Kai Jones: The Most Appealing Upside Play of the Draft

Kai Jones: The Most Appealing Upside Play of the Draft

NBA Draft

Kai Jones: The Most Appealing Upside Play of the Draft

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Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kai Jones wasn’t supposed to be here. Only two players in the entire NBA are Bahamian which accounts for less than 1% of all NBA players. It wasn’t until a Basketball Without Borders event in Nassau, Bahamas that he realized his basketball potential. That’s also where he met one of those two players, De’Andre Ayton, and received some life-changing advice. 

Jones was originally supposed to be a track star. Using his God-given athleticism, he wanted to be a long jumper. However, thanks to some wise words of wisdom from Ayton, and a late growth spurt that helped him become 6’11, Jones began focusing on basketball full time. Despite picking up a basketball for the first time at 15 years old, he quickly developed into a high-level prospect after playing for a prep school in Orlando, Florida. He then spent his post-graduate year playing alongside the recently deceased Terrence Clarke at Brewster Academy.

Jones had a plethora of suitors when it came to his college recruitment. Kansas, Oregon, Florida State, and others all wanted him to join their program. However, in the end, it was head coach Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns who appealed to him the most. The Longhorns have produced two top ten picks in the past three drafts, both of which were big men (Mohamed Bamba and Jaxson Hayes). Jones provides the same raw talent that those two had, but he also has a greater work ethic than both. Or at least, that’s what Shaka Smart said. According to The Daily Texan, he said “One thing about Kai, he has the best work ethic of any 6’11 player I have ever coached.” Keep in mind, this is coming from a man who coached two top 10 picks in Bamba and Hayes alongside the 11th pick in the 2015 draft, Myles Turner.

Jones’ work ethic has been the reason why he’s made so many large strides during his two years at Texas. He never got consistent minutes during his tenure there, but he made the most of them. Don’t let his per game averages fool you either. Just because a player came off the bench and didn’t put up gaudy numbers doesn’t mean they aren’t a legit prospect. Just ask last year’s fourth overall pick Patrick Williams. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the tools and potential that they displayed during their limited time on the court. 

Denny Simmons/IndyStar via USA TODAY Sports

His work ethic is also the reason why he’s shooting up draft boards, ranking as high as sixth on the most recent TWSN NBA Draft Big Board. Despite the pedestrian production, some scouts view him as a top 10 NBA draft prospect because of his intriguing physical tools, incredible athleticism, and raw perimeter skills. Jones has a chance to be a super modern, versatile big man if he hits his apex, and that’s why he’s such an appealing player. Projecting him forward is very tricky though because of his limited sample size and his context-dependent skill set. He’s one of the most situation-dependent prospects in this class who will need the right training staff to truly maximize his potential. Regardless, there is enough of a sample size to at least try to project him forward.

His athleticism is easily one of the main draws. He’s a model example of a “human pogo-stick.” He’s got incredible bounce off one and two feet and he finishes above the rim with ease. He knows how to time his jumps as well, which allows him to be an incredible lob threat both in the half court and transition. He runs like a gazelle in the open court and he’s got an incredible motor. That’s what helps lead to plays like this one:

Jones can finish mean alley-oops, but he can also finish with touch and finesse around the rim. He already does a good job of using pump-fakes and pristine footwork to create space around the rim, and his long arms help him finish over defenders. His slender frame and lack of post moves will always limit him from being a dominant back-to-the-basket threat, but that’s not what his role will be in the NBA. His job will be to set screens, roll to the basket, and catch lob passes around the rim. Simple, yet important.

However, taking rim-runners high in the lottery isn’t ideal. The Warriors are a prime example, as they took James Wiseman over one of the ROTY frontrunners in LaMelo Ball, and are already paying the price for it. Finding big men who can do simple tasks is very easy, which is why taking bigs high in the lottery can be a cautionary tale unless they have incredible talent. 

