In the third volume P.I. Pulse’s recurring column, “The 5-Point Play,” basketball analyst Henry Ward returns with five more things that stood out to him this week in the world of prospects. This week, Henry discusses how Scottie Barnes impacts a team beyond his personal output, why Keon Johnson’s blossoming aggressiveness is so exciting, the general audacity displayed by James Bouknight, and more.
Here’s what’s caught our eye, lately:
Scottie Barnes’ Dominance in a Valuable Archetype
Sports are a copycat business, and the NBA is no different. Every time a team displays sustained success on the court with a relatively untraditional or unseen approach, discourse rightfully turns to this new strategy. Whether it’s based in team-building or scheme, this innovative outlook on how a winning product can be created is then looked to as the “next wave” of basketball, a movement that’s felt throughout all levels of the sport. The most recent and pertinent example is the emergence of the ball-handling, perimeter centric, savvy passing, defensively versatile bigs. Draymond Green is the unquestioned head of this movement, but with Bam Adebayo most recently making himself prominent, we’re beginning to see a shift in teams’ approaches to building efficient systems and how having this type of player — one who can alleviate defensive deficiencies through rim protection and coverage diversity and accentuate offensive strengths with rapid processing and strong passing acumen — can take a team to the next level. In this draft class, no one fits this bill better than Scottie Barnes.
To be clear, expecting Barnes to become Green or Adebayo is unfair, given the latter two are the centerpieces of this movement towards above-the-screen pick-and-roll coverages and five-out offenses. However, this isn’t to say Barnes can’t be similarly effective at unlocking a team’s scheme in the same fashion. Throughout the year, Barnes’ unique archetype has reared its head against ACC teams in a myriad of unconventional ways, with coach Leonard Hamilton making sure to leave no stone unturned when it comes to utilizing Barnes’ otherworldly processing and instincts. Barnes has spent much of the year picking up opposing teams’ point guards up full court, which, considering his 6’9” frame, feels odd — until you see him swallow penetration consistently and use his 7’2” wingspan to poke balls loose like he’s a seasoned guard defender, aptly timing swipes and jabs to keep opponents of all sizes at bay. In Florida State’s switch everything scheme, we also get to see Barnes on bigger players and off the ball quite a bit, where he shines as a rotational maverick, always calling out actions from the bottom of the shell if he’s not interrupting them himself.
Offensively, Barnes is equally enchanting and peculiar. While he isn’t a particularly worthwhile advantage creator or shooter, he displays a passing acumen that is magnificent for someone his size, as evidenced by his assist percentage of 32.8%. However, the impact goes far beyond the numbers. He maps the floor exceptionally well and times decisions better than most to consistently punish rotating defenses as a short roller or coming off screens. His size gives him passing windows that aren’t otherwise available to ball-dominant players, and his technical skill lends itself to well-placed kick-outs and drop-offs to players for easy shots. This part of his passing skill is specifically encouraging: while many players make the first available pass that often leads to fine shots or at least keeps the defense moving, Barnes consistently predicts and executes excellent passes, using probing dribbles and on-ball manipulation to create seams that he perceives before they are realized. At 6’9”, there are few comparable players in this regard who are willing and able to convert such a wide array of passing decisions, whether it be a perfectly placed lob in transition or a wickedly fast skip pass to a corner shooter. We as evaluators tend to use generic labels for the sake of brevity to explain a player’s competency in any one area, but it’s important to realize that Barnes’ processing speed, decisiveness, perception, reactivity, and general awareness are really a unique mix that allow him to create a special level of value in a pertinent way.
Building on that thought, it can be easy to see Barnes for his warts. He’s a rather deficient athlete and shooter, and therefore it may be difficult for some to see how he creates advantages to operate out of, protects the rim, or manages to remain as switchable as he is right now. But, when trying to picture the player Barnes can be at the next level, we also have to consider what that player is adding and in what avenues they’re doing so. Now more than ever, there’s an added benefit of having a big that can process actions quickly with the ball in their hands and manipulate off-ball advantages created through cutting and screening, due to the complexity of offenses and generally expanding space they exist within. On the other side of the ball, the continued reliance on drop coverage as a defensive strategy is becoming less and less viable, with the pendulum presumably swinging in the opposite direction towards coverages that better mitigate the numerous off-the-dribble shooting threats that are now in the league. Barnes is a player who excels in both of these areas, able to act as an offensive highlighter who helps more skilled teammates thrive with his passing, screening and cutting and as a defensive eraser who can cover responsibilities both on and off the ball. While it may take some team-building and schematic creativity to get the most out of Barnes, the rewards are some that would be difficult to find elsewhere.
