NBA top 100 defender rankings (100-11): Where do Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Victor Wembanyama land on list?

Defense composes half of the game, yet it rarely gets its due within the discourse of the NBA.

The Defensive Player of the Year award names the league’s best defender. All-Defensive Teams dole out recognition to 10 players in the league. And we know who the very worst defenders in the league are. But for the other 500-plus players in the league that logged minutes last season, defensive ability is barely discussed or analyzed.

I’m looking to change that with my first-ever attempt at a top 100 defenders list. This list is not going to be perfect, but it is going to be better than anything else out there. Most importantly, it will hopefully move the conversation forward, giving good defenders the credit that they deserve and sparking some closer scrutiny to a woefully underappreciated part of the game.

Before diving in, a little bit about how the list was made…

Ten percent of the ranking was determined by defensive DARKO, a predictive metric which was named the best in a survey of NBA insiders. Another 10 percent of the ranking was taken from voting results for Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive Teams.

The other 80 percent was determined by my subjective eye test. I am a firm believer that there is no better substitute for evaluating defense than watching extremely closely, taking note of a team’s defensive scheme and how well a player performs in it. This list is thus a ranking of how strong a defender I expect a player to be on his given team next season.

This list also tried to balance out positions so as not to have too heavy of a bias toward big men, who are generally the most impactful defensive players in the game. Of the 100 players ranked, 30 are bigs, 43 are wings and 28 are guards.

Part I of this story will run from No. 11 to No. 100. Part II, to be released later, will cover the top 10.

NBA POSITIONAL RANKINGS: PG | SG | SF | PF | C

The 100 best defenders in the NBA: 11-100

Top 11-25 defenders

Rank Player Eye Test rank DARKO rank DPOY/All-Defense Votes
11. Nic Claxton 10 43 32
12. Rudy Gobert 16 1 0
13. O.G. Anunoby 11 76 89
14. Matisse Thybulle 15 35 4
15. Derrick White 13 76 99
16. Herb Jones 22 21 15
17. Kawhi Leonard 18 43 0
18. Walker Kessler 17 62 1
19. Marcus Smart 20 62 35
20. Jaden McDaniels 14 114 40
21. Jimmy Butler 19 76 23
22. Paul George 26 21 2
23. Dennis Smith Jr. 24 43 0
24. Jakob Poeltl 30 62 0
25. Ben Simmons 28 26 0

Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard were two of the harder players to rank.

Gobert had an off year in a new system in Minnesota. How much of that is permanent? He’s still projected to be the best defender in the league by defensive DARKO.

Leonard held that claim for a number of years, but his regular season defense has fallen off because of age and injury. We haven’t seen him at his best in the biggest moments in a long time.

There are a number of players in this range that have been so good for so long that we all know how talented they are on that end of the floor. O.G. Anunoby, Matisse Thybulle, Derrick White, Marcus Smart, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Ben Simmons have a combined 17 All-Defensive Team selections. You can quibble with the order, but they deserve to be in the top 25.

Nic Claxton, Herb Jones, Walker Kessler and Jaden McDaniels are less widely recognized, although they have all received votes for All-Defensive Teams in the past. They are the most likely players to make a leap next season.

Dennis Smith Jr. was one of the best untold stories in the league last season, finding a way back into the NBA by becoming a tenacious point-of-attack defender. It was an impressive transformation for a player who was criticized for his defensive indifference when he was drafted ninth overall in 2017.

Victor Wembanyama

Top 26-50 defenders

Rank Player Eye Test Rank DARKO rank   DPOY/All-Defense Votes
26. Aaron Gordon 25 62 1
27. Jarrett Allen 31 18 3
28. Robert Williams III 32 11 0
29. Victor Wembanyama 29 N/A 0
30. Jarred Vanderbilt 35 43 0
31. De’Anthony Melton 33 76 1
32. Jonathan Isaac 36 55 0
33. Josh Okogie 38 43 0
34. Gary Payton II 37 55 0
35. Dillon Brooks 27 172 54
36. Kyle Anderson 47 14 0
37. Myles Turner 34 125 0
38. Kevin Durant 40 92 1
39. Andrew Wiggins 42 76 0
40. P.J. Tucker 45 62 0
41. Kevon Looney 49 26 0
42. Dyson Daniels 43 76 0
43. Fred VanVleet 48 43 0
44. Kris Dunn 39 140 0
45. Delon Wright 46 101 1
46. Xavier Tillman 50 62 0
47. Dorian Finney-Smith 44 114 0
48. Mikal Bridges 21 320 33
49. Haywood Highsmith 56 55 0

There are some fantastic rim protectors in this next group. Jarrett Allen, Robert Williams III and Myles Turner are all block machines.

Victor Wembanyama might be the best defensive prospect in basketball history. Despite standing around 7-3, he projects to hold his own on the perimeter and block 3-point attempts. The towering teenager is already an elite rim protector who erases shots with punctual rotations and unbelievable ground coverage.

— Wembanyama analysis via Spurs insider Noah Magaro-George

Dillon Brooks and Mikal Bridges provided two cases of the eye test differing substantially from what DARKO suggests their defensive impact is on the court. Both are great at making flashy stops in isolation, but there is something that the eye test may be missing there. They fall down the rankings because of their mediocre statistical impact.

