Scouting Report & Film Review: Kai Jones

Kai Jones is one of the best home run swings in the 2021 NBA Draft with legitimate two-way potential.

Strengths: Athleticism, scoring versatility, defensive upside, transition scoring

Weaknesses: Consistent off-ball defense, playmaking, shooting off the dribble, perimeter defensive footwork

Consensus Expected Draft Range: Mid first round

Where I'd Draft Him: 8-12

Shades Of: Serge Ibaka, Jonathan Isaac, Chris Boucher

Best Team Fits: Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards

Despite starting only four of his 26 games this season, Kai Jones quickly emerged as Texas's best NBA prospect. In his sophomore season, Jones saw an uptick in minutes and essentially improved his numbers across the board. His blend of skills, athleticism, and versatility will fit seamlessly in an NBA frontcourt.

Jones is still a rather raw prospect. However, since he only started playing basketball a few years ago and has made massive strides in the last two years, his future growth potential is one of the most encouraging in this class. Finding big men with Jones's measurements and athleticism who can make an impact in every area of the floor is hard to find.

Jones is a lottery talent because of his versatility and physical profile, but he still has areas of his game he must improve. Jones spent most of the season defending every position, but too frequently, he relied on his athleticism, instead of his fundamentals, to make the proper defensive play. Additionally, Jones's shooting numbers were boosted by a scorching hot start to the season. Jones likely won't be a near 40 percent three-point shooter in the NBA, but he proved he has the tools to be reliable from outside.

Shooting

Jones saw a significant uptick in his shooting efficiency in his sophomore season. His field goal percentage jumped eight points to 58 percent, and his three-point percentage jumped nine points to 38.2 percent. While Jones's improved efficiency and percentages are encouraging, his low volume and free-throw percentage failing to breach the 70 percent threshold suggest it could be a fluke year. Additionally, Jones only scored 0.4 points per possession (PPP) when shooting off the dribble (6th percentile), per Synergy. Jones only took 15 shots off the dribble this season, so even one extra make would significantly swing that number.

Jones's shooting numbers must be taken with a grain of salt because of the volume, but his process of taking his shots can still tell us a lot. Jones's off-the-dribble shooting numbers are abhorrent, but he wasn't allowed to take many because of how guard-dominant Texas's offense was. Jones needs to improve on some of his mechanics when shooting off the dribble, but his ball-handling and space creation are impressive for his size and position.

Here, Jones does an excellent job of creating space. Jones initially looks to swing the ball, but his teammate hasn't relocated to make a passing lane. After crossing over, Jones realizes he doesn't have a driving lane due to West Virginia's excellent gap defense. Instead of killing his dribble and waiting for a guard to bail him out with a handoff (like most big men do), Jones uses his length, fluidity, and ball-handling to create space on a step-back jumper. 

Jones misses the shot because of some mechanical issues, but the process of getting the shot is encouraging. Jones didn't hesitate with any of his moves. He looked confident and like it was a shot he's regularly practiced. Unfortunately, the shot comes out flat because Jones has a late release, and his lower body mechanics limit his ability to elevate. These aren't damning flaws in his shot, but they do need to be corrected if he wants to be a legitimate threat off the dribble.

Fortunately, I don't expect Jones to be much an on-ball shooter, at least early in his career. Instead, Jones will likely get most of his shots by spotting-up or from the pick-and-pop. Jones saw more success and volume from these scenarios, and he can use his athleticism and ball-handling to attack rotating defenses (we'll expand on that later). Jones scored 1.125 PPP (70th percentile) shooting off the catch and one PPP (70th percentile) spotting-up this season.

Jones still has some lower body mechanical inconsistencies when shooting off the catch, but overall, his form is much more consistent and connected than when he shoots off the dribble. I'd be surprised if Jones continues to be a near 40 percent three-point shooter in the NBA, but I do think he will force defenses to respect him from outside.

Besides improving his off-the-dribble mechanics and consistency, Jones must improve his pick-and-pop impact. Overall, Jones struggled as the roll man as he scored only 0.652 PPP (12th percentile). Jones only had 23 possessions in this roll because Texas had an elite rim runner in Jericho Sims, Jones was used as more of a floor spacer, and Texas's guards rarely looked for Jones after using the screen. While Texas didn't use Jones to his fullest potential as a screener, Jones has a lot of improvement to make in that role.

