Updated: Feb 27, 2021
In the fourth volume of P.I. Pulse’s recurring column, “The 5-Point Play,” basketball analyst Henry Ward is back to highlight five more skills, developments, and ideas that he’s worked through following another week of NCAA film inhalation. In this volume, Henry looks at the lunacy of Kai Jones’ peaks, the clear-cut argument for Kessler Edwards as a first round pick, David Johnson’s mental impact, and more.
Here’s what’s caught our eye, lately:
Kai Jones’s flashes of superstardom
The draft can be difficult to cover from a general perspective because clarity is often naturally craved despite how inherently cloudy such a practice is. For teams, it makes sense to order the available player pool as part of the process, because when the time comes, there needs to be a coherent understanding amongst the team’s decision makers of the direction a given pick is going to be taken in. Given what an organization knows about its current roster construction, salary cap situation, and future projection, it’s easier for them to pinpoint their own strengths and weaknesses and then use the draft to fill in accordingly. However, the draft isn’t simply a process of trying to fill in existing holes with skills available on the board — this process also requires a measure of how ambitious a team wants to be with their draft capital and how confident they are about certain prospects reaching certain thresholds. In other words, if a team lacks interior defense but finds themselves on the clock with the ability to choose between a potential wing-sized offensive initiator who needs work and an older, productive college big who can provide spot-minutes right away, a previously “obvious” direction becomes much more complicated. This is part of what makes the scouting process and the draft as a whole so enthralling. There’s always a gamble involved, and deciding whether or not to take it can be the difference between a stud role player and a franchise-altering talent.
When the 2021 draft comes around, executives will find themselves in this very predicament when trying to place Kai Jones amongst the rest of the crowd. Standing at 6’11” with a 7’1” wingspan, Jones possesses a combination of size and effective movement skills that’s otherworldly, which, when paired with his baseline of shooting, ball-handling, and defensive nuance skills, makes for some ridiculous sequences. Adding to the lineage of Texas big-men with surplus athleticism, Jones displays a portfolio of functional fluidity that’s tantalizing on its own, regardless of what level of skill accompanies it. Regardless of height, Jones shows some of the most potent leaping in the country with an ability to get off the ground quickly in tight spaces, allowing him to reach his peak in a hurry to block shots and finish dunks in traffic. He pairs this vertical athleticism with freakish lateral abilities, able to slide with guards on the perimeter and weave through help defense on closeouts, pulling out sharp changes of direction with the ball in his hands to avoid charges before maintaining balance and touch on euro-step layups. With a sturdy base despite his lean frame, Jones can stop and start in a way most players with his center of gravity can’t, allowing him to shake defenders for dunks amongst the fray despite his limited, yet still functional, handle.
Jones’ contributions around the rim are certainly worth noticing considering how he’s arriving at these numbers. Over the year, Jones is one of five underclassmen that’s finished 33 dunks, a reflection of his athleticism, and he pairs this number with a conversion rate of 72% near the rim despite only 63% of those finishes coming off of assists. This isn’t a jaw-dropping number in terms of self-creation ability, but it reflects how Jones is able to leverage his athleticism into rim opportunities that aren’t always just lobs, and shows that he does have touch to pair with the power that often accompanies his slams. It would also be one thing if Jones was simply using dominant physical traits to control the paint, but we’ve seen some real flashes of shooting skill that don’t seem to be mirages. Jones sports a clean stroke out to the college three, where he’s shooting 42% this year, and more importantly, a level of comfort with putting the ball on the ground on pull-ups inside the arc when closed out on. Typically, players with Jones’ size and athleticism show an all-or-nothing approach at his age, where everything’s a spot up or a finish, but Jones has proven time and again that he’s more than able to hit the brakes in front of sagging help defense to hit a mid-range jumper. How important this skill is at the next level is hard to project, but what this does show is that Jones is really just scratching the surface in terms of how he may be able to contribute as a floor-spacer down the line. Considering his percentages along with the remarkable confidence behind his shots, it’s easy to see him becoming a worthwhile triggerman in the NBA, regardless of position or size. A sample size of 26 attempts can be dangerous to extrapolate on, but sequences such as this are truly one of a kind for someone with Jones’ physical profile:
This all not to mention his defense, which has the framework to be incredibly valuable down the line with his ability to move laterally, flip his hips, and reach his leaping peak in contorted positions — all traits that lend themselves to him executing diverse pick-and-roll coverages consistently. As I discussed on my recent appearance on Sense and Scalability, where we mused on the merits of spacing as a concept on both sides of the ball, having bigs who can guard both above and below the screen with similar prolificity unlocks possibilities on the defensive end that aren’t available to teams with more traditional bigs. With his reach, leaping, and fluidity, Jones should be able to deter shots and protect the rim in drop coverage while also being able to ice sideline screens and corral ball-handlers, with true switchability figuring within his reasonable range of outcomes. As you can see above, it’s not only his physical traits that make Jones effective, but also the level of nuance he possesses in areas that are unfamiliar to others in his position group. While the goal for many bigs after a switch is to simply send the handler into help, Jones deploys timely pokes and reaches to pry the ball loose from dribblers to force turnovers. How many 6’10” guys can be counted on to make a college guard nervous in a switch?
