You’ve heard it before. The laziest refrain when those outside of the program and fan base discuss Syracuse Orange men’s basketball players is that “zone players can’t play defense at the NBA level.”
It’s cited as fact all the time, and was again when The Athletic spoke to anonymous NBA scouts about Tyus Battle this week. One had this to say:
“I like him. I was disappointed with how they played this year. He didn’t shoot it very well this year. I think he’s a borderline second-round pick or G League guy. There’s nothing he does really well that’s going to stand out. You always worry about Syracuse guys and their ability to defend. I don’t think he’s a guy that creates well off the dribble. He’s a guy that may have to go overseas or play in the G League for a couple of years.”
The other stuff is all fair, but that “always” refrain is what irks. Where is this “always” and how did the assumption come about?
I may not be able to get to the origin (though it probably rhymes with Marmelo Manthony — another SU player frequently mischaracterized by NBA types at large). But it’s a pretty easy idea to refute. While I’m not going to run through decades of NBA stats for former Orange players, the last five years is a good starting point.
Looking at 2018-19, we can assess the defensive stats of former Syracuse players against those of their peers and see where they may come up short (or not). While this is far from exhaustive, we’ll use the NBA’s defensive efficiency rating and defensive win shares as the metrics to judge all players by on that end of the floor.
Without normalizing for a certain number of games played, here are the top 10 Syracuse single-season defensive ratings since (and including) 2014-15:
Some of those are small sample sizes. But the Tyler Ennis seasons matter, as do the Michael Carter-Williams, Jerami Grant and Wesley Johnson appearances. A defensive rating under 100 is pretty damn good, and MCW, Wes and Grant have logged full seasons below that mark. Just 47 players in the league did that in 2018-19, and just 16 of those players did it for 20 or more games.
Over the course of his career so far, Grant is among the easier players to cite to refute the idea of Syracuse guys failing to play defense. Along with the 2014-15 season above, he’s had four seasons (out of five) with a defensive rating of 106 or lower. Wes Johnson has also been a capable three-and-D guy in spurts, and Dion Waiters has even had four different seasons with a defensive rating of 105.4 or lower. MCW’s performed pretty similarly to Waiters too, with a higher ceiling.
Looking at win shares, you’ll find similar achievements that show Orange players are plenty capable on the defensive end.
Among players that played at least 20 games, (likely MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo led the league in defensive win shares this season, at 0.179. Just 41 players in the entire league had at least 0.12 defensive win shares. As you can see above, both MCW and Grant have had seasons that aren’t just indicative of capable defenders, but well above average ones. This year in particular, Grant had a bit of a coming out party for OKC and has already outplayed his modest new contract. His offensive play helped, obviously, but it was his tenacious defense that really helped him carve out an even larger role with the Thunder (and will continue to do so).
Again, the much-maligned Waiters also appears above with two seasons earning defensive win shares of 0.11 or better. Even ‘Melo, who was dragged plenty for his part in a disastrous 2018 first round loss for Oklahoma City, put in some solid work on the defensive end despite being a (very) veteran player.
Does this prove that Syracuse players are great defenders at the NBA level? No. Never claimed it did, however. But the zone is not the hiding place for bad defenders either, the way critics continue to claim. Especially over the last decade or so, Jim Boeheim’s recruited great defenders that fit the zone, with only a handful of exceptions. Those players don’t just forget how to play man-to-man. And despite playing zone for a handful of seasons in college, they’re no more or less likely than other drafted players to be iffy on defense at the NBA level.
If they truly were, as the one anonymous scout claimed, then why would 13 Orange stars have been selected since 2010?