Two things are already clear a few days into the college basketball season: The 2021 NBA Draft class is bound to be better than the last one, and Gonzaga is about to put on an incredible show. The one player who connects those two threads is Jalen Suggs, the breakout star of opening weekend and a player who already looks bound to outperform his initial Draft projections.
Through two games, both blowout wins over Power 5 schools, Suggs is averaging 18 points, seven assists, and four rebounds per game on 63 percent shooting. Suggs, an incredible overall athlete who came into the season believed to be a combo guard scorer, has had no trouble initiating offense for Gonzaga and has shown skill that indicates he could be a lead ball-handler in the NBA.
Let’s establish expectations first. Before he exploded onto the scene while we were all enjoying turkey, Suggs came in as a mid-first round prospect on most big-time analysts’ draft boards. Rather than break down his potential as a primary play-maker, The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie wrote that Suggs had “some” combo guard potential to his game in addition to go-to scoring prowess.
The early returns indicate Suggs has taken a step forward already. The big question for anyone who’s more of a shooter and athlete than a passing technician is whether they can create good offense for themselves and teammates in the half court. Suggs looked up to the task in wins over Kansas and Auburn.
The last clip in the video above is the most important one. There we see Suggs leverage the threat of his pull-up shooting and passing to get to the basket and finish. While being able to shoot deep pull-up threes and scatter passes across the floor leaves plenty for the defense to handle, elite offensive players have to be able to get to and finish at the rim as well.
At the same time, the task is not as large for an elite athlete like Suggs as it would be for someone like, say, Ricky Rubio in the NBA. And yes, should he head to the NBA in 2021 as expected, Suggs will immediately be an upper-tier athlete even among pros. Suggs is closer so far to Russell Westbrook, Zach LaVine, and Derrick Rose than De’Aaron Fox or John Wall in terms of pure explosive athleticism.
Jalen Suggs off to a fun start pic.twitter.com/6CYieqQsV5
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) November 26, 2020
Jalen Suggs with a monster alley-oop dunk pic.twitter.com/1svLlKvxuM
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 27, 2020
There is plenty of reason to temper expectation still. In AAU and FIBA competition in 2019, Suggs took less than 100 threes and made about 30 percent. Even if it looks better already, he’ll need to do this all season to really vault himself into top-five discussion in the 2021 NBA Draft.
That jumper will also trickle down into how teams defend him in the halfcourt and would be the difference between him being able to get to the rim consistently or his handle, which is only slightly above average as opposed to elite, getting in his way when the defense tightens. Suggs was 0-for-2 from deep against Auburn after nailing two of his three attempts against Kansas, illustrating his inconsistency on a small sample. As a prep player, he also was not a good free-throw shooter and doesn’t really shoot mid-range shots, which could bode poorly for his progression as a shooter.
However, Suggs also provides value as a team defender and has good size for an NBA guard. Let’s say the jumper is better than it was when he was in high school, but not quite elite. Adding in everything else he does and the fact that he’s only 19, and that still looks a lot like a top-10 or even top-five player in the NBA Draft.
For a player who came into the weekend with questions as to if he’d be a lottery player, Suggs already showed enough to dispel some of the concern about his game and help his draft stock immensely. On a loaded Gonzaga team that is already fine giving him the ball, Suggs will have the chance to keep getting better and put on an awesome show this season on his way to the NBA.