Davion Mitchell’s disruptive magnetism
In my playing career, there was nothing more frustrating than hearing about how a certain teammate was better suited to play than I was because they consistently produced desirable stats that so often felt like chance occurrences. In college, we went by a clear benchmark as a team: every rotation player needed to average at least one offensive rebound and one steal per game to be worthy of playing time. This was infuriating as someone who didn’t procure these numbers as well as I should have, especially because it felt like some of those who did simply lucked into them rather than producing these opportunities themselves. As I matured a bit and learned a lot more about the game, I realized that these players deserved the credit they received and that ultimately this production was driven by their skill as defensive predictors and pattern recognizers. When watching Davion Mitchell, these flashbacks were brought to mind immediately, for there’s not many players in college who have ostensibly “lucked” into as many steals as he has.
The quotes there are important. Mitchell has not actually “lucked” into any more steals than the average player, even though his steal percentage of 3.8% may lead one to believe that. Instead, Mitchell uses his intricate visual processing to jump into passing lanes before the ball even leaves a players’ hands, breaking on angles he sees before passers acknowledge them. He’s a menace off the ball who’s always looking for someone to exploit, calling switches to get him matched up with lesser shooters so that he’s free to roam and wreak havoc. His desire to get involved in every play is infectious and leads to prolific results, having notched three or more steals in seven of Baylor’s seventeen games this year. He’s a joy to watch as someone whose effort level never waivers and who consistently picks the right spots to present problems, never abandoning responsibilities.
Mitchell is an equally chaotic pest on the ball, where he’s amazing at classic veteran defender tricks such as swiping down on drivers who expose the ball, getting his hand in between crossovers, and poking the ball out from behind of guys who beat him. Typically tasked with matching the opponent’s most proficient creator, Mitchell rises to the challenge and gives them one of their toughest tests of the year with his mix of technique, strength, and powerful burst. He beats drivers to their spots consistently and walls them off, anticipating counters and outmuscling players who try to get him on their back. When taking into account his passing savvy and remarkable shooting improvement that’s taken place this year (shooting 49% from 3 on 79 attempts, versus 32% on 105 last year), it’s easy to picture Mitchell as a classically understood glue guy who connects diversely skilled units with rapidly improving compound skills. A huge part of Baylor’s success this year, Mitchell’s step forward has helped propel not only the Bears, but also his draft stock, into where they each are today.
James Bouknight’s audacity
While this column mostly chooses to spend time on more overhead ideas such as team building, developmental implications, or outlier skills when it comes to prospect discussion, we can also take time here or there to simply appreciate fun when we see it. After missing multiple weeks following a surgery to repair bone chips in his elbow, James Bouknight returned this week with an 18-point performance in a win over Providence on Tuesday. The ball-dominant scoring guard had a strong start to the season production-wise, highlighted by a 40-point game versus Creighton a couple of months back. A popular pick to break out following his freshman campaign, Bouknight had a lot to prove as he absorbed a much bigger role for UConn going into this year, in terms of how he’d be able to delineate usage in a way he hasn’t really been asked to prior. While questions still remain in terms of how he can contribute as an advantage manipulator when he isn’t scoring, one thing is for sure: Bouknight is willing to try anything on a basketball court.
