The NBA is at a turning point in its future. Young stars all over the league are beginning to surpass their older peers and it’s only a matter of time before they surmount the NBA’s current superstars. Players like Jayson Tatum, Karl Anthony Towns, Trae Young, Devin Booker, and Zion Williamson have all made significant strides since entering the league and there’s no sign of them slowing down. But these stars are not the only ones that are going to change the NBA, the less known young players are likely to make just as big of an impact on the league and their team.
This article will be looking into those lesser-known young studs and how they might be able to impact their teams with their defense.
It’s an understatement to say the Bulls made a mistake in trading Gafford to the Wizards for essentially nothing. He’s already one of the best young defensive bigs in the league and at 22 years old he has so much time to achieve the potential he’s already displayed.
At 6’10 234lb Gafford boasts a unique physical set of tools that have and will allow him to be a menace on the defensive end. First and foremost, he is not easily moved by more physical bigs such as Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has the foundation to become one of the best post defenders in the league if he adds weight and maintains his discipline. However, he is much more mobile than other elite post defenders. His foot speed and lateral movement are off the charts for someone his size. He’s very light on his feet and he’s exceptional at sliding them and moving his hips. He’s not rigid and upright when he has to move, rather he’s very fluid and smooth like a forward.
He can switch, guard the post and guard the rim. In just his 2nd season he has already become extremely good at baiting players into challenging him. This takes a great amount of patience and timing to work, yet here Gafford is doing it already. He’s an aggressive but smart shot blocker and will contest everything. His activity, IQ, and motor are all abnormally high for somebody his age and lack of experience. If the Wizards can hold onto him, they could be looking at a serious defensive frontcourt with Gafford and Hachimura.
The best defender in the 2020 rookie class that you didn’t even know was drafted. The Spurs picked possibly the 3rd best rookie and best defender in the class with the 11th pick and in just 1056 minutes he’s already shown promise that he can be the best player on their team in the future. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, this article is strictly about defense.
In that case it’s a good thing Vassell’s best characteristic is his defense. His height and build, 6’5 200lb, are perfect for a prototypical defensive 2 or 3. His 6’10 wingspan makes him an even more attractive defensive asset, but his physical set of tools is only the foundation for his elite defense. His IQ and anticipation are what put it all together. He’s already a great positional defender and is absurd at defending in space. The Spurs have had great success putting him at the nail or the top of zones to disrupt actions and make the opposing team uncomfortable.
His hands are very good, tallying 43 steals and 82 deflections while playing just 14 minutes per game. He uses his wingspan and massive hands to interrupt opposing players’ dribble and force them to pick the ball up or turn it over. He’s very aggressive on the ball and is extremely good at trapping the ball as the first or second man.
He doesn’t just constrain himself to impact the game on the perimeter, he’ll protect the rim too. He had 18 blocks and an unprecedented amount of altered shots at the rim. He’s a natural help-side rim protector and his sneaky good athleticism allows him to climb the ladder and make some impressive plays at the rim when his big man gets beat. There’s a reason Popovich entrusted Vassell at the nail, he’s already one of the best roaming defenders in the NBA and has a nose for the ball.
Don’t be surprised if you start seeing Vassell get some All-Defense votes within the next couple of seasons.
Depending on the status of John Collins’ future with the Atlanta Hawks, it may be a few seasons until we see Okongwu put his print on the Hawk’s defense. While we wait, we can infer from his film and college and short time in the NBA that he will be something to behold on the defensive end.
There’s a reason NBA scouts believed Okongwu would be the best big in his class and why the Hawks took him with their number 6 pick in the 2020 draft. His offensive characteristics being one of the big factors but his defense was what stood out.
His ability to switch onto and have great success guarding perimeter creators was what raised his stock price in the draft. Like Gafford, Okongwu moves his feet very well and is abnormally balanced. He has no problem dealing with multiple counters from offensive players and never gives up on the play. At 6’8 235, he has a low enough center of gravity to maintain his balance while also not giving up too much to bigger players. He’s tough but he’s also smart, which means there’s a foundation for him to be a great defender against guys 3 or 4 inches taller and 20-30 bounds bigger than him.
