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Luguentz Dort is quickly becoming one of the NBA’s top on-ball defenders

Teammates and coaches praise Dort's defensive efforts, especially Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

NBA: New York Knicks at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Great offensive players recognize elite defense a little quicker than most.

So when Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander touted teammate Luguentz Dort’s defensive skills during a press conference following the All-Star break, it officially became time to take notice of Oklahoma City’s second-year lightning rod.

“He wants to be the best on-ball defender in the NBA and personally I think he is the best on-ball defender in the NBA,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of Dort after a 116-108 win over Dallas Mavericks. “Besides his physical traits - super athletic, strong, fast - he really takes pride in his defense. And he brings it every night.”

Dort’s advanced stats don’t exactly jump off the page. But while his Real Plus-Minus and Defensive Rating may not stand out, his tenacity does, and it continues to help spark a Thunder team that has somewhat overachieved this season. Oklahoma City has established a high-effort identity on the defensive end, in large part due to the 21-year-old Canadian.

“The thing that makes him so special is just his will and his pursuit and just how relentless he is defensive,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said of Dort. “It’s amazing. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the game or what day of the week it is or whether he’s making shots or missing shots, he’s just undistracted on that end of the floor.”

Dort is becoming especially known for his ability to fight over and under screens. He led the league in offensive fouls drawn with 32 heading into All-Star weekend, exploiting lazy picks by bursting through a lingering knee or a stuck-out elbow, usually once per game.

“I just feel like I’m doing a good job of staying in front of my guy,” Dort said, describing why he draws so many whistles. “I know it’s tough to screen me because I mix it up a lot between going over and under. If it isn’t set and he hits me, it’s an offensive foul. It’s tough for bigs.”

Daigneault said that effort continuously deflates opponents.

“They’re turnovers and it’s a foul on the other team. So those are like mini-momentum shifting plays. There’s nobody better at them than him.”

Dort’s numbers are up across the board as he has established a more prominent role during his sophomore campaign. The former Arizona State Sun Devil is averaging nearly 30 minutes per and has started all 37 of the games he has played. He is scoring over 12 points per game, up from 6.8 last season, while assisting and rebounding more. His three-point shooting (32.9%) has also seen a significant uptick.

But what continues to stand out is Dort’s work defensively, all while being tasked with individual assignments like LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine, and Trae Young on a nightly basis.

Al Horford has seen his fair share of tough-minded, defensive wing players throughout his nine-year career. According to Oklahoma City’s veteran center, Dort is among the best.

“He’s elite defensively,” the five-time All-Star and 2017-18 All-Defensive Team member said. “He’s really in that elite category as far as staying attached to guys. The way that the league is being played right now, I would say that 14-15 years ago you could kind of grab guys and hold them quite a bit, but he doesn’t even have to do that.

“It’s just so impressive how he’s able to get around screens, to stay attached, to get back in front of the ball. It’s very elite. There are very few guys I’ve seen be able to do that at that level.”

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Thunder fully guaranteed the remaining two years of Dort’s current contract Wednesday. He signed a four-year extension with the team last June following a two-way deal during the 2019-20 season.

Now that Dort is becoming part of Oklahoma City’s future and his role has been carved out, much like Gilgeous-Alexander on the offensive end, the undrafted forward’s mindset can, even more, reflect his play, described best by Daigneault as relentless and undistracted.

“He certainly adds that element to our team.”