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The 5-Point Play: Jalen Johnson's Rare Makeup, and more

Projected lottery pick Jalen Johnson. Credit: Duke Athletics

In the fifth volume of P.I. Pulse’s recurring column, “The 5-Point Play,” basketball analyst Henry Ward returns to shed light on another quintet of ideas generated by recent tape study of pertinent draft prospects. This week, Henry focuses on a trio of players hovering around the lottery cusp, from Jalen Johnson’s unique mix of traits to Corey Kispert’s dismissal of defensive attention. He also touches on the specialties of a pair of Big 12 guards who’ve blossomed into leaders on national championship contenders, and, more importantly, potential first round picks.

Here’s what’s caught our eye, lately:

Jalen Johnson’s intoxicating cocktail of skills

An inherently theoretical process, prospect evaluation requires a fine mix of judging current talent and role while also projecting future developments and deployments to try and ultimately build differing levels of confidence across the prospect pool, before honing in on a single player when on the clock. Naturally, there’s an inclination to value the more “intangible” skills in basketball when building these orderings due to how unlikely it is that those skills can be taught to a worthwhile degree in the NBA. While some players come in with a good amount of technical skill, perhaps as ball-handlers or shooters, there are others who show more athletic and cognitive gifts that always seem to excite draftniks a bit more than their collegiate impact would suggest they should. This of course is due to this dichotomy between what can be developed and what can’t, with a premium being placed on outlier level traits that are more difficult to develop later on in one’s career.

Jalen Johnson is the rare prospect who pairs more than one of these intangible skills together to generate most of his contribution on the floor. Albeit a turbulent season for Johnson and the Blue Devils that was ultimately cut short, he was still able to showcase much of what makes him enticing as a prospect within his small sample size of games. A terror in the open court, Johnson matches his 6’9” frame with high-level passing savvy and truly special functional athleticism. In the past, we’ve seen some prospects like him get bogged down in the beginning of their careers due to an unclear fit within their collegiate team context, getting placed into round holes as square pegs to try and keep systems aligned across years of high roster turnover. Conversely, Johnson came in right away playing a role that will likely be similar to that of which he’ll fill in the NBA, operating as a combo forward who used his athletic tools to play around the perimeter while maintaining rim protection responsibilities defensively, and acting as an offensive initiator who was free to push in transition, pick out shooters from the wings, and post up smaller matchups when appropriate offensively. In this context, not a lot of imagination was required to picture how Johnson fits in at the next level with his bag of tools at his size.

Inconsistency muddled some of Johnson’s season, as he faced some tough stretches before exploding for huge performances, but this is where the theory of draft decisions comes into play. While Johnson didn’t necessarily maintain superstar levels of output across his shortened season that would make him the sure-fire top-five pick some envisioned during the preseason, he flashed more than enough of what evaluators were looking for in order to keep his hat in the ring as a potential lottery guy. Simply put, 6’9” players who can move like Johnson very seldomly come around, and most of those who do don’t also possess such a passing repertoire to match it. This makes him an interesting risk/reward case, similar to that of Kai Jones’, which we touched on last week, even if the reward isn’t necessarily as bountiful. If everything clicks for Johnson, the team that commits to developing him could be rewarded with an oversized initiator who’s able to cause problems with his scheme-bending gracefulness, punishing rotations with his bag of kick-outs and skips while also being able to play above-the-screen pick-and-roll coverages and protect the rim with his effortless bounce. The name that comes to mind is Ben Simmons, and while Johnson has potentially impossible strides to make to reach quite that level, even a more muted version of such a player would be uniquely valuable in terms of the versatility their lineups could hold given the defensive returns in conjunction with his high offensive floor.

Duke's Jalen Johnson. Credit: Duke Athletics

Usman Garuba’s defensive technique

As a player, I was often wary of defenders who were able to maximize their disruption within the rules of play. These types of players were always the most obnoxious to go up against because it always felt like they were doing something illegal to get you off your game, when in reality, everything was above board and well within reason. So, while I initially felt inclined to label this section “Usman Garuba’s defensive tricks,” it ultimately felt that this would be selling him short. In reality, Garuba simply displays an impressively mature awareness of defensive techniques that, combined with his terrific physical profile, make him a brutal matchup for ball-handlers and bigs alike.

Having come through the Real Madrid youth academy pipeline, Garuba’s incredibly technical, instinctual approach to defense has been well-advertised. Standing 6’8”, Garuba possesses impressive defensive versatility that spans beyond his athletic profile, often making plays which are unattainable by the athletically elite look simple and within his range. This isn’t to say Garuba is not an impressive athlete, for he does sport a worthy combination of strength and springiness to pair with his wicked lateral agility, but he is often seen executing difficult actions with ease due to how correctly reactive he is at all times, rather than due to his athleticism. In this way, he’s an interesting contrast to Johnson, who’s athleticism gives him wiggle room in terms of rotational awareness. When comparing the two, it’s Garuba’s whose impact feels more translatable across levels, due to how unmitigatable such instincts are, in comparison to how tools alone can still lead to plenty of missed opportunities. If Garuba can get to the action, a play is going to be made.

