In this piece, I will cover four backcourt prospects in the 2021 NBA Draft. This isn’t meant to be super in-depth, but rather a general overview of a few players’ strengths and weaknesses, along with my take on how each prospect could translate to the next level.
Covered in this guard breakdown: David Johnson, Cameron Thomas, Joel Ayayi, and Josh Christopher.
6’5” — 210 lbs. — 6’9” wingspan
Per Game Stats
|Field Goal Attempts||11.5|
|Free Throw Attempts||2.1(.183 FTr)|
|Steals||1.1 (1.8 STL%)|
|Blocks||0.3 (0.9 BLK%)|
*via Sports Reference
- 30.0% Unassisted Mid-Range
- 27.8% Unassisted Rim
- 21.1% Assisted Threes
- 14.4% Unassisted Threes
- 6.7% Assisted Rim
- 0% Assisted Mid-Range
- *via Barttorvik
It’s easy to see why David Johnson was a popular breakout candidate coming into the season. The 6’5” guard burst onto the scene in January of 2020 after a 19-point 7-assist outing against Duke. His Freshman numbers were eye-popping: 6.1 BPM, 36.0% assist rate, 2.5 steal rate, and 1.9 block rate. With his combination of size, passing chops, and defensive prowess, it seemed that Johnson was only a jumper away from being a top 20 pick.
The good news? After shooting 5/23 from range last season, Johnson drilled 38.6% (32/83) of his threes this year on 7.5 attempts/100 possessions. The bad news? Statistically, everything else regressed: 2.1 BPM, 19.1% assist rate, 1.8% steal rate, and 0.9% block rate. In spite of his growth as a shooter, Johnson finds himself ranked only 51st on ESPN’s intel-based draft board.
Johnson is one of my favorite pick-and-roll guards to watch in this entire class. He plays at a controlled pace, methodically weaving his way inside. He does a great job snaking screens and using his body to put defenders in jail. He’s a heady PnR passer as well, comfortable finding the weak-side corner on skip passes with either hand or dishing well-timed pocket passes.
I wouldn’t put too much stock into his drop-off in assist rate, as his teammates often misfired after his excellent kick-out passes. Excluding Johnson, Louisville shot a putrid 28.4% from three.
Even with his impressive pick-and-roll play, I’m skeptical of the idea of Johnson as a true lead guard at the next level. He struggles mightily to create advantages when operating without a ball screen. Severely lacking in burst and shiftiness, rarely does Johnson get two feet in the paint. When his drives are cut off, he often resorts to posting his man up and taking awkward mid-range leaners.
The play above also shows displays Johnson’s woes as a free throw generator. His career college free throw rate is just .220. Rather than using his strength to initiate contact versus this Kentucky defender, he chooses a difficult fadeaway.
In an on-ball heavy role at Louisville, Johnson was forced to take his fair share of dribble jumpers. This year, 59 of his 101 attempted jumpers in the half-court came off the bounce and he was assisted on only 59.4% of his made three-pointers. The issue is that Johnson is a poor pull-up shooter who seldom looks comfortable taking jumpers off the bounce. A mere 10 of those 59 dribble jumpers went through the net. My theory is that this combination of high pull-up volume and low pull-up efficiency played a role in tanking his BPM.
In a lower usage situation, I am much more optimistic about Johnson’s future. He ranked in the 96th percentile spot-ups this year, making 20 of his 42 catch-and-shoot attempts. In this scaled-down role, Johnson will still be able to utilize his passing gifts while attacking closeouts, leading the break, or running second-side pick-and-rolls.
Love how David Johnson always has his head up looking for hit ahead opportunities in transition. pic.twitter.com/tVsr7Is0o1
— Will Morris (@w_a_morris) June 3, 2021
Johnson is probably the best defensive prospect that I’ll cover today. With his combination of size, strength, and lateral quickness, he has all the tools to be a good on-ball defender against most guards and smaller wings. He makes great use of his 6’9” wingspan to contest pull-up jumpers.
Johnson’s instincts and length shine when defending off-ball. After helping on the roller in the play below, he anticipates DJ Steward’s skip pass, quickly rotating to the perimeter and picking up an interception.
