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Meet the Most Interesting Sleeper in the 2021 NBA Draft

Kai Jones might be Texas’s best prospect since Kevin Durant, but you won’t fully appreciate his do-it-all game until you see him play

Associated Press/Ringer illustration

Kai Jones might be the most intriguing gamble in this year’s draft. The Texas big man is a raw player from the Bahamas who began playing organized basketball just a few years ago. He mostly came off the bench in two seasons in Austin, and averaged only 22.8 minutes per game as a sophomore. But he’s so talented that he will likely be a top-20 pick despite his limited college production.

Jones is the latest in a long line of NBA big men to play for Shaka Smart at Texas, following Jarrett Allen, Mo Bamba, and Jaxson Hayes. Smart wasn’t able to maximize any of them, and was forced out in March after six up-and-down seasons. What separates Jones from his predecessors is that Smart used him mainly as a stretch 4 because he was playing next to another potential NBA center in senior Jericho Sims.

That’s where the intrigue starts with Jones, who might be the Longhorns’ best NBA prospect since Kevin Durant. He’s an elite athlete with the size (6-foot-11 and 220 pounds) to be a rim-running center who also has the skill to play on the perimeter on offense. There are glimpses of that skill in his stats. He shot 38.2 percent from 3 on 1.3 attempts per game last season, and 68.9 percent from the free throw line on 2.8 attempts per game. Those aren’t great shooting numbers, but they show that he has potential. They are even better than those of some of the perimeter players projected to go ahead of him.

But it’s only when you watch film of Jones that you truly appreciate his talent. Jones does one or two things a game that are legitimately shocking for a 6-foot-11 player. This is him taking the ball coast to coast:

This is from the final seconds of a 68-64 loss to Villanova. Jones cuts behind a screen, catches the ball at the 3-point line, gets past his defender with a pump fake, then drives to the rim and finishes with a runner:

His touch is the most encouraging sign for his potential as a shooter. It’s incredible that Jones shot so well from 2-point range considering how rarely he was used as a roll man. He was much more efficient than Bamba and Allen despite having a more difficult role in the offense (via Synergy Sports):

Shaka Smart Centers

Player Season 2PA 2P% Roll Man Possessions
Player Season 2PA 2P% Roll Man Possessions
Jaxson Hayes 2018-19 5.3 72.8 70
Kai Jones 2020-21 4.2 64.2 23
Mo Bamba 2017-18 7.3 60.3 44
Jarrett Allen 2016-17 9.4 57.9 64

There’s more to being a stretch 4 than spotting up on the perimeter. Jones usually began most possessions at the 3-point line and would have to wind his way to the basket on drives and cuts. That requires the ability to put the ball on the floor, finish from difficult angles, and read the defense on the move. Most big men would be fish out of water in that scenario. Jones made it look easy.

He has a natural fluidity with the ball that is impossible to teach. There are plays when the big man looks like a guard:

He even has a Eurostep:

There were times when he tried to do too much at Texas. You can see that in his poor ratio of assists (0.6 per game) to turnovers (1.4). But that’s all part of the learning process for a player his age. It’s encouraging that Jones even attempted difficult plays. There’s a bit of flash to his game that stands out in this class:

This is how ESPN’s Jay Bilas saw it on the broadcast: “At first, I was wondering what is Kai Jones doing? He threw a bullet pass and it looked like one of those passes that could get intercepted or go out of bounds. But he knew exactly what he was doing.”

What makes Jones even more intriguing is that he can play on the perimeter on both ends of the floor. Jones can get in a defensive stance, slide his feet, and stay in front of elite guards. Texas played Oklahoma State three times this season, so he wound up guarding Cade Cunningham, the likely no. 1 pick, fairly often. My favorite play is the last clip from this video, when Cade sizes up Jones in isolation and decides that he can’t take him:

Jones has the talent and the athleticism to be a 6-foot-11 guard. Players like that don’t come around often. They basically don’t exist.

It’s fair to ask why he didn’t do more at Texas. There were a couple of things going on.

The biggest was the roster around him. Sims was the Longhorns’ best player, a senior who paid his dues behind Bamba and Hayes before finally getting the chance to man the middle. He’s a smart and experienced player who is both extremely athletic and built like a tank (6-foot-10 and 245 pounds). Most NCAA centers could not handle him. Sims is a likely second-round draft pick whom Smart had to emphasize. There was no way Jones was playing in front of him, no matter his NBA talent.

He also shared a frontcourt with Greg Brown III, a potential first-round pick this year in his own right. Brown was a highly touted five-star recruit from the Austin area. His dad played football at Texas. Signing him was a recruiting coup for Smart, who was already on the hot seat coming into the season. He gave Brown every chance to succeed. Jones spent most of the season coming off the bench behind Brown until it became obvious that he was the better player.

Texas didn’t have the guards to utilize its big men, either. Smart started three—senior Matt Coleman III and juniors Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey—and gave them a permanent green light on offense. They never justified his faith. That became clear after a shocking upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Abilene Christian, in which the trio combined to commit 15 turnovers.

That loss was the last straw for Smart in Austin. He wasn’t “fired” because he was owed too much money, but he was encouraged to look for other jobs and wound up at Marquette.

Jones averaged 8.8 points on 58.0 percent shooting, 4.8 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 1.4 turnovers, 0.8 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game this season. There is nothing remarkable about his stats. They aren’t impressive in comparison to the other big men in the draft. But it was a minor miracle that he showed anything given all that was happening around him.

It reminds me of Myles Turner in his one season at Texas. Like Jones, Turner was forced to play as a power forward due to a glut of older big men, and his coach (Rick Barnes) was fired at the end of the season. Turner wound up falling to no. 11 in the 2017 draft, which proved to be way too low in hindsight.

The other factor when evaluating Jones is his background. He grew up as a long jumper in the Bahamas, and was discovered at a Basketball Without Borders camp when he was 16. It was his first time playing the sport in an organized setting. He’s still learning the game, and can already do things that the vast majority of big men his age can’t.

Jones still has a long way to go. He has to keep putting on weight to match up with bigger centers in the NBA. Transitioning to the next level may be difficult because he may not be strong enough to be a 5 or a good enough shooter to be a 4. He’s a project. The team that drafts him has to commit to developing him.

Situation will be huge for Jones. He could go to the wrong team, flounder on the bench for a few seasons, and bounce around the NBA. But the right team could turn him into a star.

Charlotte, which has the no. 11 pick, is a particularly intriguing destination. The Hornets have a long-term need at center with Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo entering free agency, and Jones would fit perfectly next to LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges. He could get out and run with them, while also having the skill to play in a more free-flowing offense. The Hornets are good enough that they can afford to take a gamble, but aren’t advanced enough to need a ready-made player, either.

Most teams toward the end of the lottery should be swinging for the fences. Teams get stuck in that range if they don’t have players who can develop into stars. Jones won’t be one next season, but he could be one in five.

The concerns are valid. He didn’t do that much in college. There’s no guarantee that he or any other project will fully develop. And big men are a dime a dozen in the draft.

What makes Jones special is that he could be more than a big man. He could be a guard with the size of a center. That’s the thing to keep in mind when reading about the knocks on him. If there weren’t concerns, he would be a top-five pick. The chance to get a player with his talent in the teens, where he’s currently projected to be picked in most mock drafts, is exceedingly rare. The rewards far outweigh the risks. It’s just a question of who wants to roll the dice.