There seems to be a lot of confusion about what a two-way NBA player is. Some use the term to describe a basketball player’s skills while the same designation refers to a type of contract. For this article’s purpose, we focus on the former: how it is used to describe the skills of certain basketball players. However, for clarity’s sake, let’s also touch a little bit about two-way contracts. First, let’s find out what it means to be a two-way player.
What Does it Mean to Be a Two-Way Basketball Player?
A two-way basketball player is someone who excels both offensively and defensively. “Excel” is the operative word. In our opinion, a two-way basketball player can consistently make a significant impact on both ends that you can’t really categorize him as an offensive or defensive player. He can score 30 on any given night while also doing damage control against the best offensive weapon on the other side.
Of course, the term “two-way basketball player” is not an official description. Hence, it is prone to confusing criteria and is often a term that gets thrown around too often than we would like. For example, should a player who has not made an All-Defensive team deserve to be called a two-way player? Or is someone as inconsistent on defense such as Kevin Durant worthy of being mentioned as one?
Some people on the Internet (the NBA subreddit community, for instance) notoriously describes Durant as a two-way player. He is even often mentioned, along with Kawhi Leonard, as probably the best two-way NBA players in 2019. Strictly speaking, how could he be a two-way player when he hasn’t even made one All-Defensive team? He is one of the best basketball players in the world, perhaps even second-best, but his impact on defense is not on the same level as his offense. In short, nobody’s blood is running cold if Durant is guarding them.
Now, what about the other meaning of a two-way player? A two-way basketball player may also mean someone who is signed under the two-way contract. A two-way contract is offered to undrafted players where they make the team as a 16th or 17th player on the roster. They can spend 45 days in the NBA (may not be consecutive), and the rest will be spent in the G-League.
Important Skills for Two-Way Basketball Players
As previously noted, this article will focus on the first meaning of a two-way basketball player. With that being said, it’s difficult to enumerate all the skills needed to be a two-way basketball player. To be given that distinction, you will need to develop all offensive and defensive skills.
On defense, two-way basketball players need to be exceptionally proficient on one-on-one defense. He should be able to limit his defensive assignment without much help. On the other hand, if he is switched to others playing a different position, he can hold his own and make life difficult for the other player. In short, he needs to be able to do everything defensively– keep up with quick players on the perimeter, navigate screens, bang bodies inside if he has to, and cover his teammates’ mistakes.
On offense, it is pretty much the same. He can easily drop 20 or 30 if he has to and may do so in various ways. He can score from inside or outside, and most importantly, puts pressure on opposing defenses by getting to the foul line with regularity. If someone can do that night in and night out, that is definitely a two-way basketball player in our book.
Can Players Develop into Two-Way Basketball Players?
The short answer would be yes. To give you a concrete example, Kawhi Leonard was not really considered a skilled offensive player coming into the NBA from San Diego State. He was more of a long-term project with excellent defensive instincts but is still a long way to become a reliable offensive threat at the time of the draft. We all know what he became now– the man is essentially averaging 27 points a game this season.
However, two-way basketball players are All-Star shoo-ins. As we know, only a small percentage of NBA players go on to become All-Star, and only 24 out of the 450 gets the prestige every year. So while it’s fine and dandy to develop your offensive and defensive skills, you’re still may not be good enough to be a two-way basketball player. Even so, the chances of carving up a long NBA career goes up if you continue refining your overall basketball skills.
Who are the Best Two-Way Players in the NBA?
If we are going to mention the best two-way players in NBA active rosters, it should start with Kawhi Leonard. The Klaw is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time Finals MVP, and a four-time All-NBA selection. His accolades speak for itself. Now, how about the others?
LeBron James. Even though he is taking off defensive possessions more now than earlier in his career, James is third in the all-time scoring list behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. He is no slouch on defense either, with six All-Defense selections to his credit.
Chris Paul. CP3 is an automatic 18 PPG scorer and accounts for almost 10 assists a night in his career. That means he is responsible for at least 38 points a game for his team! Other than that, Paul is 7th on the all-time steals leaders and is selected to nine All-Defensive teams.
Anthony Davis. AD is a finalist in this year’s DPOY, and that alone should speak for itself. Couple that with a career 24 PPG average, and you do have a legit two-way player right there.
