Basketball is a fast-paced, exciting game, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its most prestigious league, the NBA. NBA basketball is a free-flowing scoring bonanza, with continuous action frequently punctuated with made baskets. NBA teams routinely put up point totals in the triple digits, and players with a knack for putting the ball in the basket are generally afforded the most fame and fortune. If you know how to get buckets, chances are there’s a roster spot for you.
Offensive output may get all the glitz and glamour, but as the saying goes, “defense wins championships.” Playoff basketball is a completely different animal than the regular season; the games slow down, physicality ramps up, and things occasionally get downright ugly. In this environment, hard-nosed defenders rule supreme. With playing time a premium in the postseason, there’s little patience for the player who can’t be trusted to maintain the focus and effort needed to get stops.
So what’s more important? Would you rather have a lockdown defender or scoring machine? Ultimately, offense and defense are equally crucial to winning, and unlike football, basketball requires each individual player to be involved on both sides of the ball. Teams can reach a balance by building rosters with specialists who cover for each other’s weaknesses, but the most coveted players of all are those with the type of all-around skill set that makes them valuable on every possession, offensive and defensive. Trigger happy pure scorers can leave their teammates scrambling to cover for their missed assignments on defense, and many menacing shot blockers transform into instant liabilities once their team gains possession. Any weakness from any one player can and will be exploited by the other team, so if you really want to win in the NBA, you might want to start with one the two-way guys on this list.
The following are the top 15 two-way players in the NBA today.
15 John Wall
Perhaps the most physically gifted point guard in the game today, Wall’s blazing speed, superb length, and vertical explosiveness allow him to find success on both sides of the ball. On offense, Wall excels in transition, using his burst to get ahead of the field in just a couple dribbles. He’s a crafty finisher around the rim in the half-court too, thanks to his size and athleticism. What sets Wall apart from other athletic guards however is his passing ability, finishing top-three in assists each of the last three seasons. Defensively, Wall is a fearsome off-ball defender, using his length and quick-twitch muscles to step into passing lanes (eighth in steals last season) and even block shots from the weak side (59 blocks last year, first among point guards).
As great as he is now, the 26-year-old has only just started to scratch the surface of his potential on both ends, and if he can refine his shot and show a consistent effort defensively, I may regret placing him this low on the list.
14 Rudy Gobert
Entering his fourth season, Gobert has already established himself as one of the league’s top defenders, aided by his outrageous 7-foot-8.5 inch wingspan and 9’7” standing reach, both among the top marks ever recorded by an NBA player. He’s helped the Jazz go from 29th in defensive efficiency during his rookie year all the way up to seventh place last season. While he’s known mainly as an elite defensive presence, Gobert has proven to be a surprisingly effective offensive player as well. He doesn’t get a lot of plays called for him, but he’s efficient when he does, again thanks to his length, which allows him to catch and finish and grab offensive rebounds at an elite rate.
Although nagging injuries limited his progress last year, expect the young Frenchman to have a breakout year with the retooled Jazz, who finally look poised to be in the playoff mix.
13 Al Horford
One of the most underrated stars in the league, Horford may not blow you out of the water in any one aspect of the game, but his strength lies in having virtually no glaring weaknesses. Offensively, he’s a reliable scorer and terrific passer for his position, averaging 3.2 assists per game over his past six seasons. He’s also averaged double figure points every year of his career, and has done so with efficient shooting percentages. He even added a three-point shot last season, showing that he’s still capable of adding new wrinkles to his game as a veteran.
On the defensive end, Horford is known as one of the better post defenders in the game despite being undersized, and is also a solid defensive rebounder and shot blocker.
12 Jimmy Butler
Butler has been overlooked his whole life, going from unheralded high school recruit to late first round prospect to solid NBA role player, but he’s finally started getting his due thanks to a breakout 2014-15 season. Butler always had a reputation as a smart, tough defender, but the last two seasons have seen him become a potent go-to scorer on offense as well, averaging over 20 points per contest in that span. One of the hardest workers in the game, Butler always seems to add something new to his game every year, like three-point shooting and play-making, but injury and fatigue have prevented him from consistently putting it all together over the course of an entire season.
