Wing defenders have never been as important as they are in today's NBA.
With LeBron James playing at an unprecedented level at the position and the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George and Jimmy Butler all entering the primes of their careers, obtaining a lockdown perimeter defender has become both a priority and necessity.
A handful of teams have already found that player; Kawhi Leonard, Tony Allen and Butler top the short list of the league's best defenders, earning All-NBA Defensive Team honors this past season. Trevor Ariza, Klay Thompson and DeMarre Carroll aren't far behind, while Draymond Green and James, though more accurately power forwards as far as defensive schemes are concerned, are widely considered two of the game's best defenders who are more than capable of defending small forwards.
As offenses continue to churn out points at a record rate - half the teams in the NBA averaged more than 100 points per game this year - defense can't be ignored. Golden State led the league in defensive efficiency, while Cleveland entered the NBA Finals having allowed a playoff-best 45.1 percent effective field goal defense. Bulls fans know all too well what a difference having that shutdown defender can do for a team, having watched Luol Deng and now Butler go toe-to-toe with LeBron James.
It's the reason why a player like Arizona sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, despite his offensive deficiencies, is a first-round lock and why he believes he can make a major impact at the next level.
"Immediately I know I can come in and play defense. If coach needs me to, I know I can defend a team’s best player, a team’s second best player, and so on," he said at last month's NBA Draft Combine. "I can bring that impact, I can bring energy."
A five-star recruit from Chester, Pa., Hollis-Jefferson made his mark defensively at Arizona. In helping the Wildcats to a pair of Elite Eights and Pac-12 regular-season titles, Jefferson ranked in the top-5 in Pac 12 defensive rating both seasons and compiled 72 blocks and 72 steals in 76 career games. As a sophomore he ranked in the conference's top-10 in numerous defensive categories, including steals, blocks, defensive rebounds and Defensive Win Shares.
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The 6-foot-7 wing is helped out immensely by his 7-foot-2 wingspan, chiseled 211-pound frame and a lightning quick first step to stay in front of opposing players. At the combine Hollis-Jefferson recorded a lane agility time of 10.51 seconds, fastest among small forwards and third fastest for all players, behind only SG Devin Booker (10.22) and PG Keifer Sykes (10.50). His 3/4 sprint at the Combine (3.12) was second fastest among all players.
And as if his measurables alone weren't enough to make him an elite defender, Hollis-Jefferson is regarded as one of the hardest workers with one of the highest motors in the class. With a deep frontcourt surrounding him Hollis-Jefferson made the most of his 29 minutes per game, hounding opposing players and coming up with high-energy plays to swing momentum.
"I feel like if a team needs me to do something, I’m the guy that’ll do it, whether it’s dive on the floor for loose balls, get a stop, get a fast-break layup," he said. "I think I’m that dude that’ll come in and be able to make the energy and made the spark the team needs."
[NBA DRAFT PROFILE: Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson]
His laid-back attitude has made him a favorite among his teammates, and he has no off-the-court issues. So why is the class's top perimeter defender not a lock for the lottery?
He only connected on eight 3-pointers in two seasons, making just 20.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He also doesn't create much offense, with the majority of his scoring coming on the break or via the 2.1 offensive rebounds per game he averaged. He didn't create much for others, either, and had as many turnovers (59) as he did assists in his sophomore season. There's certainly room for him to grow on that end of the floor, seeing as he won't turn 21 for another six months, and he gave the usual prospect response that he's working on his weaknesses in the pre-draft process. But in the short-term he'll be penciled in as a defensive stopper and not much else.
Still, that's an important role. Potential destinations for the sophomore wing include Atlanta at No. 15, Toronto at No. 20, Dallas at No. 21 or Chicago at No. 22, all playoff teams from a year ago and three of which will have to go through LeBron James to reach the promised land. In the West it'll be a similar path, just with Leonard or Durant in place of James.
That's not to say Hollis-Jefferson will be thrown into the fire immediately, going from guarding Pac-12 wings one night to NBA All-Stars and MVPs the next. But it's what his calling card is going to be at the next level, and he feels as though he's already got the mental edge to succeed.
"Right now I would say I’m a couple steps ahead of my generation (defensively)," he said with a smile, noting he could one day be considered a "defensive genius."
"I would say I’m playing chess out there and a lot of guys are playing checkers."