Locked Up

Locked Up, 2021 NBA Draft

Welcome to the Cathedral of Chaos.

This is the type of piece that gets my heart rate soaring. This segment is going to be taking a look at some special talents in this draft class, and I'm not talking about the offensive side of the ball so get the children out of the room. We're going to talk about defense here.

Now if you're starting to do your research and you've been reading some of the latest articles here, you should be starting to pick up that this draft class is shaping up to be well worth the hype. There's some sensational talent all over the board that can make an impact in a variety of aspects. There's star power, sleepers, early contributors, and even an underrated international class. But one thing that continues to stand out as I continue down the rabbit hole of film evaluation...the number of maniacs on the defensive side of the ball.

Yes, you read that correctly. There are some demonic defenders in this class that project to have NBA Front Offices drooling. There's no secret that the NBA loves to find players that can score in bunches. Let's face it. Offense is sexy. It puts fans in the stands and it gets the people going. But I'm not the type of person to ignore the gritty players who can terrorize an opposing player's mind for 48 minutes on a nightly basis. There's a number of individuals in this class that have the potential to do that and the world feels right when you can give someone a standing ovation from your couch while you watch them play full-court defense. 

Some of these defenders that I'm going to talk about have their own flavor that they bring to the table as a defender. Some play with tenacity and possess outstanding footwork. Others stand out as players who can read opposing defenses like an NFL ball-hawking safety. Then there's the ever so juicy ability to defend multiple positions. I want to analyze each of these prospects, and what I believe they can offer immediately as a specific defender at the next level. While it's easy to take a look at top-tier prospects like USC big man Evan Mobley and Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham, I prefer to think a bit outside of the box for now and shine some light on a wider range. Trust me, we've got plenty of time before the draft to talk about everyone. For now, let's take a look at some defensive prospects that have caught my attention early on in the evaluation process.

Davion Mitchell, Baylor

If you're looking for a potential guard who plays the role of a basketball Freddy Krueger on the defensive side of the ball...then Baylor guard Davion Mitchell will make all of your chaotic dreams come true. Mitchell will just be waiting for you the moment your team inbounds the ball and he will play mind games with you the entire night. He uses his body and strength well, imposing his physicality to wear you down over the course of the game. But Mitchell isn't just physical on the defensive side of the ball. He also has sensational lateral quickness and knows how to navigate players into trouble. It's like a waiter leading you to your dinner table but instead, Mitchell guides his opponent into difficult angles and then attacks them at their weakest point. There are some serious Tony Allen/Patrick Beverly vibes to his ability as a one-on-one defender. 

Throughout my time watching Mitchell on the defensive side of the ball, I almost felt bad for the guy he was guarding. It was laughable on a number of occasions. Most evaluators and draft fanatics will be drooling over Mitchell as a prospect because of what he can do with the ball in his hands. I'd be lying if I wasn't impressed with his quickness off the dribble as well. But personally, I found myself on the edge of my seat watching this kid play defense. Mitchell does a great job of just making life tough for an offensive player. He sticks you like gum and at the end of the day, he's going to contest your shot till the very end. The fundamentals stand out along with the anticipation. Most times, Mitchell knows the shot is going up before the shooter does. The footwork as a defender is also fantastic, showing a strong balance and ability to slide his feet with great quickness. In a league in which the point guard position is one of the most difficult to transition to, Mitchell might have some growing pains on the offensive side of the ball. But his ability as a defender is something that he can always hang his hat on at the end of the day. 

Keon Johnson, Tennessee

There always seems to be an athletic wing in every draft class that has some rawness to his offensive game. Tennessee guard Keon Johnson will most likely fit that "tag" this year, as he has great size at 6'5" but has pogo-stick athleticism and isn't afraid to live above the rim. Although the tools offensively scream upside, I came away fascinated by how dominant of a defender Johnson can be at the NBA level. Like Mitchell (above), Johnson has jaw-dropping lateral quickness and he does a fantastic job of moving his feet in order to stay with quicker guards. But Johnson also has impressive instincts as a defender, especially when it comes to emphatic rejections at the rim. Don't let his 0.4 blocks per game fool you, Johnson isn't afraid to go up and meet people at the rim with aggressiveness. 

NBA Front Offices are going to have to stress patience with Keon as he develops his offensive game, there's no doubt about that. But on the other side of the ball, organizations might drool about how Johnson can come in and make an impact defensively right away. If you're looking for a similar recent prospect that can fit the bill, last year's 5th overall selection Isaac Okoro of the Cleveland Cavaliers is one that comes to mind immediately. Now, Johnson isn't as advanced as a defender that Okoro was coming out of Auburn, but there are some similarities when it comes to athleticism and footwork. While Okoro was a prospect that projected to be a plus defender immediately, Keon isn't fully there yet. The consistency will need to come, as it does with most teenagers that are about to enter a league with grown men. Johnson has the tools to become a strong defender at the next level, but he will have to turn it up a couple of notches. You'll notice on film that Johnson loves the emphatic chase down blocks as well, demonstrating great timing to attack the ball at its highest point. He'll stay right on the hip of ball handlers as they get downhill towards the rim and then explode for a rejection. There are some times in which Johnson overhelps as well, but he does a great job contesting shots with great effort. There's some fine-tuning to do for a coaching staff when it comes to Keon, but the tools are going to be fun to work with. 

