Rookie Defenders to Watch

Raphielle Johnson
·7 min read

Evaluating incoming rookies, especially before the draft has even taken place, can be a tricky proposition from a fantasy standpoint. How much a rookie stands to play won’t be known until training camp, but that does not mean that statistic-specific prospects can’t be identified. With that in mind we’ll take a look at some of the top defensive options in this class, players capable of making an impact in the rebounding, shot blocking and steals areas. The list begins with a 7-foot-1 center who played in just three college games.

C James Wiseman, Memphis

Wiseman is an interesting case in this draft, as he only played in three games for the Tigers last season before the NCAA suspended him and he decided to just prepare for the NBA. At 7-foot-1 he has the size and length needed to be a high-level rim protector, and he’s plenty athletic as well. That should help Wiseman when it comes to pick-and-roll situations in which he’s asked to switch onto a ball-handler. He’s moves well laterally, and challenging jump shots in those situations is something that he can do as well. Given the amount of time that has lapsed since he last played against live competition, Wiseman is more likely to have an impact defensively than offensively at the start of his rookie season.

PF Onyeka Okongwu, USC

From a statistical production standpoint, Okongwu is one of the best interior defender in this draft. Last season the 6-foot-9 power forward posted averages of 2.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per game, playing a shade over 30 minutes per game. Add in his work as a rebounder, as he averaged a solid 8.6 caroms per night, and Okongwu is rated among the top prospects in this draft (and with good reason). While many expect Wiseman to be the first big off of the board Okongwu won’t be far behind, and it would not be a surprise to see him go as high as third overall given Charlotte’s need for frontcourt talent/production.

PF/C Xavier Tillman, Michigan State

Tillman was considered by many to be the best defender in college basketball last season, and his averages of 10.3 rebounds (7.6 defensive), 2.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game only told part of the story. Tillman proved capable of taking on any individual matchup and he was very good as a pick-and-roll defender, performing well in both hard hedge and switching situations. He may not be discussed as a lottery pick like the aforementioned Wiseman and Okongwu are, but Tillman is the kind of player who wings up cracking the rotation of a playoff team.

SG/SF Isaac Okoro, Auburn

We’ll move on to the perimeter for a bit, and Okoro is the headliner when it comes to defenders on that area of the floor. Despite the lingering concerns about his perimeter shot the 6-foot-6, 225-pound wing is still projected as a lottery pick by many, with his athleticism and defensive abilities being the reasons why. Okoro averaged 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks per game as a freshman, with the steals average bumping up to 1.1 per in SEC play. He has the length and athleticism needed to be a pest off the ball, jumping passing lanes and starting transition opportunities.

SF Devin Vassell, Florida State

During Leonard Hamilton’s time at Florida State, it’s seemed as if he’s had an assembly line that produces lengthy wings capable of defending multiple positions. Vassell is the latest to make his way through Tallahassee, and the combination of defensive skills and perimeter shooting ability will likely make him a top-10 pick later this month. As a sophomore the 6-foot-6, 180-pound wing averaged 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.0 steals per game, and an individual defensive rating of 93.6. Vassell will need to get a bit stronger in order to deal with some of the NBA’s bigger wings, but he has the ability to defend just about anyone on the perimeter.

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C Jalen Smith, Maryland

“Sticks” made the most of his sophomore season on both ends of the floor, developing into a more dependable jump shooter while also improving his defensive numbers. In addition to averaging 10.5 rebounds per game (up from 6.8 as a freshman), Smith also accounted for 2.4 blocks (up from 1.2) and 0.7 steals (0.4) last season. And his defensive rebounding average of 7.3 per night wasn’t far off from what Xavier Tillman produced at Michigan State. At 6-foot-10, 225 pounds Smith has the length needed to either alter or block shots at the next level, but his ceiling will be determined by how well he moves laterally. He’s expected to go somewhere in the middle of the first round come November 18.

SF Saddiq Bey, Villanova

While Villanova’s system may be a bit rigid when it comes to Jay Wright’s expectations on how his teams should play, there is a lot of freedom within those “lines.” And in recent years the program has produced players capable of filling a variety of roles at the NBA level, and Bey certainly qualifies. At 6-foot-8, 216 pounds he has good size for an NBA forward who can be used to defend either threes or fours depending upon the matchup. The statistical averages (0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks) weren’t great

C Daniel Oturu, Minnesota

The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Oturu projects to be right on that late-first, early-second fringe when it comes to the draft, which would represent very good value for him given the production. As a sophomore he averaged 11.3 rebounds (7.5 defensive), 2.5 blocks and 0.5 steals per game, with a stellar individual defensive rating of 92.9. Oturu is good outside of his area either as a rebounder or shot blocker, which will serve him well at the next level. There’s still some work to do as a perimeter defender in pick-and-roll situations, but he’s no liability there either.

PG/SG Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky

Similar to the aforementioned Bey, Maxey’s statistics (4.3 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 0.4 blocks per game) from last season may not lead some to believe in his ability as a defender. He moves very well laterally, has very good length for a guard and fights through ball screens. And Maxey’s effort level on that end of the floor isn’t up for question, either. He appears likely to be a mid-first round pick in this draft, and Maxey could very well wind up being a steal for whichever team lands him.

SG Josh Green, Arizona

Green fits the mold of a 3-and-D wing, a position that NBA teams seem to be on a constant search to address. During his lone season at Arizona the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Australian averaged 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 0.4 blocks per game, and he also had an individual defensive rating of 93.3. It’s worth noting that he played in a pack-line defense at Arizona, and the system (which places a high priority on cutting off dribble penetration) doesn’t always lend itself to high-level statistical production. For that reason, it would come as no surprise if Green managed to be even more impactful as a defender at the NBA level.