I'm very weary of the trendy risers in draft circles who don't play major roles on their teams. It's what I like to call the Zach Collins Coefficient.
There's a modernity that's very appealing to some big men. It's guys who are great athletes and move well laterally while protecting the rim and blocking shots. It's guys who shoot it well from 3 and have great efficiency numbers. There's a convenient, low-hanging fruit explanation for why they don't receive major minutes -- playing behind a college veteran on a really good team, most likely.
Collins was at Gonzaga, a one-and-done in 2016-17 who backed up senior Przemek Karnowski and junior Jonathan Williams. Two other freshmen bigs, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura, were there to eat up some minutes as well, moving Collins not only to a limited role off the bench, but to the 4 for a large chunk of his minutes. The theory behind Collins wasn't just that he had great numbers per-40, but would be much more impactful when the NBA clarifies and simplifies his position and role.
Kai Jones of Texas is the newest entry in this list. Through 13 games this season for the Longhorns, Jones has only started two of them, playing barely 22 minutes a night. He's leveraged hot 3-point shooting (44.4%) and impactful defensive metrics, along with eye-popping athleticism, to shoot up draft boards as a sophomore. He entered the season as a relative unknown; he's a lottery pick on the latest Mock Draft from Sam Vecenie and Matt Pennie on the Game Theory Podcast.
I always work to try and push away biases and external factors to focus on the meat-and-potatoes of a prospect -- their production and individual factors, not comparisons to others. But the context of how he's a quick-rising prospect, only plays a limited role and the skepticism I had with Zach Collins make me a little jaded when it comes to falling in love with Jones this early and simply say "hey, let's pump the brakes here."
While a little late-arriving on the major draft scene, Jones is no stranger to elite basketball. He was a top-50 RSCI recruit in 2019, attending the prep powerhouse Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. From there, he went to join Shaka Smart at Texas, hoping to be the next in what had been a long line of successful one-and-done bigs with Mo Bamba, Jaxson Hayes and Jarrett Allen.
Jones backed up veteran Jericho Sims his freshman campaign; he started ten games and was general underwhelming in his few minutes. He averaged 3.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 0.5 steals while playing 16.7 minutes a game. It was clear Jones was active on defense: 1.6 slocks in less than 17 minutes is a hell of an accomplishment, making 3.9 slocks per 40 minutes.
Coming into his sophomore year, he was slated to be third-fiddle once again. Sims, now a senior, would be the anchor at the 5. Greg Brown, the Longhorns' stud freshman, is an active, athletic 4-man who might be best-served as a small-ball 5. The limitless talent and upside of Brown is what would bring scouts to Austin.
Jones was the hottest guy at the start of the year. Through four games, the Longhorns were 4-0, with key wins over Indiana, Davidson and North Carolina. Jones started 16-17 from the field, including 3-3 from deep. In just 20 minutes a night, he was averaging 10.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists, but wasn't able to block a shot.
The overall numbers thirteen games in are heavily skewed by that baffling start. Since the Carolina game, Jones is averaging 8.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 0.6 assists while shooting 5-15 from 3 and only 49% from the field. They're much more in-tune with his freshman numbers -- when he was only 29% from 3 and was more active on defense. The nine-game period since the UNC win has seen 1.9 slocks per game for Jones, nearly on pace for the 3.9 per 40 metric he posted as a freshman.
To me, this is much more indicative of who Jones is than the hot four-game sample to start the year where he put up unsustainable numbers.
Yet Jones was inserted into the starting lineup during a shorthanded Texas game against Oklahoma, when Sims was out. Jones stuffed the stat sheet and was active on defense: in 37 minutes, he scored 15 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks with 5-11 shooting, 4-6 from the free throw line and 5 turnovers.
The first opportunity for major minutes saw him cash in with the combination of efficient scoring, active defense and a double-double, providing a shot in the arm to all the Jones supporters who were waiting for a signature performance in extended minutes to prove his draft value.
It's really, really difficult to see the combination of what he can do and not consider Jones a lottery pick. He comfortable guards in space against 3 thru 5 (and borderline switchability on guards) while protecting the rim and possessing major hops. He can be in the dunker's spot, a screen-and-roll finisher or a cutter/ creator from the wing-slasher spot. The combination is so rare and tantalizing that, if this is the Jones an NBA team will get, he shouldn't go after pick 14.
I'm not here to rain on this parade, but to pump the brakes on placing him here after one or two performances. The law of averages needs to take over, and the eight-game streak stands out more to me than one good game against Oklahoma or a four-game period to start the year.
During those eight games, Jones had fewer assists (2) than in the Oklahoma game. He was 4-13 from deep. He only played 15 minutes against Texas Tech, a top-25 team in the country, scoring 3 points and 2 rebounds. Does him being slid behind a senior big with little NBA future and an erratic but talented 4-man do anything to lower his perception in the face of such brilliant flashes?
