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Jalen Suggs Could Help the Right NBA Team Level Up

Is a superstar role player worth a top-five pick in the draft? Gonzaga’s prized freshman has been the perfect plug-and-play addition and he could have a similar effect in the NBA.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jalen Suggs didn’t waste any time making a statement this season. In the first minute of Gonzaga’s first game, a 102-90 win over Kansas, the Bulldogs’ star freshman jumped over Marcus Garrett, the reigning Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year, to finish an alley-oop. The dunk was so violent that the referees hit Suggs with a technical foul:

An über-athletic freshman combo guard, Suggs has Gonzaga playing with a different level of swagger this season. The school has featured one the best programs in the country for almost two decades under coach Mark Few, but it has never been this good. The Zags are a perfect 22-0 and have been ranked no. 1 all season. Their average margin of victory is 24.3 points.

Gonzaga’s success isn’t all because of Suggs, but he’s been the perfect addition for a team that was already great without him. He can take over games while also sliding into a smaller role when someone else is in control. Suggs has the skill set to play on and off the ball and the size (6-foot-4 and 205 pounds) to defend multiple positions on the perimeter. He contributes in every facet of the game, averaging 14.1 points on 51.2 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and two steals per game.

The most impressive thing about the 19-year-old is how easy he makes the game look. It’s an unusual trait for a prospect with his physical tools. Freshmen who can blow by defenders off the dribble and finish in traffic usually don’t have to read the defense or play with any patience. They can power their way through crowds and rely on their athleticism to bail them out of bad decisions. Suggs uses that athleticism to make good decisions even better. He gives up the ball when the defense collapses on him, knowing that it will eventually come back to him for an easier shot. His ability to make the right read over and over again is why he’s so efficient. He doesn’t take bad shots (59.3 percent from 2-point range on 6.8 attempts per game) or cough the ball up (1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio).

Of course, it’s easier to play that way on such a talented team. Suggs, unlike Cade Cunningham, doesn’t have to carry the offense on his back. He’s a talented cog in an efficient machine. Suggs is the third-leading scorer behind sophomore Drew Timme, one of the most skilled big men in the country, and senior Corey Kispert, one of the best shooters and a likely first-round pick. And the freshman starts next to two other perimeter playmakers with NBA potential in juniors Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard. The defense can’t key in on him.

Gonzaga is essentially an NBA team that plays college basketball. They spread the floor with shooters, constantly run pick-and-rolls, and move the ball until the defense cracks. It’s no surprise that Gonzaga has been so dominant when it is running an NBA system with NBA prospects against NCAA teams with neither. The Zags have helped Suggs as much as he has helped them.

None of this is a coincidence. Suggs didn’t magically wind up in Spokane. He’s the highest-rated recruit (no. 6 in ESPN’s Class of 2020) in program history. Gonzaga doesn’t typically go after one-and-dones. Few prefers lower-ranked players who will stay in school and slowly grow into bigger roles. But Suggs recruited the Zags coaches as much as they recruited him. He knew it was the perfect situation to showcase his game and boost his draft stock.

He wasn’t rated as highly coming into the season as Cunningham or Evan Mobley, the two other NCAA freshmen widely projected to go in the top five. It didn’t matter as much where they went to school. Cunningham chose Oklahoma State because his brother was hired as an assistant coach. Mobley’s brother is a year ahead of him at USC and his father is an assistant coach. Suggs had to weigh different kinds of considerations.

Gonzaga is giving him the right on-the-job training for the role that he will likely have at the next level. He runs a lot of pick-and-rolls in space, and does so very effectively. That is when having a well-rounded offensive game becomes so important. According to Synergy Sports, Suggs gets 29.2 percent of his offensive possessions as a ball handler on the play and is in the 78th percentile of scorers nationwide. He’s a three-level scorer with a counter for anything the defense does.

His NBA ceiling will ultimately depend on his jumper. He’s a good-but-not-great shooter at this stage of his career, averaging 34.8 percent from 3 on 3.3 attempts per game and 74.3 percent from the free throw line on 3.5 attempts. Like most young guards who grew up with the ball in their hands, Suggs is more comfortable shooting off the dribble (92nd percentile) than the catch (43rd). His upside can be seen in Gonzaga’s win over Iowa in December, when he shot 7-for-10 from 3. There’s no defense for a guard who can do as many different things as Suggs while also raining in 3s:

But where Suggs really helps Gonzaga is with his ability to double as a role player on both ends of the floor. He can contribute on defense as a freshman because he has the frame and mentality of a football player. Suggs was an elite two-sport athlete in high school who was offered a scholarship to play quarterback at Ohio State. He imposes his will on opponents, whether he’s ripping the ball from their hands like a linebacker or breaking on passes like a defensive back:

The Zags don’t need Suggs to be a star. His ability to explode as a scorer is a nice bonus, but they have so many other weapons that he doesn’t need to dominate the ball. That would be a problem for a lot of five-star guards who are used to having the offense revolve around them. But Suggs knows how to move without the ball and cut to the rim, attack closeouts and knock down floaters, and reset the offense when the play breaks down. Those little things will impress his NBA coaches the most next season. Suggs can pick and choose his spots while still being effective. He’s similar in some respects to Tyrese Haliburton, another wise-beyond-his-years prospect who has excelled in a smaller role coming off the bench as a rookie.

The question with projecting Suggs at the next level is whether he has the talent to be a primary option. No one wants to draft a role player in the top five. Suggs is good at everything, but not great at any one thing at this stage in his career. He isn’t an elite shooter, playmaker, or ball handler. The hope is that he can slowly improve each of those skills over time and grow into a bigger role. It should be easier for him to go from good to great than for others to go from bad to good.

Suggs won’t be as effective in the NBA if he doesn’t land in a situation as ideal as his current one at Gonzaga. But that’s not really his fault. It’s the responsibility of the team that drafts him to put the right pieces around him. He would be great as part of a backcourt of the future in Oklahoma City next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort. We already know what would happen if Suggs could choose the NBA team he plays for. He would analyze his options and find the one that fits him best. He did it once before. Suggs made his life easier in college before ever stepping on the floor. Put him with an NBA team as smart as he is and he will have a long career.