There’s a sub-class of super-athletic forwards in this group.

Aaron Gordon is coming off a championship run in which he did everything defensively for the Nuggets, guarding the best players in the league. Jonathan Isaac came right in after a lengthy hiatus from injury and instantly started playing high-level defense again. Jarred Vanderbilt‘s role as a defensive specialist who was willing to guard Stephen Curry for 94 feet helped the Lakers get past the Warriors in the playoffs.

Patrick Beverley

Top 51-75 defenders

Rank Player Eye Test Rank DARKO rank   DPOY/All-Defense Votes
51. Lu Dort 23 351 9
52. Kenrich Williams 54 92 0
53. Jalen Suggs 51 125 0
54. Bruce Brown 52 125 0
55. Patrick Beverley 62 92 0
56. Kristaps Porzingis 64 76 0
57. Jevon Carter 55 152 0
58. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 65 76 0
59. Pascal Siakam 53 172 0
60. Clint Capela 63 92 0
61. Robert Covington 75 6 0
62. Nicolas Batum 73 35 0
63. Chet Holmgren 69 76 0
64. Onyeka Okongwu 66 101 0
65. Immanuel Quickley 57 189 0
66. Isaac Okoro 67 114 0
67. Deni Avdija 60 172 0
68. Jayson Tatum 58 189 0
69. Jose Alvarado 59 189 0
70. Caleb Martin 77 62 0
71. Cody Martin 72 114 0
72. Davion Mitchell 41 368 0
73. Wesley Matthews 71 172 0
74. Mitchell Robinson 85 29 0

Lu Dort and Davion Mitchell are two additional extreme cases of the eye test vs. DARKO. I had both lockdown perimeter defenders higher than this range based on eye test, but their short height may limit their overall defensive impact.

The same applies to Jevon Carter and Jose Alvarado to a lesser extent. All four are elite at harassing other guards at the point of attack.

Robert Covington is on the other end of the statistical spectrum. He wasn’t able to earn consistent playing time for the Clippers, but he has been one of the most impactful defenders by numerous metrics for years. He is a deflections machine and has great size and length on the wing.

Deni Avdija did get minutes, but not many people were watching the Wizards. He was the best wing defender on their roster, holding up well while guarding the toughest assignments.

Cody Martin is generally regarded as the better defender between the twins, but Caleb Martin got the higher bump after their DARKO scores were incorporated.

Jayson Tatum might have the most defensive talent of any of the players in this group, but his massive offensive load prevents him from reaching his peak as a defender.

There isn’t much data yet on Chet Holmgren after he missed his entire rookie year with a foot injury. Based on his draft profile and summer league performances, he should step in and offer great rim protection in his rookie year.

Jayson Tatum

Top 76-100 defenders

Rank Player Eye Test Rank DARKO rank DPOY/All-Defense Votes
76. Wendell Carter Jr. 74 152 0
77. Royce O’Neale 76 140 0
78. Christian Koloko 87 55 0
79. Jalen McDaniels 79 140 0
80. Donte DiVincenzo 81 125 0
81. Nikola Jokic 96 6 0
82. Cameron Johnson 84 114 0
83. Dean Wade 86 140 0
84. Paul Reed 101 30 0
85. Naji Marshall 78 218 0
86. Anthony Edwards 89 152 4
87. Quentin Grimes 83 189 0
88. Tari Eason 95 125 0
89. Patrick Williams 92 152 0
90. Yuta Watanabe 93 189 0
91. Christian Braun 98 152 0
92. Precious Achiuwa 68 393 0
93. Aaron Nesmith 80 320 0
94. Josh Green 82 320 0
95. Jae’Sean Tate 99 218 0
96. Ayo Dosunmu 100 256 0
97. Killian Hayes 88 368 0
98. Jalen Duren 97 320 0
99. Devin Vassell 90 393 0
100. Andrew Nembhard 102 450 0

Nikola Jokic has long been labeled a poor defender, but he has ranked very strongly in various advanced statistics over the years. He showed in the Nuggets’ championship run that he can be a positive defender with his size, feel and extremely active hands. He’s pioneered the somewhat controversial strategy of kicking the ball as well to force teams to reset their offense.

Anthony Edwards has looked poised to take a leap offensively. He’s made huge strides defensively, too. He’s a great on-ball defender when he is locked in, and he has amazing tools to shut the best scorers down one-on-one. While he can still have lapses away from the ball, his defensive performance on Brandon Ingram last season is worth checking out.

There are plenty of promising young players in this group that could move up the list.

Josh Green was the Mavericks’ best on-ball perimeter defender last season, and he’s grown leaps and bounds in his help positioning. Ayo Dosunmu is an on-ball menace who is willing to press up on players to make them uncomfortable. 

Patrick Williams has quietly developed into an extremely solid wing defender. And if Christian Koloko can get more consistent minutes by developing into a better offensive player, he can show the world how good he already is as a rim protector.

Devin Vassell has shown special ball-hawking abilities as a team defender, but his impact slipped as the Spurs asked him to shoulder immense offensive responsibilities. Filling out his frame has helped him steadily improve as a man-to-man stopper.

— Vassell analysis via Magaro-George

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