In an era when teams are scoring more baskets in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague than ever before, every coach and every player knows that it is close to impossible to find team success without a solid defense. It has made defensive aces a great commodity, and every coach has a player or two who are foundation of his team's defensive efforts. Here is a list of 10 premier defenders to watch for during the 2019-20 EuroLeague season.
10. Kostas Papanikolaou, Olympiacos Piraeus
It is never easy to score against Papanikolaou, a nine-year veteran forward who often plays with his emotions on his sleeve for Olympiacos. Papanikolaou uses both his lengthy frame and quickness to keep opponents away from the basket. In addition to being able to play physical basketball both on the perimeter and inside the paint, what sets Papanikolaou apart from many similarly molded players is his basketball IQ, which has helped Olympiacos be among stingiest three teams in points allowed in each of the last three seasons.
9. Branko Lazic, Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade
Lazic, Zvezda's team captain and all-time record holder for appearances, is a defensive specialist unlike any other in the competition. It is hard to find a more aggressive, in-your-face perimeter defender than the 30-year old Lazic. At 1.95 meters, Lazic has the energy and never-stop motor to disrupt plays as they develop nine or 10 meters away from the basket. The fact that he never averaged more than 4.4 points in a single season, yet still has played 20 minutes per game for his career, speaks volumes about his defensive role and importance for Zvezda.
8. Nick Calathes, Panathinaikos OPAP Athens
The fact that Panathinaikos's signature point guard shattered EuroLeague single-season assist records in each of the last two seasons has perhaps overshadowed other facets of Calathes' game, like his defense. Fans may tend to forget that Calathes also led the EuroLeague in steals in three of the last four seasons, including each of the last two. No player comes even close to his 214 steals for an 1.7 average over the last four seasons. His defensive presence has been a big reason why Panathinaikos has allowed third-fewest points (76.4 per game) among teams with at least 40 games over that four-year span.
7. Daniel Hackett, CSKA Moscow
A versatile guard with a team-first mentality, Hackett has grown to become a major disruptor on defense. Possessing a warrior-like mentality, he is usually chasing the most dangerous opposing scorers and setting the tone on the perimeter for the defensive juggernaut that is CSKA. And there was no place to showcase this better than at the biggest stage of them all, at the Final Four, where Hackett shined against star guards of Real Madrid and Anadolu Efes Istanbul, averaging almost 5 more minutes per game than he did the rest of the season while helping CSKA withstand two scoring machines to win the crown.
6. Jan Vesely, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul
With Vesely, the reigning EuroLeague MVP, spending a lot of minutes protecting the paint, Fenerbahce's defense has allowed fewest points per game in the EuroLeague in each of the last two seasons. Vesely ranks fifth among all centers in minutes played over that span, using his mobility not only to patrol around the rim but also to defend away from the basket with his masterful switching to cover smaller players in pick-and-roll situations. EuroLeague head coaches voted Vesely into a share of third place for the Best Defender Trophy last season, and the reigning MVP will have plenty more to say on the defensive end this season, too.
5. Kyle Hines, CSKA Moscow
A four-time EuroLeague champion, CSKA Moscow center Kyle Hines has won Best Defender Trophy twice in the past four years. This undersized center has long overcome his lack of centimeters with hustle, intelligence and quite a bit of muscle to outdo opponents much bigger than him in size. For Hines, who ranks fourth all-time among EuroLeague players in blocks (208), the impact has always gone way beyond numbers. The way he leads and orchestrates the defense around him is what has helped make him, his teammates and his teams good enough to win four EuroLeague titles in the last eight seasons.
4. Adam Hanga, FC Barcelona
Hanga was voted by the coaches as the EuroLeague's Best Defender for the 2016-17 season, and even though injuries slowed him since, Barcelona's small forward was back to showcasing his elite defensive skills in the second part of last season. His team-high 1.1 steals and third-best 4.0 defensive rebounds per night were big part of Barcelona allowing the second-fewest points in the EuroLeague last season (76.9) and holding opposing teams to the second-fewest offensive rebounds (9.1). There is no doubt that Hanga will relentlessly chase opposing scorers wherever they go this season, too.
3. Bryant Dunston, Anadolu Efes Istanbul
Winner of the Best Defender Trophy in both 2014 and 2015, Bryant Dunston is always a big part of the conversation about the best defensive players in the competition. He placed third in blocked shots last season (1.2) and is ranked second in blocks all-time (231), while also accumulation the second-most steals (108) among centers over the last six seasons. When it comes to presence, few big men can match Dunston's combination of strength, size and athleticism, which he shows by battling night in and night out for Efes. It's safe to say that one of the very last people opposing EuroLeague big men want to see waiting for them when they are trying to score is Dunston.
2. Nikola Kalinic
A versatile forward, Kalinic has been one of the toughest players to face on EuroLeague floors for several seasons. At a height of 2.02 meters, and with plenty of muscle and athleticism, Kalinic is equally successful at guarding either forward position, but does not shy away when matched up with smaller guards or bigger centers, either. Such defensive versatility allowed him to play the second-most minutes for coach Zeljko Obradovic last season. With a high basketball IQ and ability to read the game, Kalinic has been the cornerstone of a Fenerbahce defense that has allowed the fewest points in the competition in each of the last two seasons.
1. Walter Tavares
The reigning Best Defender Trophy winner and All-EuroLeague Second Team center is an easy choice to top this list. Tavares starred last season by using his huge frame to lead the league in average blocks (1.7), total blocks (53) and blocks per 40 minutes (3.3). He was also ranked eighth with 4.4 defensive rebounds per game. More than just his numbers, however, his 2.21-meter height, wide-body strength and fleet footwork add up to a towering presence in the paint that often forces opposing coaches to adjust their game plans and opposing players to question the idea of attacking the rim. Tavares helped carry Real to the 2018 title and bring the team back to the Final Four last year with the kind of defense that changes games and seasons.