Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
The old adage may or may not be true (anymore), so defense is often viewed in a tilted lens from a draft perspective. NBA coaches and general managers would rather take a player (in the early draft stages) with a scoring mentality and surround him with role-playing defenders than spend a top pick on a defensive master that still needs other max contract players to carry an offense.
Those players who garner a reputation as defensive stoppers (but are not equally elite offensive threats) are always intriguing draft studies. And in this 2019 draft class without many elite athletes or franchise-caliber scoring threats, we could see a few of these guys break into the top ten, let alone the lottery.
Let’s get to know some of the top defensive-minded prospects in this class, including their strengths and areas where improvement is needed:
Nickeil Alexander-Walker – CG, Virginia Tech
Nickeil Alexander-Walker has the most offensive upside of anyone on this list.
He’s already proven an effective shooter and passer, but he doesn’t look like an elite all-around prospect despite being able to shoot, pass and defend. Why? He has poor tendencies in all categories that make weighing the clear positives a difficult task.
Here’s a staggering statistic: ball handlers in the pick-and-roll turned the rock over 43.5 percent of the time when Alexander-Walker was the primary defender. That’s an outrageous number, particularly for a guy playing in the ACC.
A long and versatile athlete, NAW is a prospect that can likely guard 1 thru 3 at the next level while being a plus defender with immediate impact. He does have a tendency to over-pressure, but it is likely he’ll be wise enough to reel that in at the next level.
He’s far more than just a defensive stopper, though. Alexander-Walker is a pretty elite passer, especially going to his left. He’s a career 38.3 percent shooter from three, as well.
The release is a bit slow and funky, but he makes enough of them and has long enough arms that he should be able to hit over NBA-caliber size. There’s a ton to like about his acumen.
For every positive that NAW has shown, there is a clear and head-scratching downside.
As strong of a passer as he can be, he often forces passes and doesn’t bother to read defenders. His shooting is effective, but a slow and unorthodox release can give pause to teams that would want to rework his mechanics. He also gets himself into trouble by over-pressuring the ball and needing helpers to collapse behind him.
NAW is almost a Jekyll-and-Hyde type with the talent he has, and I fear that opponents will be too eager to let him be a scorer, force him right and render his offensive impact (aside from stand-still shooting) inert.
Alexander-Walker has jumped up and down my draft board for months. His combination of skilled defense with playmaking upside gives a ton of intrigue as high as the tail end of the lottery. But he’s not quite a go-to offensive option and needs the ball in his hands as a passer to justify being used as a lottery pick.
In a draft class as shallow as this one, all it takes is one team falling in love with NAW to nab him in the teens. Some team in need of a do-it-all, high-upside guard that can insulate him with shooting will scoop him up.
De’Andre Hunter – F, Virginia
From an athletic standpoint, De’Andre Hunter should check every modern NBA box. He’s a disciplined, multi-positional defender with good athleticism, long frame and incredibly high defensive IQ.
Yet, Hunter’s draft stock is stymied by pessimism surrounding his offensive upside and the impact he’ll have on that end of the floor.
Hunter’s defensive metrics are not very flashy but they test out well for the next level. He is a disciplined defender that rarely leaves his feet prematurely or tries to block shots. He instead uses his length as a mode for blocking shots.
He’s one of the strongest players in this draft—which will help him on both ends—with a solid first step and wingspan that allows him to defend multiple spots and finish off the dribble.
Nobody in this draft class is better at closeouts, which I believe are the single most important defensive skill for being able to win an assignment.
With his physical profile and defensive aptitude, Hunter garners comparisons to Kawhi Leonard. There’s no comparison in their offensive games, but when looking at their effective-yet-subtle defensive style? The comparison isn’t too appalling.
How does a guy that shot 43.8 percent from three on over 100 attempts end up needing his outside shooting improved? Hunter answers that with his release, which is rather slow and can be altered at the next level by the length and athleticism he’ll face.
