I'm going to do exactly what my 10th grade English teacher told me never to do. I'm going to give away my conclusion at the top. Sorry, Mr. Bouton.
Elite role players are more valuable than inconsistent, unknown high-ceiling talent.
Corey Kispert has all the makings of being an elite 3-point shooter and NBA role player.
While I disappoint one high school teacher, I can find a way to please another. I was never a strong math student, but I do remember the transitive property. So, thanks Mr. Lemire. The transitive property states the following: if A = B and B = C, then A = C.
For Kispert, the transitive property should mean positive things for his draft stock. If elite role players are really valuable, and Corey Kispert will be an elite role player, then we can conclude that Corey Kispert is really, really valuable.
Of course, neither of those two statements are truths on their own right. Parameters need to be defined before we understand what both really mean. Our aim in this article is to dive into draft consensus on how we always overlook guys who are perfect glue guys, as well as how Kispert's evolution and backstory as a four-year college player with continued improvement make him one of the safest bets for the next level.
Role Players and the NBA Draft
It seems cliche to mention that a team is at its best when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The collective synergy, the fusion of each individual piece is meant to broaden the horizons of everyone within the team.
Yet we don't always draft that way. There's an emphasis on rarity of talent and height of ceilings. The "what-if" potential always seems to win out. Perhaps that's due to hubris from these teams, thinking they can teach the skills and traits which mesh next to stars. And perhaps it's an accurate representation on how f'ing hard it is to find a star player, and how impossible it is to win a title without one.
In the quest for the guys who turn into alphas, we always overlook the beta guys. General managers who prescribe to the notion that finding a star through the draft is their number-one goal aren't wrong -- they're far more informed on roster-building than I am, anyway. But I do take umbrage with the notion that the star has to come first.
We see it all the time with 3-and-D guys or role players. We peg them as good "end of the first" guys because they can come in, play a role quietly on a winning team and provide little risk. But we rarely talk about how the teams who draft them tend to stick around in the top-tier as a result. Even rarer is a frank conversation about how elite role players can help sway stars to join a team and make a roster look ready to win upon arrival.
I don't think it's an accident that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard saw the Clippers roster in the post-Blake Griffin era and said "that's the spot". They had role players like Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley on their roster. If Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert aren't in Brooklyn, perhaps Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving don't view that as a place they can win.
Caris LeVert was selected 20th in his draft class. Shamet was drafted 26th. Harrell was taken 32nd, Joe Harris 33rd. Dinwiddie 38th. Beverley 42nd. Hitting on the late-first, early-second picks is crucial, and there's proof that collecting them before the stars arrive can help bring them to town.
In the 2020 NBA Draft class, that's where Devin Vassell landed for me. It's really early in his career, so there can't be much conversation about the return on his pick. Vassell went 11th to San Antonio, and was #3 on our board, because of this exact concept. Sure, he'll likely never become an alpha or one of the guys who creates with he ball in his hands.
That's not the only way to define value. The way I see team-building, you're either a top-three option on offense or extremely good at one specific role. Those are how championship teams are constructed: a big-three of options and guys who accompany them by being great at something. You can play 30 minutes in an NBA Finals game by being an elite 3-point shooter. Just ask Duncan Robinson.
Most teams would rather have Robinson than a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, or a Marquese Chriss, or a Miles Bridges. Yet year after year, guys in those molds find themselves as lottery or top-ten picks, while shooting specialists more highly-touted than Robinson have a cap on their draft stock. The only exception seems to be Buddy Hield from 2016.
What Hield had going for him was a high level of proof that his shooting was legitimate. He played four years at Oklahoma, seeing improvement in scoring volume every year. His senior year, Hield averaged 25 points and 2 assists while shooting 45.7% from 3 on 8.7 attempts a game. It was a prolific shooting season, so he became a lottery pick.
Still, for his career, Hield was only a 39% 3-point shooter. The work ethic, time in the gym and proven track record of improvement attracted teams. They surmised he'd continue to improve and be a reliable shooter. Four years into his pro career, he was rewarded with a near-max extension. He's the rare case of a four-year college player being taken early in a draft and it working out.
Part of it is sheer luck -- and I'd rather be lucky than good. There's no real way to know who will be a good pro, just a ton of indicators that can point to higher likelihoods of success. If there's a takeaway to learn from Hield, it's that if the role in the pros will be consistent with his role in college as a high-volume specialist, it's worth the early pick.
Look back at that 2016 draft class, where Hield went 6th. How many guys would leapfrog him in a re-draft? Jamal Murray (7th), Domantas Sabonis (11th), perhaps Pascal Siakam (27th) and maybe Malcolm Brogdon (36th).