Scottie Barnes, Florida State

Remember how last year a lengthy wing from Florida State became one of the hottest names in draft circles? Yes, last year it was Patrick Williams, who went on to be selected 4th overall by the Chicago Bulls. This year...there's a versatile wing that has a similar skillset but with scarier measurables. Like Williams, Scottie Barnes has the rare ability to guard multiple positions at an elite level. The major difference between Barnes and Williams is that Barnes has superior length. The Florida State product is listed at 6'9" with a reported 7'2" wingspan. The beautiful part of that previous sentence is that Barnes knows how to use his length to create a serious advantage on the defensive side of the ball. He's constantly active, using his hands and wingspan to cause opponents to panic, frequently forcing turnovers as a result. 

Much like some of the players mentioned above, Barnes still has plenty of questions to answer when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. His outside shot is a MAJOR work in progress, and it's the only thing holding back Scottie from being a top-5 selection in this class. Still, the tools are sensational. Barnes has the rare ability to take a rebound and push the ball up the floor due to his outstanding court vision and ability to make plays for his teammates. If an NBA organization is convinced that the outside shot will come along, Barnes could hear his name early come draft night. 

Usman Garuba, Real Madrid

This is where things get fun when it comes to unique prospects in this class. If you haven't heard of Usman Garuba, then I promise you my friends...you've come to the right place. Garuba has been playing overseas for Real Madrid and while his statistics might not wow you, it's important to remind you that minutes aren't earned easily in the EuroLeague. Still, Garuba has become too much of an impact on the defensive side of the ball to sit on the bench. Garuba will be listed as a center at the NBA level, but you wouldn't think it watching him move on the court. Garuba runs the floor like a high-flying wing, frequently making plays like his hair is on fire. Garuba is listed at 6'8" but also has a reported 7'2" wingspan along with lateral quickness that leaves you giddy thinking about his potential on an NBA floor. 

Trust me, NBA Front Offices are going to be drooling as well. While Garuba still has to figure out how to make a consistent impact on the offensive side of the ball, he's a prospect that should come in early and make a serious impact defensively. Garuba flies around the floor, playing with contagious energy and passion. He might be listed as a center, but Garuba has the athleticism and lateral quickness to stay with smaller guards, and he does it quite often. He should project as a big who can guard 1-5, which is something you simply don't see often when it comes to bigs in draft classes. 

Jared Butler, Baylor

Don't you dare for a second think that I forgot about Davion Mitchell's talented teammate. While Mitchell has been one of the hottest names in Draft circles over the last couple of months, don't forget about his running mate in the backcourt. Jared Butler announced last year that he would return to Baylor for his junior year, and scouts around the NBA were thrilled to see what Butler could do with another year of development. He didn't disappoint at all. Butler went back and reminded evaluators that he can still be a dominant presence on the defensive side of the ball. One of the most "pleasing" developments, when it came to Butler, was his improvement in shooting from deep but make no mistake folks...the defense is what makes this kid special.

Butler will be a curious prospect to keep an eye on throughout the pre-draft process. At 6'3", Butler is more likely to be viewed as a point guard at the NBA level even though his game is more combo guard-ish. Each year, a prospect goes later in the draft than they deserve. Butler is trending as being a potential player who falls right into the lap of a perfect fit on draft night and we all continue to shake our heads at why every other GM allowed something to happen. 

Herbert Jones, Alabama

Honestly, this was one of my favorite players to watch when it came to defensive film. Now I am always going to have a little soft spot in my heart for the more experienced collegiate players, and Herbert Jones has been a versatile weapon for the Crimson Tide. Jones spent four years at Alabama and he's going to be a bit of a "sleeper" in this draft class. Jones has his limitations on offense, especially when it comes to his outside shot (26.9% from 3), but what he does on the defensive side of the ball is special. At 6'8" with great length and quickness, Jones is a force as a defensive asset. During his senior year, Jones averaged 1.7 STL and 1.1 BLK for Alabama. He's like a ball-hawking NFL safety on the defensive side of the ball, constantly roaming and waiting for the appropriate moment to attack. 

One of the most impressive things about his ability on defense is his hands. He's got violent hands and he uses them frequently to disrupt passing lanes and does a great job digging on drives. Jones also has fantastic anticipation as a defender and knows where to go immediately when it comes to defensive rotations. While an NBA organization might not be sold on his offensive game, there's potential for Jones to become a serious defensive weapon early on in his NBA career. His desire to stay active and alert on defense is refreshing, and he should be an enticing addition at some point of the second round, if not earlier. 

