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2021 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Kai Jones

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The enigmatic big man can be a massive upside swing for the Grizzlies

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NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next month, GBB will be profiling various players the Memphis Grizzlies may target in the 2021 NBA Draft. This year we will be breaking it up in to three sections - five to likely trade up for, five potentially available right around pick #17 where Memphis is slotted to pick, and five that surely will be there or perhaps the Grizzlies could even trade back and still select.

KAI JONES, BIG, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS

  • 6’11”, 221 pounds, (7’1” Wingspan), 20 years old, Nassau, Bahamas
  • Two Seasons at Texas - 19.7 minutes per game, 6.2 points per game, 55.3% from the field, 34.5% on threes, 67.7% from the free throw line, 4.0 rebounds per game, 0.5 assists per game, 1.0 blocks per game, 0.7 steals per game
  • STATS OF STRENGTH (per Tankathon): 2-point percentage (64.2%), Effective Field Goal Percentage (62.6%), True Shooting Percentage (64.6%)
  • STATS TO IMPROVE: Rebounds (4.8), Assists (0.6), Fouls (4.2 per 36 minutes)
  • ACCOLADES AND AWARDS: 2020-21 Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year
  • CURRENT BIG BOARD PLACEMENTS: 20th overall (Tankathon), 10th overall (The Ringer), 20th Overall (ESPN), 24th Overall (CBS SPORTS), 16th Overall (Bleacher Report), 12th Overall (Sporting News)

Kai Jones has to be one of the most polarizing prospects of this draft.

His skeptics probably aren’t moved by his college production, as his numbers are more along the lines of “college rotation player” rather than “NBA prospect.” In addition, he has so many raw elements of his game that it’s fair to say he may not put them all together.

Then there are his believers that look at the tools he has in his bag, despite starting basketball at the age of 15 years old. Kai Jones’ baseline is a rim-running energy big man, and point guards will love playing with him. He’s a near 7-footer that runs the floor like a track star, and he thrives above the rim too. However, he has flashed the tools that he can become such a unique big man in this league — fluidity with the ball both on the perimeter and on the floor, an outside shooting touch, and defensive mobility.

We have to see it put all together though!

I’m in the latter portion on Kai. He has the upside to be one of the premier talents in this draft class, and a small-ball neutralizer from the big man spot. The flashes are too bright to ignore. I mean look at this from a 6’11” player!

A trendy topic for the Grizzlies draft outlook has been taking an upside swing, and there wouldn’t be a bigger one than Kai Jones.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

What He Does Well

Athleticism fuels a lot of Kai Jones’ game.

Jones was extremely efficient out in transition last season, scoring 1.29 points per possession in that area — 86th percentile, per Synergy Sports. He’s an absolute joy to watch in the open floor. He has long, fast strides in transition where it looks like he’s doing a 200M dash out on the court, and he has the booming explosiveness to make some show-stopping plays above the rim. On the floor level, he’s a rim-running big man that allows teams to get out and run. If he continues to improve his handle, he can be someone who ignites the offense off the rebound.

Jones also uses his world-class athleticism to make plays around the rim. Last year, he scored 1.3 PPP off putbacks (78th percentile) and 1.34 PPP around the basket on no post-up’s (83rd percentile). His leaping ability plays a big part in getting offensive putbacks, and it should also bode well for him off cuts, and while sitting in the dunker’s spot waiting for dump-off passes.

Kai Jones also did well in his swing skill: outside shooting. Though on a low volume of 34 attempts, he shot 38.2% from 3, while flashing the upside of shooting off the dribble. He’s not going to be asked to shoot a high volume of 3’s, but that skill translating will help make him a more dynamic player.

Where he can improve

Kai Jones’ areas of improvement are going to be interesting to monitor at a NBA level.

He needs to improve as a decision-maker on both ends of the floor. He’s not going to be asked to be a secondary playmaker at the next level, but you’d like for him to not have double the amount of turnovers (36) to assists (16). On the defensive side of the ball, he has shown upside through timely steals and thunderous blocks, but his defensive playmaking numbers are still low (under 2 stocks, steals + blocks, per game), and his fouling needs improvement too (4.6 fouls per 40 minutes).

While Jones did flash upside as a shooter, his free-throw percentage — the common data point for NBA 3-point translation — was pretty low, as he shot 68.9% from the free throw line last year. We’ve seen first-hand (i.e., Brandon Clarke or Xavier Tillman) what could happen when a rotation big man doesn’t space the floor; they get cut out of playoff rotations. So, that will be something to watch for at the next level.

Probably the biggest area of growth for Jones is in the pick-and-roll. He only scored 0.65 PPP in pick-and-roll possessions, falling in the 12th percentile. Granted, it’s not a focal point for college, but it’s a massive staple in NBA offenses. For someone with his athleticism, his ability to play in the pick-and-roll will play an integral part in his NBA outcome — likely determining whether he’s a starting or bench big man.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Abilene Christian at Texas IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

The Fit

The Memphis Grizzlies should target a wing in the first-round, but I have Kai Jones as an exception. He could potentially be a huge steal at the 17th pick.

And I know there’s a logjam up front with Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman, and Kyle Anderson taking up minutes where Jones would be slotted — the 4 and the 5. However, it could also work to the Grizzlies’ favor.

GBB Associate Editor Brandon Abraham has mentioned this take on Twitter and in Slack conversations, and the Daily Memphian’s Chris Herrington shared this same sentiment about Kai Jones in particular on the latest DM podcast — next year could be a quasi-redshirt season for Jones in Southaven with the Memphis Hustle. For development’s sake, they could get him a bunch of reps picking up on the different elements of the modern big man, while testing the horizons of his perimeter game to see what he could become. In the meantime, they could get another year to see what they have with Clarke and Tillman, and play out Anderson and Valanciunas’ expiring deals.

In terms of his playing style, Jones is an ideal big man for Ja Morant. It’d be nice for Morant to have a 7-foot big man that’s a rim-runner, and Kai would be the perfect running mate for him. In addition, the pairing of him and Jaren Jackson Jr. could be a dynamic two-way frontcourt presence — stretching the defense with their perimeter play, and switching all over the court defensively.

Kai Jones is the kind of prospect that will need time, and the Memphis Grizzlies could provide just that.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Verdict

The NBA big man position is evolving, and Kai Jones is an example of that. He can defend across positions, run the floor, play above the rim, and attack off the perimeter. He has the tools to be an impactful player for years down the road.

He’s also the epitome of a “boom-or-bust” prospect. Given his inexperience, he’s still raw in many areas of his game, and whoever picks him will bank on him putting it all together. His production and his role at Texas might scare some off too.

However, Jones is prospect worth taking that risk on. The flashes are too bright to ignore. If the Grizzlies get that opportunity, they should explore it.

Before the lottery, there were a few mock drafts that had the Grizzlies taking him. Now, there are some with Jones being selected after the 17th pick, but the majority have him going in the “late-lottery” range.

And I think that’ll be the case on draft night.

Verdict: Someone in the late-lottery will take Jones (my favorite non-Grizzlies draft fit of any prospect is Kai Jones in Charlotte).

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