Ranking the Best Defenders Available in 2016 NBA Draft

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJanuary 5, 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 29:  Lourawls Nairn Jr. #11 of the Michigan State Spartans dribbles on Kris Dunn #3 of the Providence Friars during the championship game of the DirecTV Wooden Legacy at Honda Center on November 29, 2015 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Prospects who can defend have greater margins for error when making the NBA transition. Being able to lock down your position or guard multiple ones helps compensate for offensive weaknesses likely exposed during rookie and sophomore seasons. 

Plus, while every team has scorers and playmakers, coaches can never have enough defenders.

And this particular draft may offer a handful of quality two-way players of all different sizes. We've got 4s and 5s who protect the rim, as well as guards and wings who secure the perimeter.  

I ranked the top defensive prospects based on their physical tools, current performance, room for growth and likelihood they'll improve. The players with greater NBA potential were given the benefit of the doubt in close calls.

5. Jaylen Brown, California, SF, Freshman

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 22:  Jaylen Brown #0 of the California Golden Bears looks on during a college basketball game against the Virginia Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena on December 22, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The Cavaliers won 63-6
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

He's not there yet, but if we're projecting long-term NBA potential, Brown has the chance to become a coveted wing defender. 

He aces the eye test with 6'7" size and a 7'0½" wingspan. There is no reason why Brown shouldn't be able to cover both 2-guards and small forwards.  Thanks to a strong 225-pound frame, he may even offer the versatility to match up with small-ball 4s, something he's done a lot of so far as a freshman.

On the perimeter, Brown does a nice job of getting into his stance when guarding the ball. And he shows good instincts in terms of anticipating screens, as well as the quickness to avoid them and the strength to fight through them. 

He also averages an impressive 7.5 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes.

Brown can be too aggressive, as he's averaging five fouls per 40 minutes, but with a live motor and high intensity, many of the early mistakes he's made have been forgivable.


4. Wade Baldwin IV, Vanderbilt, PG, Sophomore

NASHVILLE, TN - JANUARY 02:  Ben Simmons #25 of the LSU Tigers dribbles against Wade Baldwin IV #4 of the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Memorial Gym on January 2, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

One of the biggest risers in this year's draft discussion, Baldwin has created buzz with his attacking style of play and perimeter shooting. But scouts will be just as interested in Baldwin's defensive tools and potential, which stem from a 194-pound frame, plenty of quickness and a monstrous 6'10" wingspan. 

Most point guards aren't used to being defended by that type of length.

Baldwin has been active in Vanderbilt's zone, aggressive in its press and tough to shake in man-to-man. He averages 1.8 steals in 28.6 minutes.

He recently helped hold LSU's Tim Quarterman to just one bucket in 30 minutes after contributing to Frank Mason III's 4-of-13 afternoon against Kansas in late November.

Baldwin ultimately plays with a mean, competitive edge that should certainly appeal to NBA coaches. Regardless of whether he continues developing into a complete point guard, Baldwin looks poised to become a feisty backcourt defender.

3. Dragan Bender, Croatia, PF, 1997

UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS - JULY 17:  Dragan Bender (red) of Croatia attempts to stop Vojislav Stojanovic of Serbia attack in the Boys Basketball match between Croatia and Serbia on Day 3 of the European Youth Olympic Festival held at De Uithof Olympos Sports
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

He's only 18 years old and therefore skinny, but Bender's blend of 7'1" height and lateral foot speed translates to valuable defensive versatility. 

You just don't see many players his size who can guard the perimeter as tightly as he can.

For a big, he's terrific in close-out situations, where he can run shooters off the line without letting them turn the corner and get to the rack. And he's an asset in pick-and-roll coverage, given his ability to switch onto guards and wings while defending one-on-one in space. 

Down low, though he's currently vulnerable to getting moved by stronger, older opponents, Bender, who has a 9'3" reach, has become a threat to rotate over and challenge finishers at the rim (2.3 blocks per 40 minutes overseas). 

He covers a ton of ground and he does it with speed and grace. A sharp basketball IQ should only help Bender develop into one of the game's more unique two-way big men.

2. Jakob Poeltl, Utah, C, Sophomore

SALT LAKE CITY, UT- NOVEMBER 16: Jakob Poeltl #42 of the Utah Utes defends against D'Erryl Williams #11 of the San Diego State Aztecs at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on November 16, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

While the story this year has been Poeltl's offensive development, it's his defensive presence that originally placed him in the lottery conversation. 

At 7'0", 235 pounds, Poeltl has NBA center size and strength to match above-average foot speed and athleticism. It translates to physical post defense, rim protection and versatility.

Last March, we saw Poeltl keep Jahlil Okafor, who finished with six points, in check during the NCAA tournament. The big Austrian isn't afraid to bang in order to hold his ground and keep his assignments from gaining position. 

Meanwhile, he's blocking 3.2 shots per 40 minutes for the second straight year. Poeltl does a nice job of reacting off the ball and rotating down to deny drivers who've blown past their men. 

In today's NBA, when bigs can face up and shoot or dribble, Poeltl's ability to contain in space is also another selling point. He's not a statue when defending in isolation—he should be mobile and laterally quick enough to switch in pick-and-roll coverage or even handle small-ball 5s. 

Poeltl is still learning and adjusting to the referee's whistle, though he has reduced his foul rate to 3.3 from 4.1 per 40 minutes (2014-15). He'll have the chance to become a major defensive asset in the pros once he builds his defensive awareness. For that reason alone, it's tough to imagine Poeltl falling out of this year's lottery. 

1. Kris Dunn, Providence, PG, Junior

Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Dunn ranks up there with Boston Celtics sophomore Marcus Smart as one of the best recent guard defenders I've seen. 

At 6'4", 205 pounds with a giant 6'9" wingspan, Dunn sports phenomenal defensive tools, which are powered by tremendous quickness and athleticism. He's a blanket around the perimeter, only with speedy feet, long arms and active hands. 

The pressure he puts on ball-handlers makes it difficult for them to comfortably operate. Dunn will often pick up steals by anticipating which direction his man will dribble and then beating him to the spot, where he'll then poke the ball away and take it coast to coast. 

His length and ability to read passers translates to pick-six interceptions defending off the ball as well.

After finishing last year ranked both fifth in steals and steal percentage, per Sports-Reference.com, he's No. 2 in the country in both categories through 13 games as a junior.

Dunn also averages an impressive five defensive rebounds per game, more than any guard expected to land in June's first round. 

Even if his shooting and decision-making never come around, Dunn's ability to lock down and force turnovers should still hold plenty of value to an NBA team's backcourt. 


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