He has flaws outside his shooting as well, especially with his upside in creating his own offense. That slow release means he won’t get many catch-and-shoot looks, but if he struggles to get to the rim and doesn’t have reliable shot creation, does that stunt most of his offensive upside?
Hunter’s stock is cooling as we get closer to draft day, mainly due to the realization that his offensive upside is fairly minimal. His jumper’s slow release simply must improve to justify a top-five selection. His best hopes lie in the 7-to-12 range; He needs a team where he can be a defensive specialist without worrying about the development of his offensive game producing a top-tier payoff.
Brandon Clarke – ATH, Gonzaga
We rarely hear 22-year-olds discussed for a top-ten selection anymore, but Brandon Clarke is the athlete that can break that mold.
A high-impact defender, teams covet his skill set due to how much bigger-than-his-size he plays. While the 5 position around the league is trending in a smaller, more athletic direction, Clarke intrigues for his ability to hold that spot as a rim protector while also playing within a switchable and versatile defensive scheme.
By far the best vertical athlete in the draft, Clarke is a polished and versatile defender that has the ability to check 1 thru 5. He’s a very good shot blocker with patience guarding the ball and explosiveness from the weak side.
He’s a good rebounder, stays in front of (some) guards and swallows up inferior athletes near the rim.
His offensive role is likely as an undersized pick-and-roll big, setting screens and dashing to the rim. He finishes with lobs at a high rate and is solid in the open floor.
Another part of the appeal is that he seems ready to play right away and will not require a lot of time to refine his skills within that role.
Clarke is the best “immediate impact” defender in the draft based on his metrics, production and frontcourt versatility. Yet, he’s also going to be 23 before he plays a single NBA game.
The fact he doesn’t have offensive polish despite his age is a bit staggering. Players like that usually don’t get taken in the lottery, let alone the top ten.
Thus, Clarke is a name I can see sliding down on draft night and ending up in the late teens. He could go as early as eleven to Minnesota, but a safer selection could come in the 17-20 range.
Matisse Thybulle – W, Washington
There’s always some struggle in evaluating a potential defensive stopper that has played exclusively zone defense in college. Matisse Thybulle is no exception, despite the defensive metrics and accolades he has racked up.
The 6’5″ guard was incredible his senior year and has always been a solid three-point shooter, making him a high-upside 3-and-D type wing that any playoff team would covet.
Despite the last two years playing exclusively in a 2-3 zone, Thybulle is one of the best perimeter defenders to come through the draft in some time.
With a 7’0″ wingspan, he is able to gamble and get away with risks due to his quick change of direction and length to recover. While not a fantastic athlete laterally, he has shown glimpses of getting through screens and swallowing up defenders individually.
Thybulle must shoot to keep himself on the floor, and he’s already a fantastic sniper from the corners. Combine that stroke with a quick and decisive rim attack against poor closeouts, and Thybulle is the prototype 3-and-D prospect.
Thybulle figures to draw top defensive assignments as an NBA player, and that comes with a great deal of discipline. Part of his elite skill is how he can fly around on defense and make plays as a gambler. Guarding an All-Star scorer and acting like a free safety ready to pounce on poor passes do not go hand-in-hand, however.
As he has to readjust himself to man-to-man defense, fighting those habits will be crucial.
At 22, he is already an old prospect and has not seen a great deal of offensive development during his collegiate years. (How old is Thybulle? He was a sophomore when former teammate Markelle Fultz was the top overall selection by the Philadelphia 76ers.)
Thybulle may be as close to a finished product as we have in this draft, which should further limit his first-round draft stock.
Thybulle seems to have garnered a promise from some front office, and a reliable range comes in the 18 to 26 selections. His age and offensive upside likely prevent him from cracking just outside the lottery, and his impact makes more sense for a team that believes his defensive prowess is the missing piece for them to be a contender.
He indeed has the ability to make an immediate contribution for a playoff team like Portland or Oklahoma City.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.