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2021 NBA Draft scouting report: Kai Jones

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Abilene Christian at Texas IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Peachtree Hoops NBA Draft scouting report series winds down with a look at Kai Jones out of Texas.

At the end of the day, the primary purpose of the NBA Draft is to find upside. There are a number of avenues toward acquiring good players, but to find franchise-changing talent, the most straightforward path is to simply draft it. Statistically, the best talent tends to come from the very top of the draft, but talent can be found anywhere, albeit with more risk and lower probability of success.

According to some recent research, a lottery pick (picks 1 through 14) has a 25.7% probability of becoming an All Star. After the lottery, the rest of the first round picks have a 7.8% probability of becoming an All Star. While becoming an All Star is not a measure of impact in itself, it shows the odds are generally against you getting a star in the draft.

As such, the draft is principally about risk and risk tolerance. For most mainstream observers, the talent in this draft tends to concentrate on the consensus top four players (Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, and Jalen Suggs), followed by a drop-off thereafter. In order to find upside talent in a more opaque drafting environment, it necessarily entails more risk appetite, which adds appeal to higher variance prospects like Kai Jones of Texas.

Measuring at just under seven feet in shoes with impressive coordination for his height, the big man represents one of the most intriguing upside gambles of the first round. A central aspect of his appeal is his malleability, having come to basketball late and fitting the “raw upside” profile which always divides analysts. Currently sitting at #22 overall on ESPN’s draft board at the time of writing, Jones’ draft range could be quite wide.

In my opinion, if you’re drafting Kai Jones, you’re not drafting for his median outcome. A fully realized version of Jones offers a fascinating blend of skills: a mobile big who thrives in transition with grab-and-go abilities, one who can knock down threes and drive from the perimeter, and can also protect the rim, especially from the help side. In a draft that lacks clear upside bets outside of the top, Kai Jones is as good as any.

Offensive Analysis:

  • Jones’ offensive appeal relies in large part on his physical tools. Often, you hear big prospects described as having “guard-like” speed, but Kai Jones really does. I recommend looking up his highlights if you haven’t because he might have the best in the class outside of the very top. He’s a force in transition, getting up the floor in little time, in addition to being ridiculously bouncy.
  • Shot 38% from deep on 34 attempts. This is a pretty measly sample size, but it’s worth noting that he increased his percentage from 29% as a freshman, while upping his free throw percentage as well. He’s at least going in the right direction. I’m an optimist on his shot. It’s going to take time, but I believe he can flesh out this aspect of his game.
  • Is he a center or a big 4? I tend to think the latter. It’s not often you see power forwards of his height anymore, but as Hawks fans have seen with John Collins, there’s real advantages in being able to play a second big who doesn’t have the typical skills trade-offs. As long as the shooting develops, he should be able to fit with another big; I see this dynamic as a positive, since playing two bigs can often raise a defense’s floor.

Defensive Analysis:

  • Jones is more theory than results defensively right now. He doesn’t have great strength, which is not ideal for teams that see him as a center. His defensive understanding is also unrefined. With his physical tools and mobility, his upside should be quite high, since he has high-level flashes of defending on the perimeter and has the length to also be a force at the rim. But these are flashes.
  • Again, his position will require working out. I’m not sure how much I buy him as someone who can operate as an anchor big without real strength and feel improvements. This is doable, but it’s likely detrimental toward winning if he’s tasked with center responsibilities early in his career. But in the long run, he offers a unique center profile if he’s able to organize a defense full-time, since finding centers who can grab a rebound and speed up the floor is not common.

Fit with the Hawks

While I like Kai Jones in a vacuum, I especially like him with the Hawks. It’s simply not too difficult to succeed offensively in a Trae Young-led offense, for one. His lob opportunities will be plentiful, and since the Hawks typically feature a well-spaced floor, there is more room for his growing pains as a shooter.

In addition, I particularly like the fit alongside Onyeka Okongwu in a front court of the future. Although I’m very high on Okongwu, the fact remains that he’s clearly undersized for a center, so I think pairing him with a center-sized big who does not strictly play like one is sensible. Jones could offer additional rim protection while also sharing some of the typical big man responsibilities. In time, this theoretical front court could offer all of the great qualities of a modern big pairing, having the ability to contest opponents at the level of the screen, while also having strong rim protection.

Though Kai Jones does not figure to be an immediate positive contributor early in his rookie contract, the Hawks should still continue to seek upside when possible in the draft. And it’s difficult to find a more obvious upside case than Jones.