NBA Draft Prospects: Jarrett Culver

Jarrett Culver flew up draft boards this year by leading Texas Tech with his great defense and much improved offense.

The surprising breakout team of the year was Texas Tech. They dominated with a historic defense on their way to win a share of their first Big 12 title in school history. The surprising Red Raiders were led by their sophomore breakout star Jarrett Culver. Culver took on a much bigger role this season as he used his two-way versatility to lead Texas Tech to the National Championship and cement himself as an early lottery pick.

At 6’6 195 pounds with a 6’10 wingspan, Culver has a great body for a 3-and-D wing. He proved that he can lock down the best opponents while also taking on a considerable offensive load. Coming into this season, Culver wasn’t high on many draft boards. He was vastly considered as a player with a lot of potential, but would need some work. As the season progressed, Culver proved how much he improved over the summer and why he should be an early lottery pick.

Main Selling Point

Culver is one of the most well rounded and versatile wings in this draft. In the NBA he shouldn’t be a team’s number one option, but he could turn into a great second or third guy. He is one of the best defenders in this class as his size and instincts allow him to guard nearly every position on the floor. He has also improved his offensive impact and consistency. He can stretch the floor but is at his most dangerous when he is attacking the rim. Culver’s skill set is one that will fit in perfectly with any style. He is a great individual and team defender who also makes big-time plays on the offensive end.

Driving

Culver is at his best when he is driving and attacking the rim. His length and touch make him a great finisher. This season, Culver scored 1.289 points per possession when he drove to the rim which is way up from just .706 points per possession from the prior season. Culver’s improved ball handling and ability to ignore contact were big reasons for this jump in production and showcased how he’ll be able to get to the rim in the NBA.

In the below clip we see how Culver is comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll and how he dissects defensive coverages in order to get to the rim. Culver starts off by baiting his defender into thinking Culver is going to use the pick. Instead, Culver uses a nice hesitation crossover and goes the other way. This change of direction lets Culver blow past his initial defender with essentially an open lane to the rim. Culver recognizes that he has the open lane because of the situation and how the defense is playing him. He recognizes that the defender at the top of the video will be late to rotate to Culver because he must stay home on the good shooter in the corner and that the screener’s defender will also be late to rotate because he was playing to hedge the screen which left the lane wide open. Culver took advantage of this opening and used his length to avoid the late shot contests and his touch to drop in the layup.

 

Culver’s impact from driving doesn’t just come from his scoring ability though. He also developed into a reliable playmaker when he drove. When Culver drove, he rightfully commanded a lot of attention from defenses. This led to opponents sending double teams or defenders ball watching. Regardless, the result was often that Culver had an open teammate somewhere on the floor. Culver has an impressive ability to see the floor and keep his eyes up when he drives. When the defense would commit and his teammates would cut, Texas Tech scored 1.909 points per possession (best in the country) and 1 point per possession when he kicked out to a spot-up shooter. Culver only cares about making the right basketball play and does a great job of not lowering his head and forcing his way to the rim. He has few issues with tossing a lob to an open big man, finding a cutter from the wing, or whipping it out to an open shooter.

 

Shooting

NBA wings are required to be at least average shooters in today’s game in order to stay on the floor and Culver’s shooting is still a work in progress. This last season Culver shot just 30.4 percent from three which was a significant drop from 38.2 his freshman year. This plunge is bad enough to take notice of but not so appalling to elicit concern. The reason I say that isn’t because I think 30 percent three-point shooters are desirable (because they absolutely are not) but because Culver went through a pretty dramatic change to his shooting form. His freshman season did produce more encouraging percentages from behind the arc, but his form was unsustainable. His release point was way out in front of his face – like a push shot – and his shooting elbow frequently flared out resulting in sloppy and inconsistent results.

This last season, however, Culver revamped his shooting mechanics that resulted in worse results in the short term – just .848 points per possession on jump shots – but should benefit him in the long term. The changes to Culver’s shooting form mainly focused on his release point. Instead of pushing the shot out in front of his face, Culver did a much better job of having a high, fluid release point. This improves the arc and rotation on his shots while making it more difficult for opponents to block. This change in form also forces Culver to keep his shooting elbow tucked in which helps keep a consistent and accurate flight of the shot.

With that said, there are still some concerns with Culver’s form. This new form is extremely slow which isn’t all too surprising as he needs to continue to get used to the altered mechanics. This slow release though makes it easier for opponents to recover and contest Culver’s shot attempts. In the below clip we have a great side angle view of the issues with Culver’s jump shot. A big factor that slows down his release is the way that Culver now dips the ball down below his waist before going up for his shot. Culver is still clearly not completely comfortable with this high release as he continuously shoots with too much arc. This tends to leave the shot short while exuding more energy.