What pops off the screen most with Garuba’s defense is his aforementioned nose for the ball in all situations. Garuba’s sense for knowing when to swipe down on digs and stunts and when to reach in on approaching ball-handlers is easily his most special trait. To the amateur eye, such plays seem simple and obvious, but any film junkie or former player knows how difficult it is for players to consistently make contact with the ball on these sorts of microactions over the course of a tournament or season. Garuba avoids fouls at an absurd rate for how often he attempts to make a play on the ball, winning these jousts consistently on his way to racking up 1.5 steals per game per 36 minutes this EuroLeague season. With good length, exceptional timing, and seasoned technique, Garuba often slides with ball-handlers for the length of the court, applying pressure before pouncing on a loose dribble to win the ball back. While somewhat inconsequential over the course of the game, this trait shows how strong Garuba’s feel for defense is in general, and this feel makes itself felt all across the court through rim rotations, tags on cutters, stunt and recovers, and more. As we’ve discussed plenty, absorbing space and causing congestion is one of the most valuable things a defender can bring to the table, and Garuba is able to do so with wits beyond his years.

Real Madrid's Usman Garuba

Jared Butler’s shot versatility

For small guards in today’s NBA, pull up shooting is essentially a prerequisite. Because of the reliance on ball screens in offensive systems and the subsequent drop coverage they’re met with, it’s exceptionally important that initiators are capable of punishing the space given between the level of the screen and the rim protector via pull-up shooting or some kind of outlier shot type (looking at you, Immanuel Quickley’s floater). With so much time spent with the ball in their hands, guards have, now more than ever, a critical responsibility when it comes to being able to create and convert shots from a variety of arrival processes in order to maintain value, barring they’re not already elite defenders and/or playmakers. For this reason in and of itself, Baylor’s Jared Butler is an intriguing late first round option as someone who excels in this arena.

Butler’s fantastically tight handle that he uses to whip out his bevy of dribble combinations allows him to create space by displacing defender weight and then making them pay by exploiting their leanings. He uses quick, firm dribbles to freeze opponents before pulling out powerful attack or retreat moves, making every one of his micro-isolations a dance between himself and the point of attack matchup. Despite a dearth of elite straight line speed, Butler’s still able to get serious separation through his handle manipulation, ability to read defenders, and tight area burst, often dusting his man after throwing together a couple quick moves. This level of ball-handling goes a long way in opening up his off-the-dribble shooting, as it permits him to rally into his beautiful, always balanced, one motion release. Butler has been a nightmare for Big 12 big men who have been forced to switch onto him this past season, shooting a blistering 56.8% adjusted field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, which is good for the 94th percentile nationally per Synergy Sports Technology.

However, Butler’s magic comes through the fact that he’s not only a pull-up shooter. While some players in the archetype of the smaller lead guard often struggle in catch-and-shoot situations due to the majority amount of their time being spent on the ball, Butler does not fit this mold. Instead, Butler has proven time and again that he is more than capable of being used as a gravity piece when not absorbing lead-handler duties, coming off screens and nailing shots on the move. Having spent the season alongside backcourt mate Davion Mitchell, who excels mostly as an advantage exploiter and distributor, it makes plenty of sense why Butler would be used in this way and helps paint a picture of what his role could be if he lands in a situation where initiation duties are best dolled out to a more prominent star.

In Waco, Butler is certainly the man coach Scott Drew wants hunting buckets when it matters, but it’s more than likely that won’t be the case as he transitions to the next level. In this scenario, it’s comforting to see how Butler has been able to take on multiple offensive responsibilities and perform each evenly well. With the best teams in the NBA now often led by wing-sized offensive juggernauts, there’s a need for guys like Butler, who can provide spacing and secondary playmaking when playing with the first unit while also being able to take on a more focal role when alongside the rest of the bench. Given how gifted he is as a sniper in such differing avenues of shot creation, coupled with his general playmaking savvy, Butler seems to be a perfect fit for a playoff team looking for a spark-plug off the bench who can fill spot-starter minutes when needed.

Baylor's Jared Butler. Credit: Baylor Athletics

Miles McBride’s reflexes

While I’ve discussed the value of off-ball defense plenty, it’s also important that someone is in place to alter the initial advantage creation to begin with. Off-ball rotations and ground coverage help mitigate the effects of those advantages once they’re made, but it’s also exceptionally helpful to have players that can also deter those penetration opportunities to begin with. Miles “Deuce” McBride is a product of the Bob Huggins school of defensive mirroring, and it shows through his stunning ability to stay in front of handlers in the open court to a nonsensical degree with his quick-twitch instincts.

