While consistently engaging in and consuming NBA draft discourse over the past few months, I’ve noticed a few “designations” that I think need to be seriously reconsidered. In this piece, I want to invoke some of my philosophy into readers and encourage them to adopt a more holistic approach, as that’s how basketball truly is. The terms “on ball” and “off-ball” have bugged me the most lately and I’m going to tell you why — while making the early pitch for some 2021 prospects who I consider intriguing. Sure, are there players who hold more on ball responsibility, have a heavier diet of PnR reps and as a whole, have a longer leash with the rock in their hands? Of course. However, the floor consists of 10 basketball players, constantly moving around the court and weaving in-between on and off ball actions. These basketball players need to be competent and comfortable doing both, as the game changes so drastically on a possession-by-possession basis. If these “On/Off” designations were true, Matisse Thybulle would have certainly been worth a top ten pick, instead, he’s struggling to crack Doc Rivers’ rotation. These “archetypal designations” are an attempt to simplify the game, but in reality, it’s being done in a falsified manner. When you turn on the NBA film, the idea of having a “primary initiator” run 75 pick and rolls while the “off ball” role players wait patiently for spot up threes or cutting windows, is a downright fallacy. Instead — other than a select few teams — you’ll see an initial flow of movement, roping that said “off ball” player into the action. Whether it’s a stagger screen, DHO or simple relocation, that player is now being thrusted into an “on ball” role. We’re probably only eight seconds into the shot clock, and you can already see how that fallacy is indeed false. As I mentioned above, these are basketball players. Basketball players, who all have the opportunity to make plays on and off the ball on any given possession. Even on a possession where that primary takes it himself, unless he shoots or generates a direct look for his teammate, the ball is getting swung around, putting multiple players “on the ball.” Instead of looking for an archetype to place each and every prospect into, evaluate them as players. Evaluate their skills, tools and mental approach as one big holistic application into the highest level of basketball. There isn’t one way to skin a cat, and there certainly isn’t one way to carve out a career in the league. While there are baseline skills, most notably shooting and team defense, that can elevate a prospect’s initial case, checking one of those singular boxes simply isn’t enough. Despite the popular (and untrue) narrative that it’s a “one elite skill” league, the game isn’t made up of micro skills. No prospect is perfect, and there will always be compensation within the lines, identifying where each prospect fails and how much ground that causes them to make up is essential. Some skills will provide more leeway than others, and those are unique to everyone. Personally, I subscribe to the philosophy that predictability is detrimental to all success in the NBA. In my opinion, the easiest way to avoid that is by having multiple competent creators, who can be relied on to manufacture offense. The caveat here is to maintain spacing and defensive capability, and it’s definitely a thin line to walk, but when you strike the right balance, the returns are very valuable. With all that being said, I’m going to introduce four of my favorite “second side creation” prospects in this early season. While these prospects all *likely* have a flaw that prevents them from being an effective full-time offensive engine, they have a plethora of skills and traits that can be extremely impactful at the next level. Let’s get into it.

Jared Butler, Going For Gamebreakers

Those of you who have been following me since last season know that Jared Butler is one of my favorite guards in the country. He was a first top 30 prospect on my board before withdrawing last year, and I had very high expectations for his junior. To my delight, Butler has met them and then some. He has made vast improvements in multiple areas, and looks every bit of a lead guard on the second best team in the nation. Standing at just 6’3” without overwhelming physical tools, Butler wins with sheer skill. His trademark trait is his handle, which is genuinely a special skill in my opinion, and truly unlocks the rest of his game. Butler isn’t going to blow by defenders with straight line speed or standstill burst, but he will invite them onto his island, and hit them with quick cohesive combos that have their feet tangled in a knot. Unlike many shifty handlers in the past, Butler doesn’t waste dribbles. Every step, every look off and every pounce has a purpose. Because of this, Butler’s handle is not only flashy, but extremely functional.

Here is page one of his cookbook this year. He reads the switch, lulls him out to the perimeter, and has the big man constantly guessing before coasting in for the easy two. Again, nothing feels forced, because it truly isn’t. Butler read his matchup, brought him to an uncomfortable spot on the floor, and executed. To me, it’s encouraging that we don’t see Butler settle for a heavy dose of iso’s, given the capabilities of his handle. Instead, most things come within the flow of the offense. Now, it’d be naive to not acknowledge Baylor’s ball screen continuity offense, and how this likely makes it easier for Butler. But, I think it showcases his ability to get into his stuff from on and off the ball, which is certainly an emphasis point in this piece.

Butler is absolutely nasty in the pick and roll — both as a scorer and facilitator. He uses his handle to dice up drop defenders, leveraging his in-between game to force backpedaling bigs to respect him in the high paint. If you continue to drop against Butler, he’ll unleash his patented tear-drop right over you.

If you stay flat-footed for even a split second, he’ll utilize that handle to blow right past you en route to a bucket. On this clip it was an in-and-out but I’ve seen Butler kill drop bigs with a wide plethora of dribble moves. As I mentioned above, his decisiveness and quickness with these particular moves consistently stands out, and maximizes his functionality, especially in close quarters. This finish — while oozing with difficulty — is a signature move for Butler. Without potent vertical pop around the rim, he typically resorts to this high extension finish after attacking drop defenders. While he doesn’t exactly have above-average length, Butler’s arm angle completely enables him during this finish. He fully extends, out and away from the defender, which allows him to kiss it high off the glass, where chasedown blockers can’t even sniff it.

The third year guard has always been an efficient scorer out of the PnR, but through the first six games of his junior campaign, he’s taken a massive leap in the playmaking aspect. Last year, my biggest reservations with Butler on the offensive end were his passing ability and decision making. Not only are those traits no longer negatives, Butler currently looks like a very legit passer. These are numbers from a small sample size, but he upped his assist per game numbers from 3.1 to 6.5 (!!!) while dropping his turnovers per game from 2.4 to 2.2 — making for a huge jump in his A:TO, which currently sits at an astounding 2.95. These are not empty stats, and Butler’s improved court mapping and passing accuracy certainly contribute to the jump. In his recent game against Kansas State, Butler notched 13 assists and had the most impressive playmaking performance of the 2021 draft cycle so far.

