As is the case in most years, the top of the NBA Draft will primarily feature scoring phenoms who fill up the stat sheet and change the score whenever they get the rock.
Prioritizing offensive talent is a mandate in many NBA front offices and we've seen the draft reflect that. Most of the players taken in the first round are there because of their scoring touch - the kind of flare that gets the highlights, the clicks and, generally speaking, the glory.
However, there are a handful of players in the 2020 NBA Draft that will have a huge impact on the NBA and contribute to winning on the other side of the floor. They're the grinders, the foot soldiers, the guys who will do whatever it takes to win even if it means sacrificing personal stats and acclaim for the betterment of their team.
They're the five best defensive players in this year's draft.
Onyeka Okongwu | Forward 6-9, 245 pounds | USC
Okongwu's basketball journey began in Chino Hills, California where he played with the famous Ball brothers. That's also where his reputation as a monster on the defensive end began, as his activity and foresight was put to the test as he covered up for the Ball's, err… rather cavalier style of defence.
That frantic style of defence at Chino Hills prepared Okongwu for the college game where speed is the name of the game. For a rock-solid 6'9" frame, Okongwu has outstanding lateral movement, which allows him to guard most of the floor. His lateral quickness helps when he needs to switch out onto guards but perhaps where it's most useful is when he can play away from the ball and patrol passing lanes. Usually, you think of wings as players in charge of taking away passing lanes and getting deflections, but with Okongwu's blend of length, speed and intelligence, he's as good as it gets at diagnosing a pass before it happens and putting a hand in to poke the ball away.
Okongwu is also one of the best rim protectors in the class, swatting away a ridiculous one out of every 10 opponent field goal attempts when he's on the floor (via KenPom). Not only does he have the length and leaping ability to contest shots at the summit but he's built thick, meaning driving players that try to initiate contact to get space are simply stonewalled and forced to put up an ugly attempt.
Projecting what big men are going to be able to defend at the NBA level can be difficult but with Okongwu it doesn't seem to be much of a question. He's ready to thrive in an NBA defensive system.
Isaac Okoro | Forward 6-6, 235 pounds | Auburn
Size. Speed. Hustle. Toughness. Those are some of the traits that might come to mind when you think of what makes a special defender, and Okoro checks each of those boxes.
On the fundamental side of things, Okoro grades out as a spectacularly sound defender. He stays in a stance, has outstanding balance and does the little things like gets skinny around screens to make sure he doesn't get hung up and slowed down chasing an offensive player.
Then you've got the intangibles. The desire to jump on a loose ball, the timing of when to stab at a ball while a defender dribbles, the boldness to switch onto a big man knowing he'll try to bury you under the rim. Okoro has that all too.
Put it all together and Okoro was as impactful a college defender as there was last season. Always tasked with guarding the opposing team's best player, he took on a myriad of talented and diverse scoring weapons throughout the season and met every challenge.
The top tier of NBA player in 2020 is the tall, scoring wing and teams are always looking for players who can neutralize those threats. A fantastic defender at a premium position, Okoro has the chance to surprise people with how high he hears his name called on draft night.
James Wiseman | Centre 7-1, 235 pounds | Memphis
Wiseman has yet to actualize his potential as a stopper in the way other players on this list have but his freakish size and physical gifts still make him one of the most tantalizing defensive prospects in the draft.
Standing at 7'1", Wiseman comes in with a whopping 7'6" wingspan. That puts him in the same size conversation as Rudy Gobert, someone who regularly shows how disruptive that length can be when protecting the rim.
Unlike most 7-footers, Wiseman has the kind of dexterity you would see from a much smaller player and that's what's going to have scouts salivating. Wiseman's quickness will allow him to stay with smaller stretch fives in the NBA while his height and wingspan will allow him to battle with the traditional below-the-rim types.
What makes Wiseman so special is that he has the ability to anchor a defence single-handedly. At his length, he can reach from one side of the key to the other, and with his speed and explosiveness, he's always only a stride or two from either sideline. That means he can go from tagging a roll man to sprinting out to contest a 3-ball or go from switching out onto a point guard to collapsing back to the rim to swat a shot away.
A team looking to rebuild its defence will see an easy pathway to doing so with Wiseman, and it will make him an interesting option at the top of the draft.
Tre Jones | Guard 6-3, 185 pounds | Duke
When you think of impact defenders in the NBA, you're first going to think of interior shot blockers and rangy wings. However, point guards like Tre Jones are a reminder of why high-level defence at that position is so important.
Lots of NBA actions start with a pick-and-roll, and oftentimes it's the point guard initiating it. That means if you don't have a point guard that excels in these settings, your defence is going to start every possession at a disadvantage. Jones is adept at slithering around screens, avoiding contact to make sure he stays glued to his man. He's got the speed to chase a ball-handler over top of the screen, as well as the footwork to slip under it and recover before they can pull for three.
When guarding in space, Jones is a fearless on-ball defender who applies furious ball pressure to make his opponent feel uncomfortable. For most players playing that tightly means conceding drives, but Jones has the quickness to slide laterally and take away any lane to the hoop.
Jones might not look big, but he plays with the strength of a much larger player and can battle bigger forwards when switched on to them. Competitiveness is a requisite to be a good NBA defender, and Jones has it in excess.
Devin Vassell | Guard 6-7, 195 pounds | Florida State
For many NBA franchises, the main defensive philosophy is to limit 3-point attempts. To accomplish that you need players who are intelligent, quick and long.
Devin Vassell is all three.
Standing at 6'6" with a near-comical 6'11" wingspan, Vassell has prototypical wing size for a defensive stopper. However, instead of relying solely on his length like many similar-sized players, he relies on footspeed unmatched by most wings.
This allows him to comfortably guard point guards and shooting guards. These were most of the assignments Vassell had in college where he used his speed to mirror smaller players who tried to drive against him and his length to deter jump shots.
Vassell has the physical gifts, but quite frankly a lot of prospects do. What makes Vassell different is a tactical understanding of the defensive side of the ball that makes him thrive in rotation. When one of his teammates slid over to aid on a drive, Vassell was always there to slide over and help to the open shooter at the moment of the pass. Oftentimes he'd be guarding the ball and his frantic on-ball defence would force a pass out and upon the ball being reversed, he was in position to take a charge in the paint in a moment's notice.
Vassell gets everything out of his defensive abilities. It's what makes him a special prospect.
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