Welcome to Ringer The’s pre-draft series: The Ringer The Stamp of Approval. Over the next few weeks leading up to the draft, we’ll give you a breakdown of who we at Ringer The think is poised for success and show which prospects have earned our coveted “Stamp of Approval.” Our next stamp recipient: Kai Jones!
Kai Jones just finished his sophomore year at Texas (coached by Shaka Smart, go Marquette) and, despite playing as their sixth man for a majority of the season, showcased why he’s ready for the next level. Jones played the majority of his minutes in the power forward position, but his play style is more reminiscent of a guard than a big. Honestly, more than anything else, he looks and plays like Giannis. There are a ton of similarities between the two. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, and some of them are just bizarre coincidences. Take, for instance, how Giannis and Kai are both 6’11” and started playing basketball just five years before they would eventually become drafted!
Like I previously mentioned, Kai is 6’ 11”, but is far from a typical big. His first step is lethally explosive and his size means he’s only a dribble or two from the rim at any moment. On top of his athleticism and quickness, what makes his moves even more effective is that he can actually play at the perimeter. He’s an excellent three point shooter, so defenders have no idea if he’s going to drive past them or take the shot. We’ll get back to his shooting later, but watch how many moves he has in his bag. He uses pumps and jabs to draw in defenders, gets to the restricted area with ease, and has a finishing package that includes a euro-step that even Giannis himself could admire.
After watching that, what shouldn’t come as a surprise is how FUCKING good Kai Jones was in transition. Being 6’11 with the speed of a guard means almost any long rebound he comes down with has the potential of becoming a coast to coast score. Kai Jones shot 75.8% in transition. That is an absolutely absurd accomplishment and would lead the NBA if it carried over. To reference our good friend over in the NBA, Giannis shot 63.6% in transition, good enough for 6th best for players with at least 100 transition shot attempts. Also, a quick aside, Giannis led the league with 275 transition shot attempts and only 17 players even attempted as many transition shots as Giannis made, 175!! Anyway, back to Kai. Look at how he comes down with rebounds and makes entire defenses look silly.
Wait, even better, look at this play that Texas would use for him. It’s a dribble-handoff-leading-into-a-backdoor-cut-and-over-the-top-alley-oop. It’s really similar to the Zion post-up-and-spin-out-into-a-backdoor-cut-and-over-the-top-alley-oop. Watch Zion and Kai do this to perfection.
Okay, back to Kai’s shooting. This is where he differs the most from Giannis. He can really shoot the ball. Jones shot 38 percent from the three point line and while it was on relatively limited volume, he was third on the team in percentage for those who took more than one three per game. How many players in the NBA can defend a 6’11” guard that can shoot? Kawhi, KD, Giannis, Simmons, Ayton, maybe Jrue? I’m sure P.J. Tucker and Pat Beverly would like to think that they could, but they would not be able to. Rudy got exposed in these playoffs and would leave the paint wide open if he wanted to take away Kai’s three.
He’s also not just an offensive threat. In another similarity to Giannis, his height and lateral quickness means that he can’t be mismatched on anyone. He’s a great on-ball defender against any position. Centers want to post up? He’s 6’11” with a nearly 7’2” wingspan. Wings want to shoot over him? He’s 6’11” with a nearly 7’2” wingspan. Anyone wants to drive past him? He averages 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals per 40 minutes because he’s 6’11” with a nearly 7’2” wingspan and is in every single lane (driving or passing). Watch him guard Cade Cunningham, the best player in this draft. His length makes it nearly impossible to pass over him or drive by him.
Now the question you might be asking right now is, “Hey Joe, you said that Kai Jones was similar to Giannis in good ways, bad ways, and weird coincidental ways. We’ve read about good and weird, but what about the bad?” That would be a legitimate question and I’d answer that Kai’s downsides fall into two categories. The first are worries that matter only if you consider Jones a center and the second are critiques that are actually troublesome.
In terms of fair critiques if you consider Jones a center, there are some big ones. He is only 218 pounds and so his post-up game is weak to nonexistent. He can definitely get bigger, Giannis was only 190 pounds when he was drafted and now stands at 242, but this is an issue for someone if they are going to play as a big. Similarly, he did not set a ton of screens or play in the pick & roll very often in Texas’s offense.
I don’t believe that either of these issues are very important for how he plays his game, but what will likely have an impact on his NBA future is his defensive positioning and tendency to guard bigs as if they were smalls. Instead of posting up or moving to become a help defender, he tries to jump incoming passes down low and often fails, making it so no one is at the rim to try and affect their shots. He also bites hard on centers’ pump fakes, resulting in the same outcome.
I don’t know how strongly Jones considered leaving Texas after his freshman year, but staying was the right decision for sure. On top of getting more minutes and increasing his baseline numbers, his efficiency and advanced stats made huge jumps in his second year. He is not a fantastic free throw shooter, but did increase his free throw shooting from 63.6 to 68.9 percent. Even more impressively, he also increased his free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) from .289 to .517, meaning that even though he knew his free throw shooting was less than average, he sought contact more than ever before. For reference, Giannis had his worst FT shooting season of his career two years ago (as an MVP) with a 63.3 free throw percentage. Jones also increased his true shooting percentage from .561 to .656, his PER from 13.7 to 20.6, and was able to decrease his turnover percentage from 21.0 to 16.8 even as his usage rate rose from 12.9 to 18 percent.
I know it is incredibly difficult to compare a mid-first prospect to a two time MVP who’s one win away from his first championship, but Kai Jones is exciting! If you mix around the letters of Giannis J. Antetokounmpo you get Kai Jones Gnni Attounmpo. Is this a coincidence? That is up to interpretation, but on the court, their similarities are hard to argue with. I’m not trying to say that he will definitely become Giannis, but he will grow stronger, he will learn NBA defensive schemes better, and he’ll finally have a set place in a team’s offense. At worst, I could see him becoming a Lauri Markkanen or a Christian Wood type player, making offensive impacts while not being the center of an offense, but if everything goes well for him and he continues to improve in massive strides, what’s going to stop him from becoming a better three point shooting Giannis?