The top of the rookie rankings is a dangerous place. First, Ricky Rubio was knocked off the list by a season-ending ACL injury, and now a sprained shoulder has taken Kyrie Irving out of commission. Irving’s body of work this season will make him the Rookie of the Year even if he doesn’t play another game, but on a week-to-week basis, his injury allows us to highlight other first-year players who’ve excelled.
1. Isaiah Thomas
Undersized point guards like Thomas are supposed to struggle on defense. But Thomas has been one of the NBA’s better on-ball defenders this season. According to Synergy Sports, Irving gives up 0.658 points per possession against isolation offenses, placing him in the league’s 79th percentile. Thomas’s opponents shoot 33.9 percent when they go one-on-one against him. Even better, Thomas forces turnovers 19 percent of the time when he guards isolation possessions. The key to his defense is speed.
Thomas is quick enough to stay in front of just about any guard in the league. So instead of trying to blow by Thomas, many bigger guards will try to out-muscle him. But Thomas has learned to get position, absorb contact, and take charges, and this negates some of the size advantage opposing players have on him.
2. Klay Thompson
Last week, we looked at Thompson’s ability to move without the ball. Given how well he gets himself open for shots, you’d think that Thompson would be more aware of shooters working off the ball when he defends them. But alas, it isn’t so. Thompson guards other players in catch-and-shoot situations 40.9 percent of the time on defense, and in those possessions he allows 1.02 points per possession. That leaves him in the NBA’s 29th percentile. Thompson tends to lose his man because he ball-watches too much.
When Thompson’s attention becomes fixated on the ball, he tends to shift too far off his man. Then, when he has to close out on a kick-out pass, Thompson has to cover too much ground. This leads to either an open shot or an out-of-control, full-speed close out, which usually leads to an easy layup for Thompson’s man.
3. Kenneth Faried
One of the most important defensive skills for big men is showing against the pick-and-roll. Point guards in today’s NBA execute the pick-and-roll very well, and every big must learn to hedge properly and according to his team’s defensive philosophy. Right now, Faried struggles with that. According to Synergy Sports, on possessions where Faried was responsible for hedging out on ball screens, opponents scored 0.885 points per possession. That puts Faried in the bottom third of all NBA players at hedging on ball screens.
The Nuggets’ pick-and-roll defense with Faried asks him to “drop and plug.” This means that Faried doesn’t show hard against the ball handler. Instead, he backs up to prevent dribble penetration while also preparing to challenge a pull-up jump shot. When Denver’s other defender works around the screen and gets back in front of the ball handler, Faried recovers to his man. This is a smart strategy for an athletic big like Faried, who seems quick enough to stay in front of point guards (for a few seconds at a time), challenge shots, and then return to his man. But Faried is struggling with the drop-and-plug because he gives too much space to the ball handler and hasn’t figured out how long to stay in front of the point guard and when to return to his man. He’s been dropping too far off the ball handler and switching back to his man a little too early, and this has led to open shots for the ball handler.
4. Kawhi Leonard
Leonard has the skills to be a very good defender, but his defensive technique isn’t quite good enough for him to get consistent stops. Last week, we looked at Leonard’s struggles against isolation offense. He also needs to improve his defense in ball-screen situations. On possessions where Leonard covers the ball handler in a pick-and-roll (these make up 25.7 percent of his defensive possessions), Leonard gives up a PPP of 0.877, placing him in the bottom 25 percent of all NBA players. To improve, Leonard needs to do a better job of getting through screens.
Leonard is a gambler. He often reaches in to try to force turnovers, but when he does that before a ball screen is set against him, he takes himself out of position to get around the screens. This gives the screener a better angle to set a hard pick. Because Leonard gets hit squarely by these screens, he does a poor job of getting around them and gives ball handlers an open lane to attack the basket.
5. Chandler Parsons
Parsons is a very good defender in isolation situations. He holds opponents to 22.9 percent shooting and 0.622 points per possession in one-on-one spots, placing him in the top 13 percent among all NBA players. Parsons is such a good defender because he does a good job of taking away jump shots. His opponents shoot jumpers on 36.7 percent of their isolation possessions against Parsons, and he forces lots of misses when they attack him off the dribble.
Parsons uses his length very effectively on defense. He takes away the jumper with his long arms, and that allows him to play a step back on ball handlers, so he can stay in front of them without giving up open looks.
6. Iman Shumpert
We focused on defense for this week’s top five, but now it’s time to switch gears and examine Shumpert’s offense. Although he’s an extremely skilled defender, Shumpert has struggled on offense for most of this season. He is improving, however, and his isolation numbers show it. Shumpert’s PPP of 0.845 in isolation situations places him among the top 30 percent of all NBA players, and his isolation success results from his ability to get to the front of the rim. Shumpert drives to the basket on 64.2 percent of his isolation possessions. This is a wise decision, since he shoots 46.7 percent on drives and just 37.5 percent on jump shots.
7. Derrick Williams
For a player who spent most of the season running alongside an elite passer like Ricky Rubio, Williams’s numbers in transition are not very good. According to Synergy Sports, in 75 transition opportunities Williams has scored just 77 points, posting just 1.027 points per possession, which places him in the NBA’s bottom 25 percent. The problem is that Williams commits turnovers on 13.3 percent of his transition touches. The turnovers are especially costly because transition opportunities are almost guaranteed points. Losing the ball gives those points away.
8. Tristan Thompson
With Thompson’s rookie season almost over, it’s disheartening to see him still struggling to score in the post. Thompson has scored just 49 points on 80 post-up opportunities, according to Synergy Sports. His PPP of 0.612 places him in the bottom 17 percent of all NBA players. Thompson likes to face up in the post, but he struggles to score when he turns and faces the basket. Thompson faced up on more than half of his post-up possessions and shot 34.5 percent when he did. When Thompson faces up, he should use his quickness to get to the basket, but instead he settles for jump shots way too often.
9. Bismack Biyombo
Biyombo is a raw offensive player who has a lot of talent on defense. To improve his scoring numbers, he should work on moving without the ball. According to Synergy Sports, cuts away from the ball make up 23.7 percent of Biyombo’s total possessions. His PPP of 1.04 in these situations puts him in the bottom quarter percent of all NBA players. Usually, bigs who struggle creating on their own thrive at finishing scoring opportunities set up by their teammates. Biyombo’s problem on cuts is that he hesitates after he catches the ball. This allows defenders to recover and challenge his shots. If Biyombo can learn to make the catch and go straight up, his performance will improve.
10. Markieff Morris
Earlier in the season, Morris was the NBA’s best spot-up shooter in terms of PPP. Of course, there was no way he could maintain that pace. Now, Morris’s PPP of 1.097 on spot-up possessions places him in the league’s 84th percentile. Morris is doing a nice job of developing moves around his shooting ability. Instead of shooting spot-up jumpers every time he gets an open look, he will sometimes mix in a pump fake and attack the rim. Morris does this 10.5 percent of the time during his spot-up possessions, and he’s posting a PPP of 1.385 on 60 percent shooting when he does. These additional moves make it harder for the defense to close out hard on Morris, and eventually it will allow him to get more open jump shots.
The Rest: Brandon Knight, Alec Burks, Kemba Walker
Injured List: Ricky Rubio, Kyrie Irving