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Buzzworthy Picks 2022: Tari Eason

The Hornets need defenders, and Eason is certainly that.

Alabama v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Fresh off of a pre-draft workout with the Charlotte Hornets last week, the next Buzzworthy Picks prospect is LSU’s 2021-22 All-SEC and SEC Sixth Man of the Year forward Tari Eason.

Measurements:

Height: 6’8”

Weight: 217 pounds

Wingspan: 7’2”

Standing reach: 8’11.5”

Hand width: 11 inches (Kawhi Leonard’s hands are 11.25 inches wide, for reference)

Max vertical: N/A, did not partake in athletic testing at NBA Combine

DOB: May 10, 2001 (21 years old)

Pre-draft

A native of Portsmouth, Va., Eason played three of his four high school seasons under former NBA guard Brandon Roy at Garfield High School in Seattle, winning a state title and being named tournament MVP his senior year after knocking off potential number one pick Paolo Banchero and O’Dea High School in the championship game. He spent his junior season alongside Jaden McDaniels at Federal Way High School just outside of Seattle.

Eason committed as a four-star recruit to Cincinnati, where he would post averages of 7.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in 23 appearances (eight starts). Following his AAC All-Freshman season, Eason transferred to Louisiana State and further put himself on the map of NBA scouts.

I watched some of Eason’s games live throughout the men’s college season and decided to go back to LSU-Arkansas in Little Rock on March 2 for this profile. The lead changed back-and-forth for all 40 minutes and Eason went 10-10 from the line in the second half, finishing with 24 points, seven rebounds, two steals and a block in 18 minutes before fouling out. Let’s take a dive.

Strengths: off-ball/team defense, floor-spacing potential, two-way positional versatility, high motor

Eason’s trademark as an NBA prospect is off-ball defensive event creation, generating steal (4.5) and block percentages (6.2) that have only been rivaled in recent history by Matisse Thybulle and posting a completely absurd 3.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per-40 minutes. A 7-foot-2 wingspan finished off with 11 inch hands and a non-stop motor allow him to disrupt passing lanes, contest shots from creative angles (in a somewhat Thybulle-esque fashion) and cause general chaos for ball-handlers and cutters.

While size may limit him from being a true rim protector or interior defender, Eason should thrive sticking to big wings, forwards and small-ball bigs in various NBA coverage schemes. He’s fairly athletic in the open court and has the foot speed to stay in front of the ball on the perimeter. He’s not a “1-5 defender” — that label is used too often these days to describe players that don’t even switch across all positions — but he’s still switchable and his feel for making plays coupled with length and verticality make him versatile enough to grow into a high-level defender in the NBA.

Hanging out in help, baiting ball-handlers into risky passes and then deflecting/intercepting them is an Eason specialty. The clips above and below are different examples of how he goes about doing that; above, he positions himself to be able to help at the rim if need be while also cutting off the lob or a potential drop-off pass. That’s a fairly quick second jump to secure the rebound, too.

Below, he patiently waits for Stanley Umude to throw an unwise pass that gets tipped by Darius Days before swarming Jaylin Williams from behind, poking the ball loose and immediately sprinting downcourt, gaining post position, turning and hitting an admittedly clunky-looking mid-range jumper. These types of defensive plays will quickly translate to the NBA in my opinion; he’s active in space, rarely gets “lost” or checks out as an off-ball defender and has physical tools that mirror or even exceed players at his position.

Defensive potential will likely be what carries Eason to the league, but he was also one of the better high-volume scorers in college basketball last season. He ranked 38th in the nation with a 30.8 usage percentage and was sixth among those 38 players with an effective field goal percentage of 55.9 on 5.5 threes per 100 possessions per BartTorvik, a marginally higher three-point attempt volume than any non-guard on the list. Scoring 16.9 points per game off the bench in the SEC is not a walk in the park and Eason made hay at the rim and from downtown.