 

Even though the issues with Culver’s new shooting form are disquieting, they are things that can be worked out through coaching, repetition, and comfortability. The more alarming aspects of Culver’s shooting is his poor shot selection and his inability to create space. Even though Culver struggled to create space this season, the strong defense didn’t seem to bother him as he still scored 1 point per possession on dribble jumpers (74th percentile). Culver can make tough shots, but I do worry that these results will not transfer when he faces legitimate NBA defenders.

In the below clips we see how Culver struggles to create any space and too willingly settles for poor shot attempts. Culver’s initial drive to the left gets cut off immediately. He then stumbles after dribbling behind his back which negates any chance of creating space to his right. Since his second attempted drive is thwarted, instead of looking to reset the offense, Culver settles for a heavily contested turnaround fadeaway midrange jumper that clangs off the rim.

 

Again, we see how Culver really struggles to create any separation. Despite numerous drive attempts and dribble moves, the Texas defender can read Culver every step of the way and swarms him once he settles for another bad shot attempt.

 

The common argument against these concerns is that Culver will be surrounded by better teammates and he won’t be relied upon on-ball as much as he was in college. While this isn’t inaccurate, it is fallacious. When Culver was in catch-and-shoot situations, he scored just .908 points per possession (34th percentile) which suggests that Culver and his 30.4 college three-point percentage shouldn’t be counted on as a reliable off-ball shooter in the NBA. The NBA continues to trend toward more isolation basketball and statistically, that is where Culver thrived scoring .95 points per possession (77th percentile). Culver was able to dominate in isolation not because he was a great dribbler that could create space and punish opponents with his quick release, but because he was bigger than the rest of the college kids he played against. If Culver wants to succeed playing isolation basketball in the NBA, he will need to improve his ball handling and speed up his shooting release.

Defense

Culver’s length and instincts make him a smothering defender. This season Culver was the leader on a Texas Tech defense that was historically great. They played great team defense while having an ace in the hole that could lock down the star of any opponent. This season Culver allowed just .669 points per possession (93rd percentile).

Culver has incredible instincts, footwork, and length that make it effortless for him to guard any position on the court. He positions himself exactly where he needs to when he is off-ball and rarely crosses his feet when he is on-ball. He has quick hands and is a great communicator on screens and switches.

Below we see how Culver lures his opponent into a turnover. It initially looks like Culver has been beaten on the drive, but Culver is more than happy to give that lane to his opponent. Culver knows that he can use the baseline to his advantage and that his big man will be there to cut off any chance at the layup. This gives the ball handler only one option to spin back towards the middle of the floor. Culver knows this is the only option and sits on it, waiting for the ball to be exposed. Once the ball handler begins to come out of the spin, he exposes the ball for a split second and Culver immediately knocks it loose.

 

Culver’s defensive awareness is also high when he is away from the ball. Below we can see how Culver reads passing lanes and identifies what decision the opponent will make before they do so. The play begins with Texas Tech funneling the ball handler into the lane where they can have multiple defenders collapse on him. As this is happening, Culver stays in the passing lane of his man instead of rotating up to the man that his teammate just left. By doing this he eliminates the better shooter (his man) from the play while also keeping the rest of the play in front of him. This allows him to immediately react once the pass is made out to the wing. This quick reaction and closeout erase any possibility of a shot by number 32. Culver recognizes that his closeout put the fear of god into 32 who wants nothing more than to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Instead of continuing his closeout, Culver smells the fear and cuts off the passing lane, stealing the pass.

 

Going Forward

Jarrett Culver did wonders for his draft stock this season. He led Texas Tech to their first ever National Title game while also securing the school’s first-ever Big 12 title. He was the lynchpin in an all-time great defense while carrying the load on offense. Culver’s ability to dissect a defense when he drives is impressive. He doesn’t only look to score but instead to make the right basketball play. His basketball IQ and selflessness are evident on both ends of the floor. Culver’s defensive prowess is infectious. He makes the right rotation, doesn’t get beat off the dribble, and is a great communicator.

While it is incredibly easy to fall in love with Culver’s game, I still really worry about how his shot will translate to the NBA. He struggled to create space against college athletes, and he won’t find it any easier in the NBA. His reformed shooting mechanics are promising but still have leaps and bounds to go in order to be reliable. We’ve seen plenty of success stories with players reworking their shot, but the long list of failures tilts the scales away from optimism. Culver will need to focus on becoming comfortable with this new shot. Once he does so, he could turn into a deadly 3-and-D wing. 

At the very worst Culver will be a great defender who can attack the rim and make the right play on offense. Culver’s ceiling is a multi-time All-Star. If his jump shot can become reliable and his ball handling improves to a point where he can regularly create space, Culver will be a steal in the early lottery.

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