As we approach the end of the regular season, we can take a look at the players who have made the biggest leaps during the 2020-21 campaign.
While there is already an award for the NBA’s Most Improved Player, with emerging stars Julius Randle and Jerami Grant the current favorites to take home the hardware, that trophy is typically given to players who have made a stride on offense.
But just as important, especially for championship contention, is defensive prowess. Players need to become two-way players in order to maximize their potential in the NBA.
After such a long offseason, where many had ample time to improve their games, there are several who stand out as those who have been able to make those leaps in 2020-21.
Below are some of the players around the league who have most improved their game on the defensive side of the floor since last season.
Note that players like Mike Conley, who have historically been very good defenders but had an atypically rough season last year, were not included in this exercise.
Andrew Wiggins (Golden State)
Back in 2017, FiveThirtyEight argued that Andrew Wiggins was the least defensive player in the league. They described his efforts as “catastrophic” and asserted that getting a shot off against Wiggins was just as efficient as an uncontested look.
Yet before the season, Golden State coach Steve Kerr told Wiggins that the organization hoped for him to reach All-Defensive honors, playing a similar role to what wings Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala have done under defensive-minded assistant coach Ron Adams in the past.
Earlier this season, Kerr explained why he had such lofty expectations for Wiggins (via SF Chronicle):
“We’re not asking him to change our franchise. We’re asking him to play defense, run the floor and get buckets. He’s capable of doing all of that … He’s just using his length, athleticism and anticipation. We now have someone we can put on the opposing team’s best player. Whether it’s Pascal Siakam, LeBron, Kawhi or Paul George, the ability to put Andrew on those types of players and let him use his size and athleticism, it’s really the key to our current roster construction.”
The numbers back this up, too, as the folks at BBall-Index.com use partial possession player tracking data to determine how often players guard each position on the floor and offer a scale to summarize matchup versatility. His score is at a career-high this season and he has never spent as much time guarding opposing point guards, power forwards or centers as he has thus far in 2020-21.
Bball-Index also provides a metric for matchup difficulty based on how often a player guards high-usage players compared to low-usage players. This has also been the year he has faced off against top-tier players the most often since he began his professional career back in 2014.
But in addition to the assignments, he has also been significantly more successful on that end of the floor as well. He is 6-foot-7 but with a 7-foot wingspan, he is averaging a career-high in blocks per game (1.0), recording nine blocks over the course of just two games in mid-January.
Kerr has praised the on-ball defense that he has seen from Wiggins, who stepped up as a defensive stopper earlier this season. By mid-February, his defended field goal percentage ranked second-best in the league among all high-volume defenders.
His defense ranks fifth-best among all small forwards, per ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. This is a huge improvement since just last season when he ranked 85th out of the 99 players listed at his position.
Wiggins may never be in line for All-Defensive honors but among all players in the league, he has shown the most improvement on the defensive side of the floor.
Georges Niang (Utah)
Since joining the Utah Jazz, Georges Niang has been a good enough shooter to earn a spot in a rotation, shooting 40.0 percent from above the arc both last season and the season prior.
But he was a defensive liability, which limited the amount of playing time that he was able to receive. During the 2018-19 season, when he first cracked the rotation for the Jazz, Utah’s defensive scheme essentially attempted to hide Niang as much as possible.
These days, however, he has made a much more impactful presence for the top seed in the Western Conference. That has earned him some praise from Utah head coach Quin Snyder (via KSL.com):
“There was a play where he shifted and he overhelped, and the ball got kicked out to the wing and [Terence] Davis made a 3. And it hurt him because he knew that he could have drifted more. That’s a subtle thing. But for him to recognize that and to own that, I think is what’s happened for him over time. He takes pride in it, and it’s something that he has worked out. His habits have improved, and there’s a focus and a resolve.”
The team defense that Snyder is referring to shows up in the on-off numbers as well.
Utah has allowed 110.4 points per 100 possessions when Niang is not on the floor but that number has dropped to just 103.3 per 100 when he is playing, per PBP Stats. The Jazz also allow a lower effective field goal percentage and force more turnovers when he is on the court compared to when he is not, via Cleaning the Glass.
Niang, who has jokingly referred to himself as the minivan because of his bulkier size, will never be celebrated for his athleticism. He has, however, taken steps to increase his lateral quickness to not get exposed by more explosive matchups.
“I think the biggest thing for me is just keeping guys in front, doing a good job of forcing guys to areas where they don’t shoot the ball as well, and getting more in-depth into scouting reports. Pushing guys to areas where they’re not as comfortable shooting the ball and using my size — my length and my size — to make them shoot difficult shots. And it’s paid off for me so far this year, so I’m just gonna keep chugging away and doing that.”
While he still struggles to stop the opposing big during pick-and-roll actions, when he has to pick up his man one-on-one and off the bounce, he has been able to hold his own.
He is 6-foot-7 but with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Niang is finally using his length and he has come a long way in just the past season.
Miles Bridges (Charlotte)
Thanks in large part to the stellar play of rookie sensation LaMelo Ball, the Charlotte Hornets have been an exciting team to watch this season. While you were tuning in, though, you likely noticed the absurd athleticism from Miles Bridges.
Bridges has been crowned the dunk king in the NBA and has made huge strides as a clutch shooter and as a playmaker. But he has taken just as much of a step forward as a defender.
Look at the remarkable force that Bridges displays as a rim protector on this possession:
Miles Bridges is a wild dude — incredible rotation, effort and piece of team defense here to block Favors at the rim. Just deletes this shot. pic.twitter.com/1NEPKqFsnF
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) February 23, 2021
Before this year, Bridges showed promise as a highlight-reel dunker but didn’t exactly bring very much else to the table quite yet.
