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NBA Daily: Ranking The Free Agents – Centers

Basketball Insiders has examined the best potential free agent signings at each position ahead of free agency. James Blancarte assesses the free agent centers hoping to sign new deals.

James Blancarte

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Basketball Insiders recently started a new series detailing the top free agents by position as a primer for the free agency period beginning on July 1.

Let’s get caught up. Drew Maresca covered point guards, Jordan Hicks shooting guards. Then, Spencer Davies detailed small forwards and Ben Nadeau wrote about power forwards.

First, a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump from $101 million to $109 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:

$27,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience

$32,700,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience

$38,150,000 for players with 10+ years of experience

In addition, the mid-level exception for teams in the first year is expected to be $9,246,000, while the taxpayer MLE is expected to be $5,711,000 and the room MLE is expected to be $4,760,000.

If you want a full list of players in the pool, feel free to refer to this page for a list of all the notable free agents-to-be.

Max Guys

Al Horford – Boston Celtics – Last Year’s Salary: $28,982,710

The Boston Celtics have been executing a multi-year plan that is on the verge of veering off-course. Al Horford declining his player option for next season and signing with a new team is another unexpected development. Horford is already 33 and on the backside of his prime. He is also properly recognized as a player that meshes well with other players, is a solid defender, strong outside shooter and a positive veteran presence. The need for a player to help turn a potential contender into a juggernaut helps ensure Horford will likely get a max contract.

With free agency frenzy hitting its zenith, speculation has mounted as to which team will be employing Horford’s services. Shane Rhodes covered potential Al Horford landings spots. The Mavericks have been spoken of as a potential destination as well as the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers. As of June 29, Horford added a few Pelicans players offering a hint he might be headed to the suddenly very interesting New Orleans roster, although there is pushback as to whether this is a realistic possibility.

Where Does He Fit: Multiple contenders and would be contenders should and potentially will pursue Horford. The latest talk is of a large offer from the Sacramento Kings, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Dallas Mavericks with the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers as remote possibilities. Most recent reports from Keith Smith are that Horford and the Celtics are working toward a return to Boston.

New Deal: 4 years/ $164,000,000 to the Boston Celtics

Near Max Guys

Nikola Vucevic – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $12,750,000

Nikola Vucevic is a talented free agent center who doesn’t get as much attention as other players in higher profile markets. In addition, his strengths can resemble successful centers of a bygone era. He likes to post up with his back to the basket and is an effective scorer down low. Those skills come along with an ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter, to make decisions with the ball in the high post plus who can move the ball and is a capable defender who is quick enough with his feet.

Adding Vucevic would be a big move for any team needing an injection of talent and lacking option down low. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, it is being reported that Vucevic and the Orlando Magic are closing in on a deal that would see Vucevic return to Orlando.

Where Does He Fit: Teams striking out on their first options would do well to sign the talented big man but that possibility appears to be out the window as he is expected to re-sign with Orlando, according to Shams Charania.

New Deal: 4 years/$100 million to return to the Magic.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Jonas Valanciunas – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $15,460,675

The tale of Jonas Valanciunas is a less mentioned part of the upheaval that the Toronto Raptors went through last season. Just about any move will look like a good one when the end result is a championship and the trade that saw the Raptors give up Valanciunas in exchange for Marc Gasol is one of them. Valanciunas has played well throughout the years and demonstrated upside but has also underperformed at times including key moments in past playoffs.

Valanciunas declined his play option earlier this month. He is in his prime (27 years old) and could make a lot of money with a new team on his next contract. However, that possibility appears remote as it appears he will be returning on a three-year contract worth $45 million, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Where Does He Fit: Valanciunas would have fit well with a team that can use a boost at center to complement a well put together roster. Since he is returning to the Grizzlies, he can provide a veteran presence down low for the young roster.

New Deal: 3 years/$45 million to return to the Grizzlies

Dewayne Dedmon – Atlanta Hawks – Last Year’s Salary: $7,200,000

Dewayne Dedmon has had a bumpy ride on his professional journey having played for multiple G-League and various NBA teams on his way to the Atlanta Hawks. With the Hawks, Dedmon has been best able to demonstrate his abilities as a capable two-way player. As a member of the Hawks, Dedmon also demonstrated a newfound three-point shot that improved in both volume and efficiency in his second year with the Hawks.

Where Does He Fit: Recent reports link him as a secondary option for the Kings should they strike out on the Horford sweepstakes. Since Horford’s destination is still very much unclear, a Kings-Dedmon marriage looks like an increasingly real possibility, according to Sam Amick.

