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Swarm Spotlight: Kai Jones has a lot of potential but his game needs a lot of work

Getting a lot of minutes in Greensboro is exactly what Kai Jones needed during his rookie season

Greensboro Swarm v Motor City Cruise Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

As a Greensboro resident I’m fortunate to attend a handful of Greensboro Swarm games every year. In this “Swarm Spotlight” series I’ll be sharing my observations from the games I attended in person. While this is a fairly limited sample size, I saw enough of each player being spotlighted to get a good feel for their strengths and development areas. The subject of this week’s article is rookie center Kai Jones.

The Charlotte Hornets traded back into the first round of the 2021 draft to land Jones at No. 19 as a raw, high-upside prospect out of Texas. During his rookie season Jones appeared in 21 games with the Hornets during the NBA regular season but played just a total of 63 minutes on the year. In those 63 minutes he scored 22 points on 64.3% shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds, and blocked two shots.

As a young player in need of development, the G League was a great option for Kai this year and he gained a lot of experience with the Swarm. Here’s his profile:

Position: Center

Drafted: No. 19 overall (first round) in 2021

Age: 21

Size: 6’10”, 221 pounds

Swarm Stats: 32 games, 30.3 minutes, 16.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 2.1 blocks

Shooting: 61.4% FG, 31.7% 3PT (2.6 attempts per game), 60.0% FT

Kai had a solid statistical season with the Swarm. He was a consistently good scorer at 16.5 points per game on 61.4% shooting, with many of his baskets coming in the form of rim-rattling dunks. He hit over 31% of his 3-points shots which was actually a slightly higher rate than fellow rookie James Bouknight.

Jones’s strengths

When watching Kai in person it was easy to see the raw ability that enticed the Hornets enough to trade away a future first round pick to nab him in 2021. He’s fluid and springy for a player his size.

Jones’s greatest strength is finding open spots around the basket to set himself up for a dunk or a high-percentage shot in the paint. He’s a good rim runner on pick-and-rolls and frequently finds himself in position for an alley-oop or to haul in an offensive rebound if the ballhandler keeps the ball and misses the shot.

Kai is good enough on the boards and averaged 9.6 rebounds per game. He boxes out well but isn’t dominant on the boards. On the defensive end he challenges every shot near him and averaged over two blocks per game. He’s most effective blocking or altering shots from the weak side as a help defender and shows good instincts and anticipation.

While Jones’s 3-point shooting isn’t a “strength”, per se, he did hit 26-of-82 3-pointers (31.7%) and demonstrated willingness and confidence stepping into open shots from deep. In his college career he made 20-of-58 of his 3-pointers (34.5%) over two seasons, so he hit a decent percentage on relatively low attempts. If Jones can improve his 3-point shooting in the NBA to closer to 35% it will really help unlock his game, and he started honing that skill in Greensboro this year.

Development opportunities

Despite the positives, Jones is still pretty raw.

On offense, many of his points came right at the rim on dunks, putbacks, and rim rolls. Some of these opportunities were a function of his anticipation and ability to find open spots, while many others were the product of shoddy G League defense. Those cheap buckets just aren’t available at the NBA level.

He isn’t a refined post player who can receive an entry pass with a defender on his back and create his own shot. His footwork needs to improve in the post and he doesn’t have a consistent mid-range game. If his teammates can find him open in the post he’ll dunk it home, but he isn’t consistently good at creating his own shot as a product of sheer individual offensive skill. He would struggle to score against competent NBA defensive centers.

On defense, while Jones is a good shot blocker, he also chases swats like an energetic puppy chasing a tennis ball. Sometimes he would be better served to lock down his own man and prepare for a defensive rebound than trying to sneak in for a weak side block.

Physically, Kai at times looked like a 20-year-old young kid (which he was) getting pushed around in the paint by bigger, stronger, more physically mature opponents. At just 221 pounds, this was to be expected. He’s about 20 pounds lighter than most starting centers in the NBA - guys like Myles Turner, Jarrett Allen, Robert Williams, Mitchell Robinson, etc. - and there’s no way he could bang with them down low. Now, Jones is more athletic than most NBA centers, but that advantage is tempered by his lack of a mid-rage game and his inability to skillfully and consistently create his own shots in the post.

Overall, the Hornets knew Kai Jones would be a developmental project. Charlotte’s front office was wise to have him spend so much time in Greensboro during his rookie season. He needed the reps. He needs to refine his offensive game. He needs to get stronger.

Jones flashed a lot of potential with the Swarm, but even then it feels like he’s still at least a year away from really contributing with the Hornets at the NBA level.

Here are a few of Kai’s highlights I captured with my iPhone. Enjoy the rim-rattling dunks!