The most encouraging, and coolest, part about this game is that his reads and passes got more advanced as the contest progressed. He was in a chess match with their defense all night, except he was Beth Harmon and the Wildcats were every Kentucky male at the state tournament, wondering what the heck just happened. In the early going, he took what the defense was giving him, the initial lob to the roller. While it’s an easy read, I was still impressed with Butler’s timing and delivery, as those were both areas he struggled in last year. But, little did I know, we were just getting started. Kansas State started to adjust, and so did Butler, consistently staying one step ahead. Last season, I considered it a win if Butler attempted a live dribble skip pass. Now, he’s carving up rotations like a five-star butcher, and toying with the tagger in a way I wouldn’t have ever imagined. This is my favorite PnR possession of his, as it culminates the skill he always had as a handler and his newfound capability to read defenses with ease. Butler reads the overplay by his POA defender and rejects the screen with a quick BTL enabling him to change directions and get downhill instantly. With that, he’s operating in an advantage situation, but remains patient. Right off the bat, he sees the corner help come with an aggressive tag, theoretically opening the corner shooter. Instead of rushing the read, he takes a small hesi dribble which gives his roller time to completely occupy the help, giving the tagger no option to pop out and jump the passing lane. Now, he simply reads the 2v1 on the opposite wing, and delivers a wide open corner three. This is an NBA level rep as a PnR handler. Lastly, I want to highlight some real eye and body manipulation from Butler outside of the compilation above. While both are still out of the PnR, I felt these reads were more impromptu, making his manipulation that much more impressive. In the first clip, Butler draws multiple defenders after snaking the screen, creating another 2v1 on the opposite side. Instead of waiting for the defender to choose and then reacting, Butler stares down one teammate, forcing the defender to sprint towards the top of the arc, before swiftly delivering a no-look pass to his other option. In the latter, Butler uses an orthodox euro step to manipulate the defender. He kills two birds with one stone here, using the initial step to draw the defender in — who has no backside help. Then, he uses the second step to create the passing angle for his relocation shooter. Overall, Butler has blown me away with his early season playmaking, and I hope it continues.

Another reason why I’m so high on Butler is his ability to play off the ball, and that starts with his catch and shoot ability. Combining his first six games this year with last season’s sample, Butler is shooting 43% on catch and shoot threes (50 for 116). Despite being more of a “lead guard” he has always been able to showcase his ability and versatility shooting off the catch. I’m a big fan of Butler’s shot prep and mechanics, everything is compact and he stays on balance while getting into his two-foot hop. On top of being a very reliable standstill floor-spacer, Butler offers serious value as a movement shooter off the ball. Baylor has not been shy using him in actions, and Butler hasn’t led them astray, regularly converting on quick hitters.

In the famed playmaking game against Kansas State, he also showed his value without the ball, specifically draining two movement threes. Whether it’s sliding up in open space, or coming off a DHO, Butler’s footwork and mechanics remain consistent. In the intro to this piece, I harped on the fact that everyone plays on and off the ball. While Butler’s playmaking leap has certainly increased his value operating with it, I still think he’s at his best working off the ball as well, which is ideal. This won’t be a tall task for most NBA offenses, but it’s important to remember this while evaluating Butler this year — where it looks like he’ll take on the playmaking majority. He has a very solid track record as a shooter, and while I don’t necessarily think he’s elite in this area, I think it’s safe to peg him as an above average shooter at the next level. Before we officially move on, I want to bump this relocation clip. I know, it’s not rocket science, but for those of you who read my piece on processing speed, you know this is near and dear to my heart. Butler sees his defender dig too aggressively, and fades to the corner, giving him no chance to recover. The footwork is clean, his base is on balance, and the shot is money.

Another facet that Butler has improved is his defense. Some skeptics of his game and projection would regularly point to the other side of the ball, which I certainly don’t think is plausible thus far. With 12 steals in six games, Butler is currently sporting a STL% of 4.1, which is very good, to say the least. But, even beyond the numbers, he has definitely impressed me. At the point of attack, Butler has been causing absolute havoc for opposing ball handlers. He’s getting into their space with aggression, but rarely overplaying to the point where he gets burned. One thing that has popped out is his screen navigation. While it’s far from uncommon to see smaller guards die on ball screens, Butler has impressed with his footwork and willingness to stay attached to the handler. It might seem like a minor detail, but it’s a difference maker when it comes to defensive impact. Another noteworthy trait — and how Butler is getting most of his steals — is his work in the passing lanes. His anticipation has been awesome to see, and this one epitomizes that.

Butler changes his positioning accordingly with each pass, splitting the difference perfectly when the ball comes to his side. The opponent isn’t shot ready, and he jumps the lane for an easy pick six. One slight area of improvement that I’d like to see is his positioning on perimeter switches, at times. Baylor runs a “switch everything” scheme, and while he hasn’t gotten beat often, Butler will sometimes stay a little too laxed during an exchange. He’s assuming that his teammate’s matchup is simply going to fill into his area, and most of the time he’s right, but not opening up to track the exchange will leave him susceptible to backdoor slip-cuts on occasion. It’s a small nit-pick, but still something to take note of.

Last but not least, it can’t all be peaches and cream. I’ve referenced Butler’s athletic limitations throughout this piece and now it’s time to sadly dig in. For starters, Butler is yet to register a dunk in his college career. Recently, he’s gotten very close, but still hasn’t thrown one down. If you look at the NBA success of small college guards with zero dunks, it isn’t pretty. This isn’t to say Butler won’t be good, actually let me make this clear, I’m writing 2200 words on him to convince you otherwise! However, it’d be naive not to recognize that Butler will have his work cut out for him. In the intro, I talked about compensation. Butler usually relies on his handle, craft and skill to compensate in areas where his athleticism — or lack thereof — limits him. The crown jewel of those areas is around the rim.

In the half court, Butler’s lack of pop limits him against potent shot blockers, who are disciplined enough to stand straight up and engulf him with length. On this drive, Butler attempts to initiate contact and is absolutely stonewalled before having his shot volleyball-spiked into the hardwood. Now, there are plenty of possessions where Butler shows his ability to compensate in the paint. Most notably, the running hook from the first paragraph. However, the problem with his compensation finishes around the rim, is that they typically have a prerequisite of contact aversion. Holistically, Butler is a pretty efficient offensive player, but he’s always had a very low FTr — especially for someone with his handle — and that’s directly correlated to this aversion. There are other ways to compensate, and Butler has a wide arsenal from in-between. This goofy leg floater was very pretty, and is just another gym-rat thing that he makes look way too easy. But, in the grand scheme of things, relying on floaters and high-arching extension finishes is a dangerous game to play. In the end, this entire piece is about offensive versatility, and compensation in areas where you come up short. I’m confident enough betting on his body of work and notable improvements, confident enough to have him top 20 despite only grazing the rim. You know what they say, skills pay the bills.

Josh Christopher, Signature Smile And Swagger

In a generation where kids can genuinely follow and root for high school athletes through mixtapes and constant content, Christopher is somewhat of an icon. His vibrant personality (on and off the court) and high-flying game boosted him into stardom, before even playing a college game. Jaygup was one of the prospects I was most intrigued to see this year. I hadn’t really seen him operate in a constructed system, and wanted to see how his skills and approach would adjust. In the early goings, I think it’s safe to say he’s exceeded my expectations, but there are certainly some things to iron out before we really get cooking. Jaygup came into college with the reputation that he was an “A+ athlete,” and while that’s certainly true in some instances, it’s a little more complicated than that. Listed at 6’5” 215, Christopher has a very powerful frame for an off guard. I actually think there’s room for him to get even stronger, considering most of his weight and power is derived from his lower body, and it definitely looks like there’s opportunity to add more muscle in his arms, shoulders and chest. Now, Christopher does have very special vertical pop. When jumping off two feet, the force he exerts on the floor could be classified as violence, and that has been very effective for him at the rim thus far. With a head of steam — whether it be in transition or an off ball action — Christopher is nearly unstoppable getting to the basket, a freight train if you will. However, that same downhill explosiveness tends to betray him in standstill situations off the bounce, and that’s where this gets complicated.

