Site Manager’s note- Scott Beattie is a former GBBer who gets the urge to write every year around draft time. With the Memphis Grizzlies picking in the lottery for the first time in a while, he reached out with an idea for a post. I was happy to help.
Here’s a question for you - what do Raja Bell, Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker, Danny Green, Tony Allen, Patrick Beverley, Andre Roberson, Robert Covington, Kawhi Leonard, and Bruce Bown all have in common?
A: They are/were great-to-elite perimeter defenders….and none of them were lottery picks.
In fact, only three of those players (Allen, Leonard, and Roberson) were 1st-round picks, and Bell, Bowen, and Covington all went undrafted. The obvious lesson is that you can find good defensive wings at the back of the draft; however, I’ll take that conclusion a step further: drafting a defensive guard/wing in the lottery is a waste of a pick.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of players that were drafted specifically for their defense going back to 2006 (the year I first became a draft junkie):
Corey Brewer (2007; #7); Terrence Williams (2009; #11); Al-Farouq Aminu (2010; #8); Alec Burks (2011; #12); Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (2012; #2); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (2013; #8); Marcus Smart (2014; #6); Stanley Johnson (2015; #8); Justise Winslow (2015; #10)
At first glance that list looks pretty solid! Nearly all of those guys are still in the NBA and almost all of them capitalized on their potential as good defenders. The problem is that only two--Kidd-Gilchrist and Burks--were re-signed by their teams at the end of their rookie contracts.* We’ll see what happens with Smart, Johnson, and Winslow, but based on their current production, it’s unlikely that the Pistons and Heat keep Johnson and Winslow. Everyone else was either traded or allowed to walk as a free agent.
*-Even the inclusion of Kidd-Gilchrist on this list is a stretch. Yes, defense was his greatest strength as a prospect, but as the second overall pick, he was supposed to develop into a star.
The reality is that over the course of their rookie contracts, most wings don’t develop into defenders exceptional enough to be worth keeping. The thing is, while physical traits like wingspan and lateral quickness are helpful, they aren’t enough to guarantee that a player will become a good NBA defender.
There are plenty of phenomenal athletes that are abysmal defenders (Gerald Green), while Bruce Bowen and Shane Battier, who were mediocre athletes, became elite defenders. This suggests that mental skills like persistence, determination, being able to read and anticipate an offense, and knowing players’ tendencies are more important, and these are usually learned through experience. So it shouldn’t be surprising that like soccer goalkeepers, wing defenders come into their own in their late 20’s and early 30’s.
There are exceptions, but usually these players are either superstars who excel at everything (Kawhi Leonard) or devote time to defense to the detriment of their offense. In the latter case, they are often such a liability on offense at the beginning of their careers that they become unplayable. It took years for Tony Allen to learn to make effective cuts to the rim so that the defense would actually have to guard him sometimes, and even then he could still be taken out of the game. Likewise, the same could be said for Bruce Bowen and his 3-point shot.
So what does this mean for the Grizzlies coming into the draft? Mikal Bridges is the only defensive specialist projected as a certain lottery pick (SB Nation has him at #10 in their latest mock), although Zhaire Smith could go at the tail-end of the lottery as well. Either would be a massive reach for Memphis at #4, but it is very possible that the Grizzlies end up trading down in the draft, especially if their preferred picks are all off the board when they make their selection. If that’s the case, I have some very simple advice for Chris Wallace: don’t draft Bridges or Smith! (For that matter, don’t draft athletic swingmen without any one exceptional skill like Miles Bridges or Kevin Knox, who end up being classified as “defenders/rebounders/energy guys” by default)
If draft history is any indication, it would be much better to shoot for the stars and swing-and-miss on a higher-risk player like Collin Sexton, Michael Porter Jr., Mohamed Bamba, or even Trae Young (although, seriously, please don’t draft Trae Young!) rather than pick a “safe” 3-and-D player. If Memphis really wants that type of player, Wallace is better off taking a low-risk gamble in the late first- or early second- round on someone like Jacob Evans, or, better yet, sign a veteran free agent on the cheap.
Look, I’m not saying that Mikal Bridges or Zhaire Smith will be a bust (I actually like both of them!). It’s just that the chances of them fulfilling the expectations of a lottery pick during their rookie contracts are very low, especially for a team like the Grizzlies who have almost no patience for developing prospects.
And if Chris Wallace still really wants Bridges or Smith after reading all this, he can just acquire them in 2-3 seasons after their teams have given up on them.