Scouting Report & Film Review: JT Thor

JT Thor's two-way versatility is tantalizing. He showed significant improvement throughout the season, and he could be the biggest steal of this draft if he hits.

Strengths: Length, shooting, rim protection, rebounding

Weaknesses: Playmaking, ball-handling, feel for the game, defensive consistency

Consensus Expected Draft Range: Late first or early second round

Where I'd Draft Him: 13-24

Shades Of: Better shooting Dorian Finney-Smith, Jaden McDaniels, Tayshaun Prince

Best Team Fits: Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers

When it comes to homerun swings in the 2021 NBA Draft, there may not be a bigger one than JT Thor. At 6'10 205 pounds, Thor is a rangy forward with significant two-way upside. On the surface, Thor's numbers won't leave you speechless, but the stretches of play and the consistent impact he made were highly encouraging.

Besides having tantalizing measurables, Thor is also one of the youngest players in this draft. He won't turn 19 until the end of August. The young forward showed tremendous growth as a player throughout his one season at Auburn, so it is easy to envision him taking continuous leaps as a player once surrounded by NBA coaching and talent.

Realistically, it will likely take some time for Thor to make a significant impact in a rotation. He doesn't have a great feel for the game, is a limited ball-handler, is an inconsistent shooter, and needs to get stronger. The reassuring part, though, is that a lot of the areas Thor needs to improve on can be improved with experience. Thor's freshman season mirrored that of Jaden McDaniels in a lot of ways in terms of on-court impact, so while I think Thor will be a bit of a project, it wouldn't stun me to see him have a McDaniels-esque rookie season.

Off-Ball Defense

Thor will make his most significant impact as an off-ball defender early in his career. At his height with a 7'3.25 wingspan, Thor will be an excellent rim protector. He makes timely rotations and does a superb job of using his length to block shots. He can help cover for defensively inept centers or even play some small-ball center once he eventually gets stronger.

As NBA floors continue to expand their spacing, having reliable weak-side rim protectors is essential. Without them, teams can easily have their center dragged to the perimeter and no one left to deter shots at the rim. Thor's length and athleticism allow him to be that weak-side rim protector. Whether he is blocking shots, staying vertical, or rotating to deter drives, Thor is a very effective weak-side rim protector. 

Thor has also shown a propensity to naturally switch and cover for his teammates outside of pure rim protection. When his teammates get beaten, Thor quickly recognizes the switch and executes it. Here, Thor's teammate gets blown past on a lazy closeout. Thor immediately ushers his man towards his teammate, communicates the switch, and contests the pull-up jumper.

Here, Thor does an excellent job of playing team defense. As Kentucky runs the high pick-and-roll, Thor's man circles to the top of the arc. This play is designed to have Thor's man drag Thor out of the lane for the roller to have an open dunk. Instead, Thor recognizes where his man is relocating while remaining in the lane to deny the roller. The ball-handler hits Thor's man at the top of the arc. Thor doesn't get a great contest on the shot, but it is enough to help disrupt a sub-22 percent three-point shooter.

Thor shows immense promise as an off-ball defender, but there are some holes in his game. After Thor makes his first rotation, he is often slow to process what is coming next; he will view his job as completed. Here, Thor does a great job of sliding over to cover for Sharife Cooper's lazy defense. As the ball swings, though, Thor is a second slow at recognizing he now has to recover to his original assignment. He ends up with an ok shot contest, but against NBA shooters at NBA speed, this is likely three points for the other team.

Thor also lacks in his off-ball fundamentals. Mainly, he has a habit of helping off the strongside corner and is awful at closing out. The strongside corner issue seemed typical throughout the Auburn roster, so it may be more of a coaching issue than a player's bad habit. Either way, it needs to be taken out of his game immediately. Thor's issues with closeouts are discouraging but not damning. On Thor's closeouts, he has sloppy footwork and is high in his stance, which allows the opposition to effortlessly blow past him. Thor ends up with poor balance and fails to react quickly enough. It is a flaw that can be coached out of his game, but it is also a symptom of issues in his on-ball defense.