On this possession, Gup gets a switch with Houston Baptist’s bigger, slow footed forward — remember him for later. It should be baby food, right? Well, let’s dig into it. I’m actually pretty high on Christopher’s handle, especially relative to his frame and position, and that’s not the issue here. Without that head of steam that I mentioned earlier, he seriously lacks the ability to blow by defenders off the bounce and generate early looks. In these iso situations, Christopher is often forced to settle for tough contested twos, and while he’s very good at them (we’ll talk about that later) it’s just not an ideal avenue of offense. Jaygup is a very capable space creator and tough shot maker, and those skills don’t grow on trees, especially with his physical traits. In order to maximize them, Gup is much better suited working off the ball, picking up steam during a DHO or curl and making the defense pay when he gets it. Here is THE clip, in my opinion. Christopher gains momentum before the handoff, he explodes downhill before unleashing that handle with a lethal change of direction cross, finally burying the jumper. His ability to create space will never be an issue, but taking those shots out of motion offense, instead of iso switches, is much more efficient. Christopher’s lack of standstill burst, combined with his decision-making woes (which we’ll get to later) make his on-ball projection very shaky at the moment. However, there’s something to be said about his second side creation equity *insert Leo pointing at TV meme.* I think Jaygup has borderline elite slashing potential for a guard, if he wants to. His combination of vertical pop, strength and counters at the rim makes for serious pressure and production. Remember, his issues arise from trying to create good looks against a set defense. With everyone already scrambling and in motion, I think there’s some obvious value with his shot-creation ability. If you think I’m already spewing complicated thoughts, fasten your seatbelts as we attempt to put this all together.

Jaygup’s shooting profile and projection is extremely wonky, and complicated. For starters, he has a very off-centered shotline and release point. Christopher releases from his left eye and starts his windup (which is full two-motion) at his left hip, he’s a righty. Whether it was HS or AAU, Christopher was usually playing on the ball, leading to a high volume of pull-up jumpers. Similar to most right-handed players, he is more comfortable pulling-up out of his left hand, which brings us to the context of these mechanics. Not only is Christopher comfortable taking tough jumpers off the bounce, he’s been making them at an impressive rate.

He’s taken 25 OTD jumpers through seven games, and is canning them at 44% which lands him in the 77th percentile nationally, not too shabby. This snatchback three is absolutely nasty. Christopher showcases that space creation ability I was constantly referring to in the initial paragraph, gains his rhythm and knocks it down with hand in his face. There’s no doubting that this play is impressive, but if he can do this, why is Gup only shooting 23% from three on good volume? Remember back to what I said about his shotline and start point, and take another look at the pull-up three above. Oftentimes when players are better shooting off the bounce opposed off the catch, we assume they’ll develop the latter because it’s “easier.” But, in reality, for Jaygup the former is easier. His mechanics are very reliant on setting the ball in his left hip, which playing off the bounce — in his left hand especially — enables him to accomplish. Here are some CnS attempts that illuminate the issue when it comes to no dribble spot ups, which he is currently shooting 15.4% on, ranking in the 5th percentile. After catching the ball in a normal shooting pocket, Gup dips the ball down and across his body, attempting to get the rock on his left hip to start the motion. His mechanics beyond the dip don’t need to be Klay-reminiscent, but with that unorthodox start, we’re nearing a three motion jumper. While Gup’s unfamiliarity playing off the ball likely doesn’t help, I think we’re talking about a real mechanical issue here that hinders his effectiveness off the catch. I haven’t been able to quit these two clips, as they’re very telling in my opinion. These are two of his six makes from beyond the arc, and unlike most non-dribble attempts, they’re far from in-rhythm. Christopher seems very comfortable here, lulling his defender to sleep with a series of subtle footwork moves, before unloading right over them. The most important thing here is the slight movement before he rises up. No matter where the ball was prior, Gup consciously slides it over to the left side of his body, enabling him to go straight up on his normal, yet still irregular, shotline. The time it takes to accomplish this move is very counterintuitive to an NBA offense, unless your name is James Harden. Given his tough shotmaking and FT%, it’s hard to concretely say he’s hopeless as a shooter, but until the CnS mechanics are cleaned up, I’m not very optimistic in that aspect. He’s currently shooting 86.7% from the line on high volume, which is very impressive. However, with no one guarding him and 10 seconds to load up, Gup is able to find his left hip, and get into it with ease. I’m wary of attributing FT% to future CnS success in his case because it’s just not mechanically translatable. While I’m certainly in on Christopher as a shotmaker, whichever NBA team drafts him will have to iron out some things before I consider him a “shooter.”

One facet of his game that I think probably gets underrated is playmaking. Christopher has the potential to live at the rim, and while I think his infatuation with long twos will probably prevent that level of gravity, I think he’ll still be more than proficient there. I’ve spoken about how Gup’s shot selection could be adjusted, and by that I simply mean reigned in. He’s a very good tough shot-maker and I’m not suggesting he eliminates those pull-ups from his diet by any means, but there’s a difference between getting to your spots and settling. Due to his ability off the bounce, Christopher carries real gravity with defenders all over the court, opening up easier passing windows for him to capitalize on. The question isn’t “can he pass?” but instead “will he pass?” Jaygup has long been a volume scorer, and blending playmaking and scoring on any given possession is still an area where he could improve. Granted, he was on a little heater here, but taking this pull-up over two defenders is certainly ill-advised, especially when you consider a wide-open Kimani Lawrence in the opposite corner. Consistently making these reads on a possession-by-possession basis is something I’m looking for Christopher to develop throughout the year, and if he can, it’s somewhat of a game changer. Gup’s decision making is a problem, and there’s no way around that. There are premeditated passes that lead to careless turnovers, and there are missed reads that should be elementary. HOWEVER, when he does decide to facilitate, I think he has some serious untapped ability that I’d love to see get expanded on.

This is probably my favorite possession I’ve seen from him all year, as it likely epitomizes peak-Jaygup if he brings everything together. He sets up the ball screen with a hard jab, getting his defender to overplay which allows him to effectively reject. Then, while getting downhill, Christopher hits the (semi) drop defender with a smooth L-R crossover, then plays off two and tightly wraps around a backhand dropoff to the big. From the set up, to the handle and finally the pass, this rep is a 10/10 through and through. Sure, he could’ve went for a tough contested layup, but he successfully leveraged that 2v1 and made the *right* play, which is something I’d love to see consistently. This is another noteworthy pass that I really liked. In semi-transition, Christopher sees he doesn’t have an advantage and pulls it out. But, he does a great job of keeping his eyes up, he sees Taeshon Cherry gain a half-step on his defender, and Gup does his best Pat Mahomes impression by genuinely “throwing him open.” This ball was fit into a very tight window, one that didn’t even exist before he threw it, and this isn’t something I’m going to take for granted. While Chrisopher’s ambition certainly has its drawbacks, the stones even attempt this shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Yes, there are other wing prospects who make cleaner and more reliable decisions than Jaygup, but he’s had some very intriguing flashes relative to his positional outlook, and that’s something to keep tabs on.

