And the Thunder Select…Jaden Ivey

And the Thunder Select…Jaden Ivey

I’m aware Thunder fans are enamored with the big men at the top of this class, as they all (especially Chet Holmgren) fit in seamlessly with the roster as currently constructed. But with a little bit of steam linking Oklahoma City to Ivey (Yahoo and Basketball News) and my personal affinity for him as a player, we have to prepare for the unexpected. Could GM Sam Presti take this backcourt phenom at #2 overall, or trade down to get him a little later?

  • Born: February 13th, 2002
  • Draft Age: 20.4
  • High School: Marian High School and La Lumiere Prep
  • RSCI: 87
  • College: Purdue
  • Measurements (Projected): 6’4, 195 pounds, 6’9.5 wingspan
  • Consensus Ranking: 4th

Shades of: John Wall, Steve Francis, less bulky but taller Donovan Mitchell

After his freshman season at Purdue, Jaden Ivey had plenty of momentum heading into his next season. He ended the month of March 2021 on a tear capped off by a 26-point performance in an NCAA tournament defeat to North Texas, and parlayed that into a spot on Team USA for the FIBA U19s last year. After a stellar tournament where he made the All-Tournament Team and helped the United States win gold, Ivey’s stock was soaring heading into his sophomore college season. He finished his 2021-22 campaign with Purdue averaging 17/5/3 on one of the best teams in the nation. He is now a consensus top five pick.

Before going in deeper, we must note that Ivey is the only sophomore in the consensus top four. However, he is rather young for a sophomore, with a draft age of 20.4. He will barely be older than Holmgren as a rookie, about nine months older than Paolo Banchero and a full year older than Jabari Smith, Jr.

My personal rankings for these players are still relatively fluid (my definitive big board will be out later), but as of this writing Ivey is my number two player with no chance of falling out of my top three. By the way, my personal philosophy in the draft is that I do not care about fit at all. The draft is an investment in these players; most of the time these players don’t enter the NBA and become stars, usually taking years to fully develop into their potential. In those years, roster fluctuation is a given, especially in OKC. Just two drafts ago the Thunder were coming off a team featuring Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams. None of those guys are here anymore. You’re best served by drafting the best player and figuring the rest out later, simple as that. I respect and understand other people’s viewpoints in terms of a concrete role for the other bigs at the top of the draft for the Thunder, but that isn’t stopping me from liking Ivey here.

What makes him such an awesome prospect to me? We’ll start where Thunder legend Russell Westbrook thrived: above the rim.

Dynamism and Rim Pressure

Full stop, Jaden Ivey is the best athlete in this class and it isn’t even close. To go one step further, I believe once he gets drafted he will immediately be in the top tier of NBA athletes, arguably the fastest player in the league. His standstill burst is completely ridiculous and has the ability to warp defenses, allowing Ivey to become a matchup nightmare for opposing players. He is an absolute terror in transition, effortlessly zooming up and down the floor, always a threat to hit the open shooter or driving in for a poster dunk. Granted, his vertical athleticism isn’t top top tier, but he is so fast and has the requisite length to pull off some pretty filthy dunks.

This past season at Purdue, Ivey started to wield his athleticism a little better. Granted, there were still lapses where Ivey was out of control (moments all young, S-tier athletes have), but he started incorporating a hesitation dribble and other moves into his game to keep defenders off balance. If you flinch for just one second while guarding Ivey, you’ve already lost. He ranked in the 80th percentile in isolation possessions this past season, per Synergy. Putting pressure on the rim consistently might be the best offensive skill in the NBA aside from elite pull-up shooting, and it’s something Thunder fans should know well after having Russ and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the team for the past 14 seasons.

These are some of the players who led the league in drives per game this past NBA regular season, and I would say about 90 percent of them are at the very least teetering on the line of being All-Stars pretty consistently. I don’t see any reason why Ivey will not be joining this list soon, and he and Shai could combine to form an all-time rim pressure backcourt.

via NBA.com

He is coming off a season converting 68% of his 162 rim attempts, while only being assisted on 23.6% of those makes per Bart Torvik. Those are elite numbers for a guard who is barely 6’4 in shoes.

Since 2008, only two high major freshman or sophomores in college basketball managed the following:

  • Assist Rate > 15%
  • 3P Made > 60
  • Rim Attempts > 150
  • Dunks > 25

The players? RJ Barrett (2019) and Jaden Ivey (2022). This combination of rim pressure, passing, and perimeter shooting (Ivey has much better shooting indicators than Barrett) are rare to find in the draft. Putting pressure on the rim leads to the easiest points in the NBA: free throws. Ivey had a stellar 46.9% free throw rate this past season, a great number for a guard prospect of his stature.

There have been a lot of bets on athleticism at the top of recent NBA drafts when it comes to guards that have hit tremendously (Anthony Edwards and Jaylen Brown to name a couple). Upper-tier athleticism can be a serious game-changer, especially at the guard position. One thing that may separate Ivey from those two is that he is not nearly as strong as they are, but neither of them are close to as fast as Ivey is. I’m okay with that tradeoff.

Off the Ball

There are some concerns among draft writers and scouts about Ivey landing on a team with creators already in place (OKC, Sacramento) since he needs the ball all the time to maximize his impact. Sure, if he reaches his star ceiling he will probably need the ball in his hands a lot, but he absolutely does not need it in his hands to be effective. I watched him play U19s for Team USA and he was frequently not the primary ball-handler, acting instead as an off-ball mover and cutter to the basket using his freak athleticism to create openings for himself. This continued at Purdue as well, as he would cut off the ball, sprint on the baseline for secondary actions, and take an occasional movement three.

