As of February 2021, eight Villanova Wildcats are on NBA rosters. Those eight: Kyle Lowry, Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall and Saddiq Bey.
Moreso than the alums of other colleges, those eight (mainly the most-recent seven, who all left school after 2016) all share many traits. They're all solid or above-average defenders. All are incredibly fundamentally sound, particularly with their footwork. All are above-average passers for their position. All embrace their role on the team and don't need to be putting up the most numbers to feel fulfilled in what they do.
They're winning basketball players.
It's no secret at this point my man crush on Jay Wright and affinity for what he does at Villanova. He's an excellent teacher, runs a system that values skill development and modern basketball that translates to the pros, only takes in high-character individuals and has a ton of success. If there's one college program that I want to get players and people from, it's Nova's.
That's why Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is knocking on the door of the lottery in my book. His numbers aren't the sexiest, his shooting remains one of the knocks on a swing forward prospect and he doesn't jump off the page as an elite NBA athlete. But he's a byproduct of the system he's played in, and that counts for something. Perfect in his role and coming from Role Player U, JRE should be getting more love than he currently is.
Part of that comes from his excellent defense and the translatable skills of his offensive game. Part of it is in how much I value exceptional role players and think the guys who you are certain will be one shouldn't be pushed down draft boards simply because they lack superstar upside.
In a sport where repetition breeds habits, it's important that the habits being built are ones that are worth mastering. Jay Wright's staff preaches simplicity in their game and their practices, honing in on footwork, fundamentals and teaching/ spending time on only the things that will translate to in-game success. Those are the habits worth building, and they serve future pros well.
From a footwork standpoint, Nova guys are always savvy enough to thrive in the absence of elite athleticism. They understand how to play on-balance as a driver: understand where to pick up their dribble, how to go with two-foot finishes and jump stops, and dedicate themselves in the weight room to keep their balance through contact. It's a well-oiled machine at this point.
The impact of their footwork focus within individual skill development is evident in watching them play. There are several fundamentals that show up in games that are worth talking about. Good friend Randy Sherman of Radius Athletics did a fantastic breakdown of these traits -- notice how awesome the footwork is along with the functional IQ:
For clarification on the terms, "Barkleys" are face-up drivers turning their drive into a post-up. It's important to read the lack of one-on-one separation as a driver and, instead of panicking and turning it into a kickout to kill momentum or force up an ill-advised shot, keep the advantage by flipping it into a post-up. When combined with strong-bodied drivers, it's a really impactful move.
"Nash's" are in the same vein, but are more for attacking point guards out of the PNR. It's circling on the baseline, a famous Steve Nash move, to run through the lane and keep the dribble alive. It often forces a switch, though sometimes is just an escape from good defense.
A "stride stop" is a staggered jump stop, usually accompanied by a ball fake to a reverse pivot. It's great for letting defenders fly by, for turnaround hooks and keeping balance to make positive reads for kickouts from an advantage position.
Most of these come from more perimeter-oriented players who drive and attack to get their offense. Everyone learns them in the 'Nova system, as they're skills all players exhibit within their offense. But the teaching doesn't end when the ball leaves their hands. Guys learn how to move and relocate off-ball. They learn important concepts around the drivers, such as backdoor cuts from the corners around the "Logo jump stop", flipping the post along the baseline when a drive comes, or the concept of "penetrate-pass-pass" to keep the ball moving against a disadvantaged defense, which is what the Toronto Raptors love. Guys know how to play without the ball in their hands.
At the end of the day, that's what makes a role player great. They know how to play basketball, and can positively impact an offense without having the ball in their hands an entire possession. Their spacing and knowing where to stand provides value to their teammates. By mastering these concepts in college, guys can come into the pros and make earlier impacts, work on skill developments asked by their new teams and provide great value to their team on a rookie scale contract -- the name of the game for winning teams to solve.
It's really no surprise where these 'Nova guys are playing. Bridges is an elite 3-and-D role player in Phoenix, an up-and-coming team who seems to get better as Bridges plays a larger role. Eric Paschall is in Golden State and was one of the lone bright spots for them last year. Donte DiVincenzo is the perfect fifth starter for the NBA's best Milwaukee Bucks. The Villanova system breeds young role players -- both in terms of skill and in humble, hard work.
