Kai Jones is an enigma.
To be clear, that’s meant to be endearing. Jones is an embodiment of the “ball of clay” prospect philosophy, a player with otherworldly raw ability but a skillset raw enough that their archetype could still be molded into whatever a team’s development staff envisions. The 6-foot-11 big man is still just 21 years old and it seems like he’s added a new wrinkle to his game, however big or small, each time he takes the court. When he’s able to harness his explosive athleticism and fuse it together with his gifted coordination and mobility for long stretches, the vision is clear as day; a rim-runner that can also put the ball on the deck and attack from beyond the three-point line. That’s a wonderful would-be fit next to LaMelo Ball.
Jones has rarely put it all together for extended stretches in his short NBA career, though, and that’s just fine. He began playing basketball in his late-teens, hit a growth spurt late in high school and was primarily a bench player in his two seasons at Texas. Expecting that prospect to come into the league and make an impact in his first season would be too much, but it is fair to look for tangible progress from Jones in his second season.
The 0-for-10 three-point shooting game from Summer League might stick out due to recency bias, but Jones had a stellar season in the G League last year, especially in the latter half. In his final eight games with the Swarm, Jones averaged 20.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1.6 steals and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting 44.4 percent on 2.3 three-point attempts per game. Those massive box score numbers pass the eye test on film as well — Jones had his fingerprints all over each game once he settled in and was able to give many a glimpse of his potential.
Of the three players featured so far in the Player Preview series, Jones is the first with a real chance to carve out a rotation spot but with how the depth chart has shaken out at center, it would be unfair to Jones expect that he see the floor on a game-to-game basis. Head coach Steve Clifford can only dole out so many minutes to bigs and the Hornets have four rotational centers, but there are some minutes up for grabs.
There’d be nothing wrong with Jones spending some time with Greensboro this fall as Charlotte plays out the first quarter of the season and determines how to organize their roster going forward; it’s not his fault that there’s a veteran and two other recent draftees at his position. Projecting Jones’ role for this season without knowing which of the young bigs Clifford prefers is difficult because unlike Plumlee and Nick Richards, there are no meaningful NBA minutes from previous seasons to base an opinion off of. Surely Plumlee and Richards have the upper-hand(s) at the center minutes in October, but who’s to say that won’t change by January?
In terms of skill progression, nailing down a consistent release point on his jumper and improving his back-to-the-basket footwork would be sensible points of emphasis for this season regardless of his position on the depth chart. Significant defensive improvements tend to come with reps for bigs, especially those with relative inexperience as an anchor and rim protector at lower levels. Jones’ penchant for using his springboard hops, outstretching his Extendo arms and biting on ball fakes to chase after blocks has slowly transformed into more of a foible as he receives more minutes at center and less as an experimental stretch-four.
Jones has the potential to develop into a key cog in the future of the Charlotte Hornets. Let’s hope he gets a chance to continue improving and working out the kinks this season whether its with the Hornets, the Swarm or both.