Finding the right fit will be important for David Johnson. If a team drafts him as a lead guard, I’m not sure how useful he can be barring a ridiculous pull-up shooting development. But surround him next to a few other advantage creators, and the pathway to Johnson providing immense value becomes clearer.
6’4” — 210 lbs.
Per Game Stats
|Field Goal Attempts||17.2|
|Free Throw Attempts||7.6 (.440 FTr)|
|Steals||0.9 (1.4 STL%)|
|Blocks||0.2 (0.7 BLK%)|
*via Sports Reference
- 32.5% Unassisted Mid-Range
- 25.6% Assisted Threes
- 20.2% Unassisted Rim
- 8.4% Assisted Mid-Range
- 7.9% Unassisted Threes
- 5.4% Assisted Rim
In case you didn’t know, Cam Thomas can score. He led EYBL in scoring, broke Oak Hill’s All-Time scoring record, and averaged 23 points per game as a Freshman in the SEC.
The degree of difficulty on Cam’s long-range jumpers plummets his 3-point percentage. 32.5% from three isn’t a great look, but I refuse to believe that an 88% free throw marksman who takes 11 threes per 100 possessions, some of which coming from the logo, is anything less than a very good shooter. It’s a strange-looking shot – his shooting pocket is at his left hip – but he releases it quickly and gets a lot of elevation. Able to spot-up from deep, shoot off of movement, and create space on his step-backs, he should offer plenty of versatility as a long-range bomber.
Cam takes a lot of threes, but the majority of his unassisted field goals actually come from mid-range. As a matter of fact, he’s one of just 17 guard-sized prospects in the last eleven years with over 50% of their self-created buckets coming on non-rim 2-point attempts. Thomas shot 39.5% from these areas, which is fine when again considering the degree of difficulty. He isn’t afraid to use his physicality to get these shots off, driving his shoulder into his man or subtly pushing off to create space. He also has mastered the turnaround J.
The question is, why does Thomas take all these crazy shots? I know I just said his shooting percentages aren’t that troublesome when factoring degree-of-difficulty, but that doesn’t remove the fact that his shot diet yields inefficiency.
Cam struggles to generate easy looks at the rim. He averaged just 1.66 unassisted rim makes per 40 minutes (33% of his self-created buckets), which is concerningly low considering his usage rate. Here’s a list of guard prospects since 2011 who made over 25% of their field goals on unassisted mid-range jumpers, and under 25% of their field goals on unassisted shots at the rim:
|Name||Height||Weight||UA rim %||UA MR%||UA 3%||Assisted rim %||Assisted MR%||Assisted 3%||MR FG%|
I quickly want to clarify that I’m not against mid-range jumpers. I think it’s important for every perimeter creator to have an in-between game. But when a guard’s rim volume is this low and long two-pointer volume is this high, it indicates an inability to generate easy shots inside. Thomas’s lack of burst prevented him from getting past college defender, forcing him to stop short and settle for challenging pull-up jumpers or uncomfortable floaters.
However, Thomas has still managed to develop into an excellent foul drawer (.440 FTr) in spite of his low rim rate. He utilizes up-fakes well, getting his defender to jump before creating contact.
Here’s one of Cam Thomas’ 42 assists this year, utilizing his scoring gravity to find an open teammate. Plays like this are the exception rather than the rule, as Thomas’ assist numbers are historically low given how often he had the ball in his hands. Thomas had an 8.3% Assist Rate on 29.2% usage. The only other sub-6’5” player drafted since 2008 with over 25% Usage and an Assist Rate below 10% was Forward Grant Williams in his Freshman year.