As I alluded to, Bouknight the prospect still has plenty of wrinkles that need ironing, but there’s no doubt about him having the basis to build on. At 6’4” with a powerful frame and loads of functional athleticism, Bouknight is a sudden athlete who moves with force and control in a way not many his size are able to. While he doesn’t have the straight line, zippy burst plenty of guards in his archetype do, he does a good job leveraging his downhill threat to create weight shifts from his defenders that he is able to exploit. At times the dribble combinations can feel predetermined and a bit rigid, but it doesn’t quite matter yet due to the speed of his movements. Given his shooting prowess, Bouknight possesses enough wiggle and reactivity to shake defenders and create enough space to rise into his shot or get downhill, where he then skies into the air and navigates space remarkably well to create finishing angles for himself amongst crowds. A true three level collegiate scoring threat, Bouknight is able to get hot quickly and is more than willing to drive an offense by himself when he does.
The questions about Bouknight’s scalability are fair and grounded in some of the problems he has manipulating the floor at times, given how he potentially could with his current gravity, but it’s again important to take Bouknight for what he is. Although he’s likely not a primary at the next level, he does project to be a nice scoring off guard who’s able to use his impressive off-screen footwork to do damage as a secondary option. His budding scoring repertoire and willingness to flash mixtape-worthy sequences will get him noticed, but it will ultimately be how he improves those ancillary guard skills that keeps him around.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s nuance
As we talked about in last week’s column with Ochai Agbaji, the ability to close down space, both through personal movement and communication, is one of the most valuable skills a defender can bring to the table. It allows for more elasticity within a defense that permits for greater risks, such as ball pressure and off ball denial, that promote mistakes such as turnovers and contested shots. Having five players on the court who can order responsibilities amongst each other and hide their gaps in the defense through heightened activity, good technique, and size makes for an incredibly difficult unit to penetrate consistently. There are few teams that teach principles to promote this better than Villanova, who are led by sophomore Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
JRE, as he’s known colloquially, is a perfect reflection of what two years under coach Jay Wright leads to from a defender. Albeit not the most gifted athlete, he manages to be everywhere at once, it seems, sprinting around and taking away on and off ball decisions one after another. The mix of feel and effort in this way make for some truly stellar possessions, like the one above, where he hustles back to deter a pass away from a diving cutter in the paint before getting back into position near the timeline to trap a pick-and-roll. After that, he reasserts himself seamlessly into the shell, closes to his man with good footwork, slides to inhale a drive, and contests a shot. What’s worth pointing out here is that even amongst the fray of a scramble that follows the trap, JRE knows where to be and when and never misses a beat. In situations where many defenders find themselves lost in translation, JRE is able to not only insert himself cleanly, but direct others on how to do so.
Offensively, JRE’s nuance is illuminated in a similar fashion. He’s a developing shooter with some reason for optimism, as despite only hitting threes at a 32% clip on 53 attempts, he’s shooting 45% from mid-range on 76 attempts. His touch is highlighted around the rim which lends itself to the belief that he may be a worthwhile shooter down the line, but as of now, JRE gets his points mostly by using his court processing and feel to create looks for himself. He uses his 230-pound build to get into the bases of his defenders on seals and duck-ins, creating easy opportunities for entry passes that he converts without a problem. His screening technique is phenomenal, and in an evolving game where so many screens are slipped, for better or worse, JRE still makes sure he nails ball-stoppers on his picks, rolling to his inside to create an advantage, as seen above.
Robinson-Earl has done a really respectable job finding ways to contribute all over from Villanova using the minutiae we all learned as kids growing up on the basketball court. It’s extremely fun to watch as an evaluator because it creates curiosity around what he could be once the skills become tighter for him. The lack athleticism will certainly hold him back some, and I think it’s fair to say that he won’t be the four position defender he is in college, but the flashes of versatility, attention to detail, and overall presumed desire to make an impact however he can is infectious and hard to ignore. Regardless of where he ends up on draft night, Robinson-Earl projects to be a sturdy role player for years to come with his desirable combination of traits that allow him to help at any stage of the team-building process, whether it be as a developmental cog for a younger team’s stars or a spot-minute stud for someone looking at a playoff run.