All in all, the value proposition of Kai Jones putting everything together, despite some rudimentary stretches where the more advanced skills go to hide, is going to be too much for a team to pass on early. And rightfully so, as the clay is so evidently there, waiting to be molded. Although project bigs always find their way into the first round at some point, not many in recent history have truly shown what the finished product could look like while still in college. Jones, who’s still only a sophomore, has given us a taste of what could be in the most translatable visions possible. Transforming those flashes into consistent output is the obvious key to long-term success, and a team who’s able to do so will look back on this draft as one where they walked out with a franchise changing big on a bargain.
Kessler Edwards’ lottery case
The unique ability wings have to maximize space offensively and limit it defensively has become a recurring theme only four volumes in, but I don’t feel bad about it at all. It is hard to overstate the level of importance having a good group of wings has in the team-building process because of how it lends itself to schematic success, and this year’s class is full of guys who help fill this exact need. The top of the draft is loaded with these types of players, but the mid-to-late first round is equally dense with spectacularly beneficial bets to be made on floor spacing and space erasure. As power conference names like Franz Wagner and the later-mentioned Terrence Shannon, Jr. lead this group in terms of buzz, Kessler Edwards, a junior from the beautiful Pepperdine University in Malibu, California is perhaps one of the best gambles in the class in this regard.
While Edwards may not have the ancillary playmaking or shot creation skills that some of his top-10 pick counterparts have, he’s only a step down in terms of overall impact due to the intensity of his contributions as a defender and shooter. Over his three-year career, Edwards is shooting a nuclear 39% on 350 attempts, making him without a doubt one of the best shooters in the country regardless of size or class. People must be dissuaded by his form, which, while congruent and balanced, lacks the aesthetic appeal of some others, as this is the only reason anyone could be anything but infatuated with his shooting potential. To have such a prolific shooting sample over such a large volume is as objective as evidence gets in the scouting world, and this body of work points to Edwards becoming, at the bare minimum, a terrific catch-and-shoot threat during his time in the NBA.
The shooting, albeit truly special, isn’t even Edwards’ most translatable or potentially elite trait at the next level. As an off ball defender, Edwards is best described through analogy to NFL cornerbacks such as Darrelle Revis or Champ Bailey in their primes, as these three are some of the only athletes I’ve ever seen capable of single handedly wiping out one side of their playing floor or field. To be redundant, spacing is ever so important to an offensive attack, but there are also limits to how much space there is on a basketball court — specifically laterally, or from sideline to sideline. These parameters really only become relevant when someone like Edwards is on the floor, though, as not many others are able to cover the ground he does when it comes to contesting shots and maintaining responsibilities when on the weak-side. The simple process of tagging and recovering is somewhat solely what makes an empty pick-and-roll so effective as an action, because of how it forces the low-man into an impossible situation of having to tag the roller while also being able to get out to the shooter in the corner. Unfortunately for opposing coaches, this action simply isn’t in the cards when Edwards is on the floor due to how he is uniquely able to not only tag the roller with contact but also get a good contest on a corner three after doing so, reflecting how unbelievably special his mix of feel, instincts, and physical tools are.
The idea of the 3-and-D wing has become pretty worn out over the years as it’s been reduced to players who simply guard the ball defensively and shoot spot-ups offensively, but Kessler is truly a one-of-a-kind prospect within this archetype due to how profuse he is as a shooter combined with the stunning level of impact he has as a defender. Having had the privilege to recently watch him in person vs. LMU, it is apparent as ever the impact he has as a ball-stopper, rim protector, action disruptor and communicator at 6’8” (or maybe even 6’9”?) that allows him to seriously mitigate opposing offenses in ways 99% of individuals can’t on their own. Despite the lower level of competition and ostensive general lack of familiarity amongst the consensus, I’m comfortable saying Edwards is a lottery pick in the right context and shouldn’t be allowed to fall out of the teens in this year’s draft.
