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Monday, February 25, 2013

Defense is the Best Recipe for NBA Rookies

As a rookie, defense is the key to getting on the court. This holds even more true for second rounders as their offensive talent usually isn't good enough to offset anything lacking on the other end of the court. If you are looking for second rounders to in their rookie season, the best option year in and year out has been to go with the best defenders and rebounders. Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried were two of the bigger surprises of last year's rookie crop and earned their minutes with their toughness, motor, and ability to do the little things. Both players played key minutes on playoff teams even though they were selected outside of the lottery.

The 2012 Draft featured some excellent defensive players at the top of the draft - Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - and all 3 of them are logging big minutes already for their current clubs. Davis and Drummond find themselves in the thick of the rookie of the year race, right behind Portland' Damian Lillard.

Its important to note some of the lesser touted rookies getting minutes this year - Kyle Singler, Jae Crowder, Jeff Taylor, and Festus Ezeli join Drummond, Davis, and MGK in the top 20 in minutes played amongst rookies. Festus Ezeli was the highest draft pick of the group, going to the Warriors with the last pick of the first round. All of these guys entered the NBA with experience, a defensive background, a reputation for improving, and a high motor.

Bernard James has earned his way into the Mavericks rotation and is averaging 16 minutes per game this month. John Henson has shown glimpses for the Bucks this year in a deep frontcourt and was a big key in their rotation in January. Dion Waiters sports the second high Drtg among rookies and receives starter minutes in the process.

The only guy with a better Drtg than Waiters among rookies is DeQuan Jones - a complete afterthought in the draft and proof that defense is the best way to earn a spot in the league. Even Tyler Zeller, Waiter's teammate, has earned minutes because of his defense.

Only 4 top 20 picks have averaged less than 12 minutes per game this season - Kendall Marshall, Terrence Jones, Evan Fournier, Jeremy Lamb, and Royce White. All had questions about their defense and/or energy coming into the draft. Marshall only has average athleticism and struggles to stay in front of his man. Terrence Jones is a tweener who struggled to grasp the concept of team defense at Kentucky. Fournier is offensive minded. Jeremy Lamb faced questions of complacency and whether he was intense enough. Royce White's defense has always been the biggest question mark with his game.

So what guys in this year's draft can you expect to see playing regular minutes from the start? And what top guys may need more time?

Among lottery picks, there are quite a few that are still learning how to defense - most notably some of the big men. The importance of defense for a big is even greater than a perimeter player so thats why guys like Alex Len, Anthony Bennett, Isaiah Austin, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kelly Olynyk may struggle to get regular playing time right off the bat.

Some of the freshman perimeter players will also struggle as they will be asked for the first time in their careers to defend without any mental lapses. The NBA constantly runs defenders through screens and asks that you defend tough and with energy. You have to be willing and able to chase your man. For guys like Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, Shabazz Muhammad, and Glenn Robinson III this could prevent these potential top 20 selections from getting as many minutes as their talent suggests they should. They have the physical tools - but heart, toughness, and motor are the keys to defending in the NBA.

Not all freshman are created equal though - Marcus Smart is one freshman who can come in and defend right away. Smart can be a leader on defense vocally. He already treats defense with importance and has a strong NBA ready frame as well. Smart's versatility will also be helpful - a key in a league that revolves around creating mismatches. Smart can guard both guard positions and his strength will even allow him to at least put up a fight against some forwards. Above anything, Smart has that heart, toughness, and motor that others lack. His only weakness may be him trying to be too perfect which results in him getting shook out of his shoes an odd amount of times for such a strong defender. Smart's lateral quickness isn't great either, but he has tremendous anticipation skills.

Two other top 10 wings will be able to jump in and play 20+ minutes right way for whatever team that drafts them. Otto Porter is one. He has the versatility that is ever so important and also the smarts. Helpside defense is huge in the NBA where one guy is never enough to contain the opponent's top players. Having a cohesive 5 man group on defense that understands where they need to be at all times on the court is huge and Porter won't miss a beat in that regard. He isn't especially quick laterally, but his anticipation skills and length make him more of a valuable team defender than lockdown guy.

Speaking of lockdown guys, the other wing that will warrant major minutes from the get-go is Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has the biggest motor in this draft and outstanding physical tools to go with it. He's a guy that can shutdown an opponent's best player and would relish the opportunity to do so. Oladipo is an extremely hard worker and nobody would ever question his heart or toughness. His understanding of the game has come a long way since his high school days at Dematha - as he would admit himself.

In terms of big men, Nerlens Noel is obviously going to be the biggest difference maker. But a guy like Cody Zeller will prove invaluable to teams. Zeller won't make many plays seemingly - but he will stop many positive plays from happening for the other team. He has a great understanding of team defense and moves his feet really well. Zeller is listed as a center, but he may be best off playing the power forward position role in the NBA where his ability to defend away from the basket will be best utilized. When people think of him as a center, they automatically assume he's a bad defender because of his T-rex arms and lack of explosive leaping ability. If you ask him to play the role of power forward though, his strengths will be maximized as opposed to his weaknesses.

