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2021 NBA Draft scouting report: Josh Christopher

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Meet Jaygup, the short shorts-wearing bucket-getter out of Arizona State

Syndication: Arizona Republic Patrick Breen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Our NBA Draft scouting report series continues with a look at Josh Christopher, a high upside shooting guard out of Arizona State.


Josh Christopher, a 6’4 shooting guard with a 6’9 wingspan, was the No. 10 overall recruit coming out of high school in 2020, but a leg injury ended his up-and-down freshman year at Arizona State after just 15 games. His peaks proved he could score — including a 28-point outing versus Villanova on just 17 shots — but he wasn’t always the most efficient (he shot just 43% from the field and 31% from 3 on 59 attempts), and some scouts are skeptical that he can do much else at an NBA level.

In a preseason aggregate of six mock drafts, he was projected to be selected 14th in the upcoming draft, but questions about his shooting mechanics, shot selection, and basketball feel have dropped him to 29th on Rookie Scale’s most recent Consensus Big Board.

On the other hand, some scouts see Christopher as the late-first-round steal of this draft, a certified bucket-getter and tenacious defender whose stock has fallen simply because of an awkward lineup fit: After scoring 2,700 points in high school, he played small forward for the Sun Devils next to Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge, two ball-dominant senior guards who are “allergic to passing,” according to Sam Vecenie of The Athletic. Far too often, Christopher got the ball and tried to force a shot up, as if making up for lost time.

Christopher, who’s been known by the nickname “Jaygup” since childhood, is an eye-of-the-beholder prospect. He’s been compared favorably to UConn’s James Bouknight, a fellow shooting guard ranked No. 7 on Rookie Scale’s Consensus Big Board. But others see a befuddling mix of bad decision-making, surprisingly average athleticism, and inefficient scoring — yet another gifted high school player whose warts started to show against tougher competition.

Generally speaking, history has not been kind to stud recruits who fell past the lottery after one season of college or international ball, such as James Young, Henry Ellenson, Stephen Zimmerman, Terrance Ferguson, Nassir Little, Skal Labissiere, and Chieck Diallo. At the same time, that list also includes such recent successes as Keldon Johnson and Tyrese Maxey. For a team like the Atlanta Hawks, which have so much depth that their draft selection is highly unlikely to crack the rotation as a rookie, Christopher is an enticing, high-upside flier who can be brought along at his own pace. If he hits, he’s a dynamic scoring guard and strong defender who can apply rim pressure in lineups next to Trae Young and Kevin Huerter or Bogdan Bogdanovic (as the series against the Milwaukee Bucks revealed was a need), or he can function as a second-unit bucket-getter à la Lou Williams. Although Atlanta has a plethora of young wings, none of their skill sets overlap with that of Christopher, a bruising slasher whose mixture of strength and craft make him elite at both getting to and finishing at the hoop.

Christopher made an amazing 73% of the 2.9 at-rim attempts he took as a freshman. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that just 37% of his at-rim baskets were assisted. Only one high-major player in college basketball (Oklahoma’s De’Vion Harmon) was more proficient and efficient than Christopher at finishing at the rim on his own.

Move a few feet away from the rim, however, and things do not look so kindly for Christopher. He made just 33% of all other field goals, including 36% of his 2s and 31% of his 3s. He struggled shooting both off the dribble and off the catch. For someone whose main selling point is scoring, both on and off the ball, Christopher’s shooting is the first thing he’ll need to fix.

OFFENSE

Shooting:

The good news is that Christopher’s shot looks more bad than broken — in need of tweaking, not a raze-and-rebuild. A big problem is that Christopher likes to shoot from his left hip, even if he receives the ball on the right side of his body. As a result, his shooting motion is circular from his catch to his release, instead of straight up and down:

Even when he receives the ball on his left side, there’s still an exaggerated, Ferris Wheel-type motion of extending outward (farther to the left) and then upward:

One reason to be optimistic about his shooting potential is the fact that he made 80% of his free throws, but even there that leftward swooping motion of his shot persists:

As someone who shoots off his left hip, Christopher is hamstrung by his shot mechanics when driving to his right:

This is particularly a problem because he’s better when driving to his right. To properly use him, the team that drafts Christopher will call a lot of downhill, jet sweep-type plays like Chicago and Miami to get him going with a head of steam to his right. But that means his defender is chasing from his left side, taking away his ability to bring the ball over to his left hip to shoot. If the defense can stop him from getting to the rim, he has to bring the ball over to his left side before shooting, which slows down his shot process and forces a lot of unnecessary side-to-side movement with his form. Getting downhill will be especially tougher against the drop coverage he’ll see in the NBA instead of the weak or hard hedges he predominately saw in college, as more teams (especially USC) proved later on in the season against him:

For a bucket-getter, the scouting report for stopping Christopher is rather simple: As the season progressed, defenders sat on his left hip to take away his pull-up jumper. While it’s common for right-handed players to prefer driving to their right and pulling to their left (Jayson Tatum and Lou Williams are two examples), cross-body shooters like Lonzo Ball have an inherent difficulty shooting off the bounce, as PD Web mentions in the Let’s Watch Film episode of Christopher. Christopher, who was not known for passing up shots, was reluctant to shoot if he couldn’t bring the ball back over to his left side.

He’s better, however, when he can pump fake to his right and then lean back to his left before shooting:

Or after a right-to-left crossover:

Or after a right-footed jab step so that the momentum back to his left syncs with his shooting motion:

Or while leaning/falling to his left:

When he does pull-up while going to his right, his shooting form necessitates an impressive amount of contortion to square up with the rim:

For all my harping, Christopher is not a “just needs to add a shot” prospect. He made 74% of the 799 free throws and 31% of the 744 (!) 3-pointers he took in four years of high school. He’s never been shy about shooting (which suggests his 3PT % isn’t inflated by taking only the easiest looks), while he’s never been a great shooter, he’s never been awful, making 31 to 33% over his 3s over his last three years of high school. The sample sizes are ineluctably small, but for what little it’s worth, his shot seemed to progress as the season wore on. After making just 19% of his 3s through the first eight games (when he looked overly excited and his outward shooting motion was more pronounced), he made 44% of the 27 3-pointers he took over his final seven games of the season.

It’s likely that his catch-and-shoot percentages at least surpass the Mendoza line, but his lasting utility, the reason he’ll stick around, is his ability to score off the dribble, both at getting to the rim and at pulling up. The good news is that his deficiencies are interrelated: Cleaning up his gather will improve both his assisted and his unassisted shooting. Apparently, he’s already working on shooting from his right hip instead of his left, and although locking his new form into his muscle memory will take time, it will give him a better chance to do what he does best — get to the rim — and expand what he can and might do with his dribble.

Handle

Although his handle can be somewhat loose at times, Christopher has a dynamic and fairly complex dribbling package (albeit one that’s currently limited by his need to pull-up from his left hip). He has the potential to be his team’s go-to shot creator as the shot clock winds down, but more than likely, at least for the near future, he projects to be an off-ball scorer in the mold of Bradley Beal or Anthony Edwards — somebody you run plays for, not somebody who’s the main driver of your offense, especially because he hasn’t shown the vision and playmaking ability for such a role. He’s good, however, at using his handle and threat as a slasher to gain separation for his pull-up game:

...or to get to the rack:

He’s particularly fond of the left-handed in-and-out dribble, especially in transition:

But he’ll also use that in-and-out to set up a crossover to his right:

Watching these clips, you might notice a theme: Christopher’s handle helps him get to the rim in transition, but in half court, it’s more likely to set up a pull-up jumper. (When he did get to the rack in the half court, it was usually because he was attacking a tilted defense, but more on that below.) Unsurprisingly, Christopher is elite in transition, scoring 81 points in 59 possessions (1.37 PPP, 91st percentile). In just 15 games, Christopher shot 30/44 (68.2%) in transition, where the open space let him show off his athleticism in ways the often crowded half-court did not. He excelled both with and without the ball: 1.55 PPP as the transition ballhandler (99th percentile) vs 1.20 ppp on all other transition possessions.

When he’s given an advantage — which typically happened in fast breaks because of deficiencies related both to his personal areas for improvement and to his team’s offensive system — his handle combined with his superb finishing ability shows the potential of what he might be as a pro:

Finishing

Mentioned earlier was the comparison between Christopher and Bouknight, and although they’re both shot-creating slashers, there’s a sizable difference in the way they score at the rim. Like Christopher, Bouknight is elite at getting to and scoring at the rim on his own, albeit on even higher volume: He made 66% of his 5.27 at-rim attempts per game, and just 35% of those field goals were assisted. (Bouknight, a sophomore, made 49% of his 4.5 rim attempts per game as a freshman, and 46% of those field goals were assisted.) But while Bouknight uses craft and deception to finish over taller defenders, Christopher uses strength. Bouknight and Christopher have almost identical heights, body fat percentages, and wingspans, but Christopher, who’s 15 months younger than Bouknight, is 25 pounds heavier. And that’s not to say Bouknight is slight; Christopher is simply that big. Of the 116 players who have measured plus or minus one inch of Christopher at the NBA Draft Combine from 2010 to 2019, only 17 of them weighed more than Christopher, and only four of those 17 had lower body fat percentages than his (Lu Dort and Malcolm Brogdon are two of the four). Christopher’s lane-agility and vertical-jump numbers at the Combine didn’t impress, but that doesn’t mean he lacks athleticism. For one, he’s more of a lateral leaper like Bradley Beal than a straight-up-and-down vertical jumper, and he has a rare combination of speed and strength, one much more common to football than basketball. He unleashes it against centers much heavier and older than himself, such as Rhode Island’s 6-10, 245 center Makhel Mitchell, whom he bounced off to score his first collegiate bucket:

And here he converts despite the contact from the 7-1 Christian Koloko:

He’ll also mix in finishing moves like the Euro step:

And he’s terrific at using his body and strength to draw contact and maybe get to the FT line:

Passing

The section on Christopher’s passing will be short for a reason: The sample of his collegiate passing is short. Through 15 games, during which he accumulated 21 assists, Christopher gave credence to some of his critics, missing reads and forcing this turnover:

And forgoing the easy pass to his open teammate cutting to the basket for the sake of feeding his center at the FT line with 2.5 defenders between him and the basket:

At the same time, he also made some impressive decisions with the ball:

(My favorite part of that last clip is the not-totally-legal brush screen he sets on Evan Mobley to give his teammate a lane to the hoop.)

Whether Christopher was unable or unwilling to make certain passes is up for debate. Although he looked excitable early on, the game seemed to slow down for him as the season progressed, and while he may never be a Luka Doncic, a better offensive system and a clearer role could help considerably with his ability and likelihood to be a playmaker. His passing is a synecdoche of a larger issue with scouting players in general, but with him in particular: What’s the root cause of mental mistakes?

Mental Mistakes: Fixable or not?

Don’t be surprised if Josh Christopher’s coach and his team’s fan base disagree about him next year. Christopher has an amazing highlight reel of fastbreak dunks and weakside blocks — and an even bigger lowlight reel of undisciplined plays such as leaving his man to gamble for a steal, forcing (and missing) tough shots in traffic, missed reads (both offensively and defensively), and careless turnovers. Watch as he attempts to thread a behind-the-back bounce pass through four defenders instead of making the easy pass to his wide-open teammate in the far corner:

While researching this piece, I shared a lot of these clips with some of my basketball friends, who responded very differently if they were scouts or coaches. On the whole, the scouts shrugged off the mental mistakes, waving them away as nothing more than youthful errors that he will grow (or be coached) out of. The coaches wanted to send him on the next ship to Siberia (full disclaimer: I coach high school basketball). One coach even called him fool’s gold, someone who didn’t need to make the right read because he’d always been bigger, stronger, and better than everyone else he played with, but whose athletic gifts and scoring craft won’t overcome his apparent lack of feel at the next level.

Your opinion of him is likely influenced by whether you think his mental mistakes are a result of nature or nurture — in other words, whether they’re indicative of low basketball feel or merely bad habits. In addition to losing part of the last two years (and off-seasons) to the pandemic, Christopher didn’t go to an elite basketball prep school with a famous coach and a reputation for producing top-5 draft picks. He went to Mayfair High School, a public school in Lakewood, California, that the Atlanta Hawks legend Josh Childress and the rapper Vince Staples also attended. Christopher, who measured 6’3.25” without shoes at the NBA Draft Combine, was both his team’s best ball handler and its tallest player (he jumped for the opening tip). As a result, he has certain habits that make sense given his tutelage (he tends to get bored away from the ball, both offensively and defensively) but work against his projected role in the NBA as a dynamic off-ball scorer. He’s been compared to Norman Powell and Anthony Edwards, and like Edwards, Christopher was a 5-star recruit who forced too many low-percentage pull-up jumpers. But whereas Edwards was praised for his cutting (which some scouts interpreted as a sign of his basketball feel) and scored 46 points off cuts as a freshman, Christopher scored 6 — 4 of which came at the FT line. In 15 games, he scored exactly one field goal off a cut, although it was a good one:

When he didn’t have the ball, he spent a lot of his time on offense not looking for scoring opportunities, but to simply get the ball in his hands, even if that meant bringing his defender close enough to stunt at the ball handler:

His preoccupation with the ball also hindered his defense, especially his team defense. He was especially susceptible to backdoor cuts:

And like a linebacker deciding to blitz even though the play calls for him to drop back in pass coverage, he often left his man on a whim to double the ball handler — sometimes resulting in highlight-caliber dunks in transition, but usually costing his team a bucket:

His off-ball defense, then, is a mixed bag. All gamblers look brilliant if you notice only their successes. In fact, some of his highlight-caliber dunks happened because of laxed defense:

Optimists see the athleticism, the gather step before his two-footed power jump. Cynics, meanwhile, might tend to notice the beginning of that clip:

As you can see, Christopher has a head start because he started walking away from his man in the low post before his team had the ball. If Stanford hadn’t thrown the ball away, the possession probably would have ended with Christopher’s man making a layup, as is what happens on this baseline out-of-bounds play against Villanova when Christopher leaves the in-bounder to chase the pass:

Watch on this play as he completely forgets about his man in order to watch the ball in the low post — not double, not dig down, merely watch — for 4 to 5 seconds:

The ball’s gravitational pull on Christopher’s attention does lead to some passing-lane steals and deflections, but like a cornerback selling out for the interception, his gambles hurt his team more often than they help. Even worse, though, is when he loses track of his man simply because he’s watching the ball, in a no-reward, all-risk scenario like in this next clip. On the college level, he wasn’t punished for his ball-watching as often as he could have been. In this play, his man relocates for a would-be uncontested corner 3, but the ballhandler doesn’t spot his wide-open teammate:

And again because of ball-watching, he loses his man, who relocates to the corner for a would-be open 3:

Because he frequently loses track of his man, his closeouts (which are not great to begin with; more on them below) are made worse by not always knowing where to go. This is a habit of his: being slowed down by mental mistakes. Luckily, his athleticism is often enough to compensate.

Here’s a similar example from one of the NBA Combine scrimmages, which by all accounts helped his draft stock:

Because of ball-watching, he loses his man twice on the same play. When the ball is passed out to his man, he takes a bad angle for the closeout and gets blown by, forcing a defensive rotation that ends up costing his team a bucket. Over the course of the season, when it was time to close out on the open man, Christopher still needed to determine where he needed to go before he could start getting there.

There’s a saying, coined by Ethan Strauss, that “fat is potential in disguise.” Christopher is a modified version of that maxim: “Undisciplined is potential in disguise.” Whether he’s worth a late-first-round flier is largely dependent upon the franchise’s confidence to coach him out of his worst habits.

One of those habits is not anticipating screens, both for his man and set by his man. On this play, he not only lets his man get behind him, but also focuses so intently on the ball that he doesn’t notice his man is about to set a rip screen for Mobley, let alone alert his teammate that the screen is coming.

Even worse is the fact the Christopher is so attached to his man that his teammate, guarding Evan Mobley, has to go around both the screener and Christopher. In other words, Christopher doesn’t “let him through,” which is a bench-able offense for some high school coaches. And then Christopher reaches in and fouls Mobley, sending him to the line:

He also fails to anticipate when his own man is about to receive an off-ball screen. In this next play, USC runs rather standard flex action (initiated by a pretty clever UCLA screen for the point):

After the ball has been entered to Mobley in the High Post, the play looks something like this:

USC’s point guard (1) comes to set a cross screen on Christopher (x3) and then receives a down screen from 4 before curling to get the handoff at the top of the key from Mobley (5). Christopher has two options: fight over the cross screen and stay with his man (red) or switch and take the PG (yellow). Because of, once again, ball-watching, Christopher does neither.

First, he’s ball-watching when Mobley gets the pass at the high post:

As a result, he has to then turn his back on the play (and the ensuing cross screen) to find his man. Thanks to the absence of fans in the audience, you can actually hear the screener’s defender tell Christopher that the screen is coming. Despite that warning, however, Christopher is caught flat footed by the screen:

At first, Christopher tries to stay with his man, but he is so thoroughly screened that his teammate is forced to switch. Nevertheless, Christopher takes another step or two toward middle, letting his new man run free off the down screen:

Christopher is thus several feet away when the handoff occurs:

After that point, however, he actually does a great job using his physical gifts to cancel out the advantage (his teammate’s hedge on the DHO certainly doesn’t hurt). Christopher’s solid tag on Mobley buys just enough time for his teammates to cover the roller, and then his quickness on the ball handler makes him pick up his dribble, forcing USC to throw up a contested 3-pointer as the shot clock dwindles down.

