September 21, 2021
Who is the best two-guard defender in the WNBA?
Players and coaches from around the WNBA weigh in
Following a late-August win over the Las Vegas Aces, Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller threw down the gauntlet on Briann January and her defensive ability.
“Let’s start the campaign now [for Defensive Player of the Year],” Miller said. “Bri January is not going to show up because she doesn’t steal the ball. She’s not gonna block shots. But if there’s a better guard defender in the league— I want the players in this league, the 2 guards in this league to tell them who they would not want to be guarded by. She just does that part. Every single night. Every single possession. She knows the game plan. She competes and is as physical as there is in the league.”
So we at The Next wondered: would that be the consensus around the league? We investigated, and discovered plenty of respect for January, along with a number of other worthy nominees for the title of best defensive shooting guard.
Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault started his answer with what he’s looking for in a good defender.
“I think the first thing is you’ve got to have some athletic ability to be a great defender, either strength or quickness or both, length, everybody can use it a little bit differently,” Thibault said. “…I think part of it is being willing to lock in every day to learning the players in the league, learning tendencies and how to take away certain things.”
He added, “And then to be a great defender you have to have teammates that are willing to talk to you and help you on defense. That makes it so much better … So I think it’s a combination of all that and you got to have mental toughness. Be willing to every night say okay, I got another tough one, that’s part of my job.”
While there were other names tossed into the ring by both players and coaches around the league, January’s name was still mentioned more than the rest.
“Briann January always has been one of the best guards on ball,” Sparks guard Erica Wheeler said. Wheeler also gave credit to January’s teammate Jasmine Thomas, citing that the two of them always make it difficult.
Mystics guard Shavonte Zellous said it was a tricky decision but that she’d have to go with January.
Lynx guard Rachel Banham couldn’t deny the talent of Thomas, her former teammate.
“Yeah, I will always say Jasmine Thomas, because I played with her in Connecticut, I played against her, she is a fireball,” Banham said. “Just lanky, athletic, quick, smart. She’s always somebody that’s been just tough to play since she just has an endless motor. So she’s my number one on that list, for sure. And I just looked up to her a lot. So she’s an elite defender.”
Dream guard Blake Dietrick also named January at the top of her list.
“Briann January comes to mind immediately,” Dietrick said. She’s just a lockdown defender, she can guard the point or the two. She’s the first one that comes to mind. Tiffany Hayes comes to mind as well, she’s lockdown.”
Dietrick’s teammate Courtney Williams agreed that Tiffany Hayes should be noted as the best.
“You know, when I was in Connecticut she was guarding me — so you know she’s got to be able to guard,” Williams said after the Dream’s Sept. 14 win over the Indiana Fever. “So of course, everybody knows what Tiffany does on both ends of the floor, having that monster block tonight and then just every single night guarding the other team’s best player between her and Odyssey. She’s definitely amongst the best when it comes to defending.”
When asked for her thoughts, Seattle Storm coach Noelle Quinn recalled some of the top defenders from her playing days.
“When I was playing, Alana Beard kind of sticks out in my mind, (and) Tanisha Wright,” Quinn said. “Those are some of the guard defenders that come to my mind immediately. You know as a coach from other teams. I think [Ariel] Atkins is a tough guard defender. She’s physical. Briann January’s physical. Brittney Sykes is athletic and she’s physical as well and can cover so much ground.
“For my team, I think Jewell [Loyd], her defensive prowess kind of gets overlooked in a way just because of what she does offensively, and obviously Jordin [Canada] has an ability to disrupt. And I know she hasn’t played this season but Alysha Clark is elite, just how she defends with her mind, her body and her preparation for the matchup.”
And Quinn had plenty to say about what makes January so successful.
“She’s aggressive but she’s like relentless,” Quinn said. “She will get in your grill, get in your space, every possession, it’s almost as if she doesn’t take a possession off defensively. She’s in passing lanes, and I think one thing that she understands about herself is that she’s a very good defender. When you win, you can focus on your matchup and not really [be] worried about what happens on the other end the floor, though she can knock down shots and things of that nature. But she knows what strengths she has defensively and I think that impacts how she’s able to defend.”
Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird has seen as many defenders as anyone in the league and has a clear top 2-guard defender in her mind.
“At the top of my list is Alana Beard, for sure,” Bird said. “I think when it’s all said and done, you can make the argument, she’s probably the best perimeter defender. There’s a lot of people who are close, but I think you can really make that argument. She can pretty much guard like all three guard spots. The 1, the 2, the 3, … I think when a defender can change a game, usually that’s an offensive player, you know who’s coming down and dropping 30 or whatever changing, she’s a defender that can change a game.
“Another player that comes to mind is Katie Smith, you know, Katie Smith in her prime. I just mentioned AB being able to guard three positions, Katie could guard like five. She guarded all five spots, at the guard spot she had size. Obviously, there’s a quickness there that has to be there but she had size to really make it difficult. And then she could switch on to post players and didn’t give up much in the strength department.”
