When the Charlotte Hornets traded back into the first round of the 2021 NBA draft to select Kai Jones, they knew they had a long-term project on their hands with insanely high upside.
The talented forward/center prospect out of the University of Texas was the team's second first round pick of the night. Earlier, they added another high-upside player in James Bouknight. Bouknight was viewed as a player who could provide an immediate return on investment in Charlotte, while Jones was looked at as a player who needed some seasoning before being ready to contribute in the NBA.
As the 2021-2022 season played out, neither player really had much of an opportunity to help the Hornets as most of the minute allocation went to veteran players. With a new head coach in Charlotte, the opportunity presents itself for all of the younger players in the system to prove they are ready to become a regular member of the rotation. We're going to take a look at the signs of improvement we've seen from Kai Jones over the course of the summer.
We usually begin these pieces by discussing the shooting potential of the prospect, and this one will not be any different.
Floor spacing is so important in today's game and with the way Charlotte's roster is constructed, the ability to stretch the floor is crucial for seeing playing time. The Hornets already have two players on the roster who aren't really going to be able to spread the defense in Mark Williams and Mason Plumlee. It is difficult to construct an efficient lineup around more than one player who is not at least a threat from the outside. You could argue that Williams and Jones have the highest upside and most talent so they should be the two players receiving the bulk of the minutes at the center spot, but as things stand right now Plumlee is expected to be a regular member of the rotation. That being said, shooting will be a key area to watch in Kai's development.
In Jones' second season at the University of Texas, you saw a bit of a jump in efficiency from three. He jumped from 29% to 38% in his sophomore season, but he only attempted a total of 58 threes in his entire college career. He shot in the sixties percentage-wise both seasons as a collegiate player from the free throw line. He was never projected to become a lethal shooter, but the potential remains for Jones to become a threat from beyond the arc.
In the first summer league game against the Indiana Pacers, Jones spent most of his time playing the four next to either Nick Richards or Mark Williams. Spacing was an issue for the offensive side of the court as the defense was able to clog the paint due to not being threatened by at least two players shooting the ball. Jones missed ten threes in this game, and some of them missed pretty badly. He looked uncomfortable on the floor in this game and seemed to just resort to jacking up a three when he got the ball. While it was nice to see him experiment and take the jumpers with really low stakes, it looked like he was settling more often than not. Once Richards was shut down for Summer League starting in the third game, Jones started to look a lot more comfortable. He and Williams began to split minutes at the center spot and the offense had much better spacing and flow as a result. He didn't have the best shooting performance in Las Vegas, but the potential to develop into a respectable shooter is definitely still there. Given that he didn't start playing basketball until he was 15, it's actually very impressive that the seven-footer has as much of a shooting touch as he already does. I believe this will continue to be an area he focuses on improving moving forward.
Now let's jump to an area on the offensive side where Jones is already really effective. His ability to put pressure on the rim and finish through and over contact is incredible. You can always count on him for some highlight finishes whenever he steps on the court. His athleticism and wingspan are exactly what you want to see in an efficient rim-running big man in today's league. He came out of school as a pretty skinny kid, but you already saw the amount of muscle he put on in one season of professional development with the way he showed up in Vegas. This added strength combined with his unreal athleticism makes for a lethal combination when it comes to attacking and finishing through defenders.
One of the most impressive aspects of Kai's game is his handle for a big. Jones has no issues with putting the ball on the floor and attacking the basket. You saw this over and over during Summer League and all of last year in Greensboro. His confidence in his handle leads to beautiful finishes at the rim and many free throw attempts. In his limited minutes in Charlotte last season, he had a .575 free throw rate. Going back to his need to work on his shooting, his driving ability will lead to plenty of attempts at the line so he needs to improve his free throw percentage to become a more efficient player. He makes really quick decisions when receiving the ball and often finds himself ripping through and taking his defender to the basket. Being a former track star, he usually gets a step on his defender and is able to make it all the way to the rim. As he continues to add strength, you should see an even better finishing package develop.