I didn’t want to get through this entire write up without mentioning Christopher in transition, because that’s where I believe he’s at his best. While this discrepancy between HC and open floor capabilities rings true for many athletic prospects with decision making question marks, it’s even more transparent with Christopher. Think back to what I said in the first paragraph, about the difference in his production with and without a head of steam.

Here’s the same exact forward from Houston Baptist, the one that clamped Gup on a switch earlier on. In the open floor, it doesn’t even look like they belong on the same planet, let alone on the same basketball court. With downhill momentum, Christopher is genuinely unstoppable. He has had multiple “grab and go’s,” where his speed is too blistering and his sheer strength is too overwhelming for any opponent. It’s a relatively broad stat, but Gup currently ranks in the 89th percentile in transition offense, converting on 71.4% of his attempts in this play type, most of which are coming at the rim. It would be disrespectful to attribute his success in transition to strictly athleticism, his footwork and counters in the paint are very impressive. This stepover at full speed will always stick out to me. The pound is perfectly timed with the footwork, it’s actually useful to avoid the defender and Christopher maintains his forward momentum towards the rim. How much weight this carries at the next level will be somewhat scheme dependent, but I think it’s safe to assume Jaygup will be a nightmare in transition when he’s at his best.

Finally, let’s talk about the other side of the ball. Initially I was impressed and intrigued by Jaygup’s defense, and while that hasn’t fully faded, some old habits have officially reared their ugly head. On the positive side, I’m a big fan of his defense at the POA. Christopher isn’t afraid to get physical, and given his strength and quickness compared to other off guards, he can definitely give them a hard time. I love his intensity on this end of the floor, never hesitating to dive on the floor for loose balls or put his body on the line. However, his team defense leaves much to be desired. Due to his pre-college context, Christopher is behind the curve in terms of off-ball responsibilities and the accountability that lies within.

These two possessions on ASU’s tentative press are pretty clear examples of that. In the first clip, Gup is only watching the ball and is focused on getting a steal — which are two common themes — leading him to overplay his man with no purpose, and it ends with the opponent cutting backdoor and getting fouled. On the second play, Christopher flies in out of nowhere for an insanely low percentage gamble. Looking to create events within your rotations is one thing, but Gup is simply out of line here, luckily his teammates have his back and prevent the layup. Lastly, he is just very prone to ball-watching. In this play, he’s wandering in no mans land while checking nobody, all while an opponent sits under the rim for about three seconds. It would be a separate issue if he simply ignored the wide open opponent in the dunker spot, but Chirstopher genuinely didn’t see him. His sights were set on the ball, and reacted to rotate on the flight of the ball, which presents a fundamental problem in seeing man-ball.

Overall, there’s a ton to tackle here. How valuable is his slashing if he can’t draw closeouts? How valuable is his shotmaking if his shot-selection is non-ideal? How valuable is his passing ability if he can’t be counted on to make decisions? I’d assume these are all questions that are asked in the war room of any NBA team considering Jaygup in June. To whichever team that ends up deciding it’s worth it, be patient, I truly believe there’s something here. They don’t typically make them like Gup. The first to hype up his teammate after a three, the first dive on the floor, and I genuinely believe the first to do whatever it takes to win. Wiring can often be cliche, but I believe this is real. Josh Chrisopther truly gives a fuck, and that means something to me. There’s no perfect fit, there’s no perfect lineup optimization, but I think there’s a way to make it work. The overconfidence that results in reckless long twos and the passion that makes Gup a great teammate to go to war with, are cut from the same cloth. Whichever NBA team that can limit the former while expanding on the latter, will walk away a big winner.

Jalen Suggs, Showing The Special

Admittedly, I was way too low on Suggs coming into the season. I missed the forest for the trees, focusing on nitpicking micro skills and being blinded from his entire appeal in the process. I’m proud to say I owned up to that scouting miss approximately eight minutes into his college career. I was hung up on the handle and “not being a primary” and because of that, I completely underestimated a potential special skill, his processing and anticipation. It’s no secret that Suggs was a big time QB in high school, even earning some high major offers on the gridiron to go along with his wide selection of suitors on the hardwood. It wasn’t his first position, but Suggs also played some safety on defense. While he might’ve left his cleats in Minnesota, his field (now court) mapping and wizardry understanding of the game made its way to Spokane. I’m not qualified enough to speak on the actual neurological overlap between these two sports, but as someone with a basic understanding of football, it’s not difficult to see where Suggs channels his days in the shoulder pads. Whether it’s seeing things two seconds before they actually happen, manipulating defenders with his eyes and ball-showing or breaking on passing lanes like peak-Revis, it’s all there. I wanted to start with this because Suggs’ game is truly derived from his genius-like understanding of everything going on. He’s certainly an incredibly skilled basketball player — which we’ll get into — but his processing and IQ genuinely have me glued to my computer. Watching him is beyond entertaining . From the outside, I see where he could go and what plays he could make, yet he always seems to amaze and sometimes even surprise me. Suggs always has the game in the palm of his hands, on both ends. His combination of tools and skills to go along with these mental advantages, is what ultimately makes him a clear cut top three guy. His athleticism profile is complicated, and while it might seem like I’m contradicting myself throughout this write-up, I’m not. Suggs’ athleticism — and its effectiveness — will often change depending on the situation, and that’s crucial for everyone to understand. I’m pretty high on his overall profile as an athlete, but certain habits and preferences hinder him at times. I’m going to walk you through those discrepancies, and maybe even make the pitch that it’s low hanging fruit to take another leap. Only time will tell.

Right off the bat, Suggs’ QB history is wildly apparent in his ability as a playmaker. Other than his pull-up shooting hot streak, this is the most impressive facet of his game on the offensive end. Suggs excels as both a reactive and proactive passer, which speaks to his current foundation of skill and makes for a valuable projection going forward. As a reactive passer, I love his decisiveness and ability to capitalize on windows without any hesitation. His otherworldly anticipation that I talked about above is an enabler for this, as he truly knows everything that’s going to happen before it actually comes to fruition. Hear me out on this, the closest comparison to Suggs’ reactive playmaking is a villain on the run. The police department is always chasing after them, the PD always thinks this lead is “the one,” but when they show up at that random address in the middle of nowhere, it’s completely deserted because the criminal had been tipped off. Jalen Suggs plays basketball like he’s consistently getting tipped off by higher ups. No matter what coverage you throw at him, he’s somehow one step ahead of you.