Besides the big men already mentioned, Mason Plumlee is generally thought of as the next best one. I would disagree, but he shouldn't have a hard time finding minutes as a fourth big in his rookie season. Hailing from Duke, he already has been well-coached of the nuances of defending. I don't think he has a great defensive upside though as I see him as a bit of a tweener. Plumlee doesn't have the lateral quickness to defend PFs while at the same time, isn't an imposing shot blocking threat that centers are expected to be nowadays. He would have better lateral quickness than an average center or better shotblocking skills than your average power forward, but as he is in between those positions, it is kind of a moot point.

I actually like both Gorgui Dieng and Jeff Withey more in terms of defensive potential. Withey is obviously intriguing because of how well he blocks shots and even more miraculously - doesnt foul. The transition as a NBA defender won't be as seamless as some would assume though for the Kansas big. Withey relies too much on his shot blocking abilities in college and hasn't shown enough strength in the post or hedging ability on screens. NBA defensive specialists all usually exhibit a certain kind of toughness and edge to them that Jeff Withey just hasn't shown up to this point. Withey has more of the laidback west coast personality to him and that should be of concern to scouts.

Dieng though, has anchored Louisville's top defense under the tutelage of Rick Pitino. He has great length and mobility and has been a vocal leader on that end of the court. Dieng, in my opinion, will be more ready than both Plumlee and Withey in terms of defense his rookie year.

Now for guys that may not be household names yet, but could be key rotational players for your favorite NBA team at this time next year. These guys won't be top 20 picks, but they could very well be playing more of a role than your team's first selection in the draft.

Jamaal Franklin - When you talk about toughness and heart, Jamaal Franklin definitely fits the description. And he also has that certain edge to him where he welcomes the challenge of shutting down an opponent. Franklin earned his stripes last year defending power forwards inside and learned to be the best rebounding guard in the nation. He does a good job fighting through screens and actively thinking of the best way to navigate through traffic in the paint. Franklin's natural instincts are also top notch and his footwork on defense looks like that of a cornerback. Franklin plays very much like a football player and actually wanted to go to Florida to play college football.

Michael Snaer - Snaer is the next plus defender coming out of Florida State, already well-schooled on the nuances of defense. Following in the footsteps of Chris Singleton, Bernard James, Toney Douglas, and Al Thornton these guys all were playing sooner than later. In fact, Douglas, Singleton, and Thornton all received over 19 minutes a game their rookie years before seeing their playing time taper off in subsequent years. If that doesn't tell you about the importance of defense for rookies as well as the job Hamilton does coaching them up, then nothing will. Anyway, Snaer has good physical tools and plays smart. He can defend both guard positions, rebounds well, and is a leader.

Richard Howell - Nothing says toughness like Richard Howell. On a team filled with talented players, Howell  may be one of the least talented but also the most productive. He is a force on the glass and a bull defending the post. There are tough power forwards taken in the second round year after year that end up being steals and Richard Howell fits that mold this season.

Patric Young - Young has been touted as a lottery to mid-first round pick in each of his first two years at Florida in large part due to his physique. Young still has that same strong build in his junior year, but his offensive game has yet to show progress. That has caused his stock to drop into the second round territory where he could now be a steal. If nothing else, Young can give a team 10-15 minutes of strong defense. He has strong hands, moves his feet well, and picks up a fair amount of steals for a center. He will be able to guard a variety of big men and can make an impact within his first year.

Reggie Bullock - The ultimate role player, Bullock thrived his sophomore season at UNC as a gritty glue guy. He hustled to gain UNC extra possessions, crashed the glass, and often guarded the opposing team's best player. Bullock played with fire and did a good job keeping players in front of him and contesting shots with his length. Bullock may not be a lockdown guy at the next level, but he should be what we'd call a "plus"
defender where he will offer more than an average NBA defender.

Trevor Mbakwe - Mbakwe is very old for his class, much like Bernard James last year, and because of that will be expected to earn his draft selection right away. Not to worry, Mbakwe won't need any time in the summer to get his body beefened up for the NBA. Mbakwe already has a very strong base and rebounds well. He is gaining his explosiveness back from ACL surgery in 2012 and is starting to look like his former self. Mbakwe offers more to the table with his rebounding than his defense, but his toughness will be welcomed in both areas.

Rodney Williams - Rodney Williams may be too far behind offensively to contribute right away in the NBA, but there is no doubt he has all the defensive tools to eventually carve out a role. Williams is an outstanding athlete with the ability to leap out of the gym and has shown off his leaping ability more often this year. His motor has ran low at times in the past, but ever since he was moved to the power forward slot late last season, he has made a bigger impact. Williams still has room to learn in terms of defensive rotations and his motor still runs cold at times. In a weak small forward class though, he offers some hope for a team in need of an athletic forward.

Cory Jefferson - Jefferson is another power type who has constantly played for energy even while playing for a underperforming Baylor team. He came onto the scene this year after playing behind the likes of Perry Jones, Quincy Acy, and Quincy Miller last year and showed that he wasn't just sitting in idle during his time on the bench. He has a great motor and is a great run and jump athlete as well. Jefferson is comfortable guarding away from the basket and showcases his physical tools on every possession. He is a strong shotblocker at the rim and has done a nice job in the weight room to improve his body.

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