Terrence Shannon, Jr.’s budding confidence
Speaking of shooting, even those wings who are not yet as proficient as Edwards but possess a similar set of skills defensively are worth taking the plunge on sooner rather than later. We’ve already touched on the specific value creation of wings in our coverage of Franz Wagner, Ochai Agbaji, and others, but Terrence Shannon, Jr. (“TSJ”) can’t be left out of the conversation. A defensive stalwart throughout his career, TSJ has been on radars since stepping on campus in Lubbock due to his bulldog approach to defense combined with his intrinsic wits, which combine to make him one of the best wing defenders in this year’s draft.TSJ’s mature, refined defensive technique is one of this class’s easiest bets, and that matched with his well-managed increase in usage, growing playmaking chops, and slashing potential gives him one of the more appealing median outcomes. The biggest question mark around TSJ has always been his shooting, but this year, we’ve been given more reason than ever to buy into his ability to stretch defenses long term, even if the output hasn’t quite been there.
Perhaps the most well-known and historically explored shooting indicator has been free throw percentage, something with which TSJ has never struggled. With his burly frame and craft, he’s consistently found ways to get to the line and convert at a high rate, sporting a free throw rate of 50.6% over his college career that’s paired with a free throw percentage of 81%. This is impressive not only because he performs well in an area that’s widely regarded as a potential projector for his biggest blindspot, but also because it shows that TSJ can manufacture points even without the threat of a jumpshot. However, this year, we’ve seen how this area of his game has begun to develop even without desired statistical results, and how the shooting may be coming together right in front of our eyes despite the shots not always falling.
Considering his success at the line and his current form, the problems with TSJ seem very ironable, so to see him becoming more and more comfortable with pulling the trigger in diverse shooting scenarios is terrific. This is because these attempts, regardless of end result, will help him build up his pattern recognition in areas that will be necessary later, once a professional team is able to make the requisite fundamental and biomechanical changes to his form to fully capitalize on the touch he already has. Last year, TSJ took 35 threes over his 29 game season, a mark he’s nearly doubled in just under 75% of the contests. Just 12 months ago, defenders could close-out short on TSJ with no repercussions, allowing them to contain his otherwise powerful drives with no risk of submitting to a shot due to his timidness. Now, we see TSJ at least beginning to adjust to those decisions with attempts that command a level of attention that was not previously there. Of course, he has to begin to make them for this to be translatable, but as stated, there’s plenty of reason for optimism that this eventually becomes the case. College, in this context, is moreso a developmental playground for these prospects than a place for them to necessarily dominate. The fact that the Red Raiders coaching staff is okay with TSJ testing out his range is a testament to both his off-season developments that occurred behind closed doors, as well as to their own vision for him long-term. The idea of TSJ punishing an under coverage in a pick-and-roll with a pull-up three was merely a fever dream last year, but seeing that decision being made now, no matter the end result, is serious progress.
The ramifications of this “trial and error” period are currently understated, but likely to be very helpful in the long term. For every sagging defense TSJ tries to make pay now, there will be one that he’ll be much more equipped to handle down the line in other ways once the shooting becomes more consistent. Up until now, every defensive coverage he’s faced has allowed him to get downhill and show off his passing acumen on drive and kicks, but much less so as a proactive distributor who can find guys without a fully bent defense. For a player who’s archetype (an off-ball, defense-first wing who can add defensively without subtracting offensively) doesn’t necessarily require these skills to be successful, it’s pretty encouraging that TSJ has set himself up on a worthwhile development path that could allow him to capitalize on his gifts to the fullest.
Chris Duarte’s two-way potency
Every year, the premium on youth early in the draft spills over a bit too far, as talented, well-rounded contributors get passed up for being too old. Last year, we saw guys like Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman, Sr. and Malachi Flynn fall towards the back end of the first round due to concerns around their potential for growth given their elder standing in comparison to the rest of the player pool. Of course, it makes sense to draft young when projections are similar — taking a freshman instead of a senior is literally a three year difference in development and maturation, and one that can be controlled by the team end if the freshman is the choice. But, opting for youth relentlessly can also lead to a nonsensically risky swing occurring over selecting a high-floor option. Even though this gamble is sometimes worth it, regardless of the results, there are other times where banking on a talented, readymade player is the move to make. In this class, Chris Duarte profiles as one of the upperclassmen studs that finds ways to contribute immediately, regardless of draft slot.
Offensively, Duarte is first and foremost a remarkable shooter. Whether it’s off the dribble, on the catch, or pulling up, Duarte shows consistent, balanced form with terrific self-organization that allows him to get to the top of his shot through a variety of avenues. As of this writing, Duarte is shooting 42% on 108 attempts over 19 games, averaging a ridiculous 5.6 attempts considering how efficient he has been. Duarte uses his consistent off the dribble shooting threat to create windows he then uses to get downhill, from where he can manage advantages well with his in-between game and passing. Despite his lack of vertical pop, he’s still managing to shoot 69% on rim attempts this season, using his slithery style and craft to sneak through crowds into below-the-rim finishes. It would be one thing if Duarte was simply a volume scorer, but he’s shown too the ability to fit roped passes through tight windows to shooters, as he does above, often using his drives to probe for passing opportunities rather than making decisions before he has to. What I like most about Duarte’s offensive approach is that he’s aware of his team’s reliance on his scoring but doesn’t let that dictate entire possessions. If he can’t create a rotation himself, he’s more than willing to move off the ball and relocate to keep actions in motion. This also promotes the idea that he would thrive in a scaled down role in the NBA right away, as other players in his archetype may take more time to learn how to measure their aggressiveness.
