Statistics make it easy to identify the best offensive players. All you need to do is glance at the scoring race. But every basketball fan knows that offense might win games, but defense wins titles. Frequently, it’s the defensive effort that allows teams to gain a decisive advantage.
With a week and a half left in the regular season, we’ve identified the top candidates for the League’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Maurice Ndour, UNICS
Stats: 13 games, 21.5 minutes, 1.2 blocks (4th in the League), 0.9 steals, (+/-) rating of +4.8 (27th in the League)
The Senegalese forward is in his second season in Kazan, posting similar numbers on defense and offense. Ndour is known as an athletic, high-flying talent who loves to dunk, especially when Anton Ponkrashov is dishing the assist.
But he’s also a threat on defense. Ndour averages 1.2 blocks per game and plays for the top defensive squad in the League, which allows only 73.7 points on average. Because of an injury, Ndour missed 10 games this season, and the defense was not the same without him. Kazan gave up 75.4 points per game without Ndour in the lineup, winning only seven of 10, compared to 73.1 points and a 12-2 record with Ndour on the court.
Best game: vs. CSKA (83-73)
Maurice Ndour’s best game on defense this season came against the reigning champions. At the beginning of April, UNICS defeated CSKA on the road, thanks in large part to the Senegalese big man. The Army Men only scored 26 points in the paint, nine fewer than their season average, and grabbed nine offensive rebounds (despite averaging more than 11 per game). Plus, CSKA scored less than 75 points for only the 4th time this season. Ndour finished the game with two steals, a block and a +14.
Othello Hunter, CSKA
Stats: 20 games, 18.8 minutes, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, (+/-) rating of +9.4 (2nd in the League)
CSKA’s coaching staff has distributed minutes throughout the season with only Nando De Colo playing more than 22 per game. That’s why Hunter’s stats aren’t very impressive. The center averages only nine points and four rebounds per game. The other reason, of course, is that Dimitris Itoudis has plenty of scoring options.
But don’t underestimate Hunter. He does a ton of dirty work on the defensive end. Thanks to his size, he’s effective against the League’s biggest centers, while his defensive fundamentals come in handy on screens and help defense. Despite modest numbers on offense, Hunter leads his team in +/- rating (+9.4).
Best game: vs. Kalev (85-80)
CSKA had a tough time in Estonia. The Army Men squandered a 14-point lead and only pulled away in the final minutes. Hunter played 28 minutes, grabbing eight offensive rebounds to go with a block and steal. Kalev’s star, forward Arnett Moultrie, meanwhile, had one of his worst outings in the League, shooting 29% from the field for 10 points. The Estonians attacked often in the paint, but only scored 30 points on 26 attempts.
Dmitry Kulagin, Lokomotiv-Kuban
Stats: 23 games, 25.2 minutes, 0.7 steals, (+/-) rating of +3.9 (43rd in the League)
It’s important to remember that Dmitry Kulagin was named the League’s Defensive Player of the Year last season and finished 6th in steals. Dmitry has not picked as many pockets this season, but that doesn’t mean he’s less effective on defense.
Best game: vs. Avtodor (95-91)
Avtodor is not the most welcome opponent in Krasnodar. A year ago, Saratov ended Loko’s record winning streak as Maxim Sheleketo hit a game-winning 3-pointer in front of more than 3,000 fans in the Basket Hall. Last week, Avtodor went on the road and was in the game until the very end as it sought to keep its playoff hopes alive. But down the stretch, Saratov committed several key turnovers and Dmitry Kulagin’s steal and subsequent fast-break dunk proved the final nail in the coffin.
Evgeny Baburin, Nizhny Novgorod
Stats: 23 games, 27.4 minutes, 1.3 steals (9th in the League), (+/-) rating of +1.5 (63rd in the League)
Evgeny Baburin is in his 7th season in the League, but after returning to Nizhny Novgorod from Loko, he’s putting up the best numbers of his career. The guard is only one of three players on Zoran Lukic’s roster that have not missed a single game this season.
As a result of an endless rash of injuries on the team, Baburin has become a key member of the rotation. He’s played more than 34 minutes nine times and went almost 42 minutes in the overtime game vs. Zenit. His endurance is legendary and every player in the League knows about his defensive prowess. Baburin doesn’t force the issue much on offense, but he’s incredibly tough to score against. Baburin is also ranked in the top-10 in steals.
Best game: vs. Astana (89-83)
Nizhny is one of a handful of teams in the League that was able to beat Astana twice this season. The November meeting between these teams was an instant classic: 21 lead changes and no lead greater than 12 points. In the final minute, Nizhny went up by four, before Evgeny Baburin secured a key steal to essentially win the game. He finished with three steals, despite only nine turnovers from Astana!
Charles Jenkins, Khimki
Stats: 23 games, 24.3 minutes, 1.6 steals (5th in the League), (+/-) rating of +4.3 (33rd in the League)
The saying, “Talk softly but carry a big stick,” applies perfectly to Charles Jenkins. The former NBA guard doesn’t look for media attention and doesn’t demand the ball on offense, shooting fewer than five times per game, but loves to do his job on defense. Over two seasons, Jenkins has never missed a game for Khimki, despite multiple bumps and bruises.
Jenkins is one of the best individual defenders in the League, which the stats prove. He averages 1.6 steals per game, 5th-best among all players.
Best game: vs. UNICS (78-65)
The road game in Khimki turned into a nightmare for Dimitris Priftis. The team’s offense was unbelievably inefficient, scoring only four points in the first half of the 1st quarter and finishing with just 29 by halftime. UNICS ultimately never solved Khimki’s defense, scoring a season-worst 65 points. Charles Jenkins was the leader for Khimki on defense in that game, recording three steals.