Jaden Springer, Tennessee

One of the other strong candidates when it comes to defensive ability in this class is Tennessee guard Jaden Springer. The physical guard is quickly becoming a fascinating prospect to evaluate, especially when you throw the word "potential" around. As of now, Springer looks to project as a tough and gritty defensive guard in the NBA. He's a bit of a bully on the defensive side of the floor. Springer has good size at 6'4" and he knows how to get up and cause opposing players to have a frustrating night with the ball in their hands. When you watch a prospect like Springer play defense, one word comes to mind...aggressive. Springer will hang his hat on his ability to be a strong on-ball defensive asset who plays like his hair is on fire.

The offensive game is still a work in progress, there's no hiding that. Springer has some funky mechanics when it comes to shooting, so that's a reason why teams might have him lower on their boards than others. Still, if we are talking about his ability purely as a defender, Springer has an argument to be right up there with most of the guards in this class. When it comes to some advanced numbers, Springer ranked in the 90th percentile (via Synergy) when it came to overall defense.

Aaron Henry, Michigan State

While there's plenty of other prospects that we could go on and on about when it comes to defensive potential from this class, Michigan State wing Aaron Henry is one that definitely deserves some recognition here. There's an argument to be made that Henry could be one of the top defensive wings in this class. Henry was on the radar of NBA Scouts last year, before deciding to return to Michigan State for another year of development. Listed at 6'6" 210 pounds, Henry has the measurables you look for in a potential 3-and-D asset for the next level. The question will be if his outside shot can come around, as his percentage from deep dropped to 29.6% this year from 34.4% as a sophomore. 

Henry still saw a boost in his PPG, jumping from 10.0 PTS as a sophomore to 15.4 PTS this year. You can bet on an NBA organization believing that they can find great value in adding Henry at some point of the draft, especially if a front office believes that the offensive game can come around on a more consistent basis. Henry is one of those prospects that evaluators were waiting for the offensive game to take the next jump but it just never did. Still, there's an argument to be made that there's plenty of untapped potential. What Henry does offer immediately is the potential to be a fantastic defensive asset in a rotation early on. He has great footwork and shows discipline on the defensive side of the ball. 

Jonathan Kuminga, G-League Ignite

While this might surprise some of the diehard draft fanatics out there, allow me a minute to explain some thoughts. I know that Jonathan Kuminga has a long way to go towards becoming a more consistent threat on the defensive side of the ball. That being said, there's plenty of glimpses that show you the potential that Kuminga has to be an asset defensively. Remember, this kid is going to be one of the youngest prospects in this draft class. An important reminder, Kuminga reclassified in high school to be part of the 2020 draft class, meaning he won't be turning 19-years-old until October. With a prospect like Kuminga, you're going to realize that there's going to be some growing pains, but there's also A LOT of talent that is waiting to be unlocked. 

Still, Kuminga has everything you look for in a potential defensive asset. He's got an NBA-ready body already at 6'8" 210 pounds, and there looks to be plenty of room to put on additional "good" weight. Kuminga also has good length, especially with the rumored 6'11" wingspan, although basketball fans will wait until the combine to get our "official" measurements. There's no denying that there's still a long way to go towards Kuminga being a consistent defender. He showed some confusion with his play on defense at the bubble, but there were also flashes of what he could become. Yes, I am always cautious towards chasing the word "potential" but Kuminga is going to be drafted based on his scary upside. That's the harsh truth. 

Trey Murphy III, Virginia

Throughout "Draft Season" I find myself coming across some prospects that pleasantly surprise me. This year, one of those players is Trey Murphy III. The former Virginia wing finds himself on this list, not because of his offensive ability, but for the unique type of skillset he is going to offer NBA teams. Each and every year, NBA organizations look for the next 3-and-D prospect that can come in and make an impact quickly in specific assets of the game. If a player projects to come in and play defense at a high level, while also being able to space the floor effectively, NBA teams are going to come knocking. The more and more I watch Murphy, I think there's a serious chance that teams will be convinced he will do just that.

Murphy has the potential to be one of the more "underrated" outside shooters in this class. He's got a beautiful touch from outside and can shoot it from NBA range. But the part that I'm most intrigued by is his defensive potential. Murphy has outstanding size for a wing at 6'9" and reportedly has an impressive 7'1" wingspan. There are just too many things about this kid that make me believe NBA teams will convince themselves he could be an absolute steal in this draft, especially if an organization thinks that Murphy could be the missing piece in their rotation early on. Like I've said before, this is quickly becoming one of the most desired assets in the NBA. A player with size on the wing that can space the floor while also being a factor defensively. Sounds like a coach's dream and it wouldn't surprise me if Murphy's stock starts to heat up during the pre-draft process.