Can Kris Jenkins be Villanova’s answer to Buddy Hield?

Since the middle of February, Kris Jenkins has become Villanova's most electric scorer. Can he match up with Oklahoma's Buddy Hield on Saturday?
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HOUSTON — There are concerns about the cavernous shooting backdrop and depth perception problems at NRG Stadium, the host venue for this Final Four. We know this because every shooter has been asked about it for days. We also know that Kris Jenkins stood in front of teammate Josh Hart during a Villanova workout here, guarding Hart as he jab-stepped and hoisted a routine jump shot. The Wildcats’ top two scorers then watched as the ball didn’t even make it to the rim.

As someone who shoots jumpers on more than 75% of his attempts, and as the Villanova player arguably most capable of coming close to Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield’s offensive output, Jenkins might have been concerned about this result. But that would require him to allow for the possibility that he might ever shoot an air ball. And he does not have that vivid an imagination.

“No problems,” Jenkins said flatly, when asked about the backdrop for Saturday’s Final Four game against the Sooners. “Every shooter thinks every shot is going in, anyway.”

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No one anywhere in college basketball can match Hield, the Sooners’ All-America guard. But if the Wildcats at some point require some pure shot-making to mitigate the supernova on the other side, there might not be a more likely outlet for it than Jenkins, a 6'6" junior forward with impregnable confidence in his ability to hit from anywhere at any time. Such is Villanova’s balance that only one player scored 30 points in a game this season, and only just the one time. But it was Jenkins who managed it, dropping 31 on DePaul on March 1, as part of a late-season surge that has carried into the NCAAs.

Since Feb. 17, Jenkins has averaged 18.8 points per game, after averaging just 10.8 per outing before then. He has gone from mercurial to metronomic—he had nine games of single-digit scoring before Feb. 17 and none since—and his points-per-possession rate now ranks in the 91st percentile or better nationally in six different scenarios, from post-ups to spot-ups to long-range bombs. He isn’t a volume shooter—by comparison, Hield has nearly as many made field goals (297) as Jenkins has attempts (369)—but he might now be Villanova’s most dangerous option, firing at a 56.8% clip during the NCAA tournament.

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“Kris, he’s a heck of a shooter—probably our best shooter,” said Hart, the team’s leading scorer for the season. “If your hand’s not in his face, that’s a good shot. If you’re not up in him, if you’re even arm’s length distance away, he’s able to raise the ball cleanly and that’s a good shot for him. That’s what we want. We want someone to have that much confidence. Now it’s just him focusing on getting the best shot he can get. Not just getting shots up. It’s about getting the right shot up.”

Though Jenkins has made strides in shot selection, the right shot might be any shot at this point. Especially if Villanova finds itself unable to stem Hield and the Sooners on Saturday. 

It was against Miami in the Sweet 16 that Jenkins launched a three-pointer from the edge of the midcourt decal, a 40-footer that was only logical from Jenkins’s perspective. “It was at the end of the shot clock and we were getting ready to have a turnover,” he said, and indeed, there were only three seconds left for the Wildcats to get a shot on to the rim. But the gall necessary to shoot there might be useful to Villanova this weekend. “When you have a guy that confident, you don’t want him to blur that line between confidence and stupidity,” Villanova forward Darryl Reynolds said. “Not that Kris has ever been that type of player. But it can be scary at times. You have a guy who thinks every shot he takes is going in because he’s that good of a shooter.”

He has numbers to support that theory. Of Jenkins’s possessions in the half-court, 76.4% end in a jump shot, per Synergy Sports Data. He’s averaging 1.163 PPP on those jumpers, good for the 91st percentile nationally, with an adjusted field goal percentage of 58.1%. This is a far more diverse offensive profile than Jenkins compiled as a sophomore—when 88.1% of his half-court shot attempts were jumpers—and it make him a tricky matchup for Oklahoma, which will have to deploy a big man to chase Jenkins around the perimeter or a smaller guard who might not challenge his attempts as effectively. “I’ve always tried to be more than just a shooter,” Jenkins said. “It’s just the label I got when I got here. I’ve always tried to make the right play, get to the basket, get in the lane and create opportunities for us as an offense.”

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“Since we showed up here, he’s been one of the most skilled offensive players we had,” Reynolds added. “He can play out of the post, he’s so strong, he has an effective handle that can get him from place to place, he knows when to shot fake and get in the lane, stuff like that. He understands so many different dynamics of offense—and can do it.”

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The outcome of the last meeting suggests Oklahoma might have a solution for Jenkins: He scored just six points in the Wildcats’ 78–55 loss to the Sooners on Dec. 7. But Jenkins was inefficient then, shooting 50% from the floor in any game just twice in November and December. A transformative February and March followed, basically mulching any game plans that preceded that time.

So now Villanova encounters the most terrifying scorer in college basketball once more. It must limit or match Hield in order to advance to the national title game Monday. And if you’re on a roll like Kris Jenkins, why not take a shot? “It’s been the same thing ever since the beginning of the year,” he said. “Be aggressive and make the right play.”