Jalen Suggs: The Case For #2
That feint noise you hear in the wind? That's me, shouting from the rooftops from the last several months that Cade Cunningham is the clear-cut number one pick in the draft.
Come closer to the building and you'll find me sitting there, elbow on knee and head on hand, deep in thought about what comes next. This draft class has emerged into a firm top-six prospects for me, with Cade Cunningham at the helm. Separation between the other five has been difficult to achieve; my board has fluctuated much of the last few months as I try to sort between all these prospects. I've settled into one ranking: Jonathan Kuminga is pretty firmly entrenched at #6.
The book ends are set, but 2 thru 5 remain fluid. So, like I'm taking the advice of a therapist to vent about my problems, I'm going to write about each prospect. The idea is that writing is cathartic for myself: that the process of pen-to-page and detailing each player's best and worst traits will bring clarity to the order I'll be comfortable placing them in.
But this series will also operate as a launching off point for a greater discussion: understanding why each player has a legitimate case for the spot. Too often, I've seen boards with guys like Evan Mobley or Jalen Green locked into those spots, while Jalen Suggs and Scottie Barnes fall a half-step lower. My hope is that after reading all these pieces, you'll see that the case for Suggs or Barnes to go over one (or both) of Green and Mobley isn't as radical as draft Twitter makes it seem.
There's no better place to start in this dialogue than with Suggs, the guy who has been in the #2 spot on my board since late December. He's also the one on this list receiving the most lukewarm support, sliding instead of rising on boards and with questions about his shooting seemingly knocking him to a half-tier below everyone else. My affinity with Suggs centers around three areas where I believe he has elite potential, and my belief that they are the most important areas for a lead guard to thrive: pick-and-roll creation, defensive upside and winning pedigree/ mentality.
To understand Suggs' candidacy for the 2nd overall pick, we need to go a bit into his background. Suggs was a two-sport athlete in high school, a high-level football quarterback who received multiple high-major Division I offers as a dual-threat quarterback. The three-star football recruit played a position that thrived on understanding reads of defenses, quick processing speed, utilizing his athleticism to his advantage, vocal leadership and relationship-building. Suggs was the first player in Minnesota state history to be named both Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball.
All those traits make Suggs an ideal leader of a basketball team at the point guard position. Instead of focusing on the intangibles in that conversation, there's a nascent part of his game that is always covered by being a multi-sport athlete. As Suggs ditches football and focuses more on just basketball, it will allow him to dive into the 300 and 400-levels of coursework required to get his Master's in Ball Screen Offense. Guys who play multiple sports and then focus on one have a much higher ceiling to improve their potential because, well, it's the first time they are dedicating everything to basketball.
Within that context, Suggs' pick-and-roll skill at Gonzaga is already astounding.
The Achilles heel for Suggs throughout the season proved to be teams who tried to go underneath ball screens, daring him to shoot as to keep the energizer bunny out of the lane. Suggs wasn't perfect as a shooter, and in Gonzaga's hypercharged offense where he was surrounded by elite shooting threats to kick out to, the best team strategy seemed to be going under screens and daring Suggs to shoot.
Part of that opponent strategy is based on Suggs and his clear need to improve as a pull-up shooter from 3. The other part of it is understanding Gonzaga's incredible offense. Saying "Suggs isn't a great shooter so we'll go under" is an oversimplification of the dilemma. Gonzaga's offense was so good that the equation for other coaches was "live with Suggs from 3" vs. "if he gets in the lane, he's creating open looks for other incredible scorers".
In some form, that's where Gonzaga's team and structure might have hindered his draft stock. The lazy takeaway is to believe that it's just based on Suggs shooting. That he has this major flaw, teams in college already exploited it and therefore taking him over Mobley and Green can't be justified. At the NBA level, teams on the schedule won't fear the inclusion of Drew Timme off the roll, or kicking to Joel Ayayi or Corey Kispert as spot-up threats. They'll have elite pick-and-roll defenses who can guard 2v2 in the lane effectively. They'll have unflinching defenses built around Drop coverage. Those are areas where Suggs can shine.
It's also not like Suggs was a poor shooter. He was 33.7% from 3 on the season, and had several games where he really hurt teams that went under screens. The Iowa Hawkeyes got absolutely torched by Gonzaga because of this: Luka Garza is a poor pick-and-roll defender. So instead of going over screens and funneling Suggs towards the weak spot, they'd go underneath them and try to contain Suggs: less of an indictment on Jalen and more about what Iowa had to do for their own guys.
