If there’s one thing that holds true in every NBA Draft, no matter how good it is from top to bottom, it’s that someone will surprise you. Whether it’s a super popular five-star prospect turning into a pumpkin or a relative nobody bursting into the lottery picture, there will never be a mock draft that looks the same in May as it does in the previous November.
Sometimes, these players are like Zhaire Smith, Rashad Vaughn, Chris McCullough, or Ndudi Ebi, athletic freshmen who catch a team’s eye during workouts. More dependably, they’re second or even third year college stars who nevertheless flew under the mainstream NBA radar. Tyrese Haliburton is probably the best recent example of this, an advanced stats darling who filled in every possible role on a good tournament team as a freshman before breaking out as a national star the next year. To find such a potential player so far this year, you don’t have to look any farther than Texas sophomore big man Kai Jones.
I wouldn’t say Jones, a 6’11 big man from The Bahamas, was a complete unknown coming into college (he was a four-star and rated as the No. 51 recruit in the country, per his 247Sports Composite rating), but his production, such as it was, mostly flew under the radar. I’d go as far as to call him a mild disappointment, logging only 15 or so minutes per game and shooting exactly 50 percent from the field. The physical talent, which I’ll get into, was obvious even in his high school tape, but he just couldn’t stay on the floor for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons — foul trouble — is still apparent through nine games this year, but now, the overall production is so high and the flashes so great that Shaka Smart almost has to play him, even at the expense of five-star prospect and potential first-round pick Greg Brown.
Through those nine games, Jones is putting up per-40 averages of 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.6 steals, and one block, with the eye-popping shooting splits of 62.7 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from three, and 72 percent from the line. These numbers have come against teams like Davidson, North Carolina, Villanova, Indiana, Oklahoma State, and Kansas, so it’s not like he’s feasting on small schools that inflate his numbers. Jones leads Texas in BPM (Box Plus-Minus), True Shooting, Effective Field Goal Percentage, and Offensive Rating, and true to those numbers, his shot profile is something to behold. Jones is shooting 27-for-38 around the rim (including 20 dunks), 30-for-43 on all twos, and 7-for-16 from three. That last numbers separates him a bit from someone like Jaxson Hayes, who Jones will inevitably be compared to as a 6’11 thin dunker from Texas.
The main appeal of Jones as a prospect is his intersection of elite mobility, length, and scoring touch. Here, against Oklahoma State, he attacks a closeout like a guard and scores on a sweet looking eurostep, then showcases his great lateral movement skills to smother a drive.
Kai Jones' movement skills for a 6-foot-11 dude are absurd pic.twitter.com/B8ZyU8i0Be
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 20, 2020
Here he dribble drives into the paint and pump fakes Trayce Jackson-Davis, an NBA athlete in his own right, completely out of his shoes and finishes with some impressive burst out of a standstill. Not very many 6’11 players in the NBA right now can do this consistently.
Kai Jones attacking off the dribble and self-creating a dunk >> pic.twitter.com/kFnNjGnGdb
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 2, 2020
His shooting seems fairly legitimate thus far, too. With this jab step against UNC…
Kai Jones jab-step 3, we are here pic.twitter.com/W3ziKJnGSB
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 2, 2020
…and a pass fake into a long range bomb against Oklahoma State to accounting for two of his five makes thus far.
Kai Jones pass fake into bank three from the logo because why the heck not: pic.twitter.com/TVtGGQsmBN
— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) December 21, 2020
Finally, while his defense is probably his weakest overall skill right now (too many fouls, generally inconsistent body control, lack of strength), those same movement skills can provide some absolutely terrific flashes at times.
The list of 6’10 or taller college players to shoot 70 percent at the rim and 40 percent from three (with 15 dunks at least 3.5 threes attempted per 100) is littered with guys like Frank Kaminsky, Dean Wade, Markieff Morris, Killian Tillie, Aric Holman, and Justin Harper, and while those guys have all mostly shot well as pros, it would be hard to argue any of them is in the same galaxy as Jones athletically. That potential upside alone, as a legitimate pull-up shooter, multi-level dunker, and occasional ball-handler will likely get Jones drafted in the first round, if not the late lottery. Even if his defensive discipline and physical strength doesn’t improve at all from now until whenever the next Draft is, it’ll hard to pass up on the flashes.