Just because the ball was in his hands a lot (as Purdue’s best player) doesn’t mean he can’t function as an off-ball guy. College coaches don’t care about developing players for the NBA; they just want to keep their jobs and make sure the team is as good as it can be. Matt Painter isn’t going to take the ball out of Ivey’s hands to see how he develops while Eric Hunter, Jr. runs half the team’s possessions–it just isn’t logical. In fact, Ivey’s off-ball possessions are being undersold, as he actually accumulated a lot of them. Purdue had a tremendous big man passer in Trevion Williams who allowed Ivey to use his athleticism and smarts to operate away from him in the post. Theoretically, Josh Giddey’s size could allow the Thunder’s passing savant to similarly operate out of the post as a hub for Ivey and SGA if given the opportunity.

Is Ivey’s fit with Shai and Giddey as seamless as Paolo’s? No. Does that make taking Ivey inherently more risky? Potentially. At the end of the day, it’s still about finding the best player available. Ivey does enough good things off the ball that I believe he and everyone else with the team can figure out proficient enough roles for all three ball handlers.

Pick & Roll and Creator Potential

One thing I do wish Purdue had done more with Ivey was using him in PnR situations. He was pretty impressive in that category, ranking in the 84th percentile in points per-possession as a PnR ball-handler per Synergy. Ivey’s raw college assist numbers may not lead you to project Ivey to eventually become a lead creator in the NBA. While that may end up accurate, he has shown plenty of ability to make smart and consistent reads in the PnR and when dishing to teammates. He will only get better with more in-game reps and, while he had his fair share of misses, I think there is more there than what was showcased game to game.

One of the clips I include above features a great pass from Ivey, but he’s a little bit out of control and earns an offensive foul. He does occasionally get stuck in the air mid-decision like this. But again, so has every other uber-athletic young guard in NBA history. I still see players like Russ and Ja do this after notching plenty of experience in the league. I do not think this is a cause for concern (in case you were still wondering).

His assist rate of 19.2% is pedestrian on the surface, but this is where you need to project in context. Purdue’s offense ran through the post a majority of the time, limiting Ivey’s opportunities as a distributor. When he got the chance, he was effective in the PnR and was a nightmare in transition. Luckily for the Thunder, they don’t need a Chris Paul to run their offense; Ivey doesn’t have to make every single play happen for this OKC team, which is why I think the Thunder could be a great spot for him to gradually improve in that aspect of his game.

Shooting and Scoring Touch

This past year at Purdue, Ivey shot 35.8% from three and a solid 74.4% from the line. He was only assisted on 60.9% of his threes, the lowest of the top four guys in this draft class. He showcased a variety of shots in his arsenal, including movement threes, catch-and-shoot, self-creation, and pull-up jumpers. I fully believe in his shot long term, although his semi-low release point is a bit worrisome at the next level. He starts low and brings it up to his chest and in front of his face, but these issues are why your coaches and player development staff get paid. The present shooting indicators and his touch on runners and floaters in the paint give me a reason to believe the shot will be nothing to worry about at the next level:

The main issue I see with Ivey’s perimeter game is his lack of creation in the midrange. He only took 27 non-paint twos this past season and only made six of them. To what degree this matters is in the eye of the beholder. Do I care if a player who isn’t an amazing shooter isn’t taking a bunch of midrange shots? Not really. Could it be something he could improve upon as he gets more lead reps and continues to develop counters and other dribble moves? Yes. There were enough moments of on- and off-ball shooting for me to believe this part of his game is scalable to other perimeter ball handlers in the league.

Defensive Activity

Another aspect of Ivey’s game that I believe has been overblown is his lacking defensive ability. While he is no standout perimeter defender, his defense was solid this past season. Combined with the defensive prowess he showed last summer in FIBA play, we should be expecting Ivey to be an okay defender at the next level. One thing to worry about with him, as with every other high usage guard prospect, is the effort waning on the defensive end of the floor. He had his fair share of those common off-ball defensive lapses as a young player. OKC has established a pretty solid defensive culture and identity, and I think Mark Daigneault could get Ivey to buy in more consistently.

One thing that he does quite well is play the passing lanes. He is obviously incredibly explosive and has a tremendous first step. When you combine that with his length, you get a force in passing lanes. He had a 2.0 block rate and 1.7 steal rate this past season, which are pretty good numbers for a relatively smaller guard. I also really liked some flashes of Ivey’s screen navigation. He was able to slither around screens from the likes of Kofi Cockburn, and his athleticism and flexibility give him a good starting point to work from. While playing his freshman year and in FIBA, Ivey’s niche was the high energy, athletic defensive guard. Now that he’s taken more of the offensive burden, the defensive effort tends to come and go more. Honing his attention on both ends of the court will be important for his development.

Lock it in?

Despite the smoke surrounding it, I find it unlikely Presti would take Ivey barring a trade down from #2 (or a trade up from #12). However, I think Ivey is a fantastic prospect and definitely somebody worth taking in the top three of this draft. He is a tremendous guard prospect with S-tier athleticism and budding creation skills. With more on-ball reps, we could be looking at a primary creator in the NBA. The ancillary skills are good enough to work without the ball in his hands consistently and he appears to be a largely scalable player next to other stars. I would have no qualms with the Thunder selecting him at two if Chet Holmgren is off the board, but I understand the concern some other fans may have.

Jaden Ivey has almost everything you want in an elite guard prospect and will be hearing his name at the top of the draft in June, whether for the Thunder or another fortunate team.