Suggs made a few jumpers to punish Iowa for that coverage, hit his roller at the perfect time when they started to show on him at the screen and toyed with a loose defense that resulted in a naked layup blowing right past Garza:
Suggs won't face ball screen coverage this poor in the NBA. That isn't a negative point for me, thinking that his production will drop off once defenses tighten up. Instead, I'm so impressed by the ease with which he dismantled any coverage at Gonzaga and the thought process that went into each shot or pass that showed the elite tools Suggs needs.
Gonzaga also didn't always run Spread pick-and-rolls for Suggs. Their ball screen motion and desire to inculcate all their backcourt members meant Suggs had the lane filled often, movement on the perimeter around him in ways that won't occur on an NBA court and several situations where his own dribble penetration was blocked by teammates. As someone whose top skill is their ability to get downhill in a hurry, it wasn't the optimal place to show what he can do with the ball in his hands possession after possession.
What he demonstrated was an ability to play against any type of coverage. Go under? Suggs can shoot it. Go over, Suggs gets downhill in a hurry. Hard hedge and he'll split you, just ask San Francisco. Trap him and he's a capable and willing passer with either hand. Switch and he'll back out and conduct the offense.
The pick-and-roll is still a major point of creation in the NBA, and will continue to be. Last season, 14 players got at least 8 possessions per game scoring or creating out of ball screens. Atop the list are the really high-usage threats: Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, De'Aaron Fox, Zach LaVine and Ja Morant. All seven of these guys are primary engines on their team who have the offense built around them. Five made the playoffs.
Envisioning Suggs being handed the keys to an offense to create out of ball screens isn't hard to do. He may be closer to Morant and Fox initially in terms of his shot-making ability, but he's atop the list when it comes to attacking the rim. It's why I've compared him to Derrick Rose with his ability to get downhill quickly and attack the rim at such a high speed.
Each of the five players who made the playoffs saw an uptick in the frequency of their PNR usage once the postseason rolled around. When the game slows down a bit and is more half-court based, drafting an elite decision-maker who gets into the teeth of the defense and makes winning decisions is crucial. It's part of the reason why Chris Paul has thrived in Phoenix this summer, and why Trae Young and the Hawks continue to push their way through the East. Ball screen offense is still the most vital trait, and Suggs might be the best at on it on high volume in this draft class.
And I still believe we haven't seen the polish get added to Suggs' game. A more tailor-made spread pick-and-roll than the one at Gonzaga, and more time away from football with a skills trainer like Drew Hanlen in the offseason, will add the microskills that complete his package as a pick-and-roll prospect.
At 6'4" with a sturdy frame and elite quick-twitch skills, Suggs has the ability to come into the NBA an defend either guard spot right away. Defense is, in my opinion, the ultimate floor raiser. If you can project as at least a capable defender in the NBA, you can play through learning how to precisely define what your optimal offensive role is. Conversely, shooting is the same: if you can drill open shots, you can find ways to play through early-career defensive miscues.
While Suggs' floor is high because, at worst, he'll be a solid defender, his ceiling is so much higher. I believe Suggs has first-team All-Defense potential. Part of that is his mentality, where he's so dialed in on that end that it's easy to envision him caring enough to consistently produce during an 82-game season. The other part is the truly elite physical tool that he possesses: quick reaction athleticism.
It's not the athleticism that's glaring and jumps out at you in a highlight tape. It's the type of athleticism that allows guys to adjust when their man breaks off his normal pattern, to mirror the ball with their hands when their man picks up his dribble, to crowd the ball handler because he's not going to get away from you. Suggs has some of the fastest processing and reaction time I've seen from a college prospect.
That in itself translates to on-ball steals and deflections. Pair it with his frame and ability to naturally stay in front of guys and Suggs looks the part of an on-ball menace:
So many people want to talk about the level of competition in the WCC, especially of athletic lead guards, and use that as a reason to doubt Suggs' ceiling. But watch some of his shutdown possessions. He's keeping the ball square to his chest the entire time. It isn't that guys turn the corner and he's athletic enough to recover (though that does and always will happen on occasion). Suggs is good enough laterally to stay in front, and does so easily enough that NBA-caliber guards don't scare me.
Statistically speaking, on-ball defense is really only applicable 20% of an offensive possession: there are five guys on the floor, only one of them can be guarding the rock. Suggs excels at a young age in the other 80% of the game. That quick-reaction athleticism allows him to cover ground; the awareness allows him to recognize when he needs to. It's a necessary pairing that centers on the term feel. Some guys have it, and it's hard to quantify unless you watch a ton of film.