His performance against Virginia was nothing short of a playmaking masterclass, and it started with this one. Suggs and Kispert are running a simple pick and pop with great spacing — which should be illegal. With Morsell’s help run from the opposite corner lasting a country mile, Suggs knows he’s reading the flat-hedge defender and can throw Kispert into the open space. While some might say Suggs “didn’t attack the bigger defender,” he didn’t need to. The former QB dragged UVA’s big to the other side of the floor, and once he saw him flat-footed, he led Kispert into a wide open CnS three. This isn’t a special read by any means, but Suggs’ awareness of space allowed him to execute the timing of this pass perfectly. This clip is the perfect segway between his reactive and proactive playmaking, they both play off each other beautifully on this possession. Coming around the ball screen, Suggs takes a step towards the post and shows the ball (you’ll be hearing this again), which forces McCormack to actively guard the entry with semi-front, and in turn, eliminates his ability to help at the rim. Since Kansas’ big is occupied, and Suggs sees most defenders are somewhat hugging their perimeter matchups, he slips in this short roll pass to Anton Watson. He leads Watson to the rim, allowing his forward momentum to continue, which forces Marcus Garrett to recklessly contest. If Suggs had waited a split second later, maybe Garrett would’ve read the roll and slid in for a charge, instead, his timing is exceptional again and Suggs takes advantage of the window. Without a noteworthy handle, Suggs relies on ball fakes and eye-manipulation to move the defense for proactive passes — more QB remnants! Here are two more examples where Suggs has help defenders on a string, simply by showing the ball at the right time. The first clip is one of my favorites, as it’s pretty uncommon to make Tony Bennett’s squad look this clueless defensively. After coming around the screen, Suggs gets Hauser on the switch. He limits himself picking up his dribble but it doesn’t matter anyways. Suggs is showing interest and staring down the post entry, which keeps Hauser fully occupied, instead of bumping and recovering back to Kispert like he’s supposed to. When Suggs sees Kihei Clark (his original matchup) sprinting back to him, he abandons the post and swings it to an open Kispert. That was always his plan, but he had to maintain Hauser’s attention to free up Kispert, and he did just that. Finally, here’s Suggs using those same tactics against traditional PnR coverage. After Timmie rolls to the rim, Suggs is evaluating the weak side advantage, where he has one teammate at the rim and two shooters against two defenders. His height allows him to see over the defense and not get overwhelmed with hard-hedges or traps. Suggs shows the ball on his left ear, making it visible to Bryce Thompson, whose responsibility it is to tag the roll. After seeing Thompson fully commit, Suggs switches his angle and throws a skip to the opposite corner, resulting in three points. His ability to execute high-level reactive and proactive passes is extremely impressive, and I expect it to continue in the association. Suggs is also a very capable transition passer. His eyes are always up, and he has the arm strength and accuracy to expose opponents who jog back on defense. One area of improvement for him is properly evaluating passing levels. You can either go under, through or above the defender, and sometimes, Suggs will choose the wrong one, resulting in turnovers. In this PnR, Suggs misread it. With no backside help sliding under the rim, and the defender trailing his roller, this is an easy window for a lob. It doesn’t need to be an alley oop, but simply floating it over the hedge into open space will do. Instead, Suggs goes low, attempting to slide in this bounce pass, and it gets picked off. I think this is probably something he fixes with more experience, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.

Suggs has certainly had some issues scoring the ball against a set defense, and we’ll get into that later, but his shooting — and its versatility — has been absolutely nuclear so far. In his senior year at Minnehaha Academy, Suggs had some pretty crazy shooting flashes. Whether it was hitting a full-stop movement three from a BLOB, or draining consecutive pull-ups in a row, being a high-end shooter was always in his range of outcomes. Through his first seven games at Gonzaga, that connotation is starting to look more like a reality. Suggs has canned 12 out of his first 25 threes, and those attempts are far from elementary. In Gonzaga’s NBA-esque offense, he’s consistently operating on the move. Most of these attempts are either self-created with footwork or within the flow of actions (most notably DHOs). Given the average degree of difficulty, his 48% clip is absurd. I know, it’s a small sample size, and Suggs is likely due for some regression to the mean. However, I’m buying every bit of Jalen Suggs being a very good to *potentially* elite shooter. His mechanics are extremely fluid, and the smooth energy transformation between his gather and release enables a wide array of versatility.

Neither of these shots were reliant on space creation, instead, Suggs uses his size and rhythm to calmly — and quickly — rise up. I was impressed by his ability to maintain this rhythm with multiple footworks, as well. After receiving the DHO, he hops right into the shot, which seems to be his preference. On the flip side, this stutter step pull-up was absolutely nasty, which he 1-2’s into. Two different footwork approaches, but the same mechanics and flow provide three points each time. While he doesn’t always rely on space-creation, Suggs is also very capable in this aspect. In his shotmaking barrage against Iowa, Suggs flashed two impressive step-back threes. The contested one late in the game puts his ability to make difficult shots on full display. After creating an abundance of space by parlaying his pull-back cross with a wicked step-back, Suggs still manages to square himself and knock down the shot. While the latter clip is less “difficult,” I was still very impressed by the nuance. Suggs gets the switch, and he’s reading his defenders top foot on this move. Since his opponent has his left foot forward, it invites Suggs’ middle, and makes getting to space on the handler’s left side very difficult. Instead of forcing something in the paint, Suggs properly reads his defender’s footwork, and gets a decent look because of it. I’m not devaluing the difficulty of this make at all, I’m simply complimenting Suggs’ attention to detail. I’m projecting Suggs as a very positive offensive player, and with his other limitations, I’m banking on his shot carrying serious value. His versatility and volume have been more than solid so far, and the results have been there. As you’ll see later in the piece, Suggs is already adept at leveraging his pull-up, and it’s only going to get scarier for defenses.

Suggs finishing is somewhat of a mixed bag, and that’s partially because he makes it that way. In the half-court, he pretty much exclusively jumps off two feet. Now, that has its perks on some possessions, it allows him to shield defenders and maintain balance. However, it severely limits his explosiveness in tight spaces, and exponentially expands the time of his gather.

On the positive side, here is a very good finish against Deuce McBride, who we all know is an incredible defender. After getting downhill, Suggs levitates off two, he uses his body to block off Duence and eventually creates an angle to finish. While this is good in a micro-sense, it presents issues for Suggs when considering a larger sample. As I mentioned, it hampers his ability to get vertical and also drags out his gather. When you combine those two things, especially when you don’t have good length, everything becomes a tough finish. Here is an example of the downside. Suggs actually gets downhill effectively against Hauser, gaining a pretty clear step on him. Ideally, you would want Suggs to take off from one foot and extend towards the rim, so he can maintain all his momentum and speed. Instead, he opts for the two foot hop and gather, which is simply unnecessary in this scenario. By doing this, Suggs completely tranquilizes all his energy to explode, resulting in limited lift and a delayed finish, which gives Huff time to get off the seal and swat his attempt. I’m not sure if Suggs can truly get up off one foot, because I could probably count on one hand how often he’s done it. Aside from athletic pop, being predictable in your finishes is a recipe for disaster against NBA rim protectors. Throughout the season, I’m certainly looking for more footwork and tempo versatility from Suggs around the rim.