Building off of his handle and driving ability, an area for improvement would be his passing and on-ball creation. While he is a seven-footer and won't ever be asked to be a primary creator, finding open teammates off of his drives would add another layer to his game and make him even more dangerous. As defenses adjust to his driving, they will start sending in help earlier and earlier, impeding his chances of getting all the way to the rim and showing off his athleticism and finishing. When this begins to happen with more regularity, he will need a counter. This could be finding open shooters in the corners or cutters diving to the basket. We haven't seen much from him as far as this goes, but it will definitely be an area to watch over the next few years. Bettering his passing reads and accuracy will only allow him to get to the rim at a higher rate where he has already proved to be deadly. He hasn't been playing basketball all that long when compared to his peers, so he should be able to learn how to read defenses at a higher level and know where to go with the ball quicker.
As we discussed with Bryce McGowens, Steve Clifford being back in Charlotte as the man in charge emphasizes the defense end of the court. Proving to him that you can be trusted on defense is the key to getting minutes as a young player. Luckily for Jones, he possesses all of the tools to be an amazing defender at the NBA level. He has incredible foot speed to keep up with smaller, quicker players and insane athleticism to pair with an impressive wingspan. He has shown the potential to be a very versatile defender who can handle a multitude of assignments and coverage schemes. Given what we have already seen from him and his physical tools, he seems like he would be able to handle drop coverage, switches, and strong hedges with the ability to get back and protect on the roll.
One thing we saw a few times in Summer League was Jones' willingness to protect the rim with impressive timing and leaping ability. He had more than a few ferocious blocks leading to transition opportunities for the Hornets. He has displayed pretty strong defensive awareness when it comes to help-side rotations and is really quick to recover when he takes a false step. His athleticism and wingspan allow him to contest shots at the rim at an extremely high level. Shawn Bradley has the highest block percentage in NBA history with a 7.83% rate, and Kai Jones averaged a 5.2 while he was at Texas per sports-reference.com. Keeping up that rate against NBA defenders will definitely be a massive challenge, but he has so much room for growth on defense. As he learns from a good NBA defensive coach in Clifford, he could replicate that collegiate success and become a great NBA rim protector. The more comfortable he gets with the schematics and speed of the professional game, the more effective we can see him be.
One of the easiest ways for an offense to play big men off the floor during crunch time and in the playoffs is to spread the floor and put the big in continuous high ball screens. The quicker and better the ball-handler is at attacking the basket, the more difficult it is for the big to keep up. We've seen this situation play out over and over again with Rudy Gobert in the playoffs even though he is one of the best shot blockers we have seen in a while. Now you can argue that his team's defensive issues have more to do with the perimeter defense than with Gobert, but that's a topic for another day. Jones has shown the foot speed and movement ability to be able to hold up in these scenarios. There are examples of him getting beat to the spot and giving up the angle on a drive, but there are also plenty of examples where he beats the offensive player to his spots. As long as he continues to improve in this area, Jones should not have an issue staying on the court when the game slows down and the offense spreads it out. Continuing to add strength to wall-off drivers and learning the intricacies of the NBA game should allow him to become a more impactful overall defender.
Steve Clifford indicated in his introductory press conference that he wanted the offense to maintain the up-tempo pace they have enjoyed since LaMelo Ball joined the team. Defensive rebounding is a key component in allowing an offense to run with pace as it allows players to leak after a stop if the team has guys they can trust to get the job done on the glass. Jones has shown that he can be an excellent rebounder. He has mostly relied on his athleticism up to this point, but with more strength, he could get even better. One of the more important stats to look at is which team has the edge in rebounding and this becomes even more important when eliminating second chances for the opposition and getting out quickly in transition is the style of offense you want to play. The Hornets have needed help in the rebounding department for some time now, and Kai Jones might be just what they need.
Kai showed so much growth from year one just during the five Summer League games. He showed a higher level of defensive awareness, a stronger handle, and quicker decision-making when getting the ball on offense. He is already a really strong finisher at the rim and an effective lob threat out of the pick-and-roll. He has some more work to do to become a respected shooter and passer at the NBA level, but there should be a lot of optimism remaining. Both former and current coaches and teammates rave about his work ethic and dedication to the game of basketball, so I don't think you can write off any skill improvement over the next few seasons. Getting Clifford to trust him enough to give him regular minutes in Charlotte will give Jones more reps and an opportunity to unlock his sky-high potential.
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