NBA defensive schemes can be tough to master, and it is therefore somewhat rare for a rookie to come in and be anything other than an unmitigated disaster on that end of the floor. Even more rare is for a 19-year-old to be a positive contributor.

But Dyson Daniels is here to break that mold. Daniels knows what will get him playing time on a deep Pelicans roster.

“That’s what I’ve done my whole career, is play defense. I’m gonna bring that every game, every practice,” he told reporters during training camp. “My offense is coming along as well, but I think defense is what’s going to get me on the floor first.”

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For Daniels, that is an achievable goal. He’s already shown the capability of being a great perimeter defender during the team’s preseason games.

An ankle injury limited him to only 20 seconds in the team’s third preseason game, but through 54 minutes in the team’s first two contests, Daniels had already recorded 13 deflections, by far the most on the team. As a frame of reference for how absurdly high that number is, Dejounte Murray led the NBA last season with four deflections per game.

Daniels is a ballhawk without making foolish gambles. He has been a block-and-steal machine in the preseason, averaging 5.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes.

More impressive than his ability to take away the ball has been Daniels’ ability to stay solid and remain in front of elite drivers.

In the Pelicans’ first preseason game, he used his long strides to cut off Zach LaVine’s forays to the rim. He stayed in front of Cade Cunningham, last year’s No. 1 pick, and helped block his layup attempt. And he saved his best for last against Jaden Ivey, this year’s No. 5 pick, down the stretch of the Pelicans’ 107-101 victory in their second preseason game.

The Pistons drew up the same out-of-bounds play twice inside the final minute of a nail-biter, clearing out the floor for the explosive rookie to isolate against Daniels. He stayed in front of Ivey and forced a tough one-footed runner miss the first time down, then stripped Ivey clean on the second time down to seal the win.

So, what makes Daniels so good at defense?

His tools are undeniably a part of the package. He measured at 6-7.5, 195 pounds with a 6-10.5 wingspan at the NBA Draft Combine, giving him great size and length for a guard. His agility and ability to stop on a dime are also elite.

But more than just raw athleticism, Daniels thinks the game like a veteran.

“With defense, some of it can be taught. A lot of it is just instinct,” veteran teammate Larry Nance Jr. said. “Dyson’s got that [instinct]. Seeing the trouble he causes, whether it be blocks, steals or even just something to the naked eye you wouldn’t see — just clogging a driving lane for someone on the ball.

“His knack for defense, his defensive IQ, is already super high.”

Positioning is the toughest part of the game for rookies to master. Daniels already has a good grasp of when to rotate, how to front the post hard and where to stand to show a body to a driver. The blocks and steals are flashy, but Daniels is much more consistently good in the smaller aspects of team defense that add up bit by bit.

Daniels still has some work to do on the other parts of his game. His drives have resulted in good looks for teammates off his passes, showing once again a high-level understanding of the game. But he hasn’t been able to finish at a great rate.

His shooting also still needs more consistency. Fortunately, he’s being guided by Fred Vinson, one of the best shooting coaches in the league, in order to get better.

If Daniels’ offense can ever catch up to his defense, he may end up being the steal of his draft class. Don’t be surprised to see him making a real contribution to the Pelicans’ playoff run this season.

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