This year’s draft class is the gift that keeps giving. There are ten possibly elite freshman in the class, and a handful of other good ones that deserve lottery consideration. And recently an 11th possibly elite one has begun to emerge, and nobody is talking about him yet.
One of the most badly overused draft comparisons is Russell Westbrook. People want to believe that every big PG with a hint of athleticism has potential to develop at an outlier rate from a pretty good NCAA player into an NBA star like Westbrook. But Westbrook is an outlier of outliers, as he is likely the most explosive player in NBA history and he complements that with an elite motor, vision, and work ethic to develop into the beast he is today.
So when you compare a player to Westbrook, the first problem is that he is definitely less athletic. The other problems are that his basketball instincts may be broken in some way, and that most player do not progress at the same outlier rate. Thus there is only one Russ, and we are left grasping at straws to try to find Diet Russ.
But Westbrook is nevertheless an important outlier to show the upside of athleticism. He is currently posting the highest single season BPM in NBA history, yet players such as Michael Beasley and OJ Mayo were drafted ahead of him. His NCAA performance offered no clear indication that he was on track to becoming an NBA star. It was merely enough to demonstrate that his basketball instincts were not broken for a young, athletic freak. Let’s compare our future Diet Russ to the real version’s sophomore season via per 40 minute pace adjusted stats:
Diet Russ is a month younger than sophomore Westbrook, and he does not look diluted at all in terms of production. He has more rebounds and blocks than the triple double machine, and scores at a higher rate. Shooting splits:
The only flag is the lower 2PA rate, but I believe it largely stems from better shooting range and shot selection. As per synergy only 1 of his 38 2PA have come from mid-range and 4 have come on short range jumpers. When he attacks he tends to get all the way to the rim, and he appears to have more 3 point potential than Westbrook at the same age.
Who is this Mystery Freshman?
As always, there are caveats. He is an explosive leaper, but he does not match Westbrook’s power and explosion. Also his statistics are a small 230 minute sample that includes a fair share of weaker opposition. In spite of his good 2P%, Jones still struggles to make layups off the dribble, as his handle is still limited and his PG ability is a major work in progress. And while his early rebound rate is impressive, he gets dwarfed by Russ’s ORB% (1.0 vs 5.8) which is a more significant signal than DRB%.
But it is hard to not be intrigued. Unlike other super athletes such as Andrew Wiggins and Jaylen Brown, his basketball instincts do not seem to be broken. Like Westbrook, he merely requires significant development of his point guard skills. This is far from guaranteed, and it is possible that he never progresses enough to become a good NBA player. But in the instance that it does, there is nothing preventing him from becoming a top 10 NBA star.
Compare him to a prospect such as Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox. Fox is quicker with drastically more polished PG skills. But Jones is an inch taller with more explosiveness and better strength, and if he closes the gap in PG skills he has more potential to finish in traffic against NBA defenses as well as defend NBA shooting guards. Further, his superior shot gives him much more potential to play off the ball as well as make pull-up jumpers when he can not get all the way to the rim. Fox’s upside is tantalizing in the scenario that he learns to shoot, but Jones has an even more appealing upside if he can learn to play point guard.
Of course this is not to say that Jones necessarily will develop into a point guard. Right now his interior buckets are limited to beating the defense down the court, attacking before the defense is set, or attacking mismatches off the dribble. Jones rarely attacks when there is not a clear seam, which is indicative both of good feel for the game as well as the current limitations in his ball skills.
More Than Just a Potential Slasher
The offensive selectivity should prove to be a nice feature if he never develops into a great scorer. He still would have some potential as a 3 and D player who can attack closeouts and move the ball as a super role player. Granted, neither his 3 or D are guaranteed to be elite. Defensively his rebounds, steals, blocks, and athleticism show promise, and he can move well laterally. But he is also undersized for a SG and does not appear to be a lockdown defender at this stage of his career. His early shooting statistics show enough promise, and he appears to have NBA 3 point range. But shooting is difficult to predict, and in AAU play he only shot 31% on 3’s and 69% on FT’s.
Ultimately there is no guarantee that any of his passing, shooting, defense, or offensive creation ability to prove to be above average at the NBA level. Jones is largely a mystery box, and he may never fulfill his potential. But there is also nothing broken or sorely limited about any of his abilities. For a great athlete with good feel and instincts, that offers a gargantuan upside tail that makes him an excellent gamble in the lottery.
Jones is a mystery box, and early in his freshman career it is difficult to rank him with any certitude. But he looks like he is probably worth a top 10 pick in the draft and possibly top 5, as his upside tail is as elite as most of the other stud freshman in the class. He will not develop into a do it all monster like Russell Westbrook because nobody will, but if he becomes a the diet version plus a better 3P shot and more efficient shot selection, that is an awesomely valuable player.
Andrew Jones has slid under the radar via being outside of the top 20 in recruiting rankings as well as Texas’s disappointing start to the season, but it is time to start giving him attention as he is yet another gem in a loaded freshman class.