JRE the Prospect
Standing 6'9" with an NBA-ready body, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is more than just a second-year player for the Wildcats. He's an old soul, a mature and driven young man who coach Wright praises for his daily routine and habits. The article on him recently in the Philly Inquirer is a fantastic glimpse into the type of person he is and what level of professionalism he'll instantly bring to a locker room.
Perhaps what caught my attention most was his reference of a Kobe Bryant quote:
"[Kobe] talked about, everybody has their own box and how you should dance beautifully in your box. It doesn't mean that other people's boxes are better or bigger, or smaller. Everybody has their own specific box where they dance beautifully. So I feel like me not trying to prove other things that I'm not necessarily comfortable doing or don't work on, I don't feel like I need to do that. But obviously your game will expand the more you play, the more you work, so maybe more things will come out. But I feel like just being able to do what you do really well is really important."
A "never too high, never too low" approach to his workmanship helps keep him focused on improving, on blocking out the noise and on winning habits. They scream professionalism, being a great teammate and the type of guy any coach will fall in love with.
While JRE wins those character references and will be the guy who rises up some draft boards because he's so likable, I'll be the first to admit that those praises are hollow if they don't accompany a skilled prospect. I'm not rooting for JRE only because he's a great guy who we want to see succeed. We believe in him because his skills fit really well with the modern NBA.
A lot of that comes down to how he embodies the consistency, work ethic and mastery of the minutia on the defensive end. Robinson-Earl isn't the flashy shot-blocker or a guy with crazy statistical impact: he averages 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks per game. He doesn't force a great deal of turnovers when guarding the ball. At 6'9", he's a little small to guard most 5s and a tad stiff to be seen as a natural matchup with quicker, smaller guys.
Robinson-Earl has already mastered three important techniques: consistently aggressive switches, moving his feet to absorb contact with his chest and strong verticality on the shot.
When it comes to the switches, you cannot be successful when switching passively. As Celtics head coach Brad Stevens would say, "if you aren't going to do it aggressively, don't do it." Of course, this isn't a revelation to most NBA teams. They're teaching the same strategies, but in the NBA against elite athletes, high-IQ opponents can make guys look foolish if they jump out too aggressively, over-anticipate and switch too soon or aren't perfectly on balance when accepting a guard in isolation.
Robinson-Earl is a switchy 4-man. He's best guarding 3s and 4s and some 5s, but can be utilized in small doses against pick-and-roll handlers, particularly late-clock. He's employable here not due to elite lateral quickness, but because he's always so good with his aggressive switches.
He's on balance, he jumps up to switch instead of being on his heels, uses his length to stymie handlers who want to turn the corner and quickly forces the ball to retreat from a position from advantage. He accepts the switch well every time:
The aggression off switches does one of three things. One: it forces the handler to retreat and concede any advantage off the screen. Two: the handler sees an opportunity to throw a quick pass to beat the switch/ play the advantage with the screener, something JRE covers really well with his length, IQ and aggression.
Third, and perhaps most beneficial for JRE, it baits the player into trying to play one-on-one in an isolation drive. Here's where the fundamentals and mastery of the minutia really pop up. Robinson-Earl is so, so good at absorbing drives with his chest, cutting off the lane and forcing either kickouts, turnovers or ill-advised shots:
While absorbing contact with your chest is the goal, I'm a realist. That shit doesn't happen every time. Guys have to finish plays at the rim, recover and find ways to challenge layups.
JRE is excellent here. He's great with his verticality, using length to force guys to shoot over him and exhibiting the body control to avoid committing a foul. He's so good at this that guys are 2-14 on isolation scoring attempts against him:
The verticality extends to guarding the post, where JRE's strength and early work with his lower body prevent him from getting buried. He's just a damn good on-ball defender at pretty much any spot. A smart off-ball defender within switching schemes and what the Wildcats do, there are some minor things to adjust with opening up his stance and recognizing rotations as opposed to negotiating off-ball switches on the weak side. There's no indication either might hamper him from being one of the best defensive prospects in this class.
