Meet the NBA's Next Wave of Premier Defenders

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 21, 2013

Meet the NBA's Next Wave of Premier Defenders

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    Over the years, the NBA has generated a no-defense reputation, but nothing could be further from the truth in the minds of these young studs. They're ushering in a new era of great defensive players, and they'll do everything in their power to ensure that scoring remains difficult. 

    Right now, the established star defensive players are still plentiful. 

    We have fantastic interior defenders like Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan and Roy Hibbert. LeBron James can do just about anything on the defensive end, and Tony Allen, Andre Iguodala, Chris Paul, Mike Conley and many others thrive as perimeter stoppers. 

    But they're all getting older. 

    To qualify for the next wave, a player must be 24 years old or younger, even if he's already starting to make a name for himself in the league. It's possible to have earned Defensive Player of the Year votes in the past and still be part of the future since it's all based on age. 

    Get ready to hear these names a lot going forward. Scorers will cringe every time they're mentioned. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns

    Eric Bledsoe was a wonderful luxury item for the Los Angeles Clippers because he could come in to replace Chris Paul and use his boundless reserves of energy to hound players from one baseline to the other. 

    Now we get to see how he reacts to a much larger role with the Phoenix Suns. 

     

    Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

    It should be quite telling that Mark Jackson trusted Draymond Green to defend Andre Miller on the final possession of a playoff game, even if it didn't work out for the Dubs. 

    Green has the makings of a versatile defender who can capably shut down multiple positions, and he was undeniably impressive against isolation plays during his first professional season. 

     

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Bobcats

    Primarily because he struggled against spot-up shooters, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had trouble getting his defense to translate properly from Lexington to Charlotte. 

    But according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he was already a top-45 defender against isolation sets, pick-and-roll ball-handlers and post-up players. There's a lot of potential remaining here. 

     

    Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers

    I firmly believe that Nerlens Noel will be an elite defender early on in his career with the Sixers, but he's too risky to include over any of the 10 featured players. 

    There have just been too many shot-blocking flameouts in the past, and the ACL injury only complicates things. 

     

Avery Bradley

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    Team: Boston Celtics

    Position: PG/SG

    Age: 22

    The only word that can be used to describe Avery Bradley's defense is "tenacious." 

    He's one of the true ball-hawks in this league, and he doesn't have any respect for players taking the ball up the court. If you're lazy with an inbound pass, Bradley will pounce. He plays from one baseline to the other, and there's no such thing as an easy possession when he's on the court. 

    Bradley is that guy in your pickup basketball game who doesn't allow you to take it back for free. You know, the one who pressures you when you pull down a rebound and casually dribble it back out behind the three-point arc to start a new possession. 

    To take the next step, he'll have to do a better job navigating screens, as he had an unfortunate tendency to get trapped behind them when tracking down mobile jump-shooters. However, he's already an elite stopper when guarding the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets and when attempting to slow down isolation plays. 

    According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), only 15 players in the NBA allowed fewer points per possession than Bradley during the 2012-13 campaign. 

Jimmy Butler

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    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Position: SG/SF

    Age: 23

    Jimmy Butler's ascent was quite impressive. He was a promising young player going into the 2012-13 campaign, and he emerged as a bona fide stud and a virtual lock for future All-Defensive teams. 

    The most impressive thing about this 23-year-old swingman is the complete lack of fear he shows on the less glamorous end of the court. No matter who he's matching up against, even if it's LeBron James, he's going to approach the assignment in the same way. 

    While Basketball-Reference shows that the Chicago Bulls allowed only 0.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when Butler played, it's important to remember that this is the Bulls we're talking about.

    Tom Thibodeau's system is meant to maximize defensive prowess regardless of who's on the court, and it didn't help that Butler spent a lot of time playing with Carlos Boozer. 

    Butler had difficulty stopping post-up plays, but his foot speed allowed him to thrive almost everywhere else on the court. 

Anthony Davis

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    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 20

    Anthony Davis struggled with the transition from Kentucky to the NBA, but that doesn't mean he's not part of the next wave of premier defenders. It will just take a little while for him to get there. 

    The Unibrow still needs to bulk up (I'm referring to his body, not the hair above his eyes), and that will help him use his body to stop the Association's more physical players.

    According to Synergy, Davis allowed 0.9 points per possession in post-up situations, leaving him at No. 195 in the league. It also affected his ability to close out on spot-up shooters, largely because he was too worried about the weakest aspect of his defense. 

    Davis is still brimming over with potential, though. 

    He has plenty of athletic tools and a tremendous sense of timing. Perhaps most impressive is his springiness on the second jump. Many NBA athletes can sky high into the air on the first bounce, but few can recover as quickly as Davis in preparation for the second leap. 

    That will serve him quite well as he continues adapting to the sport's highest level. 

Andre Drummond

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    Team: Detroit Pistons

    Position: C

    Age: 20

     

    Another second-year player, Andre Drummond has no worries about bulking up. He's already a physically dominant player, as he showed during summer league when he overpowered everyone he matched up against. 

    While playing only 20.7 minutes each contest, Drummond still managed to block 1.6 shots per contest. That was good for a block percentage of 6.1, one that would have left him in fifth place if he'd played enough minutes to actually qualify for the leaderboard. Only Larry Sanders, Serge Ibaka, Roy Hibbert and Tim Duncan would be ahead. 