Defensively, while Duarte isn’t a lockdown, “set it and forget it” defender, he still finds ways to make a notable impact on and off the ball. Limited by his lateral quickness and general strength, Duarte relies on technical savvy and anticipation to force turnovers and stick with ball-handlers, sliding to beat people to their spots with good angle recognition, balance, and technique, making sure to maintain his center of gravity as he moves to take contact better than his frame would suggest. He uses these skills to wreak havoc, with a steal percentage of 3.7% and block percentage of 3.5%, making him one of only 6 players in the country to reach these marks. Of these six, Duarte is by far the biggest contributor offensively, showing how he’s able to play a uniquely pertinent role on both ends in a power-five conference.
This level of two-way impact, regardless of age, is deserving of draft consideration. At the moment, judging by consensus public big boards, it seems Duarte is understood as a borderline second round pick, which feels like a general overthink happening across the board. At 23 years old, Duarte is somewhat expected to produce at this rate in the college game, but it doesn’t mean him doing so isn’t relevant whatsoever. At 6’6”, Duarte’s mix of shooting, requisite on-ball playmaking, and defensive turnover creation is something worth selecting with a guaranteed contract, given how well it should translate immediately into a quality second unit with room for more.
David Johnson’s proactivity
With many prospects, there’s a tipping point that’s reached in regards to understanding one’s role on a successful team in the long-term while also maximizing their personal impact as often the most talented player on their team in the short-term. In other words, it’s a tricky line to walk between exerting “dominant” skills, like off the dribble shot-making, on-ball defense, and advantage creation and fitting in with excellent “ancillary” skills, like passing, team defense, and shooting off the catch. For many college underclassmen, being the best player on their team growing up means hitting a steep learning curve once arriving on campus, in terms of how to measure your approach and find meaningful ways to contribute that aren’t in avenues that have been used most in one’s past. In some ways, this is the argument for prep schools and shoe circuit AAU programs, but David Johnson only had one of those two experiences before arriving at Louisville. While this mixture of contexts and roles has extremely worthwhile developmental value of its own, it doesn’t make Johnson’s proactive, decisive approach to the game any less impressive, or any less projectable when it comes to evaluating these traits as uniquely helpful to an NBA team given the rest of his makeup.
At 6’5”, 210 pounds with nearly a 6’10” wingspan, Johnson is bigger than most of his matchups as a lead guard. This, combined with the fact that he isn’t necessarily the quickest mover, lends itself to his crafty, heady style of play that leads to a lot of drives being turned into post-ups and not a lot of corners being turned in pick-and-rolls. The lack of standstill burst is somewhat of a concern, but along the way, it’s required Johnson to pick up a degree of passing savvy and timing that most don’t have. Other ball dominant guards with a heavy pick-and-roll diet often require the defense to decide their read for them, knifing into the help before picking out an obvious kick-out or dump-off option once a second defender comes over. Conversely, Johnson operates the pick-and-roll with mature pace and preternatural timing, winding up to make passes he perceives before the defense quite rotates to make those very passes available. This is a department where his frame helps quite a bit, too, able to get off overhead skip and hook passes without deterrence.
This also bodes well to an off-ball role at the next level. If one were to watch the Cardinals this year, they would certainly notice Johnson’s share of possessions where he controls the majority of the clock himself, but this is not reflective of him as a thinker. In the cases we do see him off-ball, perhaps when it’s teammate Carlik Jones’ time for a ball screen, Johnson shines as a secondary playmaker, whipping swing passes to shooters or quick entries to duck-ins. This is the trait that caught my eye most when watching, despite everything else that makes him special. The wherewithal to convert quick actions and exploit rotating defenses with passes that force another unexpected collective decision are ostensibly simple yet practically complicated reads that set him apart from guards his age.
Even though he’s been primarily used in a “point guard-esque” role in college, it’s very easy to picture Johnson as a secondary ball-handler on a team with primary initiators already in place. With his frame, defensive instincts, functional athleticism, decision making, and improving jumper, Johnson is likely better suited for a less ball-dominant role anyway at the next level, which lends itself to the idea that this college season was an excellent development context for him anyway. Watching him move through reads, whether it’s off the catch or dribble, it’s fun to imagine him doing the same in a scaled-down scenario at the next level where he’s targeting rotating defenses and punishing out of place coverages — a role that he would fill especially well due to the speed and accuracy of his decisions.
Make sure to check back again soon for the next installment of ‘The 5-Point Play.’
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