On-Ball Defense

Thor's on-ball defense is the most erratic part of his defense, but there are many signs that he could be a versatile on-ball menace. The most promising aspect of Thor's on-ball defense is how effortlessly he switches in the pick-and-roll. He isn't afraid of switching on to smaller, quicker guards, and he generally moves his feet well. He will get caught over pursuing, which makes it easier for guards to blow past him. Once he learns to utilize his length more effectively by giving a bigger cushion, Thor could eventually switch everything on the perimeter.

Here, Thor shows no hesitations of switching on one of the country's best scorers. As Cam Thomas comes off the screen, Thor immediately picks him up. Thor proceeds to use his long strides and perfect footwork to cut off Thomas's baseline drive attempt. Thomas then fakes a spin move to get into a jumper, a move he's very successful at, but since Thor had a balanced base and quick feet, he stays with Thomas the entire time. Thor reads Thomas's every move, doesn't bite on the fakes, and forces Thomas to do something seen once in a blue moon: pass.

Thor does a good job of sliding his feet to cut off drives. He can be inconsistent with his footwork and defensive stance at times, but he has far more good than bad in that realm of his game. With young players of similar length to Thor, we frequently see them cross their feet and rely solely on their length to defend. The way Thor combines his footwork, defensive stance, and length at times makes me believe that he has the potential to develop into an elite all-around defender.

While there is a lot to love about Thor's on-ball defense, it isn't all rainbows and sunshine. Thor struggles with situational awareness and seems to not always have read the scouting report. He will oddly tightly guard non-shooters on the perimeter or sag off competent ones. Here, Thor is in Isaiah Jackson's shirt as if he's Kevin Durant. Jackson is a zero threat from outside as he took two three-pointers all season. Thor pressing Jackson like this allows Jackson to rip through and effortlessly beat Thor off the dribble. Thor can't flip his hips quick enough to stay with Jackson, and his teammate nearly gets sent to the Shadow Realm.

That clip is another example of how Thor has yet to fully comprehend how to use his length. Thor should be sagging off of Jackson quite a bit regardless, but even if it was a decent shooter, Thor could afford to give some space since his length can quickly erase space.

Thor also consistently struggled with his post defense. He didn't handle physicality well, and his slender frame was easy to push around. Thor did an excellent job of blocking shots and staying vertical, but his assignments typically had already established such a good position that it didn't matter.

Here, Thor gets manhandled by a smaller player in Trendon Watford. Watford is a very physical player, but Thor puts up little resistance. With each shoulder bump, Watford moves Thor backward at least one step to the point where Watford is laying it up within three feet of the rim. Thor does a good job of staying vertical and getting a second contest, but this should end in two points for LSU.

Again, Thor struggles to establish his post position. This time, Thor is defending Jackson, who has a similar build and is not renowned for his post-up game. Jackson gets an early seal on Thor with a simple hip check. Thor puts up little resistance and has zero chance of recovering to the rim side. 

Thor's unique measurements and footwork should make him a multi-positional defender. Early in his career, Thor will have an easier time defending wings and guards than big men. Thor doesn't have the strength to hold his own in the post. While He will be asked to defend on the perimeter, he must also get stronger to not be a liability when he has to guard up.

Off-Ball Offense

Predicting Thor's offensive upside is an incredibly tricky task. If you went solely off his numbers, he'd likely be more of a late second-round pick than a potential first-round lottery ticket. With 44/29/74 shooting splits, nothing screams off-ball shooter. When you add in his 0.812 points per possession (PPP) out of spot-ups (36th percentile) and 0.667 PPP shooting off the catch (14th percentile), per Synergy, the skepticism continues to grow.

Despite all of that, I am a firm believer that Thor will grow into a splendid off-ball shooter, and that is where most of his offensive impact will come from. Nothing about Thor's mechanics suggests that he'll be a bad shooter. He has a consistently high release point, and his mechanics are consistent and compact. If there is one skill that I am comfortable betting on Thor developing significantly from his freshman season, it is his shooting.

