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The Special Case of Jaden Ivey

It’s hard to find an NBA comparison for Purdue’s star guard, but he’s a near lock to be a top-five pick. What makes the engine behind the Boilermakers so unique?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Few players can turn a game against a conference rival into their own personal dunk contest. But that’s exactly what Purdue guard Jaden Ivey did to Michigan back in early February.

On one possession in the first half, he caught the ball on the wing, took two dribbles toward the rim, and then dunked over his man and the help-side defender. A few seconds later, he stole a pass in the lane and beat two Michigan players down the court for another slam. Ivey got a third in the second half when he blew past two defenders and soared for a two-handed jam before the rest of the Wolverines could react.

Ivey is so quick and gets off the ground so fast that there’s only so much the defense can do to stop him. It looks like he has been shot out of a cannon when he slashes to the rim. And if he doesn’t get an easy look at the basket, he’s often fouled. He had 18 free throw attempts in one game this season and 15 in another. That shouldn’t be possible for a guard listed at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds.

Ivey has had a breakout season as a sophomore, averaging 17.2 points on 45.9 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.0 steals per game. He’s the engine behind the no. 2 offense in the country, leading Purdue in scoring and tied for second in assists. He has helped turn the Boilermakers, who have never made a Final Four under coach Matt Painter, into a national title contender. He’s a near lock to be a top-five pick in the 2022 NBA draft and could go as high as top three.

It would be one thing if Ivey was just a great athlete. What makes him special, though, is that he has the skills and the smarts to go with it.

His leap came because he made a big jump as a shooter. His 3-point percentage has improved by 11 points since his freshman season (from 26 percent to 37) while his attempts have also gone up. The scouting report on Ivey used to be: Back off and let him shoot. Now there’s no way to guard him. The difference in his confidence is striking. Purdue was down three with 15 seconds left against Wisconsin last week when he brought the ball up the floor and pulled up from way behind the line to tie the game.

The other key to his success is that he plays with more patience than most über-fast guards. Ivey is rarely out of control on drives. He has a plan and he sticks to it. He doesn’t let the defense dictate what he does. You can see that in his efficient shot distribution, which mirrors that of his team. Per CBB Analytics, Ivey has taken only 6.1 percent of his shots from the midrange this season. Everything else is either at the 3-point line (39 percent) or in the paint (53.8 percent). He will need to shoot more in the midrange at the next level, but it’s still impressive how efficiently he’s played and thrived as part of such a disciplined offense.

Ivey is part of a machine at Purdue. It’s not just a one-man band. The Boilermakers post up their two bigs (sophomore Zach Edey and senior Trevion Williams) a lot and have several guards besides Ivey who can handle the ball and make plays. He toggles between star and role player over the course of the game. He also spends a lot of time running around screens, spotting up off the ball, and dishing it to his big men.

But that versatility also creates some issues when projecting him as an NBA player. Ivey doesn’t fit into a neat positional box. He’s a solid passer who punishes the defense when it collapses on him in the paint (3.0 assists per game compared to 2.5 turnovers) but he doesn’t run the offense like a point guard. Part of the reason he’s so effective is that he’s allowed to play with such freedom. He doesn’t have to call plays and make sure that everyone else is comfortable in the half court. All he has to do is wait for his turn to score and then make simple reads when the ball comes to him.

He will also need to continue improving as a shooter to thrive in an off-ball role in the NBA. Spacing the floor is both more important and more difficult at the next level. The red flag in his stats is that his shooting percentage from the free throw line (73.1) has barely nudged from last season (72.6). That’s often the most telling number when projecting how a player will shoot from behind the deeper NBA 3-point line.

It’s hard to find comparable players to Ivey. Only four guards (not including Darius Garland during his injury-shortened one-and-done season) who were shorter than 6-foot-5 and averaged fewer than five assists per game went in the top 10 in the past three years. Here’s how Ivey compares to them as a shooter and passer in their final seasons before the draft:

Top 10 Combo Guards

Player Draft 3PA 3P% FTA FT% AST TOV
Player Draft 3PA 3P% FTA FT% AST TOV
Anthony Edwards 2020 7.7 29.4 5.3 77.2 2.8 2.7
Coby White 2019 6.6 35.3 3.7 80 4.1 2.7
Jalen Green 2021 5.7 36.5 2.3 82.9 2.8 2.7
Jaden Ivey 2022 4.9 37 5.8 73.1 3 2.5
Jalen Suggs 2021 3.5 33.7 3.8 75.4 4.5 2.9

It’s too soon to draw many conclusions about that crop of players, but some trends already stand out. None of the four is a full-time point guard. Coby White is the only one who has even been used in that role and he’s now a sixth man. The result is that they all have had to live and die as 3-point shooters. White is taking 54.1 percent of his shots from behind the arc, and Jalen Green (48.7) and Anthony Edwards (48.2) are right behind him. Jalen Suggs doesn’t take as many (34.6) but he’s still attempting a lot for someone who shoots only 22.3 percent from 3.

Ivey’s shooting will likely determine how he fares early in his NBA career. But how good he ultimately becomes will depend even more on his growth as a passer. He needs to make enough jumpers to keep the defense honest, but the strength of his game is still his ability to get to the rim. A player who can do that and set up his teammates at a high level is the kind of guard a team can build its offense around.

The best-case scenario for Ivey is a career path similar to Donovan Mitchell’s, another hyper-athletic combo guard who has gradually improved his playmaking over his first five NBA seasons. His assist average has progressed from 3.7 per game as a rookie to 5.4 this season while his turnovers have remained constant at around three per game. He’s been in a near-ideal situation with the Jazz, surrounded by reliable playmakers and shooters who can run the offense for him while still giving him room to experiment.

Ivey will need a similarly nurturing environment. His ideal backcourt partner would be a bigger point guard like Cade Cunningham (Detroit) or Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana) who could space the floor and run the offense while cross-switching with him on defense. The biggest concern would be if he landed on a team like Houston or Orlando with a lot of similarly sized guards looking to score the ball. Ivey could get lost in the shuffle on a team like that.

One thing in Ivey’s favor is that he should be able to contribute defensively immediately. He has good steal (1.9 percent) and block rates (2.1) for a 6-foot-4 player, but his lack of size still holds him back slightly on that end of the floor. Ivey has struggled against bigger wings like Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, a potential lottery pick who put himself on the map with a 37-point explosion against Purdue earlier in the season. Defense could be the undoing of the Boilermakers, who are ranked no. 208 in the country, in the NCAA tournament. They have a lot of leaks that Ivey has been unable to plug. He may need to accept the challenge of trying to slow down players like Davis in March.

Ivey’s career has a wide range of potential outcomes. There are a lot of smaller guards who need to improve their shooting and passing but never do. But there are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The biggest is that he already improved so much in college. He has shown that he can put in the work in the offseason and then apply those lessons in games. It’s something he probably learned from his parents. His dad is a former NFL wide receiver. His mom played in the WNBA and was an assistant for the Memphis Grizzlies before becoming the head coach of Notre Dame’s women’s team. The children of coaches are usually smart players.

Stars come in all shapes and sizes in the NBA. Ivey, as a 6-foot-4 combo guard, doesn’t have the floor of the bigger players like Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr., and Paolo Banchero at the top of the draft. But he has as good a chance of reaching his ceiling as any of them.