Every year, there are one or two guys who I just can't seem to grasp. Sometimes it's due to fit: I see a player with clear skills or upside, but don't know how it translates to the next level. Other times it's effectiveness issues, where they have flashes but don't seem to put it together in functional ways.
Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer might be this year's recipient of "Coach Spins' Most Confusing Prospect." Springer won't turn 19 until September. He's incredibly young, has a massively strong frame for his age, is a tremendous on-ball defender and has a good deal of athletic upside. He also shot over 43% from 3 as a freshman in the SEC, was a top-20 recruit coming out of IMG Academy and played for Rick Barnes with the Volunteers: those guys always pass the character test.
But there's something... off about Springer. While he's usually the type of young, strong prospect I like because he plays the right way and defends, I still don't see where the upside pops and can't nail down what type of role he'll have at his ceiling. Perhaps I'm alone in how befuddled I am by his season at Tennessee, but I do feel it worth bringing up the traits that really confuse me.
The vast majority of Springer's finishes at the rim are off two feet. He's a really fundamentally sound finisher who uses his strong body and thick shoulders to ride and contact and not get displaced. He bulldozes strong wing defenders, adjusts with last-step quickness to avoid charges or shot blockers and still gets enough lift after a gathering one-two step to finish at the front of the rim.
More than a third of his attempts at the half-court come at the tin, a really nice number. It's fairly high for guys who are predominantly two-foot takeoff guys -- usually, the play off two because they're less athletic and bursty, therefore they must be balanced and use savvy to create space. But the lack of burst prevents those guys from getting to the rim a ton. That's where the percentage of rim attempts from Springer is so important and, in my eyes, impressive.
Springer's skill here makes him reminiscent of a lot of Villanova guys. They pop as role players at the next level, are all really good finishers in NBA spacing and make sound decisions when the breach the second level of defense.
From what I've seen, Springer has many of those same qualities as a playmaker. Tennessee runs a motion-based approach, with tons of off-ball screens, multiple posts and fewer NBA-type actions. He deals with more cluttered lanes than 'Nova prospects, so kickout attempts to 3-point shooters is less frequent. Instead, Springer hits a ton of dump-down passes on his middle drivers, strategically dropping dimes to his bigs in the dunker's spots whenever help comes uphill.
Guys like that thrive when they are placed in a role as a supplementary creator, someone who picks up the scraps on the second side against a weak matchup. They attack poor closeouts, bully their way into the lane and know what they want to do when they get the ball on the perimeter.
Frankly, that's an area Springer needs to improve...
For as much as I love fundamentally sound players who are good at getting downhill, Springer doesn't really seem to know how to get downhill. He has a lot of frustrating tendencies that can be broken, and some that are indicative of a lack of feel that really isn't taught.
Let's look at the teachable moments first. Springer is, to be blunt, really raw on offense. He puts the ball on the floor when he should hold it, and holds it when he should dribble and be quick. Right now, he doesn't seem to know when to go off the catch. He'll get a swing pass on the perimeter, catch it and eye up his man before going into a one-on-one move where he cannot create separation. You can't help but wonder if he'd be living at the rim more if he eliminated those few seconds after the catch and went right away.
Then, when he comes off off-ball screens, Springer has the tendency to run to where he can be guarded, and an even worse tendency to put it on the deck immediately. As a low volume shooter, Springer isn't used to running off those actions and being a threat. Most teams went under them this year, anyway. Now he has to learn how to level behind those screens and feel the separation from his defender, and how to catch in shooting motion, not as a guy who runs through the ball and puts it on the deck immediately. I'm not always huge on triple threat and see the value on running through the basketball, but not every time when coming off a screen, and certainly not when you're going east-west.
All those can be taught, watched on film, drilled and corrected if his role in the NBA is to include those. It's the next step in his ascent to being a fundamentally-sound player.
What can't necessarily be taught is that really slow first step and the fairly rigid hips he possesses. Springer should emphasize quick attacks off closeouts, in my opinion, because he does very little to create separation one-on-one. When his defender is set and has settled the ball, Springer doesn't get past him.
The result of those plays, when combined with his two-foot tendencies, is a guy who gets stranded in the 10-15 foot range a lot. Tons of contested mid-range pull-ups, a shot I despise when it's early in the clock. Defenders who can get away with crowding him late-clock since he can't blow by. Lots of half-spins, pump fakes, up-and-unders just to get a semi-clean look at the rim in that drowned mid-range.
It wouldn't be such a big deal of Springer was a projectable shooter. 43% from 3 is great, but he's achieved that on such low volume that I'd trust the study of his mechanics more than his numerical impact. Springer has tight hips. He doesn't seem really fluid with his launch, and when his shoulders aren't directly square to the rim, he has issues getting his whole body aligned. He can't separate his upper body mechanics from his lower body jumping angle, which is accomplished by having fluid hips.
There's a lot to unpack there, mainly that if those are somewhat teachable/ correctable traits, it may take a long time to do so. I'm no kinesiology expert, but the hips are kind of like the gateway to all fluid athletic movements, especially those as a scorer off the bounce.
Envisioning Upside out of the Confusion
As it stands, Springer really confuses me. On one hand, I see a safe and secure role player who is fundamentally sound and can play a Josh Hart-type role at the next level. He finishes well, makes good decisions when attacking and can be a tremendous on-ball defender.
At 18, he should have so much more upside, and as an athlete there's more to him than a guy like Hart. But I can't really figure out what his maximum role is even if he hits his ceiling. I don't see the fluidity of shot-making to turn him into a top-three option on offense. If he cleans up the decision-making off the catch, he can be a really impactful fourth or fifth option. That will also be dependent on continuing to add consistency and volume to his 3-point range.
He's somewhat of a "like a lot of things, but I'm really bothered by one thing" prospect. The decision-making and lack of separation one-on-one can be minimized, compensated for and worked through to turn him into a functional player. But I don't really see the alpha upside to him even if he figures that out.
As a result, I'm not really considering Springer as a lottery prospect. I understand I'll be in the minority on him, and I wish I could be more articulate as to why. Something just feels off.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)