Paul George. PG is also a big-time scorer, averaging over 21 points per outing in each of the last five seasons and six of the previous seven. He is a member of four All-Defense teams and is probably on his way to a fifth.
Giannis Antetokounmpo. One look at The Greek Freak’s body of work this season, and that should settle whether he is a two-way player. The guy has a chance to be an MVP and a DPOY and may become one of only three players in NBA history to do so.
Jrue Holiday. We’d like to throw in someone who’s very underrated in most two-way player conversations. He did not have the hardware to back it up, but he can almost give you 20 points, and two steals a night in his sleep. And about his defensive prowess? Ask Damian Lillard.
Aside from these seven names, you can probably include Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, and Joel Embiid in the mix. Like we mentioned, Kevin Durant has one good defensive season, so we’re not inclined to include him on the list.
What about ranking the top 10 two-way NBA players of all time? That’s pretty hard to do but let’s take a stab at it using the same criteria:
1. Hakeem Olajuwon. Twelve-time All-Star. Nine-time All-Defense. Two-time DPOY and only one of only two who won MVP and DPOY in the same year. The other guy is…
2. Michael Jordan. Hard to argue against somebody who is universally considered the greatest of all time. He can get you 30 (or 50) on any given night while stepping on the necks of whoever he’s guarding.
3. David Robinson. “Admiral” has only a handful who have won a DPOY and an MVP (not in the same year). He is a 10-time All-Star and an eight-time All-Defense member.
4. Tim Duncan. Fifteen-time All-NBA and fifteen-time All-Defense? It’s a crime not to include him here.
5. Wilt Chamberlain. The NBA did not name All-Defensive teams until 1969, but the Big Dipper was in two of the first five seasons he qualified. If it was done years earlier, no doubt Wilt would have added more to his collection.
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Like Duncan, it would be a travesty passing up the all-time scoring leader. Cap has been named a 19-time All-Star and an 11-time All-Defense selection.
7. Jerry West. The Logo may be known for his scoring prowess but is a five-time All-defensive team member until he retired. Like Wilt, he would have had more if the league started naming All-Defense teams before 1969.
8. Scottie Pippen. While he may always be known as Robin to MJ’s Batman, he is one hell of a sidekick. Pippen was named as an All-Star six times and to All-Defensive teams 10 times.
9. Kobe Bryant. Many argue that Kobe’s inclusion to All-Defensive teams in the latter years of his prime came from reputation rather than his actual body of work. But still, we can’t erase the fact that the guy was selected to 12 All-Defensive teams and 18 All-Star games.
10. Kevin Garnett. Among the Big Ticket’s accolades are an MVP, a DPOY, nine All-NBA nods, 15 All-Star selections, and a member of 12 All-Defensive teams.
Honorable Mentions: Dwight Howard (20 PPG scorer in his athletic prime and the only winner of three consecutive DPOYs); Gary Payton (averaged 19 points the same year he was named DPOY); Alonzo Mourning (averaged 20 points and almost four blocks in the two consecutive seasons he won DPOY).
Wrapping Things Up: Two-Way Basketball Player
A two-way basketball player is someone who can score at will while doing the same impactful job on the other end of the floor. He will get you 20 or 30 consistently, and he would have no problem limiting his guy on defense. Remember, the description as a two-way basketball player is not really official. That means no one has a clear standard of what makes one a two-way player.
However, in this article, we decided to include career-scoring averages, All-Star selections, All-Defensive team selections, and Defensive Player of the Awards as the criteria for two-way basketball players. They really are a rare breed; that’s why we can easily pick them up among their peers, especially the ones that are still active.
A bigger challenge is coming up with a list of top 10 two-way NBA players of all time. We also resolved not to name active players on this list (except for Dwight Howard as an honorable mention), since most of them still have the time to add an award or two for their career.
As you can see with all these names, a two-way basketball player has all the skills on offense and defense. On offense, most of these guys can score anywhere and, most importantly, anytime they want. On defense, their accolades should speak for themselves. So if a debate blows up and warrants you to elaborate on what it means to be a two-way basketball player, the easiest thing to do is to refer to a player’s accomplishments. After all, numbers don’t lie.
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