Now look at the 2018 draft class, where Duncan Robinson went undrafted, where Kevin Huerter went 19th, Landry Shamet 26th, and Gary Trent Jr. 37th. All four guys mentioned have performed well and were hits in ways some didn't foresee. But all three were shooting specialists who are bench/ role players not in the core pillars of their franchises. I'd venture that, outside of what's turned out to be a stacked lottery, those guys all go over Jerome Robinson (13th), Troy Brown Jr. (15th), Zhaire Smith (16th), and maybe even top-ten pick Kevin Knox (9th).
Revisionist history is nice; we all know there was no way any of them went above Knox. But Robinson, Brown and Smith? High-variance guys who don't really have an elite skill or trait? That's where the learning happens.
Nobody is making the case that Corey Kispert should be going ahead of Jalen Suggs, Evan Mobley or Jalen Green. At least not that I'm aware of. It's that next tier down, when we step away from the highly-likely franchise pillars, where we have to slot elite role players ahead of anyone else. That's why in 2020, in a draft class where I only saw two such players in Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman, Devin Vassell took home the third spot.
The case for Kispert as Elite
When the 3-point specialists come into draft conversations (particularly white ones) there's a small assumption these guys are going to need to work on their athleticism and defense to stay on the floor. We've seen too many Kyle Korvers and JJ Redicks have to train their way into adequacy just to have ten-year careers.
Kispert couldn't be farther from this mold. He's a strong body that keeps getting stronger; a legitimate 6'6" with bulging biceps and traps, a really good core and legs that can withstand the mileage traveled by movement shooters. He was a prolific quarterback as a young high school player before turning down his football pedigree (his grandfather played for the New York Jets) to focus on basketball. Like many two-sport athletes, Kispert came into college a competitor with other footwork and hip-movement skills that translate really well to basketball, as well as a higher ceiling to improve because he'd only recently begun dedicating all his time to the sport.
It didn't take Kispert long to catch up and find the court, though -- even in a system with as much depth as the 'Zags. As a freshman in Spokane in 2017-18, Kispert was a solid role player, starting seven games and playing 19 minutes a night on a team that went 32-5. He was in there to hit threes, rebound and defend.
It led to a larger role his sophomore year, where he'd slide into the starting lineup and play 26 minutes a night. Those Bulldogs went 33-4 and featured two first-round draft picks up front in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. Kispert was, once again, needing to get his reps and provide value by making the few shots a game he'd get. He took 6.4 a game, 70% of which were from behind the arc, and made 37.4% of them.
With Clarke and Hachimura gone and Kispert an upperclassman, the playbook moved more towards ball screen motion and a different attack. Hachimura and Clarke were interior guys, playing thru hi-los and post-ups since both lacked reliable jump shots. Their replacements, Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie, were both highly skilled on the perimeter. Joel Ayayi stepped into the lead-guard role. The 'Zags could shoot it from everywhere.
Kispert more than doubled his assist totals as a result. The 'Zags were more balanced, and as the equal-opportunity motion progressed, Corey found his niche. He averaged 13.9 points on 43.8% shooting from deep, greatly increased his two-point attempts and became a reliable, sturdy wing defender on a team that suddenly lacked a monster shot blocker like Clarke. They went 31-2.
Through three years at Gonzaga, Kispert had gone 96-11, shot 39.3% from deep for his career, improved his body and was a career 56% shooter inside the arc. He flirted with the draft, perhaps seeing the only opportunity to get into the first-round as being a junior. Another year in college would make him a year older.
Here at the Box and One, Kispert received a first-round grade and was 24th on our board days before he withdrew. Here are the scouting reports from his junior year:
The decision to return to Gonzaga for his senior year seems to be the right one. Gonzaga is obliterating every team in their path, fueled by top-five prospect Jalen Suggs and their supercharged offense. Kispert has been a big part of that. He's upped his scoring ability in many ways to the point where the game looks slow for him right now.
Through his first nine games (at the time of this writing), he's putting up 21.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and only 0.7 turnovers while shooting 61.6% from the field on 12.4 attempts a game. Those break down to 72.2% on 6.0 two-point attempts and 51.7% on 6.4 three-point attempts.
He's on pace for a 60-50-90 season. I mean... c'mon.
It's not like the Zags are only playing nobodies, either. Five of their nine wins came against absolute national powers, all of whom they beat handily. Kansas got smacked; Kispert had 23 in that game. West Virginia? A cool 19 on 11 shots from Kispert. Auburn? 25 in a win. Iowa? Only played 25 minutes in their blowout victory.
The most impressive performance came against Virginia, though - perennially the nation's toughest defensive team. Kispert scored 32 on 9-13 shooting from deep. He was lights out.
It's really doubtful these shooting splits are unsustainable.
Or is it?