Jones was inconsistent with the quality of screens and how hard he rolled to the rim. It looked like two fundamentals he'd never been taught. Most of these possessions, though, Jones popped instead of rolling. When he popped, Jones scored only 0.714 PPP (27th percentile). Jones struggled with his footwork which altered his alignment and limited his ability to elevate. If Jones can't improve his pick-and-pop effectiveness, his offensive impact will be significantly limited as a spot-up big man. Unfortunately, those players see limited minutes because they don't help enhance the offense at a high enough level.

While Jones must improve in this area, there were some signs of optimism. Jones has only shot out of the pick-and-pop 31 times in his college career (eight as a freshman and 23 as a sophomore), so he has minimal in-game experience with it. His freshman season, Jones scored nine points on eight shots. When he took his time or the recovering defender sagged off him, Jones could make them pay. The NBA is a much faster game, so these opportunities will be rarer. However, given his overall shooting mechanics and improvement, I think Jones will be a quality threat out of the pick-and-pop in time.

Off-Ball Scoring

Overall, Jones had a highly efficient scoring season with 1.061 PPP (90th percentile). Almost all of Jones's scoring opportunities came with him away from the ball. These opportunities ranged from him running in transition to attacking close-outs to well-timed cuts.

With Jones's size, athleticism, and fluidity, he should continue to be a monster in transition. This season, Jones scored 1.288 PPP (86th percentile) in transition. Jones runs his lanes well and identifies open pockets. Here, Villanova gets everyone behind the ball as Texas pushes after the rebound. Jones initially runs his lane to the corner but realizes that neither weak side defender picks him up or protects the lane. Instead of purely sticking to his assigned lane, Jones immediately cuts for the open dunk.

Even more encouraging is Jones's grab-and-go ability. Whether having a primary initiator secure the rebound or a versatile big man, NBA teams look to push the ball as quickly as possible. Jones's combination of ball-handling and athleticism allow him to do this. 

Here, Jones secures the rebound in traffic and immediately pushes in transition. As Jones hits half-court, he sees the defense has yet to turn and set up their defense. Jones accelerates to the rim while the defense is still backpedaling. This decision by Jones ensures that the defender won't be perfectly balanced and won't be able to elevate at the rim fully. Jones takes his last dribble at the three-point line and uses his length to finish around the defender.

Jones is also an effective finisher when he cuts. This season, Jones scored 1.163 PPP (51st percentile) when he cut. Jones isn't great at identifying the right moments to cut, but when he gets some space to get downhill, he has no issues finishing in traffic, as we can see below. As Jericho Sims receives the pass, the low weak-side zone defender cheats over and has eyes only for Sims. Jones could stay in the corner for a potential three, but the top weak-side defender could jump the passing lane. Instead, Jones cuts baseline behind the low defender. Due to the defender's positioning, he can't correctly recover and surrenders the baseline to Jones. From there, Jones has the size, length, and athleticism to finish through the contact and over the rotating help defender.

Even when Jones doesn't receive the ball, his cuts can create chances for teammates. Here, Kansas does an excellent job of shutting down the pick-and-roll, and the weak-side defenders stay attached in the corner. Texas doesn't have many options, but Jones sees an unattended rim and bolts for it. Jones's defender covers him well, but the interior scoring threat of Jones also attracts the other weak side defender just long enough to create space for an open three.

Unfortunately, Jones's off-ball movement is sporadic. He doesn't have a great understanding of spacing and will at times clog the offense. Jones has the foundation to be an excellent off-ball move but is incredibly inconsistent, as shown below. Jones slips the screen but relocates directly into a help defender who can now guard two men at once. Jones's slip also created the possibility for the ball-handler to get trapped on the side with no precise release valve. Thankfully for Jones, his defender is uncertain about recovering to Jones or trapping the ball-handler. Seeing the indecision, the ball-handler attacks the drop, forcing the weak side rotation. Jones wisely fills the now unoccupied lane for the open dunk.

Jones recovered nicely by cutting and got a positive result, but the play did not start smoothly. Jones got lucky with a significant defensive blunder. For Jones to take the next step with his off-ball scoring, he must improve his off-ball awareness. He frequently gets lost in no man's land and misses relocations on the perimeter. This lack of movement will frustrate primary initiators, ruin spacing, and disrupt the offensive flow.

By missing that relocation to the top of the arc, Jones put his teammate in a bad spot and eliminated any chance for Texas to imbalance the floor and attack rotations. Lacking attention to detail like this will infuriate coaches and cause primary initiators to lose trust as quarterbacks lose faith in receivers who drop the ball.