Keon Johnson’s blossoming aggressiveness
Keon Johnson reads as an easy-to-miss prospect who’s hiding in plain sight due to his college situation, and yet, he’s been so good it hasn’t seemed to matter much at all. A complete freak athletically, he’s a late bloomer who didn’t start playing basketball until eighth grade, having grown up on the baseball diamond. Naturally, he’s slightly behind his peers in some of the traditionally defined “skill” areas that we often evaluate players on. He’s still gaining a sense of comfort with his handle, figuring out how to organize on shots consistently, and doesn’t flash a ton of creativity around the rim, and yet, he’s still well worth a top-10 pick in a class where the front half of the first round is filled with worthwhile bets. Johnson is an excellent example of why tracking the development arc of a prospect is so important, and this is also why him becoming more comfortable making things happen on offense is an enormous development alone, regardless of result.
At The Webb School in Tennessee, Johnson rarely shared the floor with someone better than him. Compared to his peers who attended schools that played more national schedules, he faced a much lower level of competition that he was able to dominate with his insane blend of tools, feel, and defensive stallwartism. Subsequently, he left without the kind of robust fundamental framework that, say, a Montverde Academy stint would’ve given him, but that hasn’t been an issue whatsoever, either. See, this is what makes Johnson so exciting. He’s currently an effective player in the SEC as a freshman at 19 years old with four years of basketball experience and no unbelievable investment into his development. So far, he’s gotten along basically on natural feel (read: spatial reasoning, reactivity, movement mapping, proprioception) and freakishly functional athleticism alone. That’s an amazing feat for a prospect.
Expanding on what exactly “freakishly functional athleticism” means, Johnson is a wildly explosive leaper who gets off the ground quickly and with power, often rising to the rim to beat people to rebounds despite having jumped later. He needs very minimal space to take off and can contort his body in mid-air extraordinarily well, hanging on finishes for nonsensical periods of time. He has a lightning quick first step that he can generate from a true standstill, seemingly floating on drives where he makes prototypical movements such as stride finishes and euro steps look surprisingly easy. Watching Johnson play, you can quickly see how gifted he is and how much it can cover up for his current shortcomings.
The way it disguises these shortcomings also helps him from a developmental standpoint, which brings us to the headline of this portion. Despite not making any kind of wild leap in regards to his technical skill, Johnson has been able to throw up uncharacteristically large performances of late, including a 27-point outing at Kentucky last week. This is because he’s begun to realize that in spite of the skill deficit he’s operating with, he can still terrorize opponents through unusual scoring avenues and with sheer physical advantage. In fact, he has such an advantage in these areas most of the time, he can use them to fine tune some more skill-based processes in-game with low risk of failure. Above, note how high he can get off the ground on his shot, which mitigates any kind of contest despite not being able to create much separation on 6’9” Trendon Watford. Even though he can’t turn a corner here due lack of manipulation, he generates a clean look simply based on his drive threat and with his lift.
This applies to his playmaking developments, as well. Developing as a passer and decision maker requires consistently training cognitive processes such as pattern recognition and spatial reasoning that allow us to configure when and how we can make passes work. While the background in baseball certainly helps here, Johnson is still fine tuning what his decision making protocol is on the basketball court, having only had so many decision-based reps up until this point. Again, though, the level of difficulty in these situations is buoyed by his tools in two different ways — the gravity he commands as a driver due to how quickly he can adjust to help defense, as well as the margin for error he gets when making what, for most players, is a “final decision.” For example, in the pass above, Johnson creates easy separation on the initial advantage due to his speed, immediately requiring the attention of two defenders, thereby making it easier on himself. After that, he leaps into the air, presumably with a finish in mind, before realizing pre-landing that he has a man wide open, using elite body control to adjust into a nifty drop-off pass.
Essentially, Keon Johnson has, with his set of tools and baseline of skills, created an insularly optimal development setting for himself. Of course, much time and attention needs to be given towards growing him as a player and it will be necessary to scheme for him in a way that covers some areas of discomfort while allowing him to experiment, but the athletic baseline will provide some weight behind the process in and of itself. By being able to tinker with what works and what doesn’t without such a low floor of failure that one at Johnson’s development stage would usually have, there’s real developmental value behind the idea that he could contribute immediately to an NBA team without fully knowing how to play yet. That kind of proposition is rare and creates an inordinately high ceiling, one that’s well worth the plunge, even as early as the top half of the lottery.
Make sure to check back again soon for the next installment of ‘The 5-Point Play.’
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