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One on One: Is Thunder forward Jerami Grant a good defender?

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Jerami Grant has been gaining attention as of late for his defense. But is he truly turning a corner?

Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

In prior seasons, Jerami Grant has been a bit of an enigma on the defensive end of the floor. Despite relatively good defensive counting stats (particularly blocks), advanced defensive metrics have always shown him to be below average at best.

However, some of those statistics have started to swing in his favor this season as the Thunder, despite the expectations set with Andre Roberson out, have excelled on the defensive end of the floor.

Despite concerns with his strength and mass, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 99.3 with him on the floor. This is an excellent number, and yet the defense appears to become even stingier with him off the floor, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions. What does this mean? Has Grant become a good defender, or are the Thunder succeeding despite him being mediocre or even bad?

Dom: in defense of Grant’s defense

As someone who’s been a fairly vocal critic of Grant, I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen from him this year, and he looks to me to be genuinely improved. Per NBA.com, he’s holding opponents to over 11% below their expected field goal percentage on shots defended within 6 feet of the rim, and per-minute is contesting more 2 point attempts per game than all rotation players other than Adams, Noel, and shockingly, Abrines.

To add to this, per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with Grant and Noel at the 4 and 5 have a 94.4 defensive rating, an incredibly impressive figure, and Grant and Adams in a larger sample size (and also most likely against starters — so better opponents) 100.2 points per 100 possessions. Subbing out Patterson, a noted defender, has lead to ratings of 100.8 and 101.0, respectively. Grant has also shown up incredibly well in impact metrics posting a top 5 DRAPM through 12/5 and 37th in DRPM (though it should be noted these numbers require larger samples than have been played so far to be reliable though they do indicate that at least so far he has been very effective defensively).

He’s shown the ability to switch onto both bigs and smalls (other than true point guards) and for the most part keep up impressively well. Grant fits the Presti mold of long athletic players (who can’t shoot mostly) and has developed into one of the best defenders on the roster. Even as someone who was a skeptic so far, I’m not seeing many holes to poke at with Jerami Grant defensively thus far this season.

Bobby: Too many holes in Grant’s defense & metrics

Getting a statistical bead on Grant’s defensive contributions is still difficult at this point in the season. Most of his on/off stats rank in the middle of the starters, and because he plays most of his minutes with them (about 75% of his minutes come with Adams and PG on the floor), this doesn’t tell us much about his individual contributions. The advanced stats that measure defense don’t have enough data to filter this out yet.

Instead, we have to look at more concrete things: his history as a player, and if the tape demonstrates the same deficiencies he has displayed in the past.

Grant has always been a bit of a tweener, a player who can guard every position but none of them well. His calling card is his ability to block shots, but this has come at a sacrifice of personal fouls and bad positioning. Advanced stats have never loved his defense, ranking him near the bottom of his position.

This season, his numbers have looked a bit different. His foul rate is lower, but this has come at a sacrifice of blocked shots, which are the lowest per possession of his career. This could be an encouraging sign, as it could be a reduction of one of his weaknesses.

Looking at the tape from the last few games, he still shows a tendency to get caught out of position, particularly when guarding on the perimeter. He also is prone to allowing blow-bys, as he still isn’t quick enough to keep up with guards.

Perhaps this brings us to the real problem: because Grant is seen as a versatile defender, the Thunder are happy to switch him on to guards. However, he is no better in this situation than any traditional big. I’m not sure how to track this statistically, but anecdotally, the Thunder defense falls apart at much high rate when bigs and guards switch, which tends to happen much more frequently with Grant.

This brings us to the answer, and while it’s so ambivalent that a politician would be proud, it is truthfully the only answer we can reach at this point in the season.

Grant is not a bad defender, but there is not enough evidence to conclude that he is a good defender. He is put in positions that are not ideal for his abilities, and that sometimes hurts the team. However, he usually fulfills his individual responsibilities, and that is often enough to work within a defensive roster that has few holes. In short, he is not a good defender, but he is a defender.

Poll

Who is right in regards to Grant’s defense this season?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Dom - Grant has become key to OKC’s defensive success.
    (119 votes)
  • 36%
    Bobby - Grant is defending, but too early to say he’s good at it.
    (68 votes)
187 votes total Vote Now