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NBL: Top 5 Defensive Players of the Year
A discussion of the main contenders for the Damian Martin Best Defensive Player trophy, plus honourable mentions.
Credit: May Bailey Photography
To legitimately be in the mix, an individual’s team almost certainly needs to be holding opponents to below average efficiency when they are on the floor. If not, have they really been impactful enough? A player also needs to have logged enough minutes to have left a big enough impression.
Stats used are accurate as at January 26.
1. Xavier Cooks
Cooks was also my pick last season, and he eventually finished third in official voting. Whilst this season he has a little more help with Justin Simon and Tim Soares (plus Jordan Hunter’s return) being positional upgrades on the defensive end, he’s still having a huge impact in the team’s scheme, as well as defending his man one-on-one.
Sydney has a near league-leading defence overall and have allowed just 105 points per possession with Cooks on the floor per spatialjam.com. The Kings have grabbed an elite 74% of defensive rebounds and opponents have a low effective field-goal percentage of just 48% in his minutes.
What makes all this even more impressive is that Cooks has logged 19% of his minutes at centre, often with either Kouat Noi at power forward, or with a bunch of smaller guards in funky lineups. The Kings have been 1.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor, even allowing for these more offensive friendly line-ups.
Cooks’ athleticism, long limbs, and rim protection allow the Kings so much versatility as you can put him in a drop scheme defending pick and roll, ask him to be more aggressive to worry the ball-handler, or he can switch onto the very best guards in the league and force them into a poor shot.
As an off-ball defender playing next to another big, Cooks’ secondary rim protection and quick hands is a ridiculous luxury. This help-defence part of his game has only been rivalled by D.J. Hogg this season. He kickstarts so much of the Kings offence with his defensive play.
Cooks leads the league in Defensive Box Plus Minus and has the best defensive rebounding percentage of any of the main contenders for this award. Looking towards the playoffs, there’s no defensive player I would want access to more on my team than him.
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2. D.J. Hogg
Hogg’s quick-twitch athleticism might not jump off the page when you first watch him as he smoothly moves around the floor, but he’s got sneaky pop, particularly in an NBL setting. He’s come up with countless defensive plays challenging with great timing at the rim this season.
Hogg is the only player in the league averaging at least one block and one steal. Like Cooks in Sydney, Cairns have allowed the same stingy amount of points with Hogg on the floor and have a similar on-off defensive differential when looking at his minutes.
The Taipans have an excellent group of defensive personnel among their high-minute getters with Tahjere McCall, Bul Kuol, Shannon Scott, and the improved Keanu Pinder, but it’s Hogg’s play that has been the most consistent and impactful on defence.
Hogg is the glue piece at a vital position, doing a good job in a one-on-one setting and showing an ability to toggle between wings and bigs. He has allowed Cairns to start games big and then move between different sized lineups throughout the season, logging 54% of his time as a big and 46% of his time as a wing.
3. Jarrell Brantley
New Zealand have some excellent defensive personnel at almost every spot, but it’s Brantley who gets the nod for me as their most valuable piece. As you can see with my top three, I favour a front court player with versatility; someone who can switch out onto guards and defend pick and roll, but also be physical inside or a rim deterrent.
Brantley is the perfect type of power forward defender in the NBL, in the respect that he’s a little short for that spot in the NBA, but in this league he fits. He’s got a strong frame to defend his primary matchups, as well as quick hands (swiping 1.6 steals per game), but he also moves his feet well so there’s no problem when he switches onto a guard.
The Breakers have allowed 107 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, including 2.1 points less than when he sits which ranks first on the team per spatialjam.com.
He isn’t quite the secondary rim deterrent that Cooks or Hogg are, which puts him at three instead of one or two in these rankings, and Cooks has had his way with him at times in their matchups with his extra length, but he has great feet to stay in front of guys and has still made some highlight blocks.
4. Justin Simon
A previous award winner with Illawarra, Simon remains a menace on the defensive end with his long arms being able to poke the ball loose, even as a guard is simply trying to bring the ball up the floor.
Simon’s long arms and athleticism also come into play when he’s navigating through screens and trying to play catch up. He plays a key role in Sydney’s aim of forcing in-between shots and keeping opponents away from the rim, and he’s one of the best wing help defenders at making a play in the passing lanes.
Simon ranks second in the league for Defensive Box Plus Minus, but he cops a small demerit from me when nitpicking with these ranking due to my value of Cooks and his position.
Jaylin Galloway has interestingly received some of the tough one-on-one assignments, including in crucial moments, in the back half of the season, whilst Simon’s on-off defensive numbers show less impact than you would expect (0.2 defensive differential).
Simon does of course clearly remains as their best wing defender, but the Kings’ reliance on him hasn’t quite been significant enough for my liking to have him in the top three.
5. Dererk Pardon
Pardon gathered a lot of early season momentum in this award chatter, with the Breakers jumping out to a hot start and his aggressive defence being a key contributor to that.
He’s been the best centre when hard-showing, briefly lunging at the ball above the level of the screen with enough effect to either make the guard retreat or get rid of the ball. Pardon isn’t the biggest five, so this scheme suits him fairly well at the NBL level where his foot speed is good enough to execute it.
As the season has worn on, teams have been able to find an advantage against Pardon with a bit more regularity, but for the most part he’s shown to be able to handle a range of different pick and roll coverages.
Pardon is a credible perimeter defender for his position, but obviously isn’t anywhere near as good as the above players in space given his frame. His foot speed or change of direction can be found out when he has too much ground to make up or if needing to close out to the three-point line.
Inside, Pardon is super physical and happy to mix it up in the post or on the glass. He is a good intimidator at the rim and certainly acts as a deterrent defending one-on-one or as the helper.
Overall, the Breakers have allowed 109 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor with his defensive on-off differential being -0.4. The team has done well in Rob Loe’s minutes too.
Adelaide have struggled defensively, and Antonius Cleveland’s focus has been more on shot creation this season than ever before, but his elite defensive ability must still be acknowledged. He cannot be a serious contender this time though, with the 36ers having a poor DRtg of 116 in his minutes on the floor.
Perhaps if C.J. Bruton had dabbled in some more creative lineups, such as one with Cleveland sharing the floor with each of Mitch McCarron, Sunday Dech, and Anthony Drmic (just 31 possessions together all season with a DRtg of 99.8), Cleveland’s talents could have been put to better use to cover up Adelaide’s defensive deficiencies in the front court. Each player in that group can defend up a position and it would have been an interesting late game option to try next to Robert Franks or another big.
Given how the season played out, Cleveland’s potential to win this award was affected too much by his team’s context, and he sits as just as honourable mention for me.
Other perimeter defenders that deserve some love include McCall and Kuol in Cairns, with the former being particularly dangerous in the passing lanes and the latter a bulldog defending on the ball.
Izayah Le’Afa and Trey Kell have a helpful combination of attentiveness chasing around screens off the ball, being able to stay in front on the ball, as well as being able to use their strength to guard bigger wings.
Shea Ili is a treat to watch on defence, making some hilariously good plays when he’s in the lineup, but the minutes just haven’t been there this season for him to be in contention. His teammate Marcus Lee deserves a mention given Melbourne’s surge since he has joined — 105 DRtg with him on the floor (7.7. better than without him per spatialjam.com).