The most significant misunderstanding about defense in today’s NBA is that it is all one on one. As a result, NBA analysts and reporters favor elite isolation defenders when their defense is arguably the least impactful form of defense. Yet, even in the age of “All threes and no midranges,” rim protection reigns supreme and remains the number one priority on defense. Outside of a free throw, anything directly under the rim is the most efficient shot in basketball, so deterring those shots should remain the defensive coordinator’s number one priority. Of course, having an elite defensive big helps this, but what happens when a team does not have one? What’s the difference between a defense that has Rudy Gobert and a defense that has Jayson Tatum? This article will dive into who the top 5 rim-protecting wings in the league are and why they are critical to elevating a team’s defense.
Note: Players like Pascal Siakam, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Giannis, and RoCo, who are technically forwards, will not be on this list. Although their teams define them as forwards, they play more like bigs due to their physical capabilities.
5. Jae Crowder
Every contender needs a player like Crowder. Every contender needs a tough guy willing to lay it all out on the line and get into the other team’s heads. Crowder does this and more on the offensive end, but his defense is what keeps him under the NBA’s payroll. He is an excellent man defender and highly versatile, but his help-side rim protection and fearlessness at the rim make his defense more valuable than others. In addition, Crowder times up his blocks like a center and has excellent awareness to sniff out cutters. He had 27 blocks in the regular season and has 11 already in the postseason. He contested 198 two-pointers in the regular season and ranked 82nd percentile in BLK%. Just because the center isn’t in the paint doesn’t mean you’re getting an easy layup if Jae Crowder is on the court.
4. Mikal Bridges
The 24-year-old out of Villanova just had one of the best defensive seasons for a wing this year, and he has carried over his dominance into the postseason. A staple of Bridge’s defense is his shot-blocking. He leverages his 7-foot wingspan extremely effectively, baiting players into taking ill-advised shots, which he is more than capable of blocking or altering. In addition, he is an excellent team defender, rarely missing a rotation, and always ready to contest a shot at the rim. He had 63 blocks on the season, 39 of which came at the cylinder, and contested 254 two-point shots. In addition, Bridges ranked 99th percentile in BLK% and maintained a 1.2 D-RAPTOR. It will be interesting to see how Monty Williams continues to deploy Bridges on defense and continue to utilize his help-side rim-protecting ability against bigger teams like the Bucks if they face them.
3. Jayson Tatum
With COVID and an influx in minutes, Tatum’s defense did not supersede the year prior when he was an All-defense snub. Although he did have a down year, he was still a clear positive on the defensive end with some absurd possessions of him locking down the half-court by himself. Tatum had just 31 blocks this season and ranked 83rd percentile in BLK%. To give you an idea of why Tatum is on this list, he totaled 57 blocks last season and ranked 99th percentile in BLK%. Tatum’s ability to defend the rim has been evident since his rookie season, and it’s only gotten better since then. Last season was the best showcase of Tatum’s help-side defense, managing to stabilize a top 5 defense with an undersized starting center and a defensive liability at point guard. His awareness and anticipation were off the charts, which, combined with his absurd physical tools, made him an apparent snub for an All-defense team. With Tatum’s minutes offensive burdon and minutes presumably decreasing this season, most should expect Tatum to revert to his 2019-20 form defensively.
2. Matisse Thybulle
Although Thybulle’s age may hold back his defensive ceiling, he is already on pace to be an All-time great defender due in part to his ridiculous activity and shot-blocking. He has insanely fast reflexes, which, combined with his 7-foot wingspan and elite anticipation, helps him defend the rim with such ease. In addition, he is swift and moves around the floor very fluidly, which helps track cutters and players trying to take advantage of seals around the rim. Thybulle had 71 blocks in just 20 minutes per game and led all wings in BLK% at 4.9%. He specialized in blocking jump shots for the most part, but that’s because he guarded jump shooters. Thybulle is perfectly capable of defending the rim.
1. OG Anunoby
A top 10 defender and the best non-big defender in the NBA to me, OG’s defense prides itself on many different fronts. His daunting frame and quick feet give him the upper hand against anyone in isolation and at the rim. It’s not that OG is a low IQ defender, he is far from that, but his strength alone makes him quite the foe at the rim. Add in his high court awareness and elite timing, and you have the best rim-protecting forward in the NBA. Anunoby had 32 total blocks in 43 games, ranked 99th percentile in BLK%, had eight blocks at the rim(24 last season), and contested 190 two-point shots. Healthy OG Anunoby is a monster defensively and is not a mismatch anywhere on the court, especially under the rim.
There’s no denying the center is the most critical defensive position, but for teams that play their bigs higher up the floor, rim-protecting wings provide a fair amount of value compared to their big men. Groups like the Celtics, the Heat, or the Nets that switch every action a team runs rely on their wings to cover their big’s when they change onto the perimeter of the opposing offensive player drives to the rim. It’s not to say that switch-heavy defensive schemes are wrong; they have insane value in versatility, but they need wings like these to succeed more than other teams who keep their bigs around the rim.