Jones isn’t just your average rim-runner. He’s gotten ranked so highly on draft boards because of his scoring potential and shot-creation tools. He’s one of the most fluid 6’11 prospects in recent memory and because of that, he’s got high-level potential. Attacking closeouts isn’t a skill talked about often with big men, but it’s one of Jones’ premier skills. Using his long strides, quality handle, and great burst, he can blow by wings and guards who attempt to try to contest him. He’s got a bevy of moves he likes to use when he gets into the lane such as his Euro-step and extended arm finishes while also showing potential as a pull-up shooter. He’s also got a decent jumper that defenses are forced to respect. He has so many ways he can beat you, which is why he’s so tough to guard when defenses are forced to close out on him:

Too often with skilled big men, we see them rely more on their skill rather than their physical tools or vice versa. Despite being so young and so raw, Jones already understands how to use both together. He uses the threat of his jumper to force defenses to close out so he can blow by them and get to the rim. You’ll also rarely see him try to barrel to the rim or outmuscle bigger guys on the bigger guys on the block either. He takes advantage of his physical tools, but he also knows how to balance that with finesse and skill. That usually leads to a good playoff translation and that won’t be a part of his learning curve when he gets to the NBA.

Another very important underrated trait of his is that he knows how to play a role. Too often, guys will come into the league thinking it’s their time to shine and when they don’t get the keys to the offense right away, they can struggle in a smaller role. This typically applies to guards and wings, but it will still apply to Jones too. He won’t demand the ball or touches right away because he’s already used to playing a smaller role. In my most recent article breaking down Five NBA Draft Sleepers That Could Be Draft Day Steals, I talked about how playing the 3-and-D role is the easiest way to get early minutes in the NBA. Jones can be a 3-and-D big early on in his career. He’s a reliable spot-up shooter (70th percentile per Synergy Stats) who nailed 38% of his threes during his second year at Texas. He’s also a high-level defensive prospect who guards on-ball, switches several positions, and provides rim protection.

The defensive versatility aspect may be the most intriguing part of his defense. Drop-coverage bigs are going out of style and the NBA is looking for versatile, switchable players who can guard multiple positions but also maintain the size element. Jones has elite lateral quickness and footspeed at his size. He’s incredible as moving his hips and shuffling his feet to match the opposing offensive player stride-for-stride. Here’s a clip of him staying in front of the presumptive top pick Cade Cunningham:

His on-ball defense is really impressive for someone his size. That’s what allows him to be such a switchable player. He rarely gets blown by and when he does, he has the length and vertical pop to pin shots on the glass and stop them from scoring. That length and athleticism also makes him a potent rim-protector. Ideally, you’d like him as a floor-spacing four who plays next to a more physical big man. However, in a league that is trending more and more towards small-ball lineups, Jones has that ability to block and alter shots at the rim. The only issues would be that he’s a lackluster off-ball defender. He’s grown a lot over the past two years, but he still misses rotations and tends to foul whenever he gets beat. Regardless, because he can operate as both a power forward and center on defense, he provides a ton of value.

Barbara Perenic/IndyStar via USA TODAY Sports

Kai Jones is one of the best prospects to gamble on in this year’s class for a wide variety of reasons. The first one is that he is not boom-or-bust. The notion that Jones is either going to be  a star or a bad bench player is quite a false one. Is there a chance he doesn’t reach close to star level? Absolutely. However, his ability to run from rim-to-rim, finish lobs in transition, and score around the rim on offense. Rim-runners aren’t valuable, but his switchability and versatility on defense make him a really valuable rim-runner. He can still be a high quality backup big at worst because he can do the simple things while providing high defensive value. 

He’s also a good gamble because he has endless paths to success. There are multiple ways he can become a high-level player. If his shot-creation and ball-handling translates to the league, he can be a high-volume scoring big with great defense. If his three-point shot continues to improve, he could become one of the NBA’s best 3-and-D bigs. If his finishing works against NBA-level defenders, he could become a terrific slasher and roll man. Even if he gets a combination of three of those, whether it’s a large one or a small one, he can be really good. Players with multiple avenues to success typically have a good projected outcome, especially if they aren’t boom-or-bust.

Kai Jones lands a top-seven grade on my NBA draft big board because of all of the tools he brings to the table. I’m betting on his raw skill set to continue to progress throughout his career because of his excellent work ethic and I’m willing to bet he’ll bring a ton of value in the playoffs. Giving him a player comparison is tricky because of his uniqueness but I think he is some kind of combination of Christian Wood and Pascal Siakam. If you put their games together and came out with a result, I think Jones would best resemble that. Regardless, he’s one of the most exciting, interesting, and intriguing players in the draft who is easily worth the gamble in the mid-to-late lottery.

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