Let's try to understand why Jones is playing behind them, though. Part of the equation is the fact that the people he plays behind a really, really good college big man in Jericho Sims. The big man is a pretty polished, mistake-free big who anchors everything on defense and swallows up all available rebounds. Their defense is so much better when Sims is on the floor; the Oklahoma game without him due to COVID protocols revealed just how porous their defense looks when he's not out there.
Sims is a fringe Two-Way candidate. He's a little old and there may not be a ton of bloom left on the rose, but he's a really good second-jumper, has proven able to thrive in multiple PNR schemes at Texas and can be a good PNR finisher. He has to cut out the awkward post-ups out of his diet, but he needs to play 25-28 minutes a night for the Longhorns. They really struggle to rebounder and have an experienced defensive quarterback without him.
Brown is a freakish athlete who is a little more naturally perimeter-oriented than Jones. He's another lotto prospect who can move on defense, create for himself (but not for others) and drill perimeter looks when he gets hot. He's long and rangy, a freak athlete who can put guys on posters and stay with others on the perimeter. Everything he does is violent, and that elite athleticism and toolbox is hard for teams to turn down. Brown may only be shooting 28.2% on spot-up catch-and-shoots, but it's the volume (39 attempts) over Jones (4-9 on spot-up C&S looks) that necessitates keeping him on the floor as a 4-man.
With a talented backcourt, the do-it-all offense of Jones becomes a complimentary piece and makes him the third cog in the rotation. Jones has freakish combinations of athleticism, perimeter attacking ability and size. He's a hybrid 4 and 5 whose value is derived from the ability to do both; he shouldn't be put into a box as a prospect.
Still, there's a long way to go before he's an NBA contributor at either role. In the Texas Tech game, Jones picked up three fouls in 15 minutes. He struggled with a few rudimentary issues on defense: leaving his feet to contest shots in the lane, flat-footed closeouts and a few late rotations to protect the basket.
The upside to Jones is definitely worth the growing pains, inconsistencies and needed teaching points to harness his natural abilities. The situation is very similar to that of Zach Collins at Gonzaga. The team is competing for a championship, so there's no real need for him to play through those mistakes when other options are available. It doesn't diminish the upside he has as a prospect, but it means we need to take the lumps (Texas Tech games) with the highlights (Oklahoma second-half).
âAs for the context with others in the 2020 Draft, we can't look at Jones in the traditional context of post players. I think of bigs as having four tools worth monitoring:
But Jones isn't a 5-man. He's not just a big. He has appeal as a slasher and someone who can someday attack off the bounce and make plays. He can guard 3s and 4s at the NBA level. The versatility to do all of these things is too nice to pass up, and he should be a top-25 prospect in this class just based on those tools alone. He's demonstrated that much.
I think Jones is a little farther away from meaningful NBA impact than most. He also needs to find a home at the NBA level that wisely develops him into a multi-tool frontcourt player. There's a real danger in a team trying to turn him into exclusively a 4 or a 5, limiting the versatility someone with his natural tools possesses.
There are plenty of teams who may do a poor job of opening up the floor on both ends for Jones. He makes a lot of sense in a switchable scheme at the NBA level, not in Drop coverages where teams have to decide if he's either a 4 or a 5 and toggle him back-and-forth based on lineups. He'd be great in a place like Miami (not sure if they're in the market for another first-round big after taking Precious Achiuwa last year) or Toronto (who might now be within range for a guy like him), and even in Memphis next to/ behind JJJ. New Orleans, Atlanta and Chicago (if they let Markkanen walk) have young, intriguing rosters that could be molded into something unique with Kai. Charlotte and Houston are dark horse candidates.
Then there are the places where, currently, would be really strange fits for his long-term upside. Late-lotto homes like Orlando, Sacramento and San Antonio would all be kind of odd fits.
I want Jones to succeed. He's a fun blend of perimeter skill, size, athleticism, defensive impact and pretty rare upside. He'll never be an offensive hub, but the versatility is humongous at the 4 and 5. There's a vested interest in where he ends up, and a belief I have that he's best-served joining an outside-the-box-thinking organization that won't put him into constraints on defense or not be trusted with developing his skills on offense.
He's seemingly in the 11-18 range right now on draft boards. I still think that's a tad high, given that he has one really good game for every three that are mundane. I'd put him in the 16-26 range, and he's currently at 25th on my board, with a major asterisk. I'm waiting for him to move up and acting sheepish on getting too high on him early. He's still only a career 35.7% 3-point shooter on barely one attempt a game, his team is 1-3 when he plays 30 minutes or more and is still enough of a project to be a full-time backup.
Let's recognize the upside, pump the brakes on falling in love with it and recognize that there's still a ways to go before he becomes a standout.