Although he looks much better when he starts in a defensive stance, Christopher seems to have tight hips that force him upright when he’s trying to close out. NBA teams have done a terrific job recently of increasing flexibility to draft picks who looked tight in college (such as Pat Williams, Tyrese Haliburton, and Devin Vassell from last year’s class), but if that success can’t be replicated for Christopher, his closeouts could be a big reason he spends time on the bench:

But as Herc says in The Wire, “Whatever else I ever did to piss you off, remember I also did this.” No matter how many benchable offenses Christopher might have committed as a freshman, he also did this:

On-Ball Defense:

To get it out of the way, Christopher’s mental mistakes do carry over to his on-ball defense from time to time. In this clip below, Christopher’s full-court pressure does the hard part of forcing the ballhandler to pick up the dribble — and then Christopher just leaves the ball, giving enough space for his man to pass out of a would-be trap:

More often, though, Christopher’s on-ball defense is an asset, or at least potentially one. He has the length and the lateral quickness to stay with his man, especially when he’s engaged in one-on-one situations:

He does need to get much better at fighting through screens, but Christopher shows the ability to move well enough laterally to defend the point of attack, and his quick hands and penchant for playmaking pay off with deflections and steals:

His strengths and weaknesses often present themselves side by side. Getting back-doored forces Christopher to switch onto Oscar da Silva, a 6’9 senior power forward who scored 18.5 ppg last season, but despite the mismatch in the low post, his quick hands force the turnover and save a bucket:

If he can put it all together — if he can fight over screens, play both his man and the ball, and close out consistently — his playmaking and ball-hawk tendencies give him the chance to do what he does best: dunk in transition.

Fit With Hawks:

Barring major trades, the Atlanta Hawks enter the 2021 offseason with no major holes on their roster, except for backup PG. Some front offices are reluctant to spend a first-round draft pick on a position that has a ceiling of about 10 minutes per game. Unless that player can also play alongside Trae Young as a shooting guard, Atlanta might prefer signing a veteran floor general instead of drafting a pure point guard with the No. 20 pick.

Whatever the Hawks decide to do for their backup PG (that is, even if Kris Dunn fills the role admirably), the arrival of Williams and the playoffs in general revealed a missing element of Atlanta’s offense: somebody besides Young who can apply pressure on the rim. Young and Williams played just 89 minutes together during the regular season, posting a plus/minus of -16 thanks to a 130.5 defensive rating. But then in the second round of the playoffs, the Sixers did their best to take Young out of the game, and the need for a second on-ball creator forced the Hawks to play both Young and Williams. Luckily, Philadelphia didn’t have the guards to punish that lineup on the defensive side, scoring just 105 points per 100 possessions despite shooting 48% from 3 during that time.

The series against Milwaukee was another story — a story made worse when Young sat out with an injury. Both Huerter and Bogdanovic are excellent secondary playmakers and terrific off-ball movers, but neither is necessarily elite at gaining separation on his own, without a ball screen. Without Young on the floor, Milwaukee was comfortable switching ball screens and daring Huerter and Bogdanovic to attack Lopez off the bounce:

It just so happens that attacking off the bounce is perhaps Christopher’s greatest strength. With his rim pressure and athleticism, he could seamlessly fit in lineups between Young and Bogdanovic/Huerter, especially if he fulfills his potential as a point-of-attack defender. At the same time, his shot creation and skill with the ball in his hands make him a possible successor to Williams as a second-unit bucket-getter. Christopher is an intriguing prospect because his potential to be both an on-ball and an off-ball scorer, his strength and size, and his defensive ability let him fit in any number of lineup configurations.

In the short term, however, Christopher needs seasoning, especially in terms of operating without the ball, and much like Kevin Porter Jr with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Christopher could benefit from some time in the G-League to get much-needed reps. Luckily, the Hawks could afford to bring him along slowly, which is especially valuable now that Atlanta probably won’t have the cap room in the near future to sign a free agent with his possible scoring dynamism. Christopher might not hit (most picks in the 20s do not become long-term NBA contributors), but like the Philadelphia 76ers drafting Tyrese Maxey last year instead of older, “contribute now” guards like Payton Pritchard and Malachi Flynn, Atlanta has a chance to go big with Christopher.

*To be fair, Bogi had an excellent game scoring via off-ball screens and stepbacks, but made just 1 of 3 field goals when taking Lopez to the rim.