Are These 4 Players Changing What We Think About Rim Protection?

By Matt Esposito

What is more en vogue in today’s NBA than unearthing hidden gem prospects who take the form of athletic, omnipositional players with monstrous wingspans? Executives are longing to uncover the next OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam or Jaylen Brown.

Why? Defensive pliability is at a premium in today’s game. Teams are constantly searching for ways to keep rangy, offensively gifted bigs on the floor despite their defensive shortcomings. Ideally, every team would find a Jonathan Isaac and pray he develops a 3-point shot but alas, guys like Anthony Davis and Jaren Jackson Jr do not grow on trees.

Therefore, we’ve seen a movement among coaches to utilize these Draymondian players to clean up the mistakes of other less mobile defenders. What does it require? Length, strength, agility and smarts. Who are some players currently being used in this mode?

Andrew Wiggins – Golden State Warriors

Counterintuitively, raw block numbers are not always a reliable source of rim protection/paint deterrence yet, Andrew Wiggins swatted 1.4 shots per game during his time with the Warriors.

Deeper, more complex analytics help tell his story. A metric I’m head-over-heels for, Regularized Adjusted Deterrence (RAD), identifies how successful players are at stopping opposing teams from taking shots in the paint. Check out where Wiggins 2019-2020 season falls.

In other words, Wiggins is preventing just over 1.5 shots in the paint when he is on the court; a finish good enough for the 91st percentile. How is he doing it? A bit of a positional change gave Wiggins more rim protecting responsibility. According to Cleaning the Glass, he spent a career low of his minutes at shooting guard and a career high at power forward.

The Warriors tasked Wiggins with often switching onto whoever necessary. What’s more, they depended on him being able to hold his own against stronger, taller players, or use his elite athleticism to compensate. When switched onto players his size or smaller, a disciplined Wiggins reminds us all of his defensive potential by deterring shots at the rim and forcing opponents into fadeaways. Examples below display both how his length and strength lead to blocks and his knack for transforming rim drives into low value pull-ups.

Next year, Golden State could roll out a super small lineup of Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Marquese Chriss and Wiggins. Do not be surprised if their defense returns to something close to its former glory, with Wiggins rejecting shots after switches.

Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics

With a standing reach only 1.5 inches shorter than Anthony Davis and a wingspan bordering on 7-feet, it was a matter of time until Coach Brad Stevens relied more heavily on Tatum to protect from the weak side.

Currently in the 80th percentile in our RAD metric, teams take about one less shot in the paint when Tatum is around. His offensive breakout this season was one of the more notable storylines yet, Tatum has combined his switchability and IQ to become an emerging defensive star as well.

Below, his switch onto Chris Paul and change in body positioning forces CP3 to dish to the corner. Step one is making Paul opt out of a paint shot. Step two is darting to the corner to sell out on a block attempt.

In this next clip, Tatum becomes the de facto backline protector as Daniel Theis slides to the perimeter. His timing is wonderful and Tatum does the job well; something Celtics fans got used to this season.

Despite being switched onto Rajon Rondo, Tatum is the Celtics paint enforcer during this next play. We can tell because he abandons Rondo to sit in the paint and block Kyle Kuzma.

A time will come when Stevens becomes even more reliant upon Tatum to deter opponents from driving to the rim. For now, however, he is able to hang with players such as AD and stay with attacking guards. Tatum’s shot blocking is one of the main reasons Boston is a top five defensive team this season.

OG Anunoby & Pascal Siakam – Toronto Raptors

Talk about a couple of fellas whose wingspans would give Jay Bilas hot flashes. While the Raptors employ former blocks leader Serge Ibaka, these two Toronto do-it-alls have also been a great help to the cause.

Before we dig into the tape let’s look at the metrics. Siakam has steadily improved as a paint deterrent. At the beginning of his career teams were taking an average of 0.95 more shots in the paint but now they are 0.65 less shots per game there. Anunoby’s growth is even more impressive. Teams took 3.32 extra paint shots during his rookie year and that number is now a negative value!

Both of these men have the footspeed to rotate over to the hoop. OG does so here against a dominant dunk threat in Rudy Gobert.

The reason OG looked so fearless in that previous example could be due to his strong, 230 pound frame. Here, it comes in handy when it literally keeps a giant Deandre Ayton out of the paint before blocking his shot. How many 6-foot-7 guys can do that?

Siakam is no slouch, either. While he is not a muscular as his teammate, Siakam’s length makes blocks possible that other players could not accomplish. It may look like I’m picking on the Suns, trust me I’m not. I just couldn’t resist this clip of Pascal getting around Ayton to swat a shot.

This time I will pick on the Timberwolves. Siakam is not deployed at center at the same rate he was during his earlier years but, he still sees some time there. The Raptors will let loose both Siakam and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in a protector-by-committee approach. His weak side rejection of Karl Anthony-Towns is proof that this scheme works.

With both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – two players aging but in remarkably dissimilar ways – coming off of the books, Toronto has some decisions to make. Although Ibaka is not the deterrent he once was, a lineup where he is surrounded with OG and Pascal could make for a strong backline.

What are our favorite experts saying, however? Well, some agree with me and some don’t, which is what we love about basketball punditry!

Lior Kozai – freelance sports journalist, written for Raptors Rapture

“I think it comes down to smart positioning, along with the obvious length and athleticism. They’re really good at reading plays while defending off the ball, and anticipating what’s coming next (whether that’s a pass, where that pass is going, or whether it’s a drive). I’d say OG especially showed some shot blocking prowess this year and is incredibly strong — when he shifts over to help on bigs, he can often contain them.

Brady Klopfer – writer and reporter, SB Nation

“I think there have been a few nice things out of his defense . . . the improved block rate and steal rate is promising, even though it’s not sustainable. definitely a sign that he was being a little more active. Still, all and all, he wasn’t good defensively in his short stint. But I think it’ll be hard to judge him on that end of the court until we see him with a healthy Draymond and a good Warriors team. that will be the test.

Adam Taylor – writer/podcaster for CelticsBlog & The 450 Times

“People have underestimated Tatum’s growth on the defensive end. His weak-side blocks have become a regular occurrence, leading to him being ranked in the 86th percentile among wings. Playing in Boston’s “switch everything” system, Tatum’s growth protecting the rim has been undervalued this season.

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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