Eason doesn’t have the wiggle or the dribbling finesse to gain separation as a ball-handler unless it’s on a straight-line drive or curling off of a handoff to get downhill, so it seems unlikely he’s a three-level shot creator in the NBA, but his shot profile is fairly versatile and he’s flashed ability as a spot-up threat and a pick-and-pop shooter from above the break. The release on his jumper isn’t very high and has a bit of a hitch that slows it up at the top, but I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — I’m not a shooting coach and a fair share of NBA players have found success with unorthodox releases in recent years. For a forward that will likely top out as a number four option that takes a few threes per game within an offense, Eason’s jumper looks fine to me, and when given ample space, the shots tend to go in pretty often.

Of course, being one of the best volume scorers in college basketball requires a lot more than a respectable three-ball. Eason’s relative lack of shiftiness in his handle is negated in a college environment, where his strength, length and aggressiveness are more than enough to dislodge defenders and bulldoze his way to the rim. Depending on the circumstance, that’ll work in the NBA as well, but he doesn’t have a pull-up yet which would limit his effectiveness and ability to gain position on drives against players with equal strength.

The best thing about Eason’s offense apart from spacing potential is that his motor shows up on both ends of the court; “high motor” is often used to describe players that go full bore defensively, but Eason can be a forceful, efficient finisher (64.3 percent at the rim, 44.5 percent assisted per BartTorvik) that sets solid screens, cuts hard and crashes the glass.

Areas to improve: ball-handling and playmaking, footwork/on-ball defensive positioning

Not to say he doesn’t have them, but the areas to improve for Eason were difficult for me to pin down in exact terms. The lot of it shows up on court but has no discernible box score or advanced stat that pairs with it. In college, Eason is a fine ball-handler, and he might even be a passable NBA ball-handler given that his usage will go down significantly. But if he wanted to vault himself into the consensus top-10 in the class, he’d need to be quicker with the ball in his hands and more controlled with counter moves, along with just adding more counters in general.

I was glad we got to see an example of that thought in this game. If we pause the clip at about eight and a half seconds, we should see the frame embedded below.

First, Eason has the defender on his back after one dribble, certainly an advantageous situation. In that moment, he can pull up and look to score on a touch shot from the elbow area, dump it off to Shareef O’Neal who likely would’ve had an easy layup given Williams rotated over to take a charge, or kick to the open man in the right corner. I do appreciate the ambition behind passes like these, but it doesn’t fall under the “good turnovers” umbrella that developing playmakers often shield themselves with; to me, this is just an errant pass that demonstrates how Eason doesn’t have the handling or passing chops to be an effective source of offensive creation at this stage.

Despite being one of the top defense-oriented prospects in the class, there is one hold-up with Eason’s NBA translation as a defender; he’s not the lightest of foot. Eason’s not stuck in mud by any means and this issue doesn’t show itself on the interior or against players his own size, but it may limit his switchability and the ability to stay on-balance in space.

Simply becoming faster is difficult to do even with the help of an NBA strength and conditioning staff, but Eason’s tendency to over-pursue on closeouts like the one in the clip above can be ironed out. He might’ve been a little bit too deep in help there to begin with, but all he has to do is close out with wider steps and a put hand up to give a reasonable contest to Davonte Davis. To make matters worse, Davis is a 25.3 percent three-point shooter for his career and this bucket helped swing the momentum back towards Arkansas as they stormed back to take the win.

I’m not asking for Eason to be able to switch every single screen and stick with guards on an island, just to be more controlled in pursuit so that he can really take advantage of his length and bother the big wings and forwards that currently dominate the NBA landscape. Eason may not develop into one of those players himself, but he could definitely be the wildcard coaches unleash on opposing scorers to disrupt their flow and cause havoc.

Overview

Regardless of what one may think of his NBA potential and ceiling as a player, it’s undeniable that the Hornets roster could use a player in Eason’s mold; long, rangy defensive-minded forward with off-ball instincts and some ability to mask for his teammates miscues on that end while also offering elements of floor-spacing and scoring punch that should translate. I think Eason will be a good long-term NBA player even if he doesn’t have the quick release or foot speed to self-create enough offense to become a bona fide starter or lead option.