We'll get to Suggs' feel in the next section in greater depth. Defensively, he is already a supremely impactful helper. He hustles in the full-court for chasedown blocks. He dives on the floor for loose balls. He rotates to protect the basket in emergency situations. He shoots passing lanes and rarely misses to create transition offense. The guy does it all.
Suspend the terms ceiling and floor for a moment. Does Suggs help your team win basketball games on defense? I'd find it difficult to make the case he doesn't. Everything Suggs does, from his small movements as a helper to a strangling, suffocating on-ball defender point to a massive impact on that end.
That leaves us here, with Suggs as a plus defensive player and a potentially elite pick-and-roll creator. He's a high-volume two-way threat. Hard not to love that...
The "It" Factor
From all that I can gather, scouting circles are still pretty split on the presence of an "it" factor. Some believe it is rubbish, an excuse for lazy scouting that allows you to throw your support behind a prospect without grounding that belief in statistical backing. Others swear that a winning mentality, character and knack for the big moment aren't coincidence and matter the most when evaluating someone to become a pillar of your franchise.
I believe the latter. Sometimes, there's just something special about a prospect that can't be quantified, is hard to define, but is the ingredient in winning basketball. Suggs' maturity, high character, leadership skills and comfort commanding a locker room speak towards intangibles. To me, this is as much about him finding big moments on-court as it is all the little things he excels at off it.
The best comparison I can give: Derek Jeter. Cross-sport comparisons are always tricky, but for you older readers, let's jump 20 years back in our time machine. The American League was filled with stellar shortstop play, all of whom were young, budding stars. It seemed like the position of the future and all four top tier names were Hall of Fame contenders, even at a young age.
First was Alex Rodriguez, the prodigal hitter who swung for the fences, got on base, was a tall and fluid athlete in the field and had enough speed to run the bases. By 2001, when A-Rod was 26, he was a five-time All-Star, hit 241 home runs, had led the league in homers, doubles, hits and batting average.
Featured high in those conversations was Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Nomar wasn't quite the player Rodriguez was, but seemed destined to be in MVP conversations. A 3-time All-Star by the age of 26, Nomar was the 1998 runner-up for AL MVP. He lead the league in batting average each of the next two seasons, and had over 190 hits in 6 of his first 8 pro seasons.
The Oakland Athletics had a ringer of their own in Miguel Tejada. Tejada's boon came after Garciaparra went to the NL and Rodriguez moved to third base, but he was statistically just as strong as Nomar. 30 homers and 100 RBIs each year from 2000-02, he won the 2002 AL MVP award while hitting .308.
Then there was Jeter. A strong contact hitter, Jeter was behind the others in almost every stat category other than batting average. Never the fastest or the best fielder, Jeter played on the winningest team. But Jeter had a reputation as a leader (his nickname was "the Captain") and showed up in the clutch. He was Mr. November in 2001 when the Yankees made yet another World Series.
And he made winning plays that nobody has any business making. How do you evaluate this play where he comes from across the diamond to serve as an emergency relay man to throw Jeremy Giambi of the Oakland A's out at home:
Or how about this one in the World Series, noticing a baserunner jogging it so he goes into a cutoff that isn't his, steps in front of the 3rd basemen to speed up the play and throws a missile to home to throw the runner out:
There is no blueprint or formula for evaluating such a play before it happens. Winning situations are so rare and seldom seen that finding guys who thrive within them has to be a valued trait. At a young age, Jeter was comfortable rising to the occasion and doing whatever was necessary to win.
Look back at these guys' careers and A-Rod and Jeter clearly broke away from the other two. Most might still take A-Rod's career over Jeter's (rings aside). And that's the situation we currently find ourselves in during this draft. Cade Cunningham is likely the A-Rod of the group. He's bigger, has all the tools in the world and every single statistical category that he hits. Jalen Green, he's a bit more of the Miguel Tejada. He could go out there and win you an MVP. He had every tool in his arsenal to eventually catch Cade -- or win an MVP award first (like Tejada did, beating A-Rod to the honor).
Outside of A-Rod, give me Jeter. Give me the guy who is going to quietly make the winning plays. The guy who has no holes in his game, even if the statistics aren't as eye-popping. The guy who simply has "it".
That's what I'm rolling with when it comes to Suggs. I believe so strongly in him, in his intangibles and the upward trajectory of his skill development that I have a difficult time accepting that he won't be the second most impactful player in this draft class.
âHe's already shown up in winning moments, and at the end of the day, we're looking for winning basketball players, aren't we?
7/4/2021 02:19:18 pm
Couldn’t agree more with your assessment.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)