I’ve spent a couple thousand words (mostly) praising Suggs. But, remember, no prospect is perfect. Suggs’ biggest flaw — in my opinion — is his ball control. In the half court, it’s a legit problem and seriously hinders his creation ability. In the very beginning of this write-up, I briefly mentioned how his tools can sometimes look different depending upon the setting, and here we are. In the open floor, when Suggs is comfortable with his signature move and isn’t getting pressured, his burst looks genuinely good — and far from a problem.

Suggs loves the hesi out of his left hand in semi transition. This move isn’t very complex, but it’s extremely effective. It allows Suggs to leverage his shooting gravity, and use change of pace to beat defenders who are frantically picking him up beyond the line — in fear of his pull-up. In the clips, you’ll see he uses this to score and create easy playmaking opportunities before settling into a set offense, and I definitely expect this to continue in the league. However, when he starts operating inside the arc, with a defender in his space, that burst often gets tranquilized. His handle can be loose, but it’s less about his ability to execute NBA Street combos, and more about his ability to simply hold onto the ball in traffic. On occasion, his drive will get slowed down, not by his defender, but because he was moving at a faster speed than he was capable of bringing the ball with him. He’ll sometimes have to look down, to make sure he still has control, which as I attributed to above, slows everything down. I haven’t been able to directly pinpoint the root of the issue, but I think it’s safe to assume Suggs either has weak or small hands. For someone with his positional strength, there’s no other explanation for him to get stripped and poked as often as he does. I’m not sure what the first step is for improving this issue, but I’m sure it exists and should certainly be addressed. From a holistic standpoint, the shaky ball control just makes everything on-ball that much more difficult. Suggs knows where to manipulate the defense and his footwork is sound, but if the rock isn’t with him, those things don’t matter all that much.

Last but certainly not least, I need to dive into his defense. It’s worth noting that he isn’t the best defender at POA, and can sometimes get beat by lesser guards off the bounce. However, it’s far from detrimental and he more than makes up for it with his off-ball impact. I think Suggs’ has all-defense potential. It’s an interesting proposition because it’s reliant on his ability to create events at a consistent rate, but his anticipation and tools on this end are absolutely mind-boggling. I talked about how Suggs has a tendency to see things well before they happen, and remains evident on the defensive end.

Against Suggs, routine passes all of a sudden become risky. These steals simply aren’t normal. His quick twitch reactions and anticipation make him a nightmare for opponents in the passing lanes. His ability to read opponents like a book and intercept passes like Prime Time is incredibly impressive, and fun to watch. There have been multiple examples of Suggs snatching an entry pass right out of thin air… while guarding the passer. I’m not sure how much Safety he played in high school, but you can’t convince me that his ball skills didn’t 110% translate. He just has a nose for the rock, and will sniff out any action or move to get it. Suggs is also very effective in digs and stunts. These clips epitomize why. He knows every potential outcome, and responsibly weighs each one before going for it all. He takes risks, but they’re all calculated. The first clip is the calling card, to me. Watch how Suggs continually adjusts his positioning based on the drive. He doesn’t abandon his help responsibilities until he sees Ayayi completely cut off the handler. Suggs knows his only option is to spin-back, and he wastes no time shooting the gap for a steal. Event creation off the ball is a two-step process. First, you have to see it. Then, after you see the window, you have to be quick enough to get there before it closes. Suggs is off the charts in both aspects. Before we end this, I just want to throw one more clip out there. In my opinion, this could be the quintessential Suggs defensive possession, from a league projection standpoint. After getting over the PnR, Suggs loses a step off the bounce to a smaller, quicker guard. He maintains position on his hip until help arrives. Clark makes a good read here, as there was no help for the helper, but it doesn’t matter. Suggs knew he was beat, but he also knew there was help at the rim for him. Instead of taking the rotation off, or staying attached to Clark for no reason, Suggs anticipated the drop off, and peeled off at the perfect time to get the steal. Common theme here.

Is he your ideal primary ball handler? No. Is he a really damn good basketball player that can help you win a championship on both ends? Absolutely. Don’t get caught up in overanalyzing the micro-skills — or lack thereof — because when push comes to shove, it might not even matter. Suggs’ ability to comprehend everything that’s going on at every given moment is a special skill. Special skills enable players to compensate. Suggs might not be good enough to crack the top two, but he’s no slouch in his own right. As far as I’m concerned, three players have anointed themselves at the top of this class, and Jalen Suggs is absolutely one of them. He has a foundation of otherworldly instincts, advanced pull-up shooting and proven defensive impact as a 6’4” guard. If Cade and Mobley are off the board, I’m sprinting to the podium.

James Bouknight, Running Routes And Effortlessly Gliding

Before we wrap up this piece, we arrive at my top returner, James Bouknight. The prolific sophomore was one of my main influences for this idea, and I think my willingness to buy into this aspect of philosophy, likely benefits him more than anyone else in the class. While Bouknight doesn’t necessarily project as a big scoring guard who can get whatever he wants whenever he wants, his offensive projection is more seamless than he probably gets credit for. His ability to garner a heavy load of on-ball reps this year will bode well for his development down the line, and it also shows what he isn’t. But, let’s talk about what he is. With legit size for an off guard, Bouk is a freak run and jump athlete with real ball skills, an efficient understanding of how to get to his spots and has taken a real leap in year two. If you compare his freshman and sophomore stats side by side, the percentages are nearly identical. He increased his FG% by 2 points, his 3PT% has dipped 1.4 points and his FT% has also dropped by 2. Considering Bouknight has tripled his 3PTA per game, doubled his free throw attempts per game and is taking nearly six more shots per game, his improvement is nearly remarkable. Bouknight has taken massive strides in volume, yet he’s maintained his efficiency early on. Now, it’s clearly early, but I think this speaks to his scalability and ability to maintain effectiveness in multiple roles. As I said initially, if you’re looking for an isolation scorer, Bouknight just isn’t your guy. That isn’t a slight to his on-ball ability — while he does have some limitations there — but that’s not who he is as a player. In my opinion, it’s certainly for the better. Instead of investing your pick in a ball-stopping microwave scorer who needs the rock to make an impact, Bouknight is your prototypical off-guard for today’s NBA. This entire piece is about weaving on and off the ball, and I’d argue no one does that better than Bouknight. He is consistently a threat, no matter where he is on the floor, no matter if he has the ball or not. Bouknight’s ability to utilize his athletic tools to contribute within the flow of an offense — most notably off the ball — is not something that should be taken for granted. I think there’s likely some low-hanging fruit in regards to his skill development, and that’s pretty enticing when you consider where he’s currently at.

