Written By Ben Pfeifer
Few skills eclipse rim-protection as the defining traits in the modern NBA. Pace and space means easy drives and layups and elite defensive anchor bigs are as valuable as ever. At 14, the Pelicans will likely miss out on rim protectors like Jarace Walker, Taylor Hendricks and even Anthony Black. Given their glaring need for a defensive five man, New Orleans could reach slightly for Duke’s 7’1 freshman center Dereck Lively, one of the better pure defensive prospects in the 2023 draft.
Calling Lively a ‘reach’ is unfair to his talent; the 2023 draft is loaded with talent and drafting Lively may mean passing on better talents. Lively won’t be so far behind whoever lands at 14 and positional value matters when prioritizing prospects, especially for a team with a critical hole at a high value position; New Orleans placed 24th in block rate last season despite their top 10 defensive rating.
Dereck Lively meets the prototype as a true seven footer with elite length, vertical explosion and movement skills. Lively walls off the rim dropping back in pick and roll, parked at the rim as a primary paint defender and even rotating from the weak side as a secondary rim protector. Posting an absurd 12.8% block rate, Lively is one of 12 freshman seven-footers in the Barttorivk database to eclipse a 10% block rate, a list including Chet Holmgren, Joel Embiid, Steven Adams, Hassan Whiteside and Tacko Fall among others.
Versatile pick and roll defenders remain key especially in the playoffs, as offenses look to strain bigs with screens in as many ways as possible. We’ve seen certain specialists struggle in the postseason; Brook Lopez struggles to defend high at the level of the screen, Al Horford can’t change directions and move with ballhandlers.
As a true seven footer, Lively has a real chance to be passable in multiple different coverages. Lively’s progression in-season was notable, as he struggled to get on the floor early season and was one of college basketball’s best defenders by the end. How well he can adjust to NBA speed and strength will likely determine how close he can get to his ceiling.
Most of Lively’s concerns arise offensively, though he shouldn’t need to add much to complement his defensive-oriented profile. Lively’s huge wingspan and catch radius should allow him to thrive as an above the rim finisher, though New Orleans may not have the best roster to maximize that given their lack of high-end passing talent. The passing improved as the season went on and Lively can make simple passes, kicking out of the paint from a standstill and flicking the ball out to shooters on the roll at times.
It can be difficult for centers with sub-elite defense to be great NBA players without some offensive utility, which could be where Lively lands if the defense hits a lower outcome. Will he be strong enough to finish in traffic? Will he provide any value with the ball? How does he add value outside of pick and roll contexts? These are the questions Lively must answer once he reaches a pro-level context, hopefully with better playmaking guards than he had at Duke.
Though workouts have some discussing Lively’s jumper as a potential latent skill, Lively is very unlikely to be a meaningful NBA shooter; he did not take threes or mid range jumpers in college or high school and was a bad free throw shooter. Centers who don’t take threes in college very rarely become legit NBA shooters and the ones who do are often extreme outliers like Karl-Anthony Towns. Looking at Barttorvik’s database once again, 115 drafted centers have had seasons with <2 three point attempts per 100 possessions and almost none of them became shooters. New Orleans’ shooting development staff is infamously great, so maybe they could help unlock Lively’s jumper, which would obviously be a big help for his long term projection.
A defensive anchor has been a desperate need in New Orleans since Anthony Davis left town. Lively may not be an all-defense level player or a star at all, but his defensive skillset would be invaluable for the Pelicans even if he can’t reach a high end outcome.
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