By Oscar Heanue, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As a fantasy basketball owner, it’s easy to enter a draft with an eye on players who are their team’s first option offensively. Big scoring, rebounding, and passing numbers tend to pop out in a way that steals and blocks might not. But while at first glance a 20-point-per-game scorer might look more appealing than someone who gets 1.5 steals per game, it’s important to remember that in categorical formats, everything matters equally.
Oftentimes, grabbing a few defense-first players can be the difference between missing the playoffs and competing for your league’s championship.
With that in mind, here are a handful of players worth targeting who can help you lock up those often-overlooked defensive categories:
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
It should be no surprise to anyone that the Greek Freak, now entering his sixth NBA season, is near the top of most experts’ draft rankings. Coming off a season in which he averaged 26.9 points and 10.0 rebounds, the 23-year-old is one of the league’s brightest stars. He is also one of the most valuable assets in fantasy basketball despite not being an elite shooter or six-plus-assists-per-game passer. What puts him alongside the James Hardens and Russell Westbrooks in terms of fantasy production are his contributions on the defensive end.
Antetokounmpo uses his length and athleticism to record steals and blocks in bunches, consistently ranking near the top of the league in both categories. Only five active players have had multiple seasons of at least 100 blocks and 100 steals — a feat which Antetokounmpo accomplished each of his last two seasons. A season ago, he ranked 13th in the league in blocks (106) and 21st in steals (109), all while finishing in the top-10 in both total points and rebounds.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis joins Antetokounmpo as a player who is a first-round lock due in large part to his defensive presence. A finalist for Defensive Player of the Year honors, the big man has led the league in blocks three times in six NBA seasons. Davis combines his league-best shot blocking with strong steals numbers, as he has averaged at least 1.2 steals per game in every season since entering the league. With upside of 1.5 steals and nearly three blocks per game, Davis provides perhaps the best foundation in those two categories of any player in the league.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
As the hardware implies, the 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year is one of the top options for fantasy owners looking to boost their defensive stats. Green has earned NBA All-Defensive First Team honors three years in a row and has averaged at least 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in each of the last four seasons. Green doesn’t offer nearly the same offensive contributions of Antetokounmpo or Davis, but due to that, he’s typically available much later in the drafts. Green’s offensive decline — particularly his three-point production — is a point of concern, but he’s an excellent foundation in the defensive categories in addition to offering elite assists numbers from the power forward position.
A small concern for owners targeting Green are the question marks surrounding the return of DeMarcus Cousins. The Warriors’ shiny new addition will be the best center (by far) Green has played with in Golden State, and Cousins’ presence could potentially cut into Green’s production later in the season. Still, with Cousins projected to miss at least the first few months and coming off of a major lower-leg injury, owners should still consider Green one of the best defensive options on draft day.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Fresh off a career year, Detroit’s rebounding vacuum is poised to provide some of the strongest defensive value at the position this season.
Drummond averaged 1.5 steals and 1.6 blocks per game in 2017-18, finishing the year with over 100 blocks and 100 steals for the third time in his career. He’s led all centers in steals over the last three seasons, and while he remains a drag on free throw percentage, he significantly improved in that department last season (60.5% FT) and is reportedly working to incorporate a three-point shot. Given his ability as a passer, if Drummond adds an outside shot, he’ll be one of the most well-rounded fantasy commodities in the league at any position.
The Value Picks
Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
Richardson established himself as one of the elite defensive wings in the NBA in 2017-18, his third season in the league. In addition to ranking 11th in the league in steals, Richardson provided strong value as a shot blocker, swatting 0.9 shots per game from the small forward position. Moreover, Richardson has increased his steals and blocks every year of his career thus far. With less-than-elite offensive production, Richardson is a strong candidate to provide great defensive value as a mid-to-late round draft pick.
Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers
Covington earned All-Defensive honors for the first time in 2017-18, but has long been a major statistical contributor on the defensive end. The sharpshooting wing has ranked in the top 10 in steals for three straight seasons, making a living interrupting passing lanes with his enormous wingspan. Covington has also recently made use of that wingspan to send shots back, averaging 1.0 blocks per game over the last two seasons. Like Richardson, Covington’s relatively standard offensive production should make him a good late-round candidate for owners looking to boost their team’s defensive output.
The Upside Picks
Nerlens Noel, Oklahoma City Thunder
Coming off a year in which he played only 30 games and saw less than 16 minutes per game, Noel’s stock is at an all-time low. Now joining his third team in as many seasons, it remains to be seen how much a role Noel will have in Oklahoma City. Regardless, if the minutes are there, Noel’s past production suggests he’ll be a strong source of defensive value.
Last season, Noel was far too inconsistent to roster in nearly any format, but he averaged 1.0 steals and 0.7 blocks in only 15.7 minutes per game. He ranked second behind Victor Oladipo in steal rate (3.3%) among players who played at least 400 minutes. Noel also joins Antetokounmpo, Davis, Green, and Drummond on the list of active players to have a 100-block, 100-steal season, reaching those benchmarks with the Sixers in each of his first two NBA seasons.
With all that said, Noel’s role remains volatile enough that he probably shouldn’t be drafted in most formats, but if Steven Adams were to go down with an injury at any point, Noel would become an awfully intriguing waiver add.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Smart and the Celtics agreed on a long-term deal to bring the gritty point guard back to Boston this summer. While the deal was good for Smart’s wallet, it certainly didn’t help his fantasy stock, as he will continue to compete for minutes with Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier and the rest of the Celtics’ crowded guard rotation.
Nevertheless, Smart’s defensive play should guarantee him playing time and make him an interesting waiver wire target for fantasy owners. Smart has ranked in the top 20 in steals in three of his four NBA seasons, boasting a career mark of 1.5 per game. He’s also a viable out-of-position blocks contributor, averaging 0.4 per game in each of the last two seasons. As always, though, the issue with Smart is he’s a better real life player than fantasy commodity. Even with the value he provides on the defensive end, Smart’s horrific shooting numbers (36.7% FG; 30.1% 3PT last season) are difficult to swallow.