As for the offense, shooting has been the biggest bugaboo for JRE. He's just under 30% from deep this year, though the functionality of where he gets his treys bodes well for his translation to the pros. Through 14 games, JRE is 4-16 (25%) on pick-and-pop jumpers and 15-29 (51.7%) on spot-up jumpers from a catch-and-shoot standpoint.
At the NBA level, as more of a 4 on offense than a 5, Robinson-Earl will be involved in fewer pick-and-pops and can be stationed in corners or on the wings. The form is pretty, and he makes his free throws when he gets to the line. I'm really not worried about his jump shot.
JRE is a good passer. With the mastering of the Barkley fundamental concept, he can take smaller wings into the post and score or create. He is an excellent finisher, converting on 67% of his attempts at the rim in the half-court and a solid 45% of his post-up looks. He's also created 39 points off kickouts from post-ups. There's interior versatility to his game, where he can play as a mismatch 4 inside, a mover on the baseline in the dunker's spot (he's great here) and a straight-line driver who attacks on balance and finishes off two feet.
He'll likely never be a top-three option on the floor. But he's smart. He works. He converts at the basket. And he knows how to play off the ball in order to fit a multitude of roles for whatever his teammates and coaches require.
Drafting Role Players, A Theory
The one player who comes to mind to compare JRE to is Jared Dudley. Currently in his 14th year, Dudley entered the league because he was a sturdy-bodied wing, had a niche as a shooter and was a willing defender. He's stayed in the league this long, and keeps a role on the NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers, not because he's an on-court contributor, but because he's the ultimate teammate and character guy.
Dudley only averaged more than 10 points per game three times, all of which came in the supercharged Phoenix Suns system. But Dudley has started 286 career games, shot 51.7% from inside the arc for his career and has a pretty strong defensive reputation despite averaging only 0.8 steals and 0.2 blocks for his career.
Lasting power for the Boston College product is due to him embracing his role and doing whatever his team needs. He's adjusted from the 3 to the 4, to now even the small-ball 5 in some crazy-small lineups. He just does whatever it takes, adapts and lets his steady work ethic rub off on others.
Look back at the 2007 draft and Dudley went 22nd. It was a pretty stacked draft, with Kevin Durant and Greg Oden up front. Lottery guys like Al Horford, Mike Conley and Joakim Noah all lived up to the hype. But outside the top-five, only Thaddeus Young has played in more career games. The sexier, higher-upside guys were picked in front of him. Sean Williams (his college teammate) went 17th and lasted four years in the league. Julian Wright and Al Thornton went in the lottery as high-upside athletes who looked the part.
I'm not making the argument that Dudley should be a top-ten guy in a re-draft of the 2007 class necessarily. But too often we see exceptional role players, whose statistical production isn't the attractive part of their draft resume, and push them farther down boards for the high-risk, high-reward pick.
I'm a big fan of taking the sure thing, especially in the late-lottery or mid-teens. Teams in that range are typically on the cusp of competition, either making the playoffs as a lower seed filled with younger talent or building their way to that point. Adding a young role player who is ready to be a pro only helps speed up that timeline. It gives one more solid piece to put next to the core. It helps impact winning, which, last I checked, is the ultimate goal.
We don't know for certain that Robinson-Earl will wind up as the next Jared Dudley. No thing is a certainty in the draft. But every indication is that JRE will be a serviceable, lifelong role player who helps his team win. His character, work ethic, background at Villanova, strong defense and versatile offense are all positive traits in that regard.
There are a lot of really talented, tantalizing, high-upside freshmen who might declare for the draft, even after struggles this year. BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke, Caleb Love, Day'Ron Sharpe, Keon Johnson, Jalen Johnson and Ziaire Williams all fit into that category. Some will go ahead of JRE, and deservingly so, based on the height of their ceilings and the viable utility of their floors.
But not all of them. If a team is trying to take a step forward and add a winning piece, JRE is a pretty sure thing and solid option. He's going to be better than a few of those guys listed above and have a longer career than most.
These Nova guys always get drafted lower than they would in re-draft practices. Jalen Brunson went 33rd back in 2018. Josh Hart was 30th. DDV 17th, and Paschall 41st. Perhaps we're not weighing this whole Villanova thing enough...