Defensive Rookies of the Season’s First Quarter

Published 12/30/2015 by Henry Steckel
  • Keep-in-Front: Offensive player attempts to drive to the hoop but player keeps the offensive player in front of him.

  • Keep-in-Front%: Percentage of drive attempts that defender receives a Keep-in-Front.

  • Chance: A team’s uninterrupted possession of the ball. Offensive rebounds, deflections out of bounds, and fouls create new chances during the team’s possession.

  • Beat-Back-on-D Rate: Number of times player is beaten by his opponent to the opponent's three-point line in defensive transition per 100 chances.

  • Pursuit Rate: Percentage of chances ending in a missed shot in which player moves from one location to another location toward the rebound between the time of the shooting motion and the rebound.

Last week, I used Vantage’s unique metrics to crown Jahlil Okafor the NBA’s best offensive rookie thus far. History backs up that article’s stand-alone prediction that Jahlil will win the Rookie of the Year award; 10 out of the past 11 ROYs lead the rookie class in scoring. Unfortunately for the integrity of the NBA award system, offense makes up only half the game. Here, we’ll familiarize ourselves with the top rookies and the other, and frankly more important, half of their respective games.

SHOT DEFENSE

Spoiler alert: This is where Kristaps Porzingis separates himself from the rest of the pack as an already elite defender. You can sourly attribute this to his length, or you can hop on his bandwagon and praise his defensive instinct. Whatever course you take, you’ll end up at the same conclusion. The Latvian gets results (or prevents results depending on how you look at it). Both Towns and Okafor allow .96 Points Against per Shot, ranking them among the league’s most average shot defenders. At .88 Points Against per Shot, you have the 15th most efficient shot defending big, Knickstaps.

In the above play, Porzingis appeases both ways of analyzing his defensive success. His defensive instinct keeps him trailing Evan Fournier, but his height allows him to do so at a brisk jog, which in turn makes his timing much easier.

The correlated stats have Porzingis leading the defensive Rookie of the Year race as well; his man shoots 40 percent from the field, while the first and third picks each allow 45 percent shooting.

Ranking

1. Kristaps Porzingis

2. Karl-Anthony Towns

3. Jahlil Okafor

Bottom Line: After Kristaps locked this category up, the difference between Towns and Okafor was a Block per 100 Chances (KAT: 2.73, JO: 1.79).

OFF-BALL DEFENSE

Again, Porzingis elevates his game to another stratosphere compared to his rookie compadres. That said, Towns, while equally efficient with Okafor and Porzingis at help defense, averages 1.22 Double-Teams per 100 Chances, eclipsing the combined volume of double-teams of the other candidates. Most important, he consciously cuts off passing lanes as a help defender. Here, even while he prepares to help, he puts himself in a position that cuts off all the possible passing lanes to his man.

Ranking

1. Kristaps Porzingis

2. Karl-Anthony Towns

3. Jahlil Okafor

Bottom Line: Although the video evidence might provide support to KAT, KP’s numbers make him the irrefutable top pick as an off-ball defender. Shocker, JO continues to fuel those persistent rumors that he has one dimension to his game.

ON-BALL DEFENSE

Jahlil barely guards the ball outside of the paint. He has so far only been driven against 7 times in man-on-man situations from outside the arc. Towns has faced 11 such attempts, while Porzingis has done so 46 times. Porzingis’s Keep-in-Front% on drive attempts originating behind the arc rests a mere fraction below 61 percent. Towns’s Keep-in-Front% on these plays fails to hit 55 percent, and Okafor has adequately guarded 6 of the 7 attempts he faced. While these laughably small sample sizes would, in most cases, bear no weight on a player’s actual value, it indicates potential for Okafor. Okafor’s aggregated Keep-in-Front% (i.e., including drive attempts in screen defense, help defense, and closeout situations) is the highest out of the three rookies at 79 percent.

Ranking

1. Jahlil Okafor

2. Kristaps Porzingis

3. Karl-Anthony Towns

Bottom Line: Because this subset of on-ball defense excludes shot defense, we can put Jahlil at the top. He uses his weight to throw ball handlers off course and has surprisingly quick lateral movement for a 275-pound guy.

OVERALL DEFENSIVE RANKING

1. Kristaps Porzingis

2. Karl-Anthony Towns

3. Jahlil Okafor

If the data preceding these rankings could not convince you that KP is the correct defensive choice, how about we look at the miscellaneous transition defense stats? And if it did, this should provide at least a light coating to represent how dominant Porzingis has been on the defensive end this season. KP’s OReb+ per Chance at .16 ranks higher than that of his rookie competitors who both fall at .13. More important to my point, his OReb Pursuit Rate at 73 is 30 percent larger than Towns’s and over 60 percent larger than Okafor’s. Yet, his Beat Back on D Rate, .72, rests .09 below Okafor’s and .21 below Towns’s.

All that said, Towns deserves the Rookie of the Year award so far. Although he is neither the best offensive nor the best defensive rookie, he is the most complete rookie.