The 5-Point Play: Making Sense of Kai Jones, and more
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, spaci