I harped on it in the first paragraph, but watching Bouknight operate off the ball is incredibly entertaining. He is always moving, always looking for an angle to make an impact and put pressure on the defense. Bouk certainly isn’t Steph Curry when it comes to off-ball skills, but I’ve been so impressed by his ability to change speeds and awareness of when. To the naked eye, it might seem like he’s simply running crazy off the ball, but I’ve found that his movements are often calculated. He knows when to stop, when to accelerate and his footwork is very patented for a sophomore. While talking about Jalen Suggs, I dove pretty heavily into the cross-sport resemblance between his game on the hardwood and concepts in football. I’m not sure if Bouknight ever played football growing up, but his action off the ball is very reminiscent of a wide receiver to me. For wideouts, all of their work is done before the ball arrives, and making the catch is just the cherry on top. On some of Bouknight’s possessions, that’s exactly what it feels like. Whether it’s setting up a backdoor cut or a DHO slip, his ability to use his feet and hips to sell the defender is very advanced.

These are two clips that represent just that. On both clips, Bouknight shows legit skills as a cutter, which I think are rather difficult to develop. As he approaches the handler, he throws his hips and sets a hard plant, giving every indication that he’s continuing towards the action. This inevitably sets the defender up, giving way to a path towards the rim. On the second clip, he shows off his hang time to finish — and there will definitely be more on that later. If you’ve ever watched wide receivers run their routes, it’s eerily similar to Bouknight’s approach. Ultimately, they know where they’re going, but that in itself isn’t enough. They need to sell their defender before ultimately breaking towards their final destination, and they do that by changing speeds and employing fakes with their hips and feet. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Bouknight is legitimately running routes off the ball. Another skill that really compliments his consistent movement is his standstill burst. When he’s decisive off the catch, defensives that aren’t completely set are virtually helpless. Bouknight’s first step off the dribble and off the bounce look pretty different, and that’s far from uncommon. But, the difference that ultimately separates his burst from others is that he doesn’t need a running start whatsoever. In this clip, Bouknight is coming off a curl, with all his momentum going east-west instead of towards the basket, despite that, he shows the shot fake and explodes to the rim with one dribble. He might not be the flash, but it felt like he scored before anyone could even blink. I also love that play because it puts his change of speed on full display. He wasn’t engaged in a sprint coming off the screen, and he set up his jump shot footwork perfectly, with all that being said, Bouknight goes from 0-100 in a split second like a Ferrari. Given his reliable floor spacing, and comfort shooting off movement, it’s hard to *underestimate* how valuable this aspect of his game can be. When you’re guarding James Bouknight, there’s no such thing as taking possessions off.

On the ball, Bouknight has some juice as well. There are limitations, but it all depends on what you’re asking him to do and what lens you evaluate him through. The main hindrance on the ball is his handle. While he’ll never need to execute mind-blowing combos to be effective in his role, it occasionally creates a barrier for him to carry out simple scoring moves. I’ve been attributing this to the actual height, Bouknight himself and the ball remain relatively high while operating, creating a less-stable center of gravity. Because of this, the ball is sometimes loose under pressure. Also, because he isn’t as low, it’s more difficult for him to generate that same burst with the ball in his hands. These are important things to be aware of, but in no way shape or form will they break his NBA career, in my opinion. Improving those deficiencies would be a ceiling raiser, not a floor breaker. If you look at Bouk through the “off-ball guard with some creation capabilities” I think you’ll actually walk away impressed, and that’s where I’m at.

He has real space-creation ability, and his rhythm and footwork on these stepbacks are pretty fluid. While his mechanics are somewhat two-motion, it doesn’t hinder his versatility. The final clip isn’t necessarily a self-created bucket, but I thought it was his smoothest three point-pull up of the season, in terms of energy transformation. Bouknight can sometimes settle into a “time and space” shooter, with his size and step-back comfort, so it was good to see him step into this jumper with zero hesistation. Yes, I’m more comfortable projecting him as someone who operates more “off the ball,” but when put in the correct spots, I absolutely think he’ll carry some creation load for an NBA team. Bouknight is a very real three level scorer, and that doesn’t require any projection forward. I’m most intrigued with his ability to minimize dribbles in getting to his place on the floor. In those clips, Bouknight is operating in two different “off ball locations/actions” but his ability to individually put pressure on the defense shines through. He is a tough shot-maker, and at his core, a true bucket getter. When push comes to shove, Bouknight is wired to score. However, his efficiency and effectiveness in a handful of play types is what separates him from other scoring 2s. Bouk can space the floor like your “3&D” wing, but when he’s run off the line or given space to create, he’ll carve you up. I know you’re giving up defense in comparison to that archetype, but diversity within team-building is necessary. Your ancillary guys need valuable skills, but they can’t all be replicas of each other. Personally, I think Bouknight is probably more unique than some let on.

I’ve talked a lot about his game off the ball, and while cutting and movement is very valuable, spacing the floor is also a priority for me. In a short sample size, Bouknight is struggling on “no dribble spot-ups” so far. Considering he landed on the 90th percentile on those same attempts with a full sample as a freshman, I’m not too worried about it. He’s in the midst of adjusting to a more demanding role, so he earns my leeway in the early going, but I expect that number to improve. When projecting to the NBA, I’m someone who certainly likes to see volume and versatility. With a surface evaluation of Bouknight, you can see he passes those goalposts with flying colors. He’s currently attempting 6.6 threes per game, and the versatility is evident on film, as his shot catalog is filled with pull-ups, movement attempts and spot-ups. Bouknight is currently only making 33% of his threes, but given the elevator pitch I just gave, I’m not letting that number cloud my evaluation of him as a shooter, not yet at least. In a vacuum, I seriously value versatility. Now, when you consider a prospect like Bouknight, who has already mastered the tricks of off-ball movement, it becomes even more intriguing.

He has taken a few full sprint movement threes this season, but hasn’t drained any yet. While I’m hesitant to call this movement — Duncan Robinson would probably get offended — it’s still noteworthy to me. When you group the off-ball and cutting genius of Bouknight, with the ability to shoot (somewhat efficiently) off motion, then we’re talking about a nightmare for opposing defenses. NBA defenders are constantly looking to create plays, and that involves helping off your man for a split-second. Normally, either you or a teammate are able to recover in time, before the offensive player can take advantage of that window. But, if James Bouknight is a great cutter, intelligent and deceptive mover, and capable shooter off movement, how can you leave him alone off the ball? Grabbing an off-ball guard that can garner that kind of attention will do wonders for overall offensive production. There are still strides to be made, and if Bouknight doesn’t improve, I can see teams biting the bullet and inviting him to be a spot up shooter, while neutralizing him at the rim. We frequently talk about pull-up shooting development in relation to drawing the defense out to maximize slashing ability — most notably and recently, Cade Cunningham. However, we don’t really mention off-ball shooting versatility development in relation to maximizing an off-ball skillset, and that’s where we are with Bouknight. I also think there are some strides for him to take as an on-ball shooter. The space-creation and pull-up flashes are impressive, but I want him to become even more aggressive there. Bouknight shooting pull-up threes from his right hand without any type of step-back is the next leap.

