[Update: part two is here.]
When the Bulls drafted Doug McDermott, my primary concern was that he would not be able to defend his position at the NBA level. He didn't spend a lot of time guarding out on the perimeter at Creighton. His foot speed is not world-class, so the assumption, at least for me, was that he would have trouble on defense. So far in four pre-season games, he's definitely been a negative on the defensive end, but that's not really unusual for any rookie. It hasn't been all bad, though, and I'm (surprisingly) in the mood to be positive (maybe it was getting some exercise this morning), so let's start with the defensive areas in which Doug has looked good. I'll have another post later this week breaking down the weak points in Doug's defensive game.
Body Positioning on an Island
One of the shocking ways in which McDermott has been able to hold his own at this level is that he's been able to keep some of the league's very best athletes in front of him in isolation situations. The first and best example of this was when he got switched on to maybe the league's fastest player, John Wall.
You can see McDermott is able to position his body to try to prevent Wall from getting to the middle of the floor. This is one thing that Doug does very well. He knows that he's supposed to funnel ball-handlers away from the middle of the floor. This is one of the main tenants of Thibodeau's defensive system: shade the ball towards the baseline, away from the middle of the floor, into the help defense, in this case Nikola Mirotic. You can see that McDermott eventually lets Wall get towards the middle of the floor after Wall crosses him over. That's going to happen to even the best defenders, but he was able to keep Wall contained for long enough to run down a good chunk of the shot clock. Wall ran into the help defense and ultimately the Bulls were able to force a mid-range jumper, which McDermott does a solid job of contesting.
Against the Bucks, McDermott got trapped on an island against super athlete, Giannis Antetokounmpou and again, it wasn't a total disaster.
You can see, again, McDermott has proper body position. He's shading Antetokounmpo towards the baseline, but Giannis is able to get around him, like Wall, with a quick crossover. He's not able to completely blow by McDermott though and runs into the Bulls help defense forcing him to drop off a pass into congestion, leading to a heavily contested shot at the basket. The important thing here is that McDermott has a solid grasp of where his body needs to be positioned in the Bulls scheme. Sometimes a super athlete will get around him by virtue of their being super athletic, but that's not going to be the general case, and it's encouraging that he has the basics of body position down already.
In the Post
One area where McDermott's college experience as a power forward has helped him is when guys try to post him up. McDermott's not that tall, he's not that long, but he's been able to hold his own surprisingly well in the post on defense.
For example, look at how he's able to hold his position against Ersan Ilyasova in the post.
Doug fights prevent to his man from establishing deep post position and then when Ilyasova gets the ball, McDermott is able to hold his ground and prevent any further backing down by Ilyasova. McDermott does a very solid job of not leaving his feet, keeping his arms straight up, forcing Ilyasova into a difficult shot, which he misses.
McDermott did similar work against Denver, when Danilo Gallinari attempted to back him down.
McDermott keeps a strong base with his knees bent, keeps his arms straight up, and again, forces a very difficult shot, and Pau Gasol has time to rotate over and block it.
Given his relative lack of size, McDermott appears to be a disproportionately good post defender, based on the early returns. He's fairly strong and knows how to maximize that strength by bending his knees and using his chest to pressure his man. It'll be interesting to see how much teams try to post McDermott, if he continues to defend it this well.
Finally, Doug really appears to care a lot about being a good defender. In fact, he lets it get him into trouble a bit at times, as he follows the action with his eyes and his feet too much. But that's for the next article.
One example of how much he cares that stood out is his hustle on loose balls and in transition. He had one play against the Wizards where he sprinted the full length of the floor to prevent Andre Miller from getting a loose ball as it bounced all the way down the court and out of bounds, allowing the Bulls to gain possession.
Similarly, McDermott was able to force a turnover, in conjunction with Kirk Hinrich, on a fast break in the same game.
Here McDermott also sprints the full length of the court to cut off an easy passing option for Glen Rice Jr. If Doug doesn't make this run, Rice Jr has options, he's got a two-on-one with just Kirk Hinrich back. He can make a pass or go up for the shot. He looks like he's thinking about the choice, but then at the last second, Doug enters the picture, changing Rice Jr's decision making calculus without any time to react. By making Rice Jr think, Doug caused him to run into Hinrich, who drew the charge.
Doug McDermott is an imperfect defender and he has a ways to go. I'll get into the problems he's had thus far later this week, but he has had some nice successes. He positions his body well, he's kept guys in front of him that you wouldn't expect him to be able to, his post defense is quite solid, and he works at it and hustles hard.