With the arrival of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to help shoulder the load, Butler seems poised to take his game to the next level as a serious All-NBA contender.
11 Paul George
When locked in, George is capable of being the best player on the floor on any given night. His effectiveness is built around remarkable defensive acumen, as evidenced by his three All-Defensive Team nods. At 6’9”, 220 pounds, he has the quickness and length to smother guards on the perimeter, as well as the strength and reach to switch onto bigs and force tough, contested shots. On the offensive end, George has evolved into a prolific, if not particularly efficient, scorer and solid play-maker.
If he can cut down his turnovers and improve his shot selection this season, George has the potential to end up much higher on this list, but like most fans, I’m just happy to see him back at full strength after the horrific leg injury he suffered two years ago.
10 Karl-Anthony Towns
It’s a testament to Towns’ vast potential that he lands in the tenth spot, despite having just one season of professional basketball under his belt. Taking the league by storm in his rookie season, Towns seems perfectly poised to fill the void left by departing all-time great big men Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. His tremendous post skills and shooting touch give opposing bigs nightmares, and he’s got superb passing instincts to beat double teams. While he has a lot to live up to, his size, skill, and youth leave a lot of reason for optimism, and the addition of defensive coaching mastermind Tom Thibodeau should accelerate his growth on that end of the floor. He still has to earn his place on this list, but his talent is so undeniable that it’s really more a question of “when" than “if.”
9 Paul Millsap
Millsap gets my vote for most underrated player on this list, particularly on the defensive end where he’s an absolute stud. Despite being the only player last season to finish top-five in defensive rating, defensive win shares, and defensive box plus/minus, Millsap failed to receive a single first place vote for Defensive Player of the Year, and was relegated to the All-Defensive 2nd Team. He’s no slouch on offense either, averaging nearly 17 points per contest over the last six seasons. As reliable as they come, Millsap has also missed no more than nine games in any of his 10 seasons.
At 31, it might seem like he’s due for a decline, but having just come off his best season and third straight All-Star campaign, Millsap seems to only be getting better with age.
8 Draymond Green
Like Millsap, Green is an undersized and once-overlooked power forward who has come back to haunt the teams that passed over him in the draft. Incredibly, one of Green’s major weaknesses as a prospect coming out of Michigan State was that he was a poor defender, too small to handle bigs on the block and too slow-footed to hang with perimeter players. One thing Green did have though was a remarkable work ethic, which has helped him become a champion with the Golden State Warriors and turned him into one of the most well-rounded players in the game today.
Now a two-time All-Defensive First Team member and first-time All-Star last season, Green’s shooting, passing, rebounding, defense, and willingness to do whatever it takes to win are the glue that binds the best team in basketball.
7 DeAndre Jordan
A late bloomer, Jordan has always been prized for his fantastic physical attributes, but didn’t start to fully cash in on them until his breakout 2013-14 campaign, in which he led the league in rebounding. Ever since, Jordan has been incredibly consistent, averaging better than 10 points, 13 boards, and two blocks per game in each of his last three seasons. While not a prolific scorer, Jordan has increased his scoring average every year of his career and sported an offensive rating of over 120 for the past three, largely due to boasting the league’s best field goal efficiency four years running.
Defensively, he’s one of the premier rebounders and shot blockers, leading to a stingy 98 defensive rating three years running. As if that wasn’t enough, Jordan is also an ironman, going four straight seasons without missing a game before being forced to sit out five contests last year.
6 Hassan Whiteside
A younger, meaner version of DeAndre Jordan, Whiteside took even longer to make an impact, bouncing out of the league before resurfacing in a big way for Miami in 2014-15. A monster in the paint, Whiteside is an excellent rebounder and even better shot blocker, leading the NBA last season in blocks per game, total blocks, and block percentage. Like Jordan, Whiteside’s offensive strengths lie not in his versatility, but in his consistency, averaging better than 60 percent from the field for his career. Intriguingly though, Whiteside can actually hit free throws at a decent clip (65 percent last season) and appears more aggressive on that end of the floor than Jordan, scoring 14.2 points per game last season.
