Jaden Springer’s Age And Athleticism Make Him A Worthy Lottery Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft

Let’s talk about athleticism in basketball. Too often, we just think of athleticism as jumping really high and dunking a lot. That’s certainly part of it, but plenty of players have 40-inch verts at the combine and aren’t effective functional athletes in the NBA.

On the other hand, there are plenty of players who couldn’t jump over a phone book who dominate this league. Athleticism is a spectrum, and being all the way on one side or the other doesn’t necessarily determine what kind of player you will be. Strength, balance, and coordination are the only three physical attributes that all stars seem to have in common.

While talking about this through the lens of the 2021 NBA Draft, the clear-cut No. 1 dude is Cade Cunningham, both in general and in terms of blending that trio of attributes. As for the guy who does that best in this class outside of Cunningham, my money’s on Jaden Springer, the freshman guard from Tennessee who has one of the widest variances among scout opinions in this class. Some places have him in the 20s or even 30s while others have him in the top-5. This is a pretty wide distribution, even in a relatively deep and diverse class.

The argument for Springer starts with his almost unprecedented level of production for his age range.

I know threshold queries have their detractors, and oftentimes people (i.e. me) use them to prove a point, which is always a bad way to approach statistical analysis. But bear in mind when looking at this that Springer did this while being more than a year younger than most of his peers. He put up 17.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 2.3 stocks (steals + blocks) in the SEC while playing a physically dominant, powerful defensive style and shooting 46.7 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from three, and 81 percent on free throws less than three months after turning 18. Even when judged by this less restrictive threshold barrier, Springer’s youth still stands out.

Of this group, Simmons, Cunningham, Anderson, and Richmond were 19 years old for the entirety of their freshman seasons, Caruso and Smart turned 19 during the season, and only Harden and Melton joined Springer in being 18 for their entire freshman campaigns. Neither of those players were drafted immediately after season — Harden famously stayed two years, for some mysterious reason, while Melton was one of the players caught up in the FBI scandal and was suspended for his entire sophomore year, finally joining the 2018 Draft class and sliding all the way into the late-second round.

Melton is one of the players who most clearly parallels Springer statistically, though Melton is the significantly more explosive player vertically. Still, the role Springer is likely to play, at least for his first contract, is likely similar to the one Melton plays in Memphis: A secondary guard who brings above-average playmaking, rebounding, and physical strength to go along with terrific defense against both guard spots. Springer is taller and larger, and so likely has more room to grow. But even being a carbon copy of Melton, one of the NBA’s most effective bench players this year, would merit a Lottery pick in almost any conceivable Draft.

There is, of course, another somewhat floorbound, large-bodied guard Springer reminds some of: Kyle Lowry.

While I sincerely doubt Springer will ever be the level of shooter off the dribble that Lowry is (though Lowry only shot 22 percent from three and 65 percent from the line as a freshman), the stylistic similarities are there to be found if you look hard enough.

The difference between these two is that while Springer is taller, he’s likely less flexible and explosive in space. Importantly, Springer is strictly a two-footed leaper, which gives him less explosiveness in the paint. The basic idea: If it takes you longer to jump, you’re less likely to create space with said jump. There have been players who overcome this mild hinderance, but already being slightly heavy-footed has really restricted Springer’s ability to create for himself thus far. He shot 8-for-35 in combined screen and iso possessions at Tennessee, and while Rick Barnes’ offense is hardly the friendliest in the country, Springer is a selective scorer and shooter, only taking 46 threes on the year.

These are reasons to doubt Springer as a no-doubt, top-5, superstar type of pick. These are not reasons to leave him out of the top-20 entirely. His poise, touch, body control, and defensive skill make him, at worst, a super backup guard right out of the gate, one of the “safest” picks in the Draft (if such a thing actually exists). At the same time, his age and physical strength make him an upside swing.

NBA teams, particularly those picking outside the top-5 or 6, are infatuated with the idea of hitting huge on a potential superstar in the Draft, but the methodologies they use are often so restrictive and not based on measurable skills or statistical production, and usually are just based on how great a player looks in workouts. Like Tyrese Haliburton or Melton before him, that’s not Springer, but when the lights are on and games are real, he’s ready for the NBA right now. And in five years, he’ll still only be 23.