Earlier, we touched on the importance of Jones's off-ball shooting. While being a reliable off-ball shooter is important in the sense of earning three points, it is also essential because it forces defenders to close out aggressively. When this happens, Jones is excellent at attacking close-outs and finishing at the rim. When Jones took it to the rim after spotting-up, he scored 1.6 PPP (98th percentile). Jones is a good ball-handler for his position, who has the length and fluidity to get to the rim.

Here, Jones's defender is sagging in the lane to help on the drive. Once the ball is kicked out, Jones immediately attacks his defender's momentum to beat him with ease. Jones proceeds to gleefully attack the rim, not afraid of the contact, and draw the hard foul.

Even when immobile big men don't fully commit to the close-out, Jones uses his quickness and length to finish at the rim. Here, Jones pauses as if he is going to shoot as the defender makes it clear he isn't fully closing out. As Jones does this, the defender rises slightly in his stance, which is precisely when Jones makes his move. From the top of the arc, Jones takes one dribble, gets the defender on his hip, and extends his right hand to finish.

Given Jones's athleticism, he will likely be matched up against more mobile forwards or wings at times. In these scenarios, Jones's size becomes the principal asset instead of his quickness against traditional big men. Here, Jones runs off a screen and uses a shot fake to create a driving lane. Once the defender chops his feet, Jones attacks the lane. The defender does an excellent job of not allowing Jones to turn the corner, but Jones's length makes him a threat to score once he gets near the lane.

The mixture of shooting, size, length, and athleticism makes Jones an intriguing off-ball scorer. He can cover half the court in a few strides, which makes him incredibly hard to defend. If his shooting improvements are legitimate, Jones will be tough to defend. Even if he is a below-average shooter, Jones has the physical tools to develop into a highly effective interior scorer.

On-Ball Defense

While there is a lot to be hopeful about with Jones's offense, his defense is the most exciting part of his game. Jones showed significant growth since his freshman season and has the potential to be a nearly universal switcher. Jones has provided numerous examples of locking down the perimeter and interior. 

Here, Jones has an excellent defensive possession by navigating and switching in the pick-and-roll. Jones briefly drops to deny a drive on the first slip screen and then quickly recovers once his teammate is back in position. Jones closes out under control and then immediately switches once his teammate doesn't fight through the handoff. After switching on one of the most tenured point guards in the country, Jones perfectly denies multiple drive attempts. He stays low in his stance and slides his feet to stay on balance. Jones forces the kick out and then switches back to his original assignment, where he deflects the pass on a well-timed back cut.

Again, Jones does an excellent job of switching in the pick-and-roll. His teammate initially gets taken out by a strong screen, and the ball-handler is eager to attack downhill. However, Jones stays low in his stance and corrals the ball-handler, not allowing him to turn the corner. 

Here, Jones yet again denies the drive attempt. Jones reads Cade Cunningham's drive perfectly and beats him to the spot because of his footwork and strong defensive stance. Cunningham tries to lower his shoulder and create space which works against 99 percent of defenders. Jones, however, absorbs the contact and recovers quickly enough to contest the shot strongly.

Even when ball-handlers turn the corner on Jones, he has the length to affect their shot. Here, Jones opens his body too much as he denies the drive to the left. The ball-handler wise counters with a spin back to his right, a move that should result in a layup. However, Jones's quick reactions and length allow him to recover to block the shot.

Unfortunately, Jones can be inconsistent with his defensive fundamentals. Often, they are excellent, as we saw above, but when he lapses, he can give up easy opportunities. He doesn't always stay in a defensive stance, and he can get lazy with his footwork. Sometimes his length allows him to recover, but that will be more difficult against NBA scorers. 

Here, Jones gets punished for a sloppy close-out. Jones closes out with a hop and high in his stance. This positioning makes him slow to react. Jones is unable to beat the ball-handler to the spot. By crossing his feet, Jones allowed the ball-handler to turn the corner. Jones is in full catch-up mode now that he's turned his hips to run, instead of sliding to contain. Jones ends up with a decent contest because of his length, but it was a play that could have easily been avoided with a more disciplined close-out.

Besides paying strict attention to his fundamentals, Jones also slacks in his attention to who he is guarding. Here, Jones positions himself like he is defending the opposing center instead of a quality scoring wing. Jones initially sags well off Jalen Wilson to deny the drive. Jones beats Wilson to the spot, but since he is giving Wilson a large buffer, Wilson decides to pull up for the jumper. Since Jones crossed his feet while denying the drive, he is slightly late getting a solid contest on the shot.

Jones has shown more good than bad as an on-ball defender, but he lacks the attention to detail that great defenders have. When he slides his feet and stays low, Jones can switch on any position. Unfortunately, he can get sloppy with his close-outs, and his footwork can be erratic. If he locks in and makes his defensive fundamentals a priority, Jones could be a game-changing defender.

