Jalen Suggs Is Already An Elite Guard Defender

The immediate returns on a trip to Jalen Suggs’ Basketball-Reference profile might elicit waves of concern when greeted by the .361/.214/.773 slash line he produced as a rookie. His 11.8 points on 45.5 percent true shooting are troubling. Among erratic ball control, shortcomings as a vertical athlete in traffic, and hibernating outside jumper, the development of his scoring arsenal and the accompanying areas he must refine to facilitate that maturation are the priorities moving forward.

Sure, Suggs didn’t rival his peers from the 2021 Draft during his rookie season, as Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, and Scottie Barnes all registered better inaugural campaigns. And yet, it would be misguided to broadly label his first year a disappointment when viewed on its own, away from the heights those aforementioned players reached.

More than anything, the simplest remedy for a gigantic step forward in 2022-23 will be renewed health. Dealing with a few different injuries, Suggs played just 48 games, tied for 26th-most among his fellow draftees. When the 21-year-old did play, however, he maintained the class’ theme of advanced defensive chops up and down the board. So many members of the 2021 Draft hinted at All-Defensive Team promise — Mobley, Herbert Jones, Quentin Grimes, Davion Mitchell, etc. Suggs belongs in that grouping.

While his scoring numbers may frighten folks, the film and a slew of the defensive numbers should cast those fears into the ether and replace them with hope. He was absolutely one of the NBA’s top rookie defenders, and if you remove the rookie label, he’s already a clear plus league-wide, primed to further ascent the hierarchy of guard stoppers. His plus-2.2 Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus ranked 28th overall and second among rookies, trailing just Mobley (plus-2.3), who looks like he could be a legitimately generational defender.

What makes Suggs unique among this class of guard defenders is how multifaceted his talents are. Other excellent rookie guard defenders, like Mitchell and Ayo Dosunmu, lasered in on the ball. Suggs doesn’t quite match them there, but he does exceed them in his all-around services. His closeouts are jarringly disciplined. He rarely dashes past shooters and remains involved after recovering, often anticipating angles downhill and promptly erasing them to blot out any former advantage.

The final clip there is my favorite. Suggs camps at the nail to barricade the drive and invite a pass from Spencer Dinwiddie. He angles his closeout to funnel help toward Franz Wagner, stays down on multiple shot fakes, and mirrors Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s movements, preventing any room for a shot, slash, or threatening pass. Full of paramount subtleties, that’s the stuff of veterans. He put on a clinic in how to execute that at 20 years old.

Suggs’ functional strength is arguably his best athletic trait. The fluidity with which he decelerates and preserves his balance on those closeouts underlines his core strength. It’s also evident in his on-ball chops. He applies his torso like a buffer to counter ball-handlers without falling for foul-baiting chicanery. Many young players will instinctively extend their hands as a reaction to movement and accrue unnecessary fouls. Suggs’ first thought is to absorb contact with his midsection, which protects him from sacrificing space and can even knock opponents off-kilter.

His inflexibility hinders him around screens occasionally, and he’s best at anticipating angles rather than utilizing lateral quickness. But he’s a very good point-of-attack defender whose strength, dexterity, and discretion fuel him.

Although he tallied 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes, that stemmed more from his intrepid off-ball habits than anything he was consistently doing wrong on the ball. By and large, these tendencies benefited him and the Orlando Magic. Sometimes, though, he barreled into foul calls or was a beat late tracking the ball, leaving his teammates in chaotic 4-on-5 scrambles. He’s long adhered to this style as a playmaker and I expect those doomsday gambles will only decrease throughout his continued NBA assimilation.

He reads passing decisions quite shrewdly and regularly shoots the gap. According to Cleaning The Glass, his 2 percent steal rate ranked in the 82nd percentile among combo guards. His closing speed to detonate passing lanes is explosive, and he shuts down dribble handoffs. I really like his prospects to wreak havoc as a stunt-and-recover guy around the nail, too.

Orlando consistently played a No Middle defensive scheme, so Suggs would aggressively crash inside at times when it wasn’t always required (maybe it was required and I’m wrong, this is where it’s hard to analyze plays as an outsider). But he’s so keen and pesky with his hands, and is a closeout technician. Those hallmarks jump off the screen in his takeaways. I don’t worry much about his possible overhelping and deem it an easily redeemable fix.

Not only did he fare well in steal rate, Suggs shined with an 0.7 percent block rate to finish in the 76th percentile. He’s a legitimately effective interior defender and provides help-side rim protection. Opponents shot 4.7 percent worse on shots within 6 feet when he was the primary defender, according to NBA.com.

He’s prompt and aware in his rotations, and practices remarkable verticality contesting plays inside the paint. On more than a handful of sequences, he diagnosed complex actions and thwarted them. His off-ball recognition is uncommon for rookies. One perceived windfall of playmaking and stretch bigs is how it lures defensive anchors away from the paint and eases chances to score at the hoop. Suggs won’t eradicate every example in these instances, but he does offer a unique presence on the backline to mitigate some of the offensive allure of these ideals.

I’m not entirely sure whether he reaches a level to be an elite of the elites on-ball roadblock for a championship-caliber defense; his lateral quickness and screen navigation warrant sharpening. This is nitpicking, however, and more intended to frame his maximized responsibilities. With a little seasoning, he’s a premier playmaker who can operate at the nail, hellaciously guard secondary options, moonlight against primaries, and sprinkle in some rim protection.

In essence, those were his duties in 2021-22, when the numbers and tape aligned to portray a very good defender. How Suggs garners the degree of investment that amplifies his imminent defensive stardom whenever Orlando is less catered toward development hinges on his offensive progression. The cutting, off-ball movement, and connective passing were all positives last year. His scoring demands significant growth.

Preferably, the Magic emphasize Paolo Banchero, Markelle Fultz, Wendell Carter Jr., and Wagner as the pillars to deploy Suggs off the ball, where he can flourish and bolster his efficiency in a more suitable role. Many of the angles I outlined last summer for his offensive optimization are still relevant.

He’s not an on-ball creator; treating him as such is a disservice to him and the offense. Screening, cutting, play-linking, transition, early offense forays, and puncturing tilted defenses are his calling. Others set the tone and he carves his own, indispensable niche.

There is nothing niche about his defense, though. It is perhaps en route to be the best of his class among anyone other than Mobley, which is a rather lofty honor. If it is not, it is squarely in the conversation. He’s wide-ranging, astute, and menacing. The early returns for this fifth overall pick are rosy. All you have to do is disregard the guise that is a traditional box score.