The Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense has been bad forever. It has been horrendously bad. The last time the Cavs had a top-10 defense in 2015-16. Before that, it was 2009-10. Those are also the only times in the last 11 seasons the Cavs have had a top-15 defense. They’ve finished 29th or 30th four times in that span.
So yeah, while Andre Drummond, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. are on the roster, and Kevin Love makes four primary bigs to sort out, the Cavs should be thinking about rim protection in the 2020 NBA Draft. While getting an elite defensive big man isn’t one-to-one translation into a good team defense, it certainly helps to have someone to cover for mistakes as the last line of defense. And none of the Cavs’ big men should really be considered a long-term solution at the center spot, especially not Drummond at the salary he’s likely to receive. The team needs a defensive overhaul that’s going to take years to perform, so installing a rookie to grow into the anchor of a newly competent Cavs’ defense probably matches the team’s timetable to compete.
Luckily, the draft has two pretty decent defensive center prospects at the top. If the Cavs are determined not to take a guard at the top of the draft, they could have an interesting decision to make between the draft’s top two bigs: Onyeka Okongwu of USC, and James Wiseman of Memphis. Both players have high potential ceilings on the defensive end of the ball, for different reason. There’s offensive value for both as well, which makes them enticing options for the Cavs were they to land a top-five pick.
First Round Rim Protection Options
Onyeka Okongwu, C, USC
On the short list of the top overall options for the Cavs, Okongwu is near the top for most Cavs fans. The USC center probably had the most impressive statistical season in college basketball last season, averaging 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, shooting 62 percent from the field, getting to the line 143 times, and posting steal and block rates of 2.3 and 9.8, respectively. While none of those are eye-popping individually, the combination is rare, and his defensive ability in college looked incredibly polished. His main draw is actually as a perimeter defender, similar to Tristan Thompson in his ability to play a variety of pick-and-roll coverages effectively — but he also showed a good awareness as a traditional shot-blocker, and his impressive flexibility allows him to contest against more powerful drivers without fouling.
kongwu still has room for improvement, but it comes in high probability development areas like play-finishing and functional strength. He’s a very good defensive rebounder, and his versatility as a defender at this stage is incredibly valuable. While he may not be the most fearsome back-line defender we’ve seen come through the draft in recent years, the functionality he should have at the NBA level means that he’s the best bet to be a top-flight defensive center this year.
James Wiseman, C, Memphis
Wiseman, meanwhile, is nowhere near as polished as Okongwu, technique-wise. Wiseman had good block numbers in his brief college career and in AAU, but a lot of those blocks came in isolated possessions against other bigs, and the college film we did get exposed a lot of issues for him in terms of awareness. He was a horrific drop coverage defender, which seems bad since that’s where the NBA seems headed in terms of defensive scheme, and his frequent late rotations and Deandre Ayton-esque plays off across his film set definitely are cause for concern.
Counterpoint: Look at him. The size/athleticism combo he has is rare, and portends to at least an acceptable baseline of defensive ability. The margin for error for Wiseman is so great, that he should be able to at least get by as a traditional rim protector, and any improvement in awareness or footwork is likely to pay exponential dividends because of his physical gifts. His college film was very similar to Ayton’s - but that might mean he may have a similar Ayton-esque development curve on defense.
The always fluid late-draft positioning is going to mean second-round level prospects might fall out of the draft and be on the table for the Cavs to pick up as free agents. Like with versatility, rim protection is at a premium late in the process, and depth here is more likely to come in free agency. This draft is also full of pitfall players, who are decent to good offensive prospects at the five but bad to horrible on defense.
Daniel Oturu, C, Minnesota
Vernon Carey, C, Duke
Isaiah Stewart, C, Washington
These three are the latter category of late-round rim protection prospects. Meaning, they aren’t rim protection prospects, because they’re all atrocious on the defensive end. Carey has bad positioning and footwork; Oturu’s awareness is unique in its deficiency; and Stewart can’t really move laterally and was routinely knocked off his spot by driving guards at the rim despite being built like a stone olmec head. None of these guys is inspiring in the slightest on defense, and using a late pick or two-way on them is counterproductive.
Zeke Nnaji, C, Arizona
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t viable rim protection options down this low in the draft pool. Nnaji is the premier second-round talent, and while he’s likely to be drafted, he could also easily slip and end up in the undrafted pool. While he’s not much of an offensive player, Nnaji has some interesting tools as a shot blocker and rebounder, and his functional strength is among the best in the class on the glass. He also suffers from Wiseman’s awareness issue, but if you can get him undrafted, that’s a steal.
Kylor Kelley, C, Oregon State
Kelley is a little older and more of an unknown, but he was legitimately college basketball’s best rim protector over the past two seasons. The seven-footer has excellent technique as a weakside rim protector, and does a good job of contesting shots against bigger opponents despite a thinner frame. If he can add some strength late in his development curve, there’s some upside for him to be a cheap backup option who almost assuredly will be on the backup market.
Austin Wiley, C, Auburn
Wiley is also not really an NBA athlete, and is very limited in what he’ll be able to do in a modern NBA offense. But his strength is pretty good, and he has the length to be at least a deterrent at the rim at the next level.