Five For ’20: Ranking The Mountain West’s Top Five Defenders
Predicting the top five Mountain West defenders of the ’19-20 season
Who are the top defenders in the MW?
As part of Mountain West Wire’s continued dedication to offseason basketball content, we welcome you to the fourth installment of the Five For ’20 series.
The Five For ’20 series features our ranking of the top five Mountain West players in five different skill sets: passing, scoring, defending, rebounding, and shot blocking.
For the sake of avoiding redundancy, the top defenders list is focused more so on guards and wings than big men. With that in mind, any player that was selected to the shot blockers list is prevented from appearing on the top defenders list.
We hope you enjoy the five-article series and engage in further conversation about where certain players should rank or appear on our Five For ’20 lists.
The Five For ’20 series schedule is below.
Without further adieu, let’s take a look at the conference’s best defenders.
1) Diogo Brito, Utah State
’18-19: 95.5 DRtg, 2.4 DBPM, 1.1 SPG, 2.4 STL%, 2.8 FLS/40
Hours of watching film on Utah State’s wing confirmed what I thought I knew about Diogo Brito, which is that he’s the conference’s best man-to-man defender. This selection may come as a bit of a surprise as the league features bigger names in Sam Merrill, Lindsey Drew, and Justinian Jessup, but Brito fits the bill. The Portuguese product is as lockdown as they come. The 6-5 guard contests the vast majority of opposing shot attempts with his long arms, fights through off-ball screens, and stays properly positioned by not falling for pump fakes or getting lost on dribble drives.
The best thing about Brito’s defense is that it often leads to Utah State points. When he does make a steal or deflection, the Aggie transition offense immediately springs into action. It should be no coincidence, then, that Brito averages 10.8 points per game when he records three or more steals.
2) Lindsey Drew, Nevada
’17-18: 103.6 DRtg, 2.8 DBPM, 1.0 SPG, 1.9 STL%, 3.6 FLS/40
The only remaining active player from the ’17-18 all-defense team, Lindsey Drew returns to the Wolf Pack as the team’s best defender. Drew is coming off a redshirt year due to Achilles and hip injuries and should be ready to contribute from day one for Steve Alford’s team. I’m betting on Drew to return to his underclassman defensive form (he finished top 15 in the MW in almost every major defensive statistical category as a sophomore).
There’s a curious trend with Drew’s defensive statistics. The Cali native’s numbers have declined as his career has progressed, including steals per game, defensive rating, steal percentage, and defensive box plus/minus. Former head coach Eric Musselman was occasionally critical of Drew’s defense during his injury-shorted ’17-18 season, yet Nevada’s point guard was still regarded as one of the league’s top defenders. Assuming Drew is back to 100 percent and his new coaching staff puts him in position to succeed, Nevada’s senior leader will be huge for the new-look Pack.
3) Justin Bean, Utah State
’18-19: 91.3 DRtg, 4.3 DBPM, 0.7 SPG, 3.1 STL%, 4.6 FLS/40
Bean was among just 22 freshmen last year (as well as the only player in the Mountain West) to record a block percentage greater than 2.5 and a steal percentage greater than 2.5, a list that also includes stars Zion Williamson, Tyrese Haliburton, and Jalen Pickett. He’s the Mountain West’s hidden gem – at least for now.
With Quinn Taylor graduating, look for the former walk-on to slot into Utah State’s power forward position alongside Neemias Queta. Bean’s versatility on the defensive side is his most valuable asset, having the ability to defend quality ball handlers and shot-makers on the perimeter while still banging around with the league’s top big men underneath. His energy and constant effort help make the Aggies an elite team.
4) Sam Merrill, Utah State
’18-19: 99.3 DRtg, 0.1 DBPM, 1.1 SPG, 1.6 STL%, 2.8 FLS/40
Utah State’s star has made significant improvements on the defensive end throughout this three years in Logan. Merrill is still more of an offensive player than a defensive one, but he is no longer a liability on the opposite end. The defending player of the year is often assigned to the opposing team’s top scoring guard and has made a habit of contesting shots and disrupting his opposition.
Though Merrill is quick, his instincts and awareness allow the 6-5 guard to keep up with the conference’s top players. Merrill defended Nevada’s Caleb Martin – the ’17-18 player of the year – twice last season and forced the elite scorer to go 9-27 from the floor and turn the ball over six times. Adding Queta to the roster has been huge, but Merrill’s rise on the defensive side is one of the main reasons Utah State went from 165th to 52nd in defensive efficiency last season.
5) Elijah Mitrou-Long, UNLV
’18-19: 99.7 DRtg, 2.6 DBPM, 0.8 SPG, 2.8 STL%, 2.0 FLS/40
Mitrou-Long isn’t your big name, high-major grad transfer who receives all the headlines, but the former Mount St. Mary’s and Texas guard will do the small things to make UNLV better. The Canadian import led the Northeast Conference in defensive win shares as a sophomore and has recorded 119 career steals.
UNLV desperately needed to bring a defensive asset to its backcourt in the offseason and T.J. Otzelberger landed one in Mitrou-Long. The brother of Indiana Pacers guard Naz Mitrou-Long, Elijah does a good job sticking to his assignment off the ball by going over screens and being mindful of the opposing team’s activity. Mitrou-Long occasionally gambles too much on help defense and has to scramble back to his assignment, but he generally stays in front of his man and contests most shot attempts. Amauri Hardy (109.2 career defensive rating) and Bryce Hamilton (107.0 rating in ’18-19) will benefit greatly by Mitrou-Long’s presence (99.2 rating in his career).
Also considered: Justinian Jessup, Boise State; Aguir Agau, Fresno State; Jalen Harris, Nevada; Vance Jackson, New Mexico; Malachi Flynn, San Diego State; Hunter Maldonado, Wyoming
Eli Boettger is the lead basketball writer at Mountain West Wire. He’s covered Mountain West basketball since 2015 and his work has been featured on Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, SB Nation, Yahoo Sports, MSN, and other platforms. Boettger is a current USBWA member.