It’s opportune that wing defense is the skill need that we talk about right after the NBA Draft Lottery, because the Cleveland Cavaliers are in perfect position to draft someone to address this need long-term. Picking fifth presents the Cavs with a solid trio of options, all of whom should be able to competently address what is perhaps the team’s biggest need.
We’re all acutely aware of the Cavs’ issues defensively, and their inability to find a starter-caliber small forward over the past two seasons. As good as Cedi Osman can be, he’s just not consistent enough to play starter’s minutes at the three with this roster. And even when he does give positive value, it’s mostly on offense. Stop-gap guys like David Nwaba and Alfonzo McKinnie have been better on defense than Osman over the past two years, but neither is a definitive NBA player, and their offensive weaknesses have been rather glaring on a team with below-average talent. They also haven’t really been quality team defenders — instead providing useful individual defense on the wings without really fitting into the team’s defensive system.
Enter the 2020 NBA Draft, where three excellent wing defense prospects present themselves in range for the Cavs to take them. Deni Avdija of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Isaac Okoro of Auburn, and Devin Vassell of Florida State all have the tools to be plus defenders at the NBA level, and each has strengths that would make them good fits on the team. Their offensive utility varies — Vassell figures to offer the most as a shooter, Avdija as a playmaker, and Okoro as a finisher and driver — but the unifying thing about them is their foundation of defensive competence. The Cavs would do well with landing any of the three.
First Round Wing Defense Options
Isaac Okoro, SF, Auburn
Okoro seems like the early favorite of these three prospects for the Cavs, and that’s probably because he has the most obvious baseline of defensive performance at this stage. A solid 6’5” (without shoes) and 225 pounds, Okoro has the strength/agility combo necessary to be a multi-position defender, able to body up with bigs in the post and at the rim, and quick enough to stay with quicker guards one-on-one on the perimeter. Okoro is the best wing in the class at mirroring opposing movements and high-level dribble moves, and his rim protection on the baseline showed he has a good team defense potential as well.
Okoro’s development potential is mostly referred to in offensive terms, but his next steps on defense will be crucial to him becoming the type of elite defender that allows him to be viable with a low offensive value. Foremost in that development needs to be pick-and-roll coverage, where he’s a fairly average ball defender and screen navigator. That’s paramount on the Cavs especially, who have that issue across the board, keying their defensive failures. He also needs to continue to grow in anticipating offensive actions on the weak side, and staying engaged when defending in the corners - things that will take him from promising team defender to lockdown team defender, which is what the team will assuredly expect from him.
Factoring in Okoro’s offensive weaknesses, he better darn well be an elite, all-defensive team-level wing defender. And while he’s pretty clearly going to be good on that end, it’s not certain that he’ll get there. His ceiling is high, and his floor is pretty high too on this end - it’s just not totally clear that he’s the best fit for what this team needs on defense, or if the offensive game will let his defensive impact truly be felt.
Deni Avdija, SF, Maccabi Tel Aviv
Avdija, meanwhile, carries close to the opposite profile. A high level defensive thinker, Avdija processes the game more quickly than nearly anyone in the draft class, and was able to provide consistent defensive impact at the Euroleague level because of this. At the NBA level, it’s certainly good that he has that - because his impact figures to be much more limited by his physical profile. While Avdija is bigger than Okoro, his wingspan is only 6’9”, and he doesn’t have good lateral agility of vertical pop, which may limit his functional ability to rotate and cover opponents on the perimeter. While Okoro doesn’t always make the right reads off-ball, Deni frustratingly will make the right ones every time, but only get there to make the actual play some of the time.
That’s why Avdija’s most intriguing Euroleague skill — rim protection — is almost assuredly going to be nonexistent in the NBA. And there’s not much opportunity for growth for him here, unless he goes from great defensive thinker to elite defensive thinker. The bottom line is that for Deni to have great overall defensive impact, he probably needs to be surrounded by other athletes that can playmake on this end, allowing him to operate as a complimentary off-ball rotation defender on the strong side (Think Jae Crowder in Boston versus Jae Crowder in Cleveland). And, well, [Glances at Cavs roster] that’s probably not here!
Devin Vassell, SF, Florida State
Vassell isn’t an obvious physical tools guy like Okoro, nor is he a budding reaction time savant like Avdija. But he provides a great combination of both skills, and that makes him a good bet to become the best of the bunch on defense, long-term. From a physical perspective, Vassell is much thinner than Okoro, but he has room to grow in his frame, and his agility and functional strength are both elite for this draft class. On the mental side, Vassell isn’t a Grant Williams-level anticipation prospect, but he’s by far the best playmaker on that end among the wings, with a 2.8 steal rate and 4.1 block rate, and what had to have been the ACC’s lead in deflections by a significant margin. If Avdija is at his best one pass away, Vassell is best playing strong safety, hunting the action happening before him and then snatching the soul out of a driving secondary playmaker that thinks they have an open path.
Devin Vassell with a smart rotation and then a soul-snatching block pic.twitter.com/9lm4f9a5gp— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) March 28, 2020
Just like the other two, Vassell is probably not totally plug-and-play. The strength is going to be an issue that keeps him from being super switchable right away, and he’s not a wow-factor on-ball defender yet. But if you’re looking for the guy who probably presents the most year-one positive impact on the Cavs’ team defense? It’s Vassell, who also is probably the best offensive fit of these three guys.
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. The Cavs are already used to grabbing these types of guys off the scrap heap, and we’ve seen the results are not always super promising. However, there’s options for half-decent wing defense late, so here’s who could help the team for a bargain.
Ty-Shon Alexander, PG/SG, Creighton
Alexander is more of a point of attack defender, but he has some excellent off-ball moments too, and he’s the rare late-second/undrafted type who can be a legitimate plus on this end.
Robert Woodard, SF, Mississippi State
Woodard’s stock is all over the place, but he’s a polished veteran wing who might slip, and could provide some solid on-ball defense on the wing and rim protection from the three.
Anfernee McLemore, SF/PF, Auburn
Okoro’s college teammate is an absolute zero on offense, but might have been better defensively than Okoro in terms of consistency.
Kenyon Martin Jr., SF, Sierra Canyon
Very raw, so I could believe there’s a path to good defensive value based on his athleticism.
Nate Hinton, SF, Houston
One of those guys who never wows you but also never makes any mistakes. The Cavs getting him undrafted, where he appears to be valued, would be a massive steal.