The practice of containing a ball-handler is difficult enough as is, and to be able to do so with such pressure is an extravagant skill to have. McBride’s hip fluidity, core strength and general spring off the ground allows him to operate his body at will, displaying an extra level of proprioception that makes shedding him incredibly difficult. There are multiple paths to effective containment when guarding at the point of attack, and McBride’s physical aptitude is ultimately just a part of the mosaic that is defending with pressure. We’ve seen players of diverse physical profiles have similar levels of results in terms of them being able to deter drives and cause problems for dribblers, but McBride’s potent combination of feel, frame, and lateral athleticism allow him to leave a fingerprint on each possession in ways others who are less proficient in these areas cannot. Another noteworthy example may be the aforementioned Garuba, who contains with length, angle prediction and technique to guard down positions and create problems in the backcourt. McBride, who’s significantly shorter and doesn’t have the same technical polish, is still able to wreak havoc in the same way due to how reactive he is. If Garuba is determining penetration lanes and taking predictive steps to cut them off, McBride is simply improvising as he goes, sliding wherever a handler shows interest in going and beating them there in a tighter space. While one isn’t necessarily “better” than the other, and each style fits their projected role equally well, McBride’s is simply eye-catching through how hard it is to fathom at times. He makes unnatural lateral movements look as easy as a sprint, executing defensive slides faster than most can run in a straight line.

It’s worth discussing how this affects his off-ball defense, too. Being able to perceive defensive responsibilities is one thing, but being able to break on actions quickly to maintain congruence between conception and action allows defenders to enact a different level of chaos when in rotation. For most defensive shells, possession goals hinge on the shell being maintained as best as possible throughout a shot-clock in order to keep rotations intact and prevent advantages. Therefore, when you have a player like McBride, who can not only erase decisions with his burst but also adequately re-insert himself into rotation in ways that best allow for his teammates to do the same, you’re in a much better spot as a defense to fulfill those goals. “Defensive versatility” is a term often used to describe a player who’s able to guard multiple possessions, but it feels fitting for someone like McBride as well, who, while likely unable to guard anyone outside his position group, provides you value in more ways than one on defense and allows decision-makers some needed flexibility in terms of how they formulate lineups, as someone who provides unique value as a mistake eraser for someone his size.

West Virginia's Miles "Deuce" McBride. Credit: West Virginia Athletics

Corey Kispert’s disregard for contests

Kispert’s insane shooting output has been well-documented and remains one of the more interesting value propositions within this year’s draft. While some players in the late lottery may possess more room to grow than the 22 year-old Kispert, there’s no argument that any share such an NBA-ready, elite level skill. With a shot profile that bleeds green on spreadsheet cells colored in terms of percentile, Kispert holds one of the stronger shooting track records in recent memory — 41% from 3 on 602 attempts matched with a free throw percentage of 82% on 223 attempts. Betting on Kispert to become an elite floor-spacer in the NBA with his distinguished statistical background, clean mechanics, and fundamental shot-preparation strategies is one of the biggest home runs available in this year’s crop of prospects, but what stands out most beyond these traits is how versatile Kispert is in how he’s able to get attempts off with total ignorance of defensive pressure.

Despite it being an imperfect parallel, the Miami Heat’s Duncan Robinson acts as an interesting case study for what role Kispert can fill at the next level with a similar level of off-screen versatility and ball-movement awareness. All throughout last year’s NBA Playoffs, in which Robinson truly made a name for himself nationally, broadcasters and Robinson himself alike would often share stories of how coach Erik Spolestra’s plan for the sniper was not predicated on makes, but rather shots themselves. Knowing how gifted Robinson was as a shooter, Spolestra knew he needed to ingrain in his second-year star role player that his job was to not only shoot when the decision was obvious but to also do his best to hunt opportunities, even when potentially irrational. After all, the pressure put on a defense through shooting is only amplified when the opposing team must operate under the pretense that any touch within half court could turn into a make, and with Robinson’s talent, this is only somewhat of an exaggeration.

Kispert’s ability to, like Robinson, get off relatively high-quality attempts in the face of solid contests is something that sets him apart from many shooters in this draft and ones prior. Even though his release can be a bit low and in front of his face, Kispert’s quick trigger grants him the freedom to avoid smothering defenses in order to apply this same level of pressure. Able to get to the peak of his shot consistently from a variety of entry angles, footwork positions, or catch contexts, he’s a consistent threat to punish any contest that doesn’t physically lead to a block. This microskill is a large reason why Kispert has been able to expand his volume across the board this season, already having fired off 147 shots from range through 24 games, putting him on pace to break last year’s mark of 178 attempts that took him 33 games to reach.

Of course, beyond his ability to shoot, Kispert also projects as a multi-faceted contributor with his frame, requisite feel, and understanding of his role. His willingness to play off the dribble this year and operate as more than just a shooter in Gonzaga’s prolific offense is a noteworthy development that will also pay dividends for his long-term outlook. With such a bankable skill already in place, any ancillary contributions Kispert is able to make will be viewed as icing on the cake in terms of his draft projection, and he’s definitely one to watch for teams with significant creation pieces already in place as they move to round out their cores with young, smart wings.

Gonzaga's Corey Kispert

Make sure to check back again soon for the next installment of ‘The 5-Point Play.’

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