For the first time, Kispert is playing next to an NBA-caliber guard who can command so much attention from the defense and deliver strikes to open teammates. Kispert is a smart relocator who slides into shooting gaps from 3 and reads the ball handler well. The chemistry with Suggs is not only indicative of a positive draft trait for Kispert, but creates so many high-percentage open looks. He could keep his hot shooting up... the quality of his looks are so high that most attempts are like shooting practice.
As hot as he's been from deep, it's the finishing that's caught my eye. He doesn't miss many layups. While the Zags run backdoor sets to spring him open and are fortunate enough to spread the floor around him thanks to their shooting bigs, Kispert is really comfortable around the basket on his own. What I love most: he trusts and uses his left hand as both a driver and a finisher. Most shooters, who are one-hand dominant and get chased off the line, are handicapped by only driving it with their strong hand. Even JJ Redick always has gotten by on inside-hand finishes, floaters and reverses.
Kispert seems so comfortable with his left in a way that's refreshing for a high-volume shooter:
Kispert is 18-for-28 at the rim this year in the half-court, and has gone 17-for-21 in transition.
That's right. An elite wing shooter gets 3.6 points per game at the rim in transition. It's the perfect dual-threat for a team with a great open-floor creator (like Suggs). He knows when to run to the line and knock down treys. He can make a play happen if you advance to him to get a layup. His gravity in the open floor creates layups for himself (via blow-bys on closeouts) and for his teammates (as defenders shift to take away his 3-point attempts).
It's already produced open looks for rim-running bigs, as help defenders hone in on Kispert in transition:
Hear me out on this, but a great 3-point shooter does essentially what a pass-first point guard does: create open looks for teammates out of thin air. While guys like Rajon Rondo or John Stockton were so crafty at manipulating the defense to get the shots they wanted for their teammates, a shooter on the move can do the same. Screeners can slip themselves open. Help defenders are put in lose-lose scenarios where they have to leave somebody open they don't want to. Shooters can set screens themselves to free up teammates. It's the new way to leverage getting others open.
Kispert has a lot of utility as a screener at the next level. The chemistry between he and Suggs? It extends to pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop actions. In one play against Kansas on their opening night of the year, Kispert rolled into a pocket between the switch so Suggs could find him, caught it and finished with a two-hand slam:
So many teams run guard-to-guard screens like this. He fits in seamlessly to the pro game. Offensively, there's little-to-no risk involved in a Kispert pick.
As for the defense, there's a ton of proof that he is better than advertised. He makes instinctual rotations and plays as a helper that demonstrate high-IQ. He has good possessions guarding the ball. He's great at throwing his chest in front of drivers and taking a charge. He's a legitimately good defender.
In trying to figure out just how valuable Kispert is, here's one name of comparison for his college statistical backdrop: Buddy Hield.
Like Hield, Kispert has improved his scoring average every year, all while being a sniper. Hield's 3-point and scoring volume is higher, thanks to the lack of options next to him at Oklahoma, and that made his efficiency all the more impressive. But Kispert is a superior defender, has more size and is really turnover-averse. Both are four-year guys who got better and garnered a national spotlight by their senior year.
So, here's an honest question: What's holding back Kispert from being a top-ten prospect?
Really, there are two things. First is the rarity of a four-year guy being picked in the top-ten. While Hield has been great, there's something worrisome about the fact he's already 27 and in the first year of a four-year extension. His next contract will be up when he's 31. There may not be much more meat left on the bone. I highly doubt many teams take that path to an older prospect again.
Especially this year, which is the second factor that drives Kispert away from the top-ten. This class is stacked at the top. When I put together my 2020 Big Board, I did so in tiers, that went as follows:
For more context, nobody in 2020 was in Tier 1. There will be at least three guys there in 2021, maybe more depending on how G-League Ignite scouting goes and if Usman Garuba jumps to that tier. Probably 4 or 5 guys land in tiers 2 and 3, and there are a couple names who could be in Tier 4 that are three years younger than Kispert (hello, Moses Moody).
In 2020, Devin Vassell fell into Tier 2 because he was above being a high-value role player in my book - he was an elite one. Kispert is more likely to end up in a Tier 4 situation, where he's a safe, high-value role player. Vassell's ceiling was so much higher, with glimpses of off-the-dribble scoring to vault him into some self-creation tiers at his heights, and versatility to defend every possession with blistering IQ that I hadn't seen before.
If we're in March and Kispert is above 50% from 3 still, there's a chance he leaps into that Tier 2/ Tier 3 category where the elite status of his role is better than being "high-value" and is borderline "impossible to replace". But for now, he's at the top of the list in Tier 4 on a really specific NBA niche. Once that top 12 or 15 guys in the tiers above come off the board, Kispert has to be the guy discussed. He's too good at something really important in today's game.