Backup centers tend to avoid the spotlight. That’s true for most rotation players, especially on a team as deep as the New Orleans Pelicans. But Larry Nance Jr. deserves recognition. He’s a critical defensive Swiss army knife for a New Orleans defense that needs his skillset. The Pelicans are 5-1 since his return from injury and Nance’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked.

His defensive versatility unlocks new options for the Pelicans, especially in comparison to Jonas Valancinuas on that end. Valanciunas has had good moments defensively this season, but his lack of mobility on the perimeter and guarding the pick-and-roll has been problematic. Nance, on the other hand, is supremely mobile and athletic. He sits down and swivels his hips more fluidly than most lumbering bigs.

With Nance on the floor, defensive options expand greatly. Against dangerous pull-up shooters, Nance plays near the level of the screen, thwarting the shooting threat while having the mobility to recover on drives. Against more mid-range/rim-focused drivers, Nance can sit lower in drop and pressure with his enormous wingspan and active hands.

After the ball swings, Nance’s speed and agility allow him to cover large areas of ground. When offenses put New Orleans’ defense in rotation, Nance plugs up gaps with great rotational awareness. He’s an active help defender, always looking to slide down and help his teammates when ballhandlers inevitably blow by.

Take this play against Brooklyn for example:

Nance pressures Cam Johnson as Dyson Daniels and CJ McCollum squeeze him to force a pass out. When Cam Thomas beats Jordan Hawkins off of the catch, Nance times his rotation to force Thomas to the other side of the rim, setting Zion up for a big block. Plays like these won’t show up in the box score for Nance, despite their great value.

Larry Nance’s defensive playmaking, however, will show up in the box score. His 2.5% steal rate is elite for a big man, placing him fourth among all centers in the league in that metric. Outside of rim rotations, Nance’s active hands hunt deflections and steals. Against spacing bigs, Nance defends on the wing with solid agility, digging down to swipe balls away from careless handlers.

Nance has his defensive limitations; he’s a rotation big for a reason, after all. Despite his wingspan and verticality, bigger players mash him backward too easily. This is where his synergy with Valanciunas arises, as Jonas can match up with the burly interior scorers that New Orleans faces. Though he moves lightly for a center, he’s not a true switch defender. Quicker wings guards pull him out on switches and blow by easily.

As Nance continues to find his rhythm on offense, his defense will act as a sturdy presence. He complements that defense with solid rebounding, passing and screening, though the rim protection and pick-and-roll coverages are where he shines. If the Pelicans continue to surge, Larry Nance Jr. will factor into that success.

Written by Ben Pfeifer