Having played nearly two decades in the WNBA, Bird has also seen the next generation of defenders rise up.
“I was really impressed during the Olympics with Ariel Atkins,” Bird said. “I’ve only had to go against her now and then I’m obviously a point guard so I don’t necessarily get matched up with these players, [but] every now and then they’ll guard me. So firsthand, I’ve only really experienced Ariel a couple games this year, but just seeing her at the Olympics, she has the potential to really become a great defender in this league. She’s already All-Defensive. I think the more she learns the more experienced she gets that she’s going to continue to grow.”
Bird added, “To me one of the best defenders, and just started getting the notoriety in the last couple years is Alysha Clark without a doubt… I had the pleasure of watching her first-hand. I think she’s gonna be great, to be honest, for Ariel in DC because AC is a player that — she had the tangible things, but she really started to learn angles, and just different little — there’s life hacks everywhere. They exist in basketball, too, just little hacks and ways to use your mind and not just your body. I think AC just got to a point where she was able to lock down anybody. And it was impressive to watch.”
Second-year New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu couldn’t pick just one best defender, saying, “I mean, I think there’s a lot. There’s probably one or two on every single team. Connecticut has a lot of great on-ball defenders. Atlanta has great on-ball defenders, Seattle has great on-ball defenders. I mean, the list kind of goes on. I don’t think there’s one particular that sticks out in my head.”
“She’s able to guard 1 through 3,” Wiese said. “Her defense has always been — she’s always been a pest. I mean, I grew up in Arizona watching her at ASU, and since those days, she’s been all over the floor. She makes things difficult,” Wiese said. “She throws off the rhythm of offenses and that’s her job. And she takes pride in it and so I think that Briann January has to be close to the top if not at the top for the best defender in that guard position.”
Liberty coach Walt Hopkins had a single answer, saying, “Briann January is a hell of a defender. She’s versatile, she’s physical, she’s … smart. She always stands out to me as one of the better guard defenders, she’s been that for a long time.”
January’s teammate Natisha Hiedeman had a simple answer, simply saying, “BJan.”
Thibault’s initial answer, when asked, was “Aside from Natasha [Cloud]?”
He added, “She’s one of the best and has that responsibility, every single night. The other best one in the league is sitting on our bench and not playing [Alysha Clark].”
Even Thibault could not deny January’s talent.
“Briann January’s one that we faced. I mean, when we play Connecticut, their whole team is good defensively, but she is particularly good.”
Thibault continued to expand on his original answer, adding to his list.
“Kahleah Copper, who guards both shooting guards and small forwards,” Thibault said. “We hated putting her in that trade when we traded for Elena [Delle Donne]. We just felt like she was going to be a great player. She’s turned out to be what we thought she could be. She has been great for them … Sykes in LA. She would be in that group. And Jas[mine] Thomas would be in that group in Connecticut.”
While many names were raised by players and coaches across the league, January’s name was a consistent presence.
Mercury guard Shey Peddy was one of many to compliment January.
“She’s just an aggressive player,” Peddy said. “She’s up in your space, pressuring the whole time you have the ball. For us, we have to keep her moving, try to get her in some ball screens, and look to attack.”
Thibault noted January has always been a great defender.
“She’s even, I think, taken it up a notch in Connecticut because she has post players around her who talk on defense and they do all those things,” Thibault said. “You can be a great lockdown defender, but you still need your teammates to help, because you’ve got to fight through screens and do all those things. So I think it’s a combination of all that and you got to have just kind of mental toughness.”
Thomas was excited when January came to Connecticut, so she did not have to guard her anymore. “She’s one of those defenders that when you go into the game, you can’t help but think about the fact that she’s gonna be guarding you, and that’s the first part of the battle, I think, because she’s such a good defender. It’s intimidating,” she said.
Mercury coach Sandy Brondello believes that January is simply doing what she’s always done.
“I mean, this is her identity, and she takes pride in that side of the ball,” Brondello said. “When she was with us, she did a fantastic job on the defensive end. And that’s why they’re one of the best defensive teams in the league — their guards can put so much pressure on the outside, they’ve got mobile post players that rotate well, they’ve got great length.
“Bri’s having a great season and is part of the reason they’ve only lost six. She can be a facilitator, she can play the 1 and the 2, she can shoot the 3-ball. But really, I think for her, it starts with defense. It’s a bit like Brianna Turner for us. She keeps going, that’s what she does well. She’s focused on that and that’s why she’s having a great season.”
While Thomas did not want to comment on who the best 2-guard defender is, she did have one final thing to say to The Next.
Translation: Briann January. Defensive Player of the Year, according to Thomas — and a well-respected defender throughout the WNBA.
Additional reporting from: Howard Megdal, Jenn Hatfield, Alex Simon, Spencer Nusbaum, Dave Yapkowitz, Jacqueline LeBlanc and Jackie Powell.