Charlotte finished their 2019-20 campaign with the fourth-worst defense in the Eastern Conference and overall, advanced metrics graded the recent lottery pick as a fairly poor defender.
This season, however, the Hornets have an above-average defensive rating (seventh-best in the East) and are firmly in the playoff hunt.
This is thanks in small part to the fact that Bridges has shifted from the wing to the frontcourt, playing a new position for his organization. In the process, the former Michigan State standout has offered Charlotte significantly more defensive versatility.
For example, per BBall-Index, Bridges defended centers for just 9.7 percent of his defensive possessions in 2019-20. This season, despite his 6-foot-6 frame, his 6-foot-9 wingspan has allowed him to increase that figure up to 15.1 percent.
The new role presents new challenges, suddenly facing bigs instead of wings. But despite occasionally guarding much larger opponents, his counting stats like blocks and steals have maintained consistency with where they were last season.
He has the speed and athleticism for chase-down blocks like what he accomplished against both Collin Sexton and Larry Nance Jr. last month:
— Mavs / Magic Draft (@MavsDraft) April 24, 2021
Imagine trying to score without the constant fear of knowing that Bridges can literally fly at you at any moment.
Even if he wasn’t as much of a factor as a defensive stopper during his first two seasons, he certainly is one now.
Bridges has become someone who can even take on someone as talented as Jaylen Brown and still come away with a crazy block:
Miles Bridges rose for the block on Jaylen Brown 😤 pic.twitter.com/SptI2vNZDz
— ESPN (@espn) April 25, 2021
PJ Dozier (Denver)
Denver Nuggets wing PJ Dozier has earned the trust of head coach Mike Malone, who has nicknamed Dozier his “South Carolina army knife” because of the versatility that the 26-year-old brings to the table.
While he primarily played one through two with spot minutes at the three last season, he is now playing two through four. That has coincided with him taking on higher-usage players and facing tougher matchups. He spent just 4.7 percent of his possessions guarding top-tier usage players, per BBall-Index. That figure has since tripled.
Instead of shying away from these opportunities and backing down, he has made the most of these moments and formed them as part of his identity (via Denver Post):
“It’s a pride thing. You’re going to guard the person in front of you and you’re going to make sure you have your brother’s back whenever they need it. When you have that mindset, a lot of times you find yourself in the right position … Even though I might not be matched up with Paul (George) or Kawhi (Leonard), I still have to know their tendencies. You might not be matched up, but it’s nothing for you to be matched up with them in transition or on a switch.”
Dozier is 6-foot-6 but he possesses a 6-foot-11 wingspan, which gives him the necessary length to measure up against the top players in the league. That didn’t matter as much at first but it has since become his calling card.
According to dunksandthrees.com, Dozier’s defensive metrics ranked in just the 11th percentile among all players in 2019-20. But this season, that number has actually skyrocketed all the way up to the 84th percentile.
He also ranks in the top 25 on defense among all qualified players during the 2020-21 campaign thus far, per FiveThirtyEight.com’s catch-all statistic RAPTOR.
Even though he is not much of a defensive playmaker capable of stuffing the stat sheet with steals and blocks, he has the best defensive rating among all rotation players on the Nuggets for a reason. He is an irritant and excellent team defender who finds ways to contribute when playing for Denver.
Larry Nance Jr. (Cleveland)
While he is already in his sixth professional season, Cleveland Cavaliers big Larry Nance Jr. is currently enjoying his best defensive campaign yet.
Since he was traded to the organization during the 2017-18 season, Cleveland has finished each of the three seasons with the worst defensive rating in the Eastern Conference. Worse, during each of the past two seasons, they had the worst defensive rating in the NBA.
Under new head coach JB Bickerstaff, however, the tides have changed significantly. Nance has been an anchor for the Cavs, recording the best defensive rating of any rotation player on his team.
Before he suffered a sprained wrist back in January, he helped the Cavs record the sixth-best defense in the league. At the time, he also led the league in loose balls recovered on defense, one of the most important hustle stats.
As Cleveland.com’s Cameron Fields wrote last year, Nance is the only player on the squad “who can thrive anywhere” within a defensive scheme. While he primarily guards fours, a more natural fit for his 6-foot-7 frame, his 7-foot-1 wingspan has allowed him to show that he has shown more than capable of switching anywhere one through five.
There is a reason the front office was fully unwilling to move him at the trade deadline and it has a lot to do with his defensive versatility.
“It’s amazing how many people have reached out [about Larry Nance Jr.]… He fits everybody, so it makes a lot of sense,” said a Cavaliers source, adding that Koby Altman has joked that he’d “get run out of town” if he dealt Larry: https://t.co/CWen1xC7eO
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) March 23, 2021
Overall, he is averaging a career-high 1.7 steals per game, the most of anyone on the Cavaliers. His steal percentage has improved from 1.6 percent last season to 2.5 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass, which ranks in the 99th percentile among all players at his position.
But even when he has not recorded the takeaway, he has made a solid defensive impact for Cleveland. Deflections are defined as the number of times a defensive player or team gets his hand on the ball on a non-shot attempt. Nance averaged 2.2 deflections per game last season but has since increased that to 3.4 per game, good for sixth-best in the league.
Unfortunately, however, Nance has been sidelined for extended periods multiple times this year. In addition to the sprained wrist, he also had an illness that caused him to lose more than twenty pounds. After returning from that bout, he has since had another setback, breaking his thumb in late April while fighting for a loose ball.
During the games that he has not been active, Cleveland’s defense has slipped back into oblivion. That, too, speaks to how important his presence is to this otherwise poor defensive team.