Off-Ball Defense

Jones's off-ball defense is just as impactful, exciting, promising, and inconsistent as his on-ball defense. Jones will switch, deflect a pass, and rotate to block a shot one possession and then completely miss his rotation on the next. His length and athleticism make him an effective weak-side rim protector. If he can be a little more consistent with his rotations, his defensive impact will skyrocket.

Here, Jones is in the perfect position to deny the roll but fails to read the play properly. As the screen is set, Jones immediately drops to the block to help on the roll. Jones is in the right spot to deflect the pass or at least deny the roll. However, once the ball-handler picks up his dribble, Jones takes a step back towards his man and gives up the layup.

Jones will have a few plays like this in a game that are completely baffling defensive blunders. He does everything correctly for 90 percent of the play and then turns off at the end. This tendency is concerning because coaches may get frustrated and not allow him to learn through these failures. 

While Jones will make you scratch your head a few times a game, most of his off-ball defense is encouraging. Here, Jones is in a similar situation as before but makes the proper play. Jones's teammate doubles the post as his man cuts. The ball-handler immediately recognizes this and makes a great pass. However, Jones is in a good position and also reads the play accurately. Jones quickly rotates and disrupts the layup.

When Jones is locked in defensively, his defensive rotations are incredibly impressive. He initially puts himself in the right position and has the length and incredible ground coverage to recover, as we see below. As Texas Tech runs the pick-and-roll, Jones positions himself to tag the roller. The ball-handler is under heavy pressure and tries to pass to the space Jones just vacated. Jones has positioned himself to know where his man is while also tagging the roller and reading the ball. Jones waits for the ball-handler to release the pass, then breaks to the ball and forces the turnover.

Jones's incredible ground coverage and weak side recognition frequently bailed out teammates. Here, Texas doubles the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, and the defender in the paint inexplicable makes a move to cut off the drive. Jones quickly sees that a man has been left unattended at the rim and promptly rotates to deflect the lob.

Jones's off-ball reactions provide an immense safety net for teammates as he makes defensive plays that very few players can make. His versatility and mobility are exactly what NBA teams desire in the modern big man. His off-ball impact is even effective when retreating in transition.

Here, Jones's teammates oddly double the ball-handler who is not a shooter in transition. This move allows the opposing big man to set up camp under the rim. Jones quickly recognizes his teammate's blunder and impossibly recovers to deflect the pass to force the turnover.

Again, we see Jones run perfectly in transition. Initially, Jones retreats with his man. Jones keeps an open body so he can locate his man and the ball. He also positions himself to recover to his man or rotate to the rim, depending on the situation. As the ball-handler continues to attack, Jones rotates to the opposite block and rejects the shot. 

Jones also has the awareness and versatility to switch between defending the post and perimeter in the same possession. Here, Jones initially denies the post well. He then switches to the corner shooter once he sees his teammate gets lost on the screen. Knowing it is a massive mismatch, Jones's teammate is desperate to switch back. Jones doesn't have a great close-out, but he shepherds the ball-handler back to his teammate and switches again.

The versatility and impact of Jones's off-ball defense can help change an NBA defense. He has excellent reactions and incredibly impressive ground coverage. He provides a safety net to teammates that few players do. If he can iron out some of the head-scratching blunders, he could be an immensely impactful defender.

Outlook

Kai Jones is one of my favorite lottery ticket players in the 2021 NBA Draft. His unique two-way versatility is rare in players of his size and position. He has the foundation to be a long-term impactful starter, but his game needs a lot of refinement. 

Offensively, Jones must continue to prove he is a threat shooting the ball. His ability to attack the rim will always be an asset, but it will be significantly watered down if he can't shoot (combined with the absence of passing). Defensively, Jones must continue to improve his attention to detail. He has immense potential, but it can be clear that he's been playing basketball for only a few years.

Kai Jones is a lottery talent in my eyes, but the consensus view has him in the mid to late first. It won't surprise me if Jones is a fringe All-Defensive big man one day or at the back of a rotation in a few years. His range of outcomes feels pretty vast, but the upside is worth the risk.

Like what you've read? Share it with your friends on      or  

Go ad-free by supporing Hashtag Basketball on Patreon for $2/mo

More Information

Premium Fantasy Basketball Tools

Import Yahoo & Fantrax leagues and analyze them with our free tools.

More information

2021 NBA Draft Prospects

Meet the top 45 prospects of the 2021 NBA Draft.

More information

© 2014-2021 Hashtag Basketball