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NBA PM: The Truth About Rookie Defense

Everyone talks about how rookies struggle on defense, but those criticized most often aren’t as bad as you think.

Steve Kyler



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The Truth About Rookie Class Defense

As the NBA swings to the back part of the season and teams race to the finish line and the postseason in some cases, more and more focus will shift toward predicting the end-of-season awards. One of the more interesting races to watch will be the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. Minnesota Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is the frontrunner, as he’s having an impressive and consistent rookie campaign that couldn’t have been scripted any better. Then, there is New York Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis, who has exceeded everyone’s pre-draft expectations. Looming in the third chair is likely Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor.

No name in the rookie class is more polarizing these days than Okafor, whether it’s his over-hyped and overblown off-court antics, the perception that he’s the NBA’s worst defender or just a general dislike of a throwback big man who thrives in the low-post.

The off-court stuff is what it is. It’s never nearly as bad as it seems, but it’s certainly not a good look while campaigning for something (not that players actively try to get votes for such things).

The throwback style of play is what makes Okafor so special. He is arguably one of the most skilled low-post players in the game right now and he’s just a baby in his NBA career.

Which brings us back to the defense issue.

Before we get too far into this, it is important to say that almost no team in the NBA plays man-on-man defense. So trying to judge a player’s defensive prowess based on how he guards his man neglects that players have rules for how they guard that man based on the team defense. If the point guard misses his assignment, is that on the center for not being there to catch the play?

No one is going to look at Okafor and say he’s the next great defender. However, the stats say he’s not nearly as bad as some would paint him.

The NBA’s new SportVu camera technology allows for the tracking of things in a much more granular way. While there isn’t a great statistic to track defense, one that’s very credible is Defensive Field Goal Percentage, or what a player scores while being defended by another player. When you compare that percentage to a player’s average, you can see if the defending player is at least holding the offensive player to their average.

In looking at the rookie class, there were some interesting things that surfaced defensively, as measured by Defensive Foul Goal Percentage. Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis may be the best rookie defender who has played more than 30 games. Portis is holding offensive players to 37.8 percent from the field, while those same players are averaging 44.8 percent on the season.

Here are the top 20 rookies by Defensive Field Goal Percentage, based on 30 or more games played:

Player  Age  GP  DFG%  FG%  DIFF
Bobby Portis  21  36  37.8  44.8  -7
Kristaps Porzingis  20  60  42.4  46.6  -4.2
Nikola Jokic  21  56  45.6  48  -2.4
Jerian Grant  23  51  41.6  43.3  -1.7
Emmanuel Mudiay  19  45  42.9  44.2  -1.3
Myles Turner  19  37  45.3  46.1  -0.8
Justise Winslow  19  55  43.1  43.9  -0.8
Nemanja Bjelica  27  45  44.5  45  -0.5
Karl-Anthony Towns  20  58  46.6  46.9  -0.3
Jahlil Okafor  20  53  47.6  47.7  -0.1
Willie Cauley-Stein  22  42  45.8  45.4  0.4
Larry Nance Jr.  23  45  47.2  46.7  0.4
Trey Lyles  20  51  46.8  45.8  1.1
Lamar Patterson  24  32  45  43.8  1.2
Frank Kaminsky  22  57  46.6  45  1.6
Boban Marjanovic  27  33  49  47.4  1.6
Stanley Johnson  19  56  45.5  43.7  1.7
D’Angelo Russell  20  57  46.6  43.9  2.7
Rashad Vaughn  19  50  46.4  43.3  3.2
Devin Booker  19  50  47  43.7  3.3

The next part to look at is distance to the basket. When you measure Defensive Field Goal Percentage within 10 feet of the basket, things change a little. Within 10 feet, the top rookie defender ends up being Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis; he is holding opposing offensive players to 47.5 percent when their usual average is 55 percent.