Defense is not Cam’s forte. He plays upright, is basically non-existent at the point of attack, is prone to losing track of his man off-ball, and rarely executes a proper closeout. Defensive Box Plus-Minus and stocks numbers obviously aren’t perfect measures of defensive impact, but it should raise some eyebrows that Thomas was only able to muster up a -1.2 DBPM, 1.4 steal rate, and 0.7 block rate. Here’s a list of players selected in the last ten drafts to log seasons with DBPMs less than 1 and steal and block rates both less than 1.5%:
- Doug McDermott (4 seasons)
- Justin Wright-Foreman (2 seasons)
- Andrew Goudelock
- Olivier Hanlan
- Jerome Robinson
- Marcus Thornton (3 seasons)
- Joseph Young
- Damyean Dotson (2 seasons)
- Shabazz Muhammed
- Alize Johnson
- Kevin Murphy
- Rashad Vaughn
- George King
- Kay Felder
- Jabari Bird
- Demetrius Jackson
- Malachi Flynn
It’s probably best to accept Cam for who he is. He’ll be a sieve on the defensive end, won’t offer much as a passer, and easy self-created looks won’t be easy to come by. Despite all of his massive warts, I…kinda see it? Thomas might just be a good enough foul drawer and pull-up and movement shooter to carve out a role in the league. But given how far behind his ancillary skills are, I question the value of his archetype.
Joel Ayayi- Gonzaga
6’5” — 180 lbs. — 6’7” wingspan
Per Game Stats
|Field Goal Attempts||8.1|
|Free Throw Attempts||2.0 (.247 FTr)|
|Steals||1.1 (1.8 STL%)|
|Blocks||0.2 (0.6 BLK%)|
*via Sports Reference
- 40.7% Assisted Rim
- 26.7% Unassisted Rim
- 18.7% Assisted Threes
- 6% Unassisted Threes
- 5.3% Unassisted Mid-Range
- 2.7% Assisted Mid-Range
While the season ended in disappointing fashion, there’s no denying that the 2021 Gonzaga Bulldogs were a historically strong college team. Jalen Suggs will be a top 5 pick, Corey Kispert could hear his name called in the lottery, and Drew Timme is still one of the best big men in the NCAA. Amongst all these stars, Joel Ayayi has flown under the radar.
Ayayi only played 128 minutes as a Freshman but has been a key contributor for the Zags over the last two seasons. 2020 Ayayi wasn’t a high-usage player, though he still received his a solid number of on-ball reps. As a junior, he was used more frequently off-the-ball, where he established himself as an all-time great cutter. Those defending Ayayi need to be alert at all times. Lose focus for a second and he’ll pounce.
A whopping 40.7% of Joel Ayayi's made field goals this year were assisted rim makes. To put that into perspective, Semaj Christon (35.4%), Bruce Brown (25.6%), and Darius Morris (25.6%) are the only other guard-sized prospects since '11 with over 25%. pic.twitter.com/7Fpv3HIeKW
— Will Morris (@w_a_morris) April 29, 2021
— Will Morris (@w_a_morris) June 1, 2021
However, playing in such a complementary role hid one of Ayayi’s best traits: his passing. Ayayi is a much better passer than his 12.6% assist rate may indicate. Like David Johnson, he’s a great playmaker in transition, capable of dishing accurate long-range passes. In PnR, he can hit the roller with lobs, pocket passes, or slick righty wrap-around.
Ayayi is a career 77.6% Free Throw shooter and a 36% 3-point shooter on 225 attempts. This year, he shot a strong 38.9% from range. Gonzaga generated open threes as well as any college team in recent memory, so it is worth noting that many of his attempts were basic spot-ups. Ayayi has never been a volume shooter off the dribble or heavy motion. He has flashed some shot-making off of semi-movement and his pull-up is far enough along that teams won’t be able to go under screens too often at the next level.
Gonzaga was not a team that took many jumpers from in-between areas, but Ayayi did pull out a little mid-range floater every now and again.
I have mild concerns regarding Ayayi’s defensive translation. Off-ball screen navigation has been a consistent issue for him. He also struggles to quickly change directions laterally, which could prevent him from defending some of the shiftier guards in the league. Still, Ayayi is a steady enough team defender that I expect him to return positive value on that end of the floor. He rarely misses rotations, covers ground fairly well, and cancels out drives with stunts and digs.
Joel Ayayi is ranked 62nd on the ESPN board. The fact that teams may be able to get a player who can dribble, pass, shoot, and play team defense, all while being the best off-ball mover to come out of college basketball in recent memory as a UDFA is kind of mind-boggling. Sure, Ayayi might not have the youth or athletic pop of some of the other guard prospects in this class, but getting a player with his do-it-all skill set outside of the top 60, or even top 30 is a tremendous value play.
