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Evaluating defensive warning signs for NBA draft prospects

how good are pre-draft evaluations at predicting how well big men fare defensively in the NBA?

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Syracuse v Michigan State Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Beware of falling in love with one of the highly-touted big man prospects in the upcoming NBA draft. We’ve been warned as much in this recent Ricky O’Donnell article when he outlined what a modern NBA center looks like and how the prospects destined to be drafted in the lottery on Thursday fit this profile.

Positional versatility, 3-point shooting, rim protection, and the ability to defend guards and wings in space are essential gizmos in the toolboxes of modern big men. The days of the behemoth, low-post scorer are nearly over.

But the death of the traditional big man perhaps is equally as apparent on the defensive side of the ball where modern big men are expected to defend all sorts of players everywhere on the floor. Can any of the this summer’s lottery-bound big men do that?

Over at The Athletic, Stephen Noh tried to figure out how predicative prospects’ pre-draft scouting reports were in determining how good of a defender they would become in the NBA (he scoured the scouting reports of all 27 big men taken in the top 10 picks of the NBA draft since 2011 and extrapolated some trends).

  • Players deemed as low effort or unintelligent defenders didn’t suddenly grow out of either of these habits once they reached the NBA. But, big men who had one or both of these tools (good motor/were intelligent defenders) in college showed the ability to mask physical and athletic deficiencies defensively once they reached the NBA.
  • Most of the lottery-bound big men prospects in the draft this season have major red flags defensively that could deem them unplayable on that end of the floor in the NBA.

I would be worried about DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter Jr. Although all three possess good physical tools, they have all had questions about their defensive motor and awareness. There’s a thought that young big men can learn or develop those skills. More often than not, it doesn’t happen and effort problems carry over into the NBA.

It is going to be very hard to tell how Carter and Bamba will guard in space. The Stepien has covered both Bamba and Carter’s mobility more thoroughly than anyone else. Even after watching dozens of games and reading analysis on both players, it’s difficult to draw conclusions on how that skill will develop. That’s to be expected, as later

As Noh notes, Jaren Jackson Jr. is the only lottery-bound big man in the draft this season who definitively checks both the rim protecting and defending in space boxes on the NBA checklist (at least on paper). Of course, as a top-five talent he’d likely only be gotten if the Bulls traded up.

During the playoffs this season, we saw elite defenders like Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela not be able to play in fourth quarters because opponents incessantly exposed them through high pick-and-roll actions. In the NBA Finals, neither the Golden State Warriors nor the Cleveland Cavaliers received meaningful contributions from a traditional big man. Providing rim protection is no longer enough of a contribution from a center. In an NBA where pick-and-rolls are all the rage (and involve players at every combination of positions), centers need to be comfortable guarding perimeter players in space or risk not being able to stay on the floor.

If the Bulls decide to select a big man in the draft on Thursday, they need to keep all of this in mind.