Building an elite NBA defense has never been an easy task, but in an era of positionless lineups with unprecedented shooting range and relentless ball screens, it’s a constant uphill battle. For the last two years, the San Antonio Spurs' defense has been more theoretical than practical. Even after shedding defense-averse veterans in favor of promising young defenders, San Antonio only improved by one spot in the league’s defensive rating hierarchy from 2021 to 2022.
On a night-by-night basis, head coach Gregg Popovich needs the flexibility to alter his defensive game plan if his team wants any shot at winning. He can’t do that without personnel who can switch, which has limited the Spurs’ defense to a one-dimensional style. Through the 2021-22 season, he deployed a core of rangy perimeter players who would chase ball-handlers around picks and funnel them into the paint for a meeting with their unassuming yet influential rim protector, Jakob Poeltl.
So where will San Antonio find the element it needs to bring this defense into the 21st century? Enter Jeremy Sochan: The 19-year-old forward from Baylor who was selected with San Antonio’s highest draft pick in 25 years. At 6-foot-9 with a seven-foot wingspan, Sochan offers a sturdy frame coupled with uncanny mobility, which makes him a defensive terror in space. Fitting naturally at the four-spot, Sochan is lauded as one of the only prospects who could genuinely defend all five positions in college.
Jeremy Sochan just loves to defend
Constantly in motion and engaged with his assignment, Sochan loves to compete. He was asked to wear many hats in his one-and-done freshman campaign, battling bigs in the post or tracking guards on the perimeter at any given moment. He’s able to keep up with quicker players because of the cerebral anticipation and instinctive motion that he uses to mirror his assignment’s actions. Few players at his size possess such lateral quickness, making him an ideal candidate to defend many of the league’s elite forwards and wings.
All the while, Sochan remains as comfortable in the paint as he looks on the perimeter. He’s able to absorb contact and remain steady without fouling, taking bumps and recovering with swiftness to compete near the paint. He’s light on his feet with an agile second-hop that he uses to contest follow-up shots or coral rebounds over larger players. It's not outlandish to suggest he can play small-ball five in select lineups in the future.
It may sound simple, but the magic of Sochan’s defense is his mastery of the shot contest. It doesn’t matter if he’s defending a 3-pointer, pull-up middy, layup, dunk, or floater—Sochan gets in his opponent’s airspace and suffocates them when they take their shot.
His effort comes up huge when cleaning up a teammate's miscue or rotating from the weak side to challenge attempts at the rim. Some people ‘play defense,’ but the most renowned defenders read the game and react to what’s happening around them. It’s an instinctual balance that involves some inherent risk, but the great ones respond to decisions made by the nine other players on the court.
IQ could be the differencemaker with Sochan
Other aspects of Sochan's game are intriguing, but they don't come close to the core skill that made him a lottery selection. His defensive IQ and commitment to that side of the ball set him apart as one of the nine best players in his class. Shot attempts come and go in a free-flowing offense, but effort will never go unnoticed. Sochan radiates most when he's striding across the court to alter a shot or rising into a passing lane like a cornerback intercepting a pass.
San Antonio’s current frontcourt is devoid of players who approach defense like it's an art form. Small-ball forward Keldon Johnson is demonstrably strong and typically works hard on defense, but he’s not built to compete with some of the other athletes at the four-spot. Still, he’s a more impactful defender than shooting specialist Doug McDermott, who’s oftentimes a net-negative because he gets treated like a turnstile. Neither of their deficiencies is for a lack of effort, but they simply aren’t geared to defend from the modern four-spot.
Even with strong defensive pieces like the NBA’s steals leader, Dejounte Murray, defense-first wing Devin Vassell and the aforementioned Poeltl, San Antonio’s defense won’t advance without a player who the coach can point to and say “See that guy who’s lighting us up? I want you to give him hell.”
Sochan is still quite young, and it’s unreasonable for anyone to expect that he’ll be a franchise-altering defender in an offensively-driven league overnight. Nevertheless, San Antonio's front office would not have selected him where it did if there wasn’t a belief that Jeremy Sochan might be the missing piece to help their defense ascend.