by Drew Smith/Guest Writer
Photo Captions: Left, Jaren Jackson Jr., Power Forward for the Memphis Grizzlies, pictured right, Brook Lopez, Center for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Custom photo created by Drew Smith from these links: Brook Lopez- https://www.nba.com/bucks/2122-recaps/brook-lopez JJJ — https://fathead.com/products/m1900-02983-00
What do you think when you hear Defensive Player of the Year? Do you see a 7-footer with great rim-protecting ability and shot-blocking numbers? Do you see the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the league, the justification used for Marcus Smart’s case for DPOY last year? Maybe it’s the premier wing-stopper who makes for a good highlight reel of show stopping ability and lockdowns. Maybe you’re a contrarian that looks at Dillon Brooks and Patrick Beverly and the antics are what butters your bread. In all, defense in the NBA is one of the hardest things to measure. So much of it is unable to be measured, and confusing advanced metrics often paint pictures that fail to fully reflect a player’s defensive impact. The two main defensive stats, steals and blocks, are the highlights, but also happen the least in the full scope of defensive possessions. This year’s race features two interesting figures, 35-year-old Milwaukee Buck–Brook Lopez, and the up-and-coming defensive star of the Memphis Grizzlies–Jaren Jackson Jr. Both have great cases and both lead two of the best defenses in the league. So, how do we properly dissect who is having the better defensive season?
Rim protection: the single most important defensive factor in basketball. Making sure players have a hard time converting the most efficient baskets is clearly valuable. Both players are having particularly great seasons protecting the rim, but in different ways. Brook Lopez plays a key role in Milwaukee’s pick-and-roll coverage, and has taken significant steps this year in evolving in it. Lopez, in seasons before, played a heavy drop coverage, encouraging players to shoot coming off of screens and shoot a lot. But, this season, Lopez has played much more at the level of the screen, and has handled it well. His feet move with solid pace and help contain ball handlers from raining in jumpers all day, while still applying significant rim protection. Lopez stands at a towering 7’1 with a giant wingspan of 7′ 6, not to mention built like a brickhouse, weighing in at 282 lbs. He is averaging 2.5 blocks per game with a 6.8% block percentage (an estimate of the percentage of 2-point field goal attempts blocked by the player while they’re on the floor). For context, those are some of the best numbers in the league. But, what do these numbers really tell us?
Sure, Lopez is getting a lot of blocks, but as I indicated earlier, that doesn’t nearly tell the whole story. At the end of the day, what does Lopez do so much better than others that makes him a clear candidate for DPOY? For that, we have to go to the tape. Three things really pop when watching Brook Lopez film: 1) This dude moves his feet so well, 2) For a guy his size, his activity level and play involvement is impressive, and 3) This guy is just huge!!! Yes, Lopez has enough lateral quickness and hip-swiveling to contain ball handlers, but his biggest advantage is his enormous arms. Contesting shots is just easier for him than most players. He basically walks the perfect line between being close enough to screening actions to still use his gargantuan size to make pull-ups difficult, but also being far enough back that he doesn’t have to move too much to meet players on drives to the rim. It helps to have the perimeter nightmares that are Jrue Holiday and the pesky Jevon Carter, but in my honest opinion, there isn’t anyone else in the league that I would want guarding the league’s favorite action (pick-and-roll) than Brook Lopez. He also has a great level of activity, not losing sight of developing plays, and great at moving all that mass to affect shots.
But, what does Jaren Jackson Jr. do? How is he one of the league’s premier shot blockers, playing at power forward? What value does JJJ bring? Jackson plays a role as a roamer. Put him on the opposing team’s worst 3 point shooter, and let him stalk plays and protect the rim. JJJ plays best away from the screening actions, and showing up as a superhero to stop plays when the rest of the defense breaks down. He’s the league’s best athletic executive, serving as a cleaner-upper of breakdowns. Someone gets crossed over and loses their man? JJJ’s there to clean it up. The big struggles to contain his man and the ball handler, giving up the backline lob? JJJ’s there to clean it up. Someone unable to fight through the screening action? JJJ’s there to use his lateral quickness and instincts to switch out on the perimeter. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the league’s best magic-eraser, there to remove any mistake made in glowing fashion.
But JJJ has one glaring issue: fouling. And fouling a lot. Jackson has struggled with this for a long time, and in past years, it has made him nearly unplayable. Part of what makes him so effective at the rim (averaging 3.1 blocks per game), is what also makes him, at times, so unplayable (averaging 3.6 personal fouls per game). JJJ’s heroics often entail him flying at players, attempting to stop shots by flinging his large body, hurling himself towards the play. And why does he do this? Because he wants to block every shot! He’s not just going for the stop, he’s going for the show-stopping spike. But, I think JJJ could benefit from slowing down, just a bit. Play more straight up defense, don’t just go for the plays, because at the end of the day, his most valuable trait is being out there. Be on the court to defer players away and affect shots. Obviously, I don’t want Jaren Jackson Jr. to change how he plays, but change his goal.
Watching JJJ’s tape, it’s very clear that he’s an athletic, shot-blocking freak. His timing is impeccable, and boy, does he have a second jump! I love him on isolations, against bigger players, he’s got the quickness to swallow them up, and against quick-twitch guards, he has the length to contest a shot from behind, even if he isn’t able to keep his man in front of him. He’s versatile in the pick and roll, possessing the speed to blitz and play at the level, while having the clear abilities to play in a drop. I think Jackson’s biggest question is why he struggles with fouls as much when his frontcourt teammate, center Steven Adams, is out of the line-up. My best guess is that Jackson goes into full superhero mode and without Adams’ additional rim protection, he feels he has to clean up a lot more. He’s also just plainly more engaged and going to be involved in more screening actions when placed in the line-up at center. To me, it makes sense that his foul rate increases without Adams on the court. Nothing to particularly worry about.
So where does this leave us? What can we ultimately draw from this discussion? I think both players have great cases, and to be honest, could care less about who actually wins it. Who is having the better defensive season? Probably Lopez, just purely based on his activity level and what he has brought to the Milwaukee pick-and-roll coverage. I’m also less concerned with him fouling out. But, JJJ has had an incredible season. Both players ultimately play different roles in their defenses. Team fit plays a huge part in how these players make plays on the defensive end. Brook Lopez has a roamer on his team, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who helps clean up his mistakes, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has a Lopez-type on his team, Steven Adams, who helps take on the pick-and-roll coverage. I think, more than anything, it’s never been more exciting to see these guys play, and you’re missing out when you don’t tune into their games.