Josh Christopher-Arizona State
6’5” — 215 lbs.
Per Game Stats
|Field Goal Attempts||11.7|
|Free Throw Attempts||3.7 (.313 FTr)|
|Steals||1.5 (2.7 STL%)|
|Blocks||0.5 (1.9 BLK%)|
*via Sports Reference
Made Shot Profile
- 30.2% Unassisted Mid-Range
- 26.3% Unassisted Rim
- 18.4% Assisted Threes
- 15.8% Assisted Rim
- 5.3% Unassisted Threes
- 4% Assisted Mid-Range
Josh Christopher, or “Jaygup”, earned a large following in high school with his explosive athleticism, shot creation flashes, limitless confidence, and bubbly personality. Unfortunately, a leg injury ended Christopher’s lone college season early. Suiting up for just 15 games, the Freshman averaged 14 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.4 assists on 43-30-80 shooting splits.
Impressive play from Josh Christopher using his handle+footwork to get to the rim in transition, and his strength+balance to finish with his left through contact. Shot 72.7% at the rim this year. pic.twitter.com/SGcxwS6QB7
— Will Morris (@w_a_morris) June 11, 2021
Josh Christopher with a full head of steam is one of the hardest players in this class to stop. In the open floor, Christopher is capable of plowing his way to the cup. He has the strength and balance to finish through contact, and enough pop off of two feet to put rim protectors on posters. Christopher finished a ridiculous 72.7% of his rim attempts and threw down 0.9 dunks per 40 minutes (14th in my 184-prospect database that goes back to 2011).
But what happens when he doesn’t already have a full head of steam? In the half-court, Christopher struggles to get by his man when both attacking off the catch or in isolation. The result is a shot profile similar to that of both Johnson and Thomas: difficult jumpers galore. Christopher attempted 44 shots at the rim this year, and 73 shots from mid-range. He displayed some impressive shot-making and space-creation from these in-between areas at ASU, but once again, these are brutal shots to live off of unless you’re very good at them. On non-rim 2-point attempts, Christopher shot 35.6%.
So, what we have is an excellent finisher that is unable to take full advantage of his gifts. The easiest solution is to use him more frequently in off-ball actions. He’s certainly no Joel Ayayi, but Christopher has still shown some aptitude as a cutter. Hand-off plays that get him attacking downhill with momentum also could work well. These actions make it easier for Christopher to create space for his pull-ups too, as he’s already operating with an advantage.
Christopher’s passing is something worth tracking. His assist rate is relatively low and he misses a lot of basic reads. However, if Jaygup is getting downhill consistently at the next level and drawing help, he’ll have access to a lot of wide-open windows. He’s shown the ability to make some drive-and-kick reads and interior passes, but the consistency isn’t there yet.
I’d describe Christopher’s shooting projection as murky. His 80% Free Throw Percentage indicates a decent level of natural touch. On the flip side, Christopher’s film shows a high number of bad misses and inconsistent mechanics. He has the same left hip shooting pocket as Cam Thomas, but historically, Jaygup has struggled more from beyond the arc. In EYBL, Christopher shot 27/117 from three (23.1%), and this year he shot 30.8% from beyond the arc.
Christopher’s defense is a mixed bag. He gambles frequently, sometimes randomly leaving his man to chase a steal. His ball-watching habits also make him prone to back-cuts. He gives up too frequently when defending the perimeter, dying on screens and helplessly swiping at the ball.
But, the highs are high. A fully locked-in Jaygup is a terror at the point of attack, using his strength and movement skills to out-muscle opposing guards. His incredible pop off of two feet will serve him well as a secondary rim protector.
I understand the appeal with Josh Christopher. We could be looking at a bowling ball play-finisher who can use his rim gravity to find open teammates, hit dribble-jumpers from mid-range, spot-up from three, and be a legitimately impactful defender. That’s one heck of a complementary player.
The issue is that today, Christopher is an inconsistent defender who provides very little as a passer and struggles to shoot from everywhere on the floor besides the rim. It will take a lot of development for this greater vision to materialize – a development that might be straight up unrealistic. But, the possibility is undeniably enticing.
Follow Will on Twitter: @WillMorris
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Categories: NBA Draft