It was January 19th. The Alabama Crimson Tide were on a seven game winning streak, winning six straight in Southeastern Conference play after a confusing stretch of non-conference games. The Tide waltzed into Baton Rouge, looking to continue their dominant run led by their core mostly made up of non-freshmen.
Minutes in, Alabama had already knocked down multiple 3s when Joshua Primo — the lone freshman starter — joined in on the fun with a pull-up jumper from deep in transition. 20 seconds later, LSU forward Trendon Watford watched as he sank too low to get the necessary contest for the curling Primo while he drilled his second straight triple.
He’d finish with 22 points in a breakout game that saw him shoot 6-of-8 from beyond the arc. It hadn’t even been 30 days since he blew out the candles on his 18th birthday cake.
Primo’s youth has been the foundation of the case he’s built as a potential first round pick in this year’s NBA Draft. He was the youngest player in college basketball this year, mostly looking his age to begin the season. He initially flew under the radar as an NBA prospect, but ultimately saw the reps and had a few hot streaks like he had at LSU.
On an experienced Alabama team that reached unfamiliar heights this past season, the freshman started in 19 of his 30 appearances. He’d been entrusted with an opportunity that went beyond his years.
But the 6-foot-6, 190 pound combo guard was rarely the offense’s initiator, with starting guards Jaden Shackelford and John Petty Jr. being involved in most of the action, and forward Herb Jones taking on some pick-and-roll duties before him. With Jahvon Quinerly as the first player off the pine, Primo found himself in the pick-and-roll merely 10.6% of the time.
Despite mostly playing off the ball, the Toronto native excelled in his role. He averaged 8.3 points and 3.4 rebounds in 22.5 minutes, often being called upon for his shooting. Primo shot 38.1% from 3, ranking in the 93rd percentile (per Synergy) in Division I in spot-up shooting at a 44.4% mark on 72 attempts.
The setting sculpted Primo’s profile. The Crimson Tide were arguably the most similar Power 5 program to an NBA team in terms of playstyle. They were among the fastest teams in tempo and possession length, and had 39.7% of their points come from deep. It determined his role before he knew it.
While his role limited any versatility in his jumpshot, his potential as a shooter shouldn’t take a hit. Primo has the tools to be a good NBA shooter. He knew his niche, constantly being found with his knees bent, ready to shoot. He displayed deep range at times, and made any defense that dared to help one pass away look foolish.
Primo generally moves well away from the ball. It’s how he found himself open so many times along the perimeter. And despite the small sample size, he ranked in the 98th percentile as a cutter, losing defenders en route to the rim.
With the way Alabama prepared him, Primo should be able to make an immediate impact as a shooter and off-ball guard. But the role the freshman carved out for himself wasn’t solely due to the plethora of playmakers piled ahead of him. He also displayed his fair share of limitations throughout the year.
He doesn’t quite possess that on-ball burst. He won’t amaze personnel with his strength or speed. There were times where his failed isolation attempts turned into turnovers or poor shots. He didn’t quite use his size to create advantages against smaller defenders, and his handle was seldom enough to get a good look against defenders closer to his size.
Though he shot relatively well, Primo could grow inconsistent at times. While being the fourth or fifth option might not demand a crazy amount of consistency, he generated his fair share of concern. If it wasn’t streaky shooting from deep, it was his poor conversion in transition. He scored just 66 points in 77 transition opportunities, putting him in the 26th percentile in that category.
As a playmaker, Primo was limited for aforementioned reasons. However, he still showed flashes of what scouts would come to like about him in June. He was more than capable of making a brilliant pass every now and then, though they were hardly ever converted into assists. Hidden beneath a timid display of creation were patient navigations in the pick-and-roll and wrap passes out of double teams.
Often didn't result in assists, but Josh Primo flashed budding playmaking skills throughout the year and at the combine. Brings added potential value as a tall secondary playmaker. Given his age, size and ball skills, it's worth letting him grow as a primary in the G-League first pic.twitter.com/VlFrIrmIIW— Jam Hines (@jamontheboards) July 1, 2021
Primo’s playmaking and creation upside were on full display at the NBA Draft Combine in June. He demonstrated a level of confidence with the ball than scouts had previously seen. In the third clip below he makes an accurate skip pass to his shooter in the corner with 6’10 G-League Ignite forward Isaiah Todd draped over him.
Alabama's Josh Primo had arguably the best day of anyone at the NBA Combine yesterday, especially considering he's just 18-years old. Made shots as always but also showed more upside as a creator than we had previously seen, with some really nice passes. pic.twitter.com/B7NxevGGoz— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 24, 2021
“The biggest thing is that I’m not just a shooter,” Primo told the Indiana Pacers of what he showed at the Combine. “I’m able to make plays out there and be a decision maker on a team. Be able to get downhill and score, get downhill and spray out, get downhill and be able to make plays.”
It was at the Combine where Primo was measured with a 6’9.25 wingspan and large hands. Those attributes will come in handy on the defensive end, where he enjoyed a solid year for the Crimson Tide. He successfully switched 1 through 3 throughout the season, and kept up with a couple 4s without adequate strength and frame. Primo looked solid as a team defender, making decent rotations despite lapses at times.
As many times as his age was displayed throughout the season in certain scenarios, it also made his general feel that much more impressive when he did well. Primo’s defensive upside has far fewer asterisks than his potential as a creator. His floor is likely as a solid perimeter defender, with proper size to be disruptive and guard both small guards and wings at the next level.
Though he initially intended to test the waters, Primo’s successful one day stay at the Combine generated enough buzz to virtually make him a lock inside the top 40. In regards to the Hawks’ pick, it’s unnecessary to draft him at No. 20 overall considering he’ll likely be available for at least another eight to 10 picks.
Some fans have already fixated on proven creators like Sharife Cooper, Tre Mann, Ayo Dosunmu and Jared Butler as prime targets for the Hawks’ first pick. Primo might not be worth the selection, but a possible trade down to take him is intriguing. There will be veteran point guards available this summer if the Hawks want to immediately better their second unit backcourt, don’t envision Kevin Huerter as the bench’s primary creator or simply want the defensive small that they’ve long been searching for.
But Primo is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He’s certainly a project, but one that might be worth the work. The name of the game is creation, and perhaps no team knows that more than the Hawks after their heap of creators aided their longest postseason run in Atlanta history. The idea of a secondary creator that can also potentially guard multiple positions and be a plus shooter should be enticing. Primo’s youth makes any team’s consideration worthwhile.