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Buzzworthy Picks 2021: Kai Jones

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Could the Texas center be the perfect lob threat next to LaMelo Ball?

Oklahoma State v Texas Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images

The Hornets officially landed the 11th pick in this year’s NBA Draft. So unless they get as much luck from the lottery as they received last year, that will be the range of prospects to consider. As mentioned in the introduction article, the starting point for this series will come from an article written by Jonathan DeLong. Today the focus will be on Texas center Kai Jones.

P.S. Shoutout to “thelton” for the name idea; we’re rolling with it.

NBC Sports mocks him to the Hornets at 11, while other outlets list him anywhere from 10-25. According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, Jones is the 10th ranked prospect in the entire draft, and he compares him to Christian Wood and JaVale McGee.

Jones is a 6’11” forward/center born in Nassau, Bahamas, the same hometown as Suns’ center DeAndre Ayton. He spent two years at Texas and turns 21 on January 19, 2022. Jones did not play organized basketball until the age of 15, as he was previously pursuing a career as a long jumper.

He worked with Ayton at a Basketball Without Borders Americas camp, and it inspired him to play professionally. Once he picked up the game of basketball, he was determined to be the best. According to friends and family, Jones would wake up at 4:45 AM every morning to try and improve. His coaches at all levels rave about his consistent work ethic.

College

Jones’ stats don’t jump off the page by any means. He spent two years at Texas and struggled to earn playing time in either year, averaging only 22.8 MPG in his sophomore season. He ranked fifth on the team in MPG and only started four games in his second year. In 26 games, Jones averaged 8.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.8 SPG, and 0.9 BPG. So how can a player putting up such minuscule stats be ranked so high on NBA big boards?

Jones ranked sixth amongst regular rotation players at Textas in usage rate (18.0%) last season. For reference, Texas’ last two dominant big men, Jarrett Allen and Mo Bamba, earned usage rates of 22.6 and 21.3, respectively. Simply put, Jones did not receive the right opportunity to blossom into his full potential at the school.

Mock drafts list Jones as a forward/center coming into the draft. Jones spent most of the season playing with Texas center Jericho Sims, who started all 26 games for the Longhorns. With Sims taking up the center position, Jones was relegated to the corner more than he should have been. With the freedom to be the primary center on the floor in an NBA rotation, Jones would be able to thrive.

Upside

Most NBA teams are attracted to his raw athleticism and overall energy. Jones runs the floor at the speed of a guard and can handle the ball well, too. With Ball and Gordon Hayward acting as the primary ball handlers on the Hornets, Jones would have more freedom in that role. Just look at the speed with which he can get up the floor after a vicious block:

His extremely high vertical makes him the perfect rim-running candidate as well. He cuts with great intensity and is always looking for an open lane. The LaMelo Ball to Jones connection would be beautiful. If Jones can find an open lob like this within Texas’ offense, imagine the possibilities with Ball or Hayward at the helm:

Jones is also unafraid to space the floor. He shot 38.2% from deep in his sophomore season. Granted, this came on only 1.3 attempts per game, but he willingly pulls up from midrange as well. With the help of NBA shooting coaches, Jones could potentially increase his volume from deep without losing his excellent efficiency. The center also looks comfortable posting up and taking midrange fadeaways. These shots may not be where he plays best, but Jones’s willingness to take those looks is essential.

The center also finds much success in the paint on the defensive end. Jones can rebound well due to his insane athleticism, but his shot-blocking ability has all the upside in the world. If he can learn to time his jumps correctly, he could be a lethal shot-blocker. In addition, the extensive time he spent at the four means he defends the perimeter at an average level at the very least. Just take a look at the crazy vertical needed to get a block like this:

Downside

Despite all the potential upside, Jones does still possess the issues that most raw prospects do. Offensively, he tends to rush shots within the offense instead of letting things play out. When he catches the ball in the post, he mainly looks to shoot rather than pass out in the hopes of a better look.

Defensively, he can get caught up guarding the wrong player. Instead of defending the cutter, he will switch out the shooter, leading to an easy bucket in the paint. Some time spent with NBA coaches can help fix most of these issues, though.

Also, Jones’ lack of time at the five in college shows promising upside, it also poses an issue at the NBA level. Jones spent a lot of time guarding smaller guys at Texas, which means he would most likely struggle to guard stronger NBA centers.

Comparison

While O’Connor’s selections of Wood and McGee make a ton of sense, Jones seems more like Robert Williams with the potential to develop a jump shot. Both are relatively raw, super athletic prospects. The main difference from a physical stature between the two is that Jones is a whopping three inches taller than Williams.

Williams was certainly a more prolific, polished shot-blocker in college than Jones was. He was a much better positional defender as well. However, he did not get nearly as much experience as Jones did on the perimeter, although he found his footing in that respect during his NBA career. Just look at the similarities between this block from Williams and Jones’ rejection that was shown earlier:

Jones also poses a similar upside to Williams in the pick n’ roll game and as a lob threat. Willaims’ most notable offensive attribute is his ability to throw down alley-oops, and Jones could find himself in a similar situation with Ball running the offense. Jones’ main advantage over Williams is the three-point game. Williams only took 12 threes in his sophomore season at Texas A&M (0-12), while Jones took 34 in his sophomore season at Texas (13-34). Jones could blossom into a solid perimeter scorer.

Summary

All in all, Jones seems like a great candidate to fill Charlotte’s hole at the center position. However, it might be wise to sign a veteran to start during Jones’ rookie season until he’s ready for that role. He possesses all the upside to be a super versatile center in the NBA, but it could take him a few years to fully develop into that game. So if you’re a fan that wants to win immediately, maybe look elsewhere, but if you’re truly invested in the Hornets’ future, Jones could be a great pick.