At just 27, Whiteside could just be scratching the surface of his potential, but will still be among the game’s best centers even if he plateaus at his current rate of production.
5 LeBron James
His very best years may be behind him, but as last season’s championship run showed, he can still play like the best player on the planet when compelled. His offensive genius needs no introduction; he’s always been a genius on that end of the floor, able to see plays developing three steps ahead of anyone else and score or set up teammates at will. His superstardom really came to fruition though once he started dedicating himself to the defensive end of the floor, becoming a six-time All-Defensive team member and arguably the most versatile defender of the past decade.
His size and strength are more than adequate enough to go toe-to-toe with big men, while still maintaining the agility and instincts to chase guards. And as Andre Iguodala well knows, he’s capable of making off-ball defensive efforts that single-handedly change the course of games and legacies.
4 Anthony Davis
If this list was for the best two-way player for a single game while healthy, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be reading Davis’s name until the very end at the number one spot. Davis is a once-in-a-generation type talent, a true franchise player who can change games with just his offense or defense, but more often both. His scoring arsenal is mind-boggling, with his silky jumper and inhuman athleticism making him impossible to guard in the pick-and-roll. He even started to add a three-point shot to his game last season, a scary sign of what he has in store for opposing teams this year.
On the defensive end, his incredible combination of quickness and length allows him to be everywhere at once, blocking shots, getting into passing lanes, and contesting jumpers. His one weakness? His body, which has experienced a myriad of nagging injuries which have forced him to miss significant time, and he has yet to play 70 games or more in a season. If he can stay healthy this year though, expect him to be in the conversation for MVP and DPOY by the end.
3 Russell Westbrook
There might not be anyone on this entire planet that plays any sport with as much intensity as Russell Westbrook. He plays every second of every game like it’s his last, and his relentless attacking combined with insane athleticism make him impossible to keep up with. With one scoring title under his belt, and possibly more to come, Westbrook’s aggressive mentality allows him to put up points in a hurry. He still finds time to be a facilitator as well, averaging over 10 assists per game last season. Westbrook’s defense is now also starting to catch up with his potential. Though he still loses concentration at times, he can often recover from lapses to make spectacular plays with his disruptive length and explosiveness.
Already a dominant force, Westbrook’s full potential is set to be released this season thanks to Kevin Durant’s departure, and we could see him put up numbers that would make Oscar Robertson proud.
2 Kevin Durant
The former MVP took a lot of heat this offseason for his decision to join the already-stacked Golden State Warriors, but no matter what the critics say, he’s still very much in the conversation for best basketball player on the planet, and still in his prime. A four-time scoring champ, Durant’s exploits on offense have never been questioned, but he’s been so dominant on that end that his defense gets overlooked. With the height of a center and quickness of a guard, Durant is smart and versatile enough to take on a wide variety of defensive assignments.
He might never make an All-Defensive team, but his absurd length lets him bother shooters and ball-handlers, effortlessly picking up steals and blocks simply by sticking his arms out. While he’ll probably always be best remembered as an all-time great scorer, Durant’s proven that he can be a difference maker at both ends.
1 Kawhi Leonard
As the heir apparent to Tim Duncan, Leonard finds himself in the enviable but difficult position of filling the shoes of one of the greatest two-way players of all time, for one of the most successful franchises of all time. Defense has always been Leonard’s calling card, as evidenced by his career defensive rating of 98, an absurdly low number for a non-big man. Being indoctrinated from the start of his career in the Spurs’ elite defensive philosophies has certainly helped, as have his long arms and the enormous hands (seriously, Google them) that gave him his nickname “The Claw.” However, it was Leonard’s huge step forward last year on the offensive end that vaulted him from “efficient role player” to “elite franchise talent.”
With Duncan gone, and Parker and Ginobili past their primes, an even more increased role could launch Leonard into regular season MVP consideration. It would be a fitting addition to a trophy case already stuffed with two Defensive Player of the Year awards and a Finals MVP trophy, an ultimate testament to his all-around dominance on offense and defense.
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