Posted by Neil Paine on August 24, 2009
I like to read ESPN's NBA rumor mill every morning for possible story angles, and I came across this fantasy article by Brian McKitish that describes New Orleans' Julian Wright as "a lock-down defender", touting him as a potentially good fantasy pickup. McKitish's theory is that he will rack up lots of blocks and steals because Rasual Butler's departure opens the door for Wright to get a big bump in playing time, and I can't argue with that. But I was interested in whether or not Wright, coming off of just his second NBA campaign, is truly a lock-down defender in categories beyond fantasy stats.
And as it turns out, Wright really is a great defensive player despite being just 22. As a rookie in 2007-08, the Kansas alum did not post a sterling on/off-court +/- (the Hornets were actually 1.3 points/100 possessions better when he wasn't on the floor, and his adjusted DPM was essentially the same), but his counterpart numbers were strong (he held opposing SFs to a 13.1 PER when in the game), and was one of only 14 rookies ever to post a 15.7 DRB%, 1.5 BLK%, and 2.4 STL%. So the potential was clearly there even as an NBA newbie -- John Hollinger even wrote of Wright after his first season that he was "a long, active defender who looks like future stopper material [...] big for a wing at 6-8 but has the quickness and leaping ability to pester much smaller players."
Last year, Wright delivered on that promise and took a big leap forward defensively. Not only did he hold counterpart SFs to a meager 13.3 PER, but the Hornets were also a strikingly better team defensively when Wright was on the floor -- to the tune of about 5 points of defensive rating, which is huge. Not only that, but his box-score contributions placed him in some strong company: along with noted tough defenders Gerald Wallace and Renaldo Balkman, Wright was one of only 3 players to have a DRB% of 16.6, a BLK% of 2.1, and a STL% of 2.5. Given that Wallace is especially similar to Wright physically and has grown into one of the premiere defenders in the NBA, I'd say Wright's future as a stopper is very bright.
Now, Wright admittedly had a tough season in 2009 at the offensive end, scoring just 11.5 P/36 on a dreadful 47.9 TS% with almost no fouls drawn, but he performed better on offense as a rookie, so there's hope for him yet as an all-around player. And even if his offensive game never truly develops, he's still going to be a worthwhile starting caliber-player for years because of his outstanding defensive ability. In this case, the term "lock-down defender" was not thrown around as casually as I had first believed.