Is defense a lost art? We don’t think so. Neither do any of these guys. Here’s a preview of the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year race as the regular-season tipoff looms Tuesday.
The New(ish) Guys
Jaren Jackson Jr, F, Memphis Grizzlies
Will Jackson’s defense reach another level now that he’s paired with a former DPOY?
How he can win it: Memphis’ defense is set to be thoroughly menacing. Coming off a DPOY last season, Jackson Jr. now gets to play alongside Marcus Smart, who earned the award in 2021-22. They are as good an inside/outside defensive duo as you’ll find in the league.
Why he might not: Eventually he must regress a bit, right? JJJ has improved as a defender every year he’s played in the NBA. Entering his sixth year, he simply cannot keep getting better or else he will soon evolve into a post-human state in which he no longer embodies a human being.
Walker Kessler, C, Utah Jazz
Kessler was a stunningly efficient defender in his rookie season. With a year’s experience under his belt, he might be ready to establish himself as a true elite interior force.
How he can win it: Kessler wasn’t good “for a rookie” last season. He was just good. The 7-footer out of Auburn posted the second-best block percentage among starters in the league (4.8). First place belonged to Jaren Jackson Jr, who, if you recall from about thirty seconds ago, won DPOY. Kessler’s minutes will increase substantially this season and if he can increase his rebounding to double-digits and keep swatting shots at a similar rate to last season, watch out.
Why he might not: Kessler’s rookie season was surely not a fluke; he’s an incredibly talented defender. But now all teams know that and will game plan their offensive strategies around his prowess in the paint.
Evan Mobley, F/C, Cleveland Cavaliers
Mobley didn’t turn into Kevin Garnett the second he stepped on an NBA floor, causing a lot of his pre-draft hype to die down quickly (yes, that is very silly). But the defensive ceiling is still sky high for him.
How he can win it: Mobley’s versatility is tantalizing. He’s highly mobile for a player his size (6-foot-11, 222 pounds) and has potential to guard anyone, anywhere on the floor. His raw statistics might not top players like JJJ or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the advanced statistics could love Mobley. If Cleveland can really put it all together, Mobley’s anchoring of the defense could earn him DPOY votes.
Why he might not: While having Mobley and Jarrett Allen on the back line is great for team success, it could actually be a hindrance for Mobley’s individual defensive reputation, as both big men create havoc for offenses.
Victor Wembanyama, F, San Antonio Spurs
No aspect of Wemby’s game is “underrated” as the hype train continues to pick up speed. However, fans might still be surprised by how impactful a defender he’ll be from the start.
How he can win it: While an elite statistical profile is necessary to win DPOY, so are memorable “moments” and Wemby will surely have plenty of those. He’ll be a nonstop highlight factory that will propel him up leaderboards.
Why he might not: San Antonio’s defense last season was, according to defensive rating (not a catch-all statistic, but a good measurement), one of the worst ever. No matter how good Wemby is on defense, the Spurs’ defense will likely still be pretty bad and thus make his DPOY case a tough sell.
The Usual Suspects
Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks
One of the NBA’s premier players on both ends, Giannis and the super-powered Bucks are going to be a treat to watch.
How he can win it: Giannis will always be in the DPOY conversation. He’s one of the best help defenders of all time, and his anticipation skills are almost fantastical.
Why he might not: Milwaukee’s team defense will suffer a bit with the loss of Jrue Holiday (now with Boston), which could change the narrative for Giannis & Co.
Rudy Gobert, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
Gobert’s first year in Minnesota was bumpy, but the two-time DPOY has something to prove.
How he can win it: Get back to who he was before last season. Gobert established himself as an elite rim protector long ago, and though he is limited in his versatility and has trouble defending out to the perimeter, he still has great skill on “D.”
Why he might not: Minnesota might just be a rocky fit for Gobert. All of his individual defensive statistics fell off pretty sharply last season; if he looks anything like he did last season, he won’t be in any DPOY discussions.
Draymond Green, F, Golden State Warriors
One of the fiercest defenders of this generation, he still has an elite defensive season in the tank.
How he can win it: If Golden State looks like the Warriors we’ve grown to know and love (or hate) over the past decade, Green might make DPOY discussions off reputation alone.
Why he might not: Now 33, Green has certainly lost a step, and if he loses another bit of burst, his defense could drop to “very good” instead of “elite” and game-changing.
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