of his arm length and quick twitch movement. Watching some of his film in Strasbourg, he’s able to use his physical tools to his advantage. Pairing that with his excellent anticipation, and Ntilikina looks to be one of the next great guard defenders in the NBA.
2. Jonathan Isaac - SF/PF, Florida State
The next two guys are the cream of the crop defensively, what I would consider to be odds on favorites in this class to win Defensive Player of the Year one day. First, Jonathan Isaac measured at 6’10.5 in shoes at the Nike Hoop Summit in 2016, which is the last official measurement for him. It wouldn’t surprise me if he grew an inch or two this year. His wingspan at the time was 7’1.25, with a standing reach of over nine feet. Combined with those measurements is a frame that will continue to fill out at the NBA level and the instincts to be far more than just another tall guy. On-ball, he has work to do, but he makes many plays with his length.
Isaac spent time in a 12 man rotation at Florida State, so his individual numbers don’t really stand out; however, he was excellent in many off-ball situations defensively, while showing the tools necessary to become an elite individual defender. He shields his man from clean looks in most sets, while also staying within range of disrupting the primary ball handler. With proper development, Isaac will continue to improve his skills and his timing. If he does, he will be compared to the Kevin Durant we are seeing in Golden State defensively.
1. OG Anunoby - SF/PF, Indiana
OG Anunoby is excellent. Measuring at 6’7.75 in shoes with a wingspan of 7’2.25, Anunoby has the frame and build of a true power forward in the NBA today. He also possesses excellent mobility, and while he battles stiff hips at times, his ability to pivot and mirror is perhaps second only to Robinson in this class.
When talking about productive college defenders though, the buck stops at OG. With his immense length and tremendous combination of strength and agility, OG is perhaps the most versatile defender in the 2017 class, with the ability to check most guards along with all forwards and some centers. OG arrived on the NBA map during March Madness of 2016 when he made Jamal Murray’s life hell during the tournament. Murray doesn’t have great individual speed, but he’s a scorer who struggled mightily with OG switched onto him. This is clearly the prototype for big forwards in the NBA today, as switching on defense has become so much more prevalent than it was even five years ago.
Could Anunoby be the next Draymond Green on the defensive end? It’s certainly possible. He has to bone up on his knowledge of NBA schemes, but if everything clicks, I expect him to give Green, Leonard, and Rudy Gobert a run for their money as best individual defender in the NBA.
Who is the best defender in the 2017 NBA Draft?
This poll is closed
Josh Jackson - Kansas
Devin Robinson - Florida
Frank Ntilikina - France
Jonathan Isaac - Florida State
OG Anunoby - Indiana