The rest of Thor's off-ball game, I am a little more reticent to buy in on. Thor didn't seem to have a strong understanding of floor balance and where to position himself. He didn't actively relocate and struggled to identify cutting lanes. Once Thor passed the ball, there was frequently no movement or activity from him. If this habit continues, he will clog up the offense. However, the rare occurrences that Thor did cut, the returns were promising.

If Thor can improve his off-ball movement and shooting consistency, it will do nothing but create new avenues for him to impact the offense. Defenses will have to respect him from outside, which will force them to either guard him tighter, creating driving and cutting lanes, or closeout more aggressively, creating situations he can attack. If he can consistently get defenders to close out like we see below, he has the ball-handling and passing ability to effectively drive and kick to open shooters.

On-Ball Offense

As an on-ball creator, Thor has shown flashes, but has a long way to be considered a viable threat. Thor is a mediocre passer at best and is a limited ball-handler. Thor struggles to consistently create space and read a defense. Thor is an impressive shot maker because his mechanics and size allow him to be relatively undeterred by contests, but he must improve his ball-handling.

Despite his on-ball deficiencies, Thor still scored 0.957 PPP when shooting off the dribble (80th percentile). Granted, he only took 23 of these shots, so it is a small sample size. Regardless, when he did make them, it didn't feel like a fluke. Thor struggled to create space, but he did prove he can make tough shots.

Here, Thor creates zero space. His baseline drive attempt is immediately cut off, and the defender doesn't bite on any of his dribble moves that go nowhere. Even Thor's step-back creates minimal space. Despite that, Thor knocks down a jumper that looks incredibly smooth.

Again, Thor uses a series of dribble moves that accomplish nothing. Thor initially attacks the closeout, and it looks like he may have been able to get the edge. Regardless, Thor cuts back and uses a halfhearted shoulder shimmy that does nothing other than raise an eyebrow in confusion. Thor then attempts to spin back against his defender's momentum. Unfortunately, there is no momentum to spin against, and Thor's spin goes directly to the rim instead of towards open space. Thor knocks down the jumper.

There are some encouraging aspects of those clips. For starters, he made the shots. That's always a good thing. I am also encouraged that Thor was willing to try different dribble moves. They weren't effective, but at least they were in his consciousness of available options. Finally, the shot looked really good off the bounce. He maintained the same high, smooth release as when there isn't a defender in sight.

Thor's dribble moves are incredibly limited right now. He struggles with change-of-pace, and all of his actions go towards the rim. The problem with that is it makes it impossible to counter a defender's momentum. There must be some east-west movement incorporated to unbalance the defender.

Currently, Thor's on-ball repertoire is incredibly predictable. Defenders can time their digs to steal the ball, pressure him into making a mistake, or read his passing decisions before he's even aware of them. By improving his ball-handling, Thor could become a lethal offensive player. Until then, he will be relegated to a purely off-ball role.

The final area of Thor's on-ball scoring that is relevant is his post-up game. I know it isn't a sexy play and is being phased out of the game. However, it is still a great way to take advantage of mismatches, precisely what Thor will create regularly.

This season, Thor scored 0.786 PPP on post-ups (41st percentile) and 1.241 PPP around the rim (69th percentile). It won't, and shouldn't, be a regular action for Thor. However, when he gets a switch in the pick-and-roll or matched up against a smaller opponent, it is a reliable move he can go to.

Outlook

Despite having some legitimate holes in his game, it is incredibly difficult to not fall in love with JT Thor. His combination of size, length, and skill is exactly what teams are looking for as the league continues to expand its spacing while also not surrendering size. Thor didn't do anything at an elite level all season, but the flashes and growth he showed are undeniable. As one of the youngest players in this draft, it feels safe to assume that Thor is still very early on his development curve.

Players of Thor's physical mold are rare in the NBA. He has the size to play the four, the skill to play the three, and doesn't surrender anything at either position. Jaden McDaniels is the most recent example of this type of player, but Tayshaun Prince also had a tremendously successful career while playing a similar role.

In the 2021 NBA Draft, I would be willing to take a swing on Thor as early as 13. In reality, Thor will likely fall to the end of the first or even second round because his tape can be underwhelming. Thor is one of the biggest home run swings in this draft and will be a project, but he could be the biggest steal of the draft if he hits.

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