By Max Feldman
In the eyes of FOG, the top defenders in the modern NBA are the most versatile, hard-nosed and intelligent defenders. The influx of hard-nosed athletes into the NBA in recent drafts continues to impress. Some major factors that I seek when evaluating potential switch-ability in the PnR heavy modern NBA are lateral quickness, hip flexibility, anticipation/instincts, wingspan, physical maturity, footwork and quick hands. Those who follow FOG analysis closely know, defensive versatility along with feel for the game and the natural ability to produce as well as effect winning basketball on both ends carry extremely heavy weight in Big Board ranking. Below are six 2021 NBA Draft prospects who have high upside trajectories as versatile defenders.
A ton of what I loved about Chicago Bulls rookie, Patrick Williams, aligns with my appeal to Kuminga in the 2021 class. Kuminga will be one of the youngest prospects in the field upon draft night, as he was reclassified up to join the G-League Ignite program. With his youth, Kuminga’s frame is NBA ready at 6-8 and close to 220 pounds. Powerful athletes with this level size should produce defensively very early on in their careers. Kuminga has quick feet and massive arms, with the tools to guard the 1-4 handily. Motor has not been a concern in the past, which can be a theme in such a young, talented prospect. He has flashed the ability to block shots in solid volume and should continue to add to his frame while maintaining athleticism. Kuminga was not included in the recent piece covering the top athletes in the 2021 Draft because he is the headliner in this one, but he is certainly among that group as well. We likely will not see an wink of meaningful competition out of Kuminga prior to his NBA debut, but his defensive versatility makes me more than confident enough to keep him in my top seven while his offense develops.
Barnes has flashed a ton through just a few games with the Seminoles. Not only does Leonard Hamilton produce NBA wings (Malik Beasley, Dwayne Bacon, Devin Vassell, Patrick Williams) but he produces high level defenders very early on. Barnes is next in line and has stunted incredibly quick hands with more advanced instincts than any of the FSU alumni previously listed. Defense is just a portion of what makes him a top ten prospect for me, but his build at 6-9 and 230 pounds with subtle athleticism and guard-like feet will allow him to make impact on that end early on. He’s feel for the game oozes on good and bad nights, a rare trait for a Freshman this early on. Fellow Montverde alumni, Ben Simmons, is a better athlete than Barnes, but I do think they can have a similar defensive impact at their best. The Noles have pegged Barnes as their lead guard and do keep the ball in his hands a ton offensively, putting him in the situation to guard either the opponents best player or a guard who is quicker than him. He has impressed early and will only get better. The sequences of isolated full court pressure provide strong insight to his motor, intensity and toughness. Scottie Barnes is quickly creating quite the resume of intangibles.
Garrett is likely the most talented and impressive perimeter defender in the entire country. This season has been his opportunity to take on more volume offensively, but has essentially taken on the opponents best offensive player since he cracked the Jayhawk rotation Freshman year. Long arms, quick feet, elite instincts, strong athleticism and a relentless motor will make an NBA organization very happy a year from now. He is not a liability offensively, but his production potential is limited, yet he will be difficult to keep out of a rotation because of his defensive value.
Clarke is more raw defensively than the others, but at 6-7 and close to 200 pounds, he has displayed the flashes and has the tools to be a strong, versatile wing defender. Calipari is going to push him to improve his motor and really compete defensively. Kentucky is challenged in pretty much every area, but their three standout Freshman have all shown strong defensive flashes. Isaiah Jackson is an elite rim defender and Boston is highly instinctual, long defender with work to do on his frame. Clarke might end up being the best of the bunch defensively because of his wingspan, lateral quickness, athleticism and motor.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a more impressive and all-around prospect than Saddiq Bey from a year ago. Bey was pegged by many as an elite defender at Villanova, but showed more signs of being a product of an elite defensive scheme rather than a talented individual defender. JRE is both for me, as he is a longer prospect at 6-9 and 235 pounds and is a better athlete. Bey had slow feet at times and tighter hips, whereas JRE has thrived switching on screens and guarding multiple positions. At the next level, I think he will be able to compete with many pure big men but also be able to matchup against the pogo stick 4/5 athletes who are becoming more and more prevalent. Long strides, highly advanced instincts that are natural for any Jay Wright product and a fluid athletic ability make Robinson-Earl a fantastic two-way prospect that I continue to rise on the more I watch.
Terrence Shannon jr
Shannon is a powerful athlete with a mature frame and is a product of the Chris Beard defensive scheme. Most know my affinity for Jahmi’us Ramsey last go around. Jarrett Culver’s defense the draft prior was an incredibly sought after skillset, and Nimari Burnett will likely be the same in 2022. The Chicago native has an NBA ready frame at 6-6 and 210 pounds but his feet move much quicker than you’d expect. Different than others listed, I would not peg him as a guy who can guard 4-5 positions at the next level, but I do think he can be an elite wing defender pretty early on. Beard teaches wings how to defend with physicality, anticipation and footwork largely depending on lateral quickness to keep the ball out of the paint. Ice coverages continue to become more popular in NBA schemes, a trend that should serve Shannon well.