Five of the best defenders you’ve never heard of

There’s a lot of poor basketball discourse surrounding the NBA, specifically regarding stars struggling in the playoffs, so I figured it fitting to shift the subject towards guys who aren’t garnering enough attention for their elite play.

This article is going to be a “The more you know” type of piece. There’s no rhyme or reason for the guys I picked, just that they are not talked about enough by the average NBA fan and that they are on my agenda. Let’s take a look at what I got for you today. 

Larry Nance Jr

If any of you know Larry Nance it’s for two reasons: You are either a Cavs fan or you remember him vaguely from Lebron’s 2018 playoff run in which he played 15 minutes per game. Putting aside your preconceived ideas of Larry Nance, let me give you an idea of what he brings to the table on the defensive end.

At 6’7 245lbs, Larry Nance provides great mobility, strength and versatility. He’s no Clint Capela when it comes to shot blocking, but he is a very capable rim protector. He’s smart and disciplined, he rotates fast and he’s almost always in the right position. His larger frame can absorb contact instead of getting pushed off his spot, which is a very underrated aspect of rim protection. If players can drive at a rim protector and know all they have to do is hit him to get a clean shot off, then they will drive to the rim all day long regardless of a player’s size. Take Kristaps Porzingis for example. 

Another aspect of Larry Nance’s defense that carries a lot of value is his post defense. At 6’7 he’s more of a power forward than he is a center, meaning much of his time on the defensive end is spent on the low block against other power forwards and occasionally centers. His larger frame makes it so he can’t be posted up and backed down with ease, and his smaller size actually works to his advantage seeing as he is more mobile than his opponent, most of the time. And like I said, he’s disciplined(just 2.1 fouls per game) so opposing post up scorers can’t bet on him going for up-fakes to draw a foul. On the season he ranked an impressive 82nd percentile in post up defense. 

The last aspect of Nance’s defense, and perhaps his best attribute is his hands. His 2.5 steal percentage ranks 1st(amongst bigs that have played 1000+ minutes) in the league at 99th percentile. He also led the league in deflections per game at 3.4 amongst bigs and ranked 8th in total deflections amongst bigs. Two words, elite activity. He knows how to play his cards right. At 6’7 it would be unwise to challenge guys at the rim when he could instead poke the ball free before they could ever get there. His passing lane defense is just as good. Nance’s elite hands make him one of the NBA’s best defensive playmakers, despite being a big man. 

Maxi Kleber

Have you watched any of the Clippers vs Mavericks playoff series recently? Remind me who is taking up the responsibility of guarding Kawhi Leonard.

Maxi Kleber is not a prototypical hybrid big. He’s not a defensive playmaker like Nance and he’s not a big time shot blocker like Draymond Green. Instead, Kleber makes his money by containing some of the NBA’s best forwards and bigs. 

The value of players like this cannot be overstated. When it comes to super star level wings like Kawhi Leonard, there’s no hope in trying to stop him. Rather coaches will look to contain him and hope that instead of taking the tough shot he’s more than capable of making, he’ll pass to one of his lesser teammates. That’s why even though Kawhi is averaging 34/8/5 on 65 TS%, the Mavericks are still up 2-0, among other reasons of course. 

This ability to switch pretty much 3-5 and sometimes even 2-5 is incredibly valuable to any team looking to compete for a championship, even if that player isn’t averaging 3 blocks a game. As a coach, if you can stall a star even for a couple possessions, it’s a win and Maxi Kleber has done just that so far in the playoffs. His foot speed, anticipation and discipline have kept him glued to the Clippers star wings and it’s what will keep him in the league for a long time. 

DeAnthony Melton

For the sake of this article and my overarching agenda, I would ask you not to look at DeAnthony Melton’s playoff statistics seeing as they are… not good. 

Alternatively, let’s dive into why Melton is on this list in the first place!