So far I’ve talked about skills where Bouknight is somewhere from good-very good. The final two aspects of his offensive game are worrying and elite, so let’s just get the bad stuff out of the way. Bouknight’s playmaking is a very interesting evaluation. He currently has a negative A:TO, but I wouldn’t necessarily attribute that to poor decision making. Unlike Christopher, who has a wide variety of passes and decisions he can make on a given possession, and it sort of feels like you’re playing a slot machine to find out which comes to fruition. Bouknight is simple, hitting the open man when he’s visible, and limiting possessions where you scratch your head and think “what the hell was that?” After a game or two, I thought this was a positive, but I’m certainly not in that camp now. Bouknight’s resistance (or inability) to make layered reads has now ascended to my main concern. When coming off a PnR, it seems like he’s only looking at the roll man, and if he’s not there, he’ll simply abandon the action and reverse the ball. In my piece about processing speed, I wrote about how progression speed within an action is very important with handlers. What I mean by that is, how quickly are you going from the roll man, to the shake shooter, to the weak side corner? How fast are you moving onto your next read? With Bouknight, it seems like he’s simply reluctant to move on from his initial one. On its surface, and if you’re content with Bouknight being a capable role player, then this basically is what it is. However, I believe the key to his ultimate ceiling is becoming a deceptive playmaker, and his lack of risk-taking so far has me wary of realistically projecting a jump.

He does have some playmaking ability, fitting passes into tight windows with hot velocity and precise placement. These passes occur somewhat often, but again, Bouknight is only hitting that first read. Granted, it’s been a very small sample so far, but if this continues, I’ll feel somewhat comfortable extrapolating this micro skill — or lack thereof — into questioning his overall feel as a handler. Of course, this doesn’t takeaway from his off-ball excellence or on-ball scoring ability, but it likely limits his ceiling operating with high usage. If coaches can’t trust him to scan for his third option, it’s going to be tough to gain their trust to have the rock in high leverage situations. Despite those limitations, I still think there’s avenues for him to win as a playmaker. This clip pretty much represents all light at the end of the tunnel. Bouknight starts a very productive “give and go” exchange with his big, draws immediate attention at the rim and makes the easy read. While he might never be the manipulative on-ball passer type, he can still provide value there with his off-ball gravity. It’s an unconventional projection, but I’m willing to put it out there.

Onto the elite, let’s talk about his finishing. I hinted at the absurd hang time earlier on, but now it’s time to dig in. In NCAA Football 13 (which was my quarantine addiction and second favorite game ever) they had a feature called “reaction time.” By holding the left trigger, this feature enabled you to literally slow the game down, and act in slow-motion. When James Bouknight, it feels like he has infinite reaction time, floating in the air at will and defying gravity.

This is genuinely one of the most insane and-ones I’ve seen, and I nearly banged my head on the airplane ceiling after jumping out of my seat. Not only does Bouknight have enough hangtime to get to the other side of the rim, it permits him to regain possession after getting stripped, and flip in the reverse layup, all in mid-air. This is very far from a flashy subskill, it truly enables him around the rim. He hangs to outlast bigger shot-blockers around the rim, finding angles that others simply can’t exploit. Instead of relying on craft or strength, Bouknight ultizes his otherworldly explosion to feast at the rim. Everything in early January is based on SSS, but he’s currently shooting 63.6% at the basket in the half court, which ranks in the 84th percentile. The most impressive part is that his finishing is still more nuanced than pure explosion. Bouknight does a great job of fully extending at the rim, which enables those angles that I mentioned. On this and one, Bouk takes me back to the JellyFam glory days of 2016, after all, he did play his AAU ball in the city. The full extension allows him to take off from high in the paint, and rely on his explosion and arms to bring him towards the basket. I haven’t been able to find an official wingspan for him, but the rumors say it’s rather average. But, his comfort fully extending combined with his hang-time, makes every bit of length he has incredibly functional. Whether it’s in transition, cuts or drives, I think Bouknight is going to be a very effective finisher in the league. His creativity and body control in the air are second to few, and those are relatively unteachable skills. I do think his most likely avenue towards playmaking improvement is rim pressure. How he consistently gets there off the bounce remains to be seen, but I think he’ll have no problem actually converting his opportunities.

Finally, his defense. This aspect is certainly one of the more mind-boggling traits I’ve evaluated thus far. As you know by now, Bouknight has the tools to be an impactful team defender. Recovery speed isn’t an issue, and if he ever has to meet anyone at the rim, well, you know how that would go. Given all that, you would think that Bouknight would have a very gamble-heavy approach to the defensive end. In reality, it couldn’t be further from the truth. His positioning on defense genuinely makes no sense to me. He is (almost) always denying his man off the ball, except he isn’t always guarding Michael Jordan, he does it with every single matchup.

The tendency to hug your man on the perimeter, no matter where he is on the floor, seriously hampers your ability to play sound team defense. On this PnR, Bouk’s job is to tag the roll. While this action is subsequently happening, he should be under the rim, waiting for the dive. Instead, he’s all the way in the opposite corner. Once the roll starts to look like a possibility, Bouknight panics and sprints to tag, only for the guard to throw it to his original man, forcing him to play pinball. Bouknight makes two runs here, instead of one. For someone who would have no issue closing back out to the corner shooter on the flight of the ball, his initial positioning is beyond confusing. Since Bouknight is consistently far away from the ball, he often misses chances to create events. He rarely gets the chance to jump passing lanes or dig on drives, because he’s rarely splitting the difference. When he does get the chance, he’s shown competence getting stocks, and when his positioning isn’t so egregious that he’s out of the play, he’s shown the ability to rotate properly. All his defensive issues stem from this one problem, and I do believe it’s relatively fixable. Who knows, he might become a legit event creator with his tools once he’s actually in a position to pounce, but until then, we’ll never know. Whichever organization drafts him, this should be your first plan of action.

There was a lot of variation there. Some great, some good, some ugly. While there were sporadic results all over the board, Bouknight brings a lot of “good.” The low-hanging fruit for his development is this: You have an elite athlete who is — at least — capable in almost every facet of the game, his baseline is incredibly high, and one leap in one micro-skill could make him a game changer. If the draft were today, I’d take Bouknight in the top 10. His scalability and skillset enable him to play multiple roles, combine that with the production and tools, and it’s too much for me to pass up. However, it’d be naive of me to not recognize the *potential* fatal flaw. If Bouknight fails, there’s a good chance it’s because he wasn’t able to process the game at the level necessary to succeed. I’m very big on processing speed, and I’m choosing to overlook his limitations in that field on the ball, in exchange for his off the ball wizardry and pure on-ball skills. I might be right, I might be wrong. Only time will tell, and it’s safe to say Bouknight will be a huge evaluation for my philosophy in the future. But for now, I think he is a very solid prospect. One who has a seamless fit to produce on an NBA team immediately, and has a ceiling to do much more.

Size, Skill and Smarts: Franz Wagner Has The Juice
Processing Speed: How Can We Indentify and Quantify it?