Basketball is (maybe, hopefully) on the horizon. To help reintegrate us to a life of Giannis hammer dunks, James Harden dribbling for 24 seconds, and 76ers fans yelling at you for some reason, we’re rolling out top-five rankings in 20 different categories. Most of the rankings were voted on by The Ringer staff, but each day will feature one writer’s subjective skill-based list.
The criteria for the best off-ball defenders can be simplified to this: Who would you feel best about having your back defensively? Here are the top five choices.
5. Jonathan Isaac, Magic
Isaac is a Swiss Army knife defensively—he can switch out onto guards and cut off their attack, protect the rim, and play passing lanes at terrifying speeds for a near 7-footer. It’s not hard to envision Isaac being the key defensive cog of a small-ball lineup, even though Orlando doesn’t have the personnel to make that work at the moment, because Isaac is plenty capable of protecting the rim like a more traditional big.
Isaac, now in his third season, is somehow still one of the league’s best-kept secrets. He’s like Andrei Kirilenko reincarnated—limbs flailing around everywhere while he moves with fluidity and recklessness. It’s a sight to behold, and even though there are more established names defensively, Isaac is as versatile as any of them.
4. Matisse Thybulle, 76ers
Just look at this freaking guy:
Rookies aren’t supposed to blow up NBA offenses, but Thybulle is doing just that. He’s the only player in the league (and one of the only players in NBA history) to record steal and block percentages over 3 percent. Opponents turn the ball over 3.7 percent more often when he’s on the floor, the league’s highest mark for anyone with over 1,000 minutes played. The way he jumps passing lanes and floats away from his assignment to swat shots is reminiscent of Dwyane Wade, who may finally have competition for the throne for best shot-blocking guard of all time. If Thybulle is already this disruptive with limited experience in man-to-man rotations (he played mostly zone in his four years at Washington), what will his ceiling look like when the game slows down for him even more?
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Players this size shouldn’t be able to move this quickly, but what elevates Giannis defensively is he consistently gives a shit. Stars of his caliber usually can’t be bothered with grunt work over an 82-game slate, and they’ll take multiple plays off to conserve energy for the offensive end. But Giannis does stuff like this—sprinting back in transition for a chasedown block early in the second quarter—all the time.
The footsteps effect is real: Milwaukee’s opponents lead the league in 3-point attempts out of survival more than anything else, as scoring at the rim against the Bucks is basically a nonstarter. Brook Lopez may be the primary rim protector, but no one allows a lower field goal percentage on attempts in the paint this season (41.9 percent) than Giannis. His frame is terrifying enough, and his motor pushes him to a whole different level.
2. Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Gobert can’t do everything off the ball defensively—you won’t see him shooting the gap and picking off passes—but his elite rim protection enables his four teammates to take risks and gamble with impunity. Gobert is the world’s biggest safety blanket: You can count on him to rotate over and cover up any mistake or breakdown. Gobert doesn’t just hunt blocked shot opportunities; he’ll play chicken with ball handlers and mess with their rhythm enough to force a miss that he can easily rebound.
Gobert’s defensive stats are alarmingly consistent: He’s led the league in defensive real plus-minus four straight seasons while contesting more total shots at the rim than anyone else in that time frame. In terms of pure rim protection, it’s Gobert, and then everybody else behind him.
1. Draymond Green, Warriors
Green processes information at such a rapid rate that his biggest challenge is playing possum long enough to let the play come to fruition.
Involving Green directly into the play is almost preferable to letting him roam freely on the weak side, scary as that may sound. Green is renowned for his ability to guard all five positions, but the way he roams the back line and rotates multiple steps ahead of the action separates him from other switchy defenders. Green isn’t an overwhelming athlete with ridiculous size like some of the other premier help defenders, but he’s hands down the most intelligent off-ball defender the league has ever seen. He changed the way modern help defense is played, and paved the way for positionless basketball in a way no one else did. Green remains the gold standard for off-ball defense.
D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.