After getting traded by the Suns with Josh Jackson for draft capital and role players, many chose to cast aside the addition seeing as Melton was not anything close to a big name. Yet Melton has become a big impact player, and has earned every cent of that 4 year $35 million contract the Grizzlies gave him. 

On paper, nobody in their right mind would expect a 6’2 guard to be a fringe all NBA defender but here we are. Melton’s absurd defensive playmaking and grit is what makes him one of the NBA’s best defensive guards. His 1.5 BLK% and 2.4 STL% rank 97th and 94th percentile respectively amongst guards. Pretty good for a guy who’s considered to be undersized. 

What makes Melton’s activity so good is his timing and anticipation. There’s an incredibly small margin for error for shot blocking guards seeing as if they mess up they’ll likely foul their man, therefore explaining Melton’s 43rd percentile foul% ranking. Melton has to time up when the ball will be at its most vulnerable position. That time frame starts from when his man puts both hands on the ball to the time the ball leaves his hands. That’s less than half a second to give you an idea. Melton must time up his swat and his jump to perfectly align the trajectory of the ball before the ball leaves his mans’ hands since he isn’t big enough to go and grab it out of the air. 

His transition defense is a compliment of his natural shot blocking ability. He gets in position to defend the basket and times up his blocks to perfection to prevent easy scoring opportunities in transition.

Sounds pretty hard if you ask me, yet here Melton is doing it on a night to night basis. Don’t forget the name when you want to talk about underrated NBA players. 

Daniel Gafford

A folktale legend in Chicago turned into an actual legend in Washington. In just a few months, Gafford has gone from riding the bench to single handedly turning around one of the worst defenses in NBA history. 

Gafford is one of the most naturally gifted rim protectors I’ve ever seen. At just 22 years old with not a lot of NBA experience, Gafford has seemingly mastered baiting offensive players and is pretty close to mastering his timing as well. By baiting I mean he lures his man into thinking he(Gafford) is not in position to challenge his shot so he(the offensive player) goes up for the layup and Gafford springs in at the last second to block it. This takes an extremely high level of patience, timing and discipline because if you miss time the block the possession ends in a score or a foul. 

His hands aren’t too bad either, ranking 82nd percentile in STL% despite not having the most mobile and balanced frame to get down and get his hands in players’ airspace. 

Another thing I noticed when I watched Gafford play was his closeouts on shooters. He’s exceptional at getting out to guys on the perimeter, whether it’s another big or a guard doesn’t seem to bother him. He stays balanced to avoid a player blowing by him but he also gets out there with enough speed so that the player doesn’t get off an uncontested shot. His hands stay up, his feet and hips stay squared and when he jumps to contest the shot he rarely fouls the shooter. This is a very uncommon trait for a big guy seeing as most NBA big men get real antsy when they go out of the paint. 

Devin Vassell

By far my favorite rookie in the 2020 class and someone I believe can be the 3rd best player in his class. His overall game aside, his defense is what sticks out and why he was taken in the late lottery. 

At 6 ‘5 Vassell can defend 1-3 and occasionally smaller 4s. He’s a bit skinny, which is not uncommon for a rookie, but his defensive skill set has nothing to do with strength and everything to do with length. 

His 6’10 wingspan was one of the most coveted physical tools in this year’s draft, and taking a look at his tape from this season I’d say the Spurs cashed in. His massive arms make him a perfect nail defender. He can sag off his man without worrying about not being able to recover while helping off the ball to prevent drives inside. 

This length also makes him the perfect disrupter and or defensive playmaker. His 1.8 STL% ranks 87th percentile and he ranks 79th percentile in BLK%. Already his first year in the league and he’s about 5 steps ahead of everyone else in his class as a help side defender. 

These physical tools don’t matter if there’s no thought behind how to use them. Luckily that’s not the case with Vassell. His positioning, IQ and reaction speed are off the charts. It’s like he’s always in the right place to make the right play. He’s fearless and most importantly he cares. All of which are the foundations for a future first team All Defense lock. 


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