Big men are glorified for their ability to protect the basket and swat shots into the third row. Rightfully so. But being able to guard smaller guys is a rare, valuable and important skill for power forwards and centers, too.
Here are five of the best big men perimeter defenders in the country.
Jaxson Hayes, Texas
This clip just about says it all:
This is one of the reasons why I'm buying all of Jaxson Hayes' (@hayes_jaxson) stock. The defense (and using length at the end), functional athleticism, footwork, and staying not biting on a single fake.— Spencer (@frontofficeeye) February 24, 2019
Jaxson has improved SO much on defense since earlier this season. pic.twitter.com/isR9IPgkhN
That's against Christian James, one of the better wings in college basketball who's normally good at creating his own shot. He tries several moves on Hayes and gets absolutely nowhere.
Hayes always had the athleticism to be an elite perimeter defender, but his technique was so-so earlier in the season. He seems to have figured it out. At 6-11, Hayes recorded six blocks in that Oklahoma game and also did stuff like that to James on the perimeter. He allows Texas' guards to be extra aggressive, and Shaka Smart can switch and not have to worry about guards blowing by his center.
He's no Mo Bamba, but Texas hasn't experienced much drop-off defensively from last season. That's the ultimate compliment to Hayes.
Zion Williamson, Duke
The ridiculous stats, the thunderous blocks and the emphatic dunks are the first things that stand out about Williamson. But part of the reason he's so valuable is because he can guard every player on the floor. Duke has been a fantastic defensive team this season, and he's the Blue Devils' best defender.
Virginia Tech sliced and diced Duke in ball screens with Williamson out on Tuesday night. Some of the highlights:
That's not happening with Williamson in the lineup. Marques Bolden is a good rim protector, but he's not fleet of foot on the perimeter. Coach K could have gone small and slotted Williamson at center if he was available, switching most actions. It's the strategy he used against Virginia.
Part of the reason why Williamson is so good in this area is because of how much time he has to recover thanks to his physical gifts. He's essentially beat here against Georgia Tech, but recovers easily for the block:
What a player.
Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
Clarke is essentially Zion-lite. His numbers this season are absurd. He's averaging 16.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks on 68.4 percent shooting from the floor. And here's the best compliment you can pay Clarke: it's hard to tell if he's better on offense or defense. And he's clearly dominant on offense.
The block numbers speak for themselves, but he moves his feet extremely well. Here's an example below. Clarke, who has a huge size advantage on the ball handler, sticks with him step for step anyway and gets the easy rejection:
Plays like this are common for Clarke, who is switchable and allows Mark Few defensive versatility. He's been such a pleasant surprise for Gonzaga this season.
Bruno Fernando, Maryland
Fernando is a powerhouse, but his speed shouldn't be overlooked. Maryland defends at a far higher level when he's in the game. He's the only Terrapin with a defensive rating below 100, and it's way below 100. Fernando's defensive rating stands at a pristine 90.6, per Sports Reference.
His shot blocking numbers are actually a bit lower than anticipated coming into the season, and a lot of his work is being done on the perimeter. The highlight below isn't textbook perimeter defense like the Hayes clip. But it shows just how good of a runner and jumper he is.
Fernando makes up crazy ground in this chase down block against Northwestern:
What a stud. Fernando is a major reason why Maryland has exceeded expectations.
Daniel Gafford, Arkansas
Gafford and Fernando are similar players. Protecting the rim is their specialty, but they are quickly picking up the nuances of ball screen defense.
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Take this clip against LSU, for instance. Gafford overplays the ball-handler's strong hand, so the Tiger guard tries to split him. This is a savvy move that would work against 95 percent of big men.
Not Gafford. Yes, LSU scores on the play. But Gafford stays with the guard step for step, challenging the shot at the rim and causing an initial miss:
Arkansas has had a disappointing season. It lost most of its team from last year outside of Gafford, but he's progressed as expected. Gafford is averaging 16.5 points and 8.9 rebounds while blocking two shots per game.
The Razorbacks are a poor defensive team with Gafford out of the game; most of their rotation players have a defensive rating well above 100. Gafford's is 95.9. He's been a bright spot for Arkansas in 2018-19.