His activity was another strong suit of his. In just 601 minutes in the NBA, Okongwu has 33 blocks and 23 steals. Comparatively, in college, he had 76 blocks and 34 steals in 858 minutes. He has a knack for tracking and has quick hands to poke the ball free from careless centers and arrogant guards. He’s fearless and will challenge rim rollers and drives at the rim, and with his timing, he is rarely rivaled and beaten in that regard.
I have a lot of hope for Okongwu as a player, but I am certain he will be a monster on the defensive end once he starts getting more consistent playoff time. The skill sets and talent is there it just needs to be refined and used properly, which I have no doubt the Hawks intend to do or else they would not have drafted him. I expect him to be a version of Bam Adebayo, as do many other scouts who wrote lengthy reports on him.
Claxton is in one of the weirdest situations in the NBA for a young big. On the one hand, he’s playing next to three of the most talented offensive players in NBA history. On the other hand, he’s playing on a contender, meaning his minutes are not always guaranteed depending on the night. Regardless, in just his second year Claxton has already shown he has all-league level defensive potential.
He stands at nearly 7 feet tall with a 7’2 wingspan and feet lighter than most guards. He glides all over the court and is seemingly more on-balanced than the offensive player he’s guarding most of the time, even when they are faster and more agile than him. This is due to his elite IQ and discipline. He doesn’t get antsy on the perimeter, in fact, sometimes it looks like he’d rather be guarding someone out there than in the paint. He keeps his hands up but off of the offensive player so he doesn’t foul them and he makes sure not to create too much contact to allow his man to draw a foul. But his presence is felt, he will use his body and he will use his hands to slow guys down.
His pick-and-roll defense is elite, mostly because of his ability to switch but he’s also very good in drop and or when he’s hedging. He tracks back well and does a good job making sure he knows where the roll man is while also keeping tabs on the ball handler. He stays with the big until the very last moment when he either pounces to alter or block the shot or blows up the lob to the big on his back. Like I said, elite anticipation and defense.
Bigs like this are becoming more common, but the level at which Claxton is defending at such a young age is unprecedented. Having a switchable big that can also guard the rim and multiple play types is a great weapon to have, especially for a high-level contender like the Nets. if he can develop a more well-rounded offensive game so he can see the floor more consistently, watch out.
What Thybulle lacks on offense he makes up for on defense and more. He’s the best defender in his class and already one of the best non-big defenders in the league.
He reminds me of Robert Covington, not very strong on the ball but one of the best off-ball defenders in the league. He’s got great court awareness and very good reflexes. His length and athleticism make him one of the best shot-blocking wings in the league. He flys out to the 3 point line to block jump shots and can recover to the rim if he gets blown by. He never gives up on the play and is very good at defending off-ball players.
He gets his hands on everything and he disrupts every offensive players’ drives. He’s one of the most active defensive players in the league and he’s only getting better.
Off-ball is Thybulle’s niche. He’s fast and he maneuvers screens very well, so he has no problem chasing around Devin Booker or Duncan Robinson. When he’s not involved in the action he does a great job putting himself in a position to help his teammates that are involved. Whether that’s at the nail or baseline doesn’t matter, Thybulle always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time. At this point, it’s no longer a coincidence.
He’s arguably the best defender on the Sixers, it wouldn’t be a debate if he could get more playing time but that’s more indicative of his offensive game than it is his defensive game. The Sixers have established one of the best defensive corps in the league and by the looks of it, Thybulle will be heading off that group within a few seasons if he isn’t already.
There’s a multitude of other players that could have made this article such as Jonathan Isaac, Bam Adebayo or OG Anunoby but if I had to guess you’ve already heard of all those guys. This article is for the less known players, I don’t need to tell you about guys you already know enough about.