New Deal: 3 years/$40 million to the Kings.

Brook Lopez – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $3,382,000

Two seasons ago, the Los Angeles Lakers were on the tail end of the post-Kobe Bryant, pre-LeBron James transition period. Brook Lopez held things down at the center position for a franchise in flux. For whatever reason, the Lakers did not prioritize a Lopez return and he instead signed with the Milwaukee Bucks.

With the Bucks, Lopez again proved outside shooting and veteran leadership. Although the Bucks were not able to advance to the NBA Finals, Lopez shined in key moments and, when the offense grinded to a halt, he was able to help carry the load on offense in the playoffs.

Where Does He Fit: There was briefly talk of Lopez being a secondary signing to match Leonard if he were to sign with the Clippers. A do-over with the Lakers is not impossible either. There had been talk of a mutual interest in returning to the Bucks and has just been reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

New Deal: 4 years/$52 million to return to the Bucks

Mid-Level or Below Guys

DeMarcus Cousins – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $5,337,000

Of all available players, DeMarcus Cousins is difficult to pin down. He is a talented, versatile player that can score and improve a team’s offense in a variety of ways. Cousins is also recovering his athleticism from a torn Achilles two seasons ago and likely contributed to the subsequent quad injury that left him limited in the NBA Finals. Throw in his history of being a volatile personality and a potential disrupter in the locker room, what do you get?

The answer is unclear and so is predicting the market for Cousins. Last year with the Golden State Warriors, Cousins took less money to rehabilitate his body and his image yet things remain murky. If an acceptable long-term offer is not available, perhaps Cousins signs another short term offer to try the same game plan again.

Where Does He Fit: Hard to envision where he fits best considering his play, fit and personality are not easy to pin down. Running it back with the Warriors in a down year for the franchise is a decent option. The team could use the talent boost and better play will help him re-emerge in next year’s free agent pool may be best.

New Deal: 1 year/$5 million to return to the Warriors

DeAndre Jordan – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $22,900,000

Things have not been the same the last two seasons for DeAndre Jordan. After nearly bolting for the Dallas Mavericks in the middle of the lob city era, Jordan finally joined the Mavericks for the 2018-19 season. While the pairing had long been on Jordan’s mind, the fit just didn’t come together. It is true that Jordan’s productivity in the past two seasons has only incrementally decreased in the past few years. However, his play was often uninspired and criticism emerged that he was more focused on personal statistics.

Jordan found himself as a key part of the trade package the Mavericks put together to snatch Kristaps Porzingis from the New York Knicks. With the Knicks, Jordan put up good numbers when he played but fell victim to a losing season where he was quietly benched to help ensure the best lottery odds. Jordan no longer is the defensive anchor or uber-athletic rim running center he used to be, he can still be a useful cog for a couple of teams.

Where Does He Fit: Reports link him to the Nets and Lakers. Where the marquee free agents go will dictate if Jordan ends up being part of one of these two franchises. Latest bombshell reports from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN have him joining Irving and Durant with the Nets.

New Deal: 2 year/$5 million to play for the Nets

Willie Cauley-Stein* – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $4,696,875

The Willie Cauley-Stein experience has been a bumpy one for both him and the Kings. Cauley-Stein has shown flashes of potential and numbers that can lead a team to believe that he continues to possess great potential. His inconsistent play and mercurial personality may also cause hesitation. In the right situation, he could thrive.

As of yesterday, the Kings extended a qualifying offer, despite his request to allow him to move on. While the Kings may not do so, they have the ability to match any offer made to him. Teams may be wary to sign him due to the risk of being held in limbo while the Kings decide whether to match or not.

Where Does He Fit: Cauley-Stein has been linked to the Mavericks and Lakers. Both Dallas and Los Angeles offer a much-needed change of scenery. If the offer is too low, the Kings may be compelled to keep him, at least as an attractive trade asset.

New Deal: 2 year/$5 million to play for the Mavericks

Robin Lopez – Team – Last Year’s Salary: $14,357,750

Enes Kanter – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $18,622,514

Thomas Bryant – Team – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Other Notable Free Agents

JaVale McGee – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $2,393,887

Ivaca Zubac* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Frank Kaminsky – Charlotte Hornets – Last Year’s Salary: $3,627,842

*Qualifying Offer (If made and accepted, the player becomes a restricted free agent)

**Non-Guaranteed Contract (If the player is waived by his current team before the contract becomes fully guaranteed, he becomes an unrestricted free agent)

***Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent)

****Team Option (The team has the choice of whether to pick up a player for another year or opt-out to have him become an unrestricted free agent)

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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