    Drummond struggled tremendously against more versatile big men, simply because he doesn't have the lateral quickness necessary to thrive in isolation sets. However, he was already fantastic guarding roll men and post-up plays. 

    According to Synergy, the Connecticut product allowed 0.78 and 0.77 points per possession in those respective situations, ranking him 37th and 86th among all qualified players. 

    Alongside Josh Smith, Drummond's defensive potential is frightening and a legitimate reason for Detroit Pistons fans to start getting excited. 

Paul George

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    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Position: SG/SF

    Age: 23

    Established stars aren't ineligible for this list if they're still 24 years old or younger. So Paul George still qualifies, despite becoming a household name after his performance against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. 

    George is going to compete for Defensive Player of the Year awards during his prime, and that's quite an accomplishment, because interior defenders typically have a monumental advantage in the voting. 

    Even while experiencing a significant uptick in offensive responsibility, George still played ultra-elite defense. While he was on the court, the Indiana Pacers allowed only 99.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have given them the top defense in the NBA. 

    Well, technically that's already something they could lay claim to. 

    When George sat, Indiana allowed 101.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would have placed them behind both the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs. While that doesn't seem like a huge difference, it's tougher to move up when you're already almost at the top. 

Serge Ibaka

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: PF

    Age: 23

    Serge Ibaka became a much better defender during the 2012-13 season. 

    Don't mistake gaudy block totals for great defense, as they sometimes mask poor play in the less glamorous aspects of defense.

    Early in Ibaka's career, he tried to reject everything, and his aggressiveness often left him out of position and prone to either missing the ensuing defensive rebound or allowing an easy pass to where he should have been. 

    That changed in 2012-13, as Ibaka showed more hesitance when swatting shots. He also rotated much more effectively, and the Oklahoma City Thunder defense thrived as a result. 

    Ibaka still isn't an elite defender. He struggles against post-up players and can't close out on spot-up shooters nearly as well as he should. Until he fixes those two flaws, he's not deserving of any DPOY votes. 

    But the Congolese big man is still only 23 years old. Think about that for a second. 

    There's a reason he hasn't reached his ceiling yet. 

Kawhi Leonard

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: SF

    Age: 22

     

    Kawhi Leonard's defense can be summed up in 20 seconds if you just click here.

    When LeBron James is disappointed that you're coming back into a game, that's when you know you've arrived as a great defender. Leonard hounded the MVP throughout the NBA Finals, and he showed absolutely no emotions when doing so.

    No fear. No uncertainty.

    Nothing.

    Then again, Leonard never shows emotion, so that might not be entirely relevant.

    As is the case with many young wing defenders, the San Diego State product does still have some trouble guarding post-ups. According to Synergy, he allowed 0.97 points per possession in that situation, leaving him 239th among all qualified players. 

    Fixing that is the priority for Leonard, but his perimeter defense is already fantastic, and he thrives in Gregg Popovich's system. A highly intelligent player who understands spacing like he grew up studying it, Leonard is rarely in the wrong place.  

Victor Oladipo

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    Team: Orlando Magic

    Position: SG

    Age: 21

    The lone rookie featured in this article, Victor Oladipo has the defensive tools necessary to come into the NBA and make an immediate impact on the perimeter. 

    He has quick hands, great instincts, the aggressiveness necessary to jump into passing lanes and the quickness both to recover and stay in front of his man.

    The Orlando Magic will depress his defensive value if they insist on playing him at point guard, but lining up at the 2 will allow Oladipo to immediately emerge as a defensive stud. 

    Back at Indiana, the 21-year-old posted an individual defensive rating of 86.9. That was the best mark in the entire Big Ten, a conference known for its hard-nosed, physical defense. 

    Everything about his game points toward a seamless transition. 

Larry Sanders

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    Team: Milwaukee Bucks

    Position: C

    Age: 24

    Larry Sanders just signed a four-year deal worth $44 million with the Milwaukee Bucks, and he can't play much offense unless he's rolling to the basket and waiting for a guard to feed him the rock. He's inept in the post and possibly even worse shooting jumpers. 

    It was defense that earned him eight figures per year. 

    Sanders doesn't close out on spot-up shooters particularly well, but that's the only weak spot of his defensive play. 

    He held opponents to 0.62 points per possession in isolation (No. 21 in the NBA), 0.7 in the post (No. 39) and 0.81 when rolling to the basket (No. 48), all according to Synergy.

    And he did that during a breakout season in which he played just under 15 minutes more than he had the previous year. It's scary to think about what could come next for this 24-year-old interior stopper.

Iman Shumpert

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    Team: New York Knicks

    Position: SG

    Age: 23

    Iman Shumpert is strange, at least when compared to the other young wing defenders featured in this article. 

    He's less established as a great defender (the New York Knicks allowed more points per possession when he played than when he sat and Synergy has him ranked No. 195 overall), but he thrives in the post and has plenty of physical tools that indicate future point-preventing prowess. 

    Shumpert was the second-best post defender in the NBA last season, according to Synergy, and his quickness and instincts make it clear to anyone who watches him that he could eventually be a great perimeter player. 

    It's a sequence like this one against Dwyane Wade that makes everyone so excited about his potential.