Analyst Pegs ‘One-Man Defense’ as Clippers 1st-Round Pick

Usman Garuba

Getty #16 Usman Garuba defends at the rim

If so inclined and with enough free time, a person could spend many hours each day debating the numerous variations reflected in a seemingly endless flow of mock drafts from a seemingly endless flow of outlets.

This is particularly true when it comes to the Clippers, who, with the 25th pick in this year’s draft, and with many critical free-agency decisions still to be made (Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka) lack not for differing opinions on who should be brought in, let go or retained. Selecting so low in the draft also means that the Clippers are especially subject to the Butterfly Effect — that each variation, no matter how small, has a substantial impact on the future — forcing them to modify their plans on the fly as other organizations pull guys off the board. It makes predicting picks tough and often futile.

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But occasionally, a name is thrown into the ether that is impossible to ignore, no matter how uncertain the chance of selection.

That name, this offseason, is 19-year-old Usman Garuba, who Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman predicts will be the Clippers’ first-round pick.


Garuba Butters His Bread Defensively

Born in Madrid, Spain, to parents of Nigerian heritage, Garuba has been playing professionally since he was 15.

In 2019, at the age of 17, he overtook Luka Doncic as the youngest starter in the history of Real Madrid, a team in Spain’s top-tier league.

And it wasn’t the first time Garuba had followed in the footsteps of a future NBAer: At just 14, he led Spain’s junior national team to a Euro Championship gold medal, earning MVP honors (the youngest ever) and joining Dario Saric and Ricky Rubio as the only players to record a triple-double in the tournament final. (Neither of those guys put up 10 blocks though.)

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But while Doncic, Saric and Rubio are known for their offensive prowess (Doncic might have a future), the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Garuba butters his bread on the defensive end, employing his elite athleticism and strength to check all positions, and boasting a 7-foot-2 wingspan that allows him to guard and rebound against taller players.

Wasserman calls Garuba “one of the draft’s top defenders” and Stefanos Markis of described him as a “one-man defense.”

NBA Draft Room compared Garuba to Al Horford and “a very wealthy man’s Kenneth Faried,” and highlighted the Spaniard’s relentless motor:

Usman is a powerful, mobile and graceful athlete who has awesome length with a +6 wingspan and a nice NBA frame.

He’s a high-energy guy (think Kenneth Fareid) who runs the floor hard, sets good screens and brings a lot of energy on defense. He’s a smart defender who knows when to leave his feet and how to play with proper position. He plays with good awareness and is a good help defender and weak-side shot blocker.

Offense Not Yet Ready for Primetime

Where Garuba struggles is on offense, at least in the sort of refined manner usually required to be a consistent scorer in the NBA.

In 84 total games for Real Madrid this season (Liga ACB and EuroLeague games) Garuba averaged just 4.2 points on 3.3 attempts in 15.4 minutes.

His performance from three, in particular, was poor. This year, Garuba attempted 1.3 threes per game and connected on just 31%. In the previous season, Garuba attempted just 19 triples over 36 games, so he’s clearly trying to add it to his game, but much greater improvement is necessary if he’s to be trusted from that distance in the NBA — especially given that FIBA’s three-point line is just 22.15 feet from the hoop and 21.65 in the corners, compared to 23.75 and 22 feet in the NBA.

NBA Draft Room describes Garuba’s current offensive repertoire as consisting mostly of “dunks, layups and back to the basket moves,” but notes that “he does a good job in the pick-and-roll and cuts hard to the basket, using his brute power, strength and agility to get to the basket.“ They also describe him as a “dangerous offensive rebounder” due to his length.

Markis writes that Garuba’s “low-post game needs a lot of work — he mostly turns and shoots over his left shoulder, which makes him predictable” and that he “needs to add some moves to his arsenal when he is posting up.”

Could be a Valuable Defender Off the Bench

In an offseason when the Clippers are reportedly looking to add an additional scoring threat  from the perimeter (especially if Jackson departs), drafting Garuba would be a departure from that effort and likely signal that the Clippers believe they can find help on the perimeter through a trade or low-level free agency.

Clearly, Garuba has the physical gifts and battery to make it in the NBA and could be valuable off the bench, stepping in for Leonard or Marcus Morris at forward or Ivica Zubac down low, without a meaningful drop-off defensively (perhaps even an improvement in that regard when it comes to Morris). But he will need to improve his offense significantly if he wants to be more than just a defensive substitution right off the bat.

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Already possessing “acceptable” ball-handling skills and capable of the “occasional coast-to-coast” score, according to Markis, if Garuba can become proficient from three and add a mid-range game, then he could eventually resemble someone like Draymond Green, who is a versatile menace defensively and extremely tough to guard off the pick-and-roll.

But for now, Garuba is young and raw, and any team that drafts him should not immediately expect much beyond defensive contributions as he works to improve other parts of his game.

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