Here are the top 15 rookies by Defensive Field Goal Percentage within 10 feet, based on 30 or more games played:

Player  GP  DFG%  FG%  Diff%
Kristaps Porzingis  60  47.5  55  -7.5
Boban Marjanovic  33  49  54.8  -5.8
Nikola Jokic  56  50.3  55.7  -5.3
Jahlil Okafor  53  50  54.8  -4.8
Karl-Anthony Towns  58  50.2  54.3  -4.1
Bobby Portis  36  50.4  53.9  -3.5
Myles Turner  37  50.7  53.9  -3.2
Frank Kaminsky  57  53  53.8  -0.8
Justise Winslow  55  53.2  53.4  -0.2
Willie Cauley-Stein  42  53.5  53.4  0.1
Nemanja Bjelica  45  54.1  53.9  0.2
Trey Lyles  51  55  54.4  0.5
Larry Nance Jr.  45  58.9  56.6  2.3
Jerian Grant  51  56.7  54.3  2.4
Lamar Patterson  32  59  55.6  3.4

The last part is closer to the rim, as measured by six feet or closer. When you look at Defensive Field Goal Percentage within six feet, the top rookie defender is again Porzingis, who is holding 49.6 percent on an average of 60.1 percentage. That’s a full 10.5 points below his oppositions’ average.

Another variable to consider is, how frequently are they defending a player at that distance? In the case of the six-feet sample, Indiana’s Myles Turner is seeing players within six feet 54.5 percent of the time, which makes his 50.4 percent Defensive Field Goal percentage on a 58.6 percent average all the more impressive.

Here are the top 15 rookies by Defensive Field Goal Percentage within six feet, based on 30 or more games played:

Player  GP  FREQ  DFG%  FG%  Diff%
Kristaps Porzingis  60  45.20%  49.6  60.1  -10.5
Boban Marjanovic  33  47.70%  50.7  59.1  -8.3
Myles Turner  37  54.50%  50.4  58.6  -8.1
Nikola Jokic  56  46.20%  53.7  61.2  -7.5
Jahlil Okafor  53  46.30%  53.8  60  -6.2
Karl-Anthony Towns  58  51.30%  54.5  59.6  -5.1
Richaun Holmes  42  38.80%  54.8  58.9  -4
Willie Cauley-Stein  42  30.70%  55.1  58.9  -3.8
Frank Kaminsky  57  34.10%  56  58.5  -2.5
Bobby Portis  36  36.60%  57  59.3  -2.3
Emmanuel Mudiay  45  26.30%  60.6  59.7  0.8
Justise Winslow  55  24.50%  60.3  59.4  0.9
Trey Lyles  51  33.60%  60.7  59.8  0.9
Stanley Johnson  56  21.20%  62.2  60.8  1.4
Nemanja Bjelica  45  41.10%  60.8  59.3  1.6

If you look at each chart, you’ll notice that Okafor ranks in the top 10 in total Defensive Field Goal Percentage among rookies. He ranks in the top five in both categories closer to the rim.

It’s safe to say Okafor has a lot of room to improve compared to the other veteran players in the NBA, but compared to his rookie class peers – including Towns – Okafor isn’t nearly as bad a defender as he’s often made out to be. Yes, he needs to do a better job getting in position at times (like all young centers), but when he’s actually guarding his man, he’s serviceable.

Also, some of Okafor’s defensive issues have more to do with the island he gets placed on, which wouldn’t occur on a better defensive team. Looking at the numbers and the situation he has been put in, it’s unfair how much hate Okafor has had to endure about his defense.

As the 20-year-old Okafor matures and his Sixers team matures defensive, both sides should see their numbers go up.

Some may argue the premise based on what they see on the floor; however, the stats paint a very different picture.

New Basketball Insiders Podcast

In the latest installment of the Basketball Insiders Podcast, our salary cap gurus Eric Pincus and Larry Coon discuss whether the Warriors could (and should) seriously pursue Kevin Durant, league parity, max salaries and more. Listen below:

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @eric_saar and @CodyTaylorNBA .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.


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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”

Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.

Dennis Chambers



The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.

Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.

With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.

One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.

“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”

Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.

“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”

In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.

“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”

Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.

While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.

Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.

“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”

The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.

Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.

“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”

Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.

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NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.

Steve Kyler



The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.

Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.

Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.

There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.

Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.

In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.

Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.

Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.

This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?

There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.

Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.

Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.

The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.

There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.

The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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