This is a part of our NBA Draft Prospect Review series where we evaluate the top players of the 2022 NBA Draft by reviewing every shot, assist, turnover, steal and rebound during their most recent collegiate season. Every writer was given access to game footage and asked to deliver their takeaways about the player in whatever manner they saw fit.
Jaden Ivey is a contentious topic among college basketball watchers. That’s often true of college basketball stars, and doubly true for those players who wow with elite athleticism. As Detroit Pistons fans look for the perfect player to slot alongside Cade Cunningham, the stakes feel extremely high. So let’s start with a blind taste test. Here is a comparison of similar-age college seasons:
- Player A: 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, 14.8 TO%, .406 3Par, .469 FTAr
- Player B: 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, 13.5 TO%, .489 3Par, .365 FTAr
Player A is Jaden Ivey this year, while player B is Steph Curry as a junior at Davidson.
Junior-year Steph was about six months older than sophomore-year Ivey, but I chose that season specifically because Steph played his first two college seasons next to a good point guard who subsequently graduated, which resulted in Steph moving to a purely on-ball role. I also chose that season because I couldn’t find any other star “point guard” of recent vintage who turned in a similar-age college season with such a low A:TO ratio. Draymond is really the de facto point guard on that team anyway, right?
I bring this up to say conclusively that Ivey is not a point guard, and that we can safely put aside that misguided notion entirely. If anyone in your life is telling you that he is a point guard, do not heed their advice regarding financial decisions or anything else of more serious import than draft speculation; that person is probably into crypto, and Ponzi schemes more generally.
Universally listed at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, and thus too small to be a forward, there is only one positional answer left and that is shooting guard. This position is generally perceived as a “need” for this Pistons squad, so I’ve consequently spent a fair amount of time thinking about what type of shooting guard would be the most optimal fit on Cade Cunningham’s team. What would Ivey have to do in the NBA that would make him that player?
Impressions from Watching: Offense
The speed is visibly obvious, and that’s why the highlights are so exciting. I also think that weapon affects the way that he is defended, which led me to a sort of paradoxical conclusion. There is a play that Purdue ran frequently where Ivey would utilize a baseline screen and come up to the deep right-wing/slot area and shoot a three, and these shots were always of the stand-still variety, given that his jumper is more of a set shot. Anyway, these shots were always WIDE open, which I think is likely a consequence of his elite first-step quickness discouraging defenders from closing out hard and giving up an open path to the rim. The thing that occurred to me is that he might actually be a worse shooter than even the (relatively pedestrian) percentages indicate. His quickness puts the fear of God in all those defenders, and it brings him so many WIDE open looks.
About those shooting numbers: Blake Wesley, who most observers expect to be picked somewhere outside the lottery (and who I incidentally consider to be a somewhat obviously superior defensive player), just completed a freshman season that statistically was uncannily similar to Ivey’s freshman season in 2020-21, save for Wesley’s inferior free-throw percentage, and…the nature of these small samples is such that if Wesley had made just ten (10) more of his free throws over the course of a 35-game season, the stats profiles for these two respective freshman-year performances would be virtually indistinguishable from one another. Wherever Ivey is on your own personal big board, Wesley should be somewhere close by.
Ivey’s midrange game basically does not exist: bad percentages, low volume, floaters clanking back iron, and a particularly memorable airball from the right wing about 10 feet out during Purdue’s dreadful upset loss against Cinderella darling St. Peter’s in the NCAA tournament. Can a man live on treys and dunks alone? Perhaps we will find out, or perhaps he will be able to meaningfully improve at shots from elsewhere.
Caitlin Cooper, who knows way more than I do, provided the following piece of information in a recent profile of Ivey at IndyCornrows, which was itself a companion piece to a podcast episode featuring Adam Spinella in addition to regular hosts Cooper and Mark Schindler:
According to InStat, Ivey converted just 41.6 percent of his 59 field-goal attempts after driving (not necessarily finishing) with his weak hand.
This was something I noticed even before reading that excellent synopsis. I saw very few lefty drives that worked and several that ended with an inside-hand leaning-away floater-type shot that didn’t go in. The one I recall that did work was the result of two giant steps through completely empty space, driving from the left wing for an under-the-rim layup on the other (right) side; it was against Iowa, and I have it on good authority (from friend of the program Steve Pelletier) that Iowa doesn’t play any defense at all, which would explain why there was so much empty space to be exploited around the basket in that instance.
College basketball has a problem with block/charge calls, but Ivey might be the only player in college this year who should have gotten called for even more charges. The decisions around the rim did improve as the season went on, as the running over defenders and the jump-passing without a plan really did seem to decline in frequency, but NBA teams are better and smarter on defense, and I remain dubious that he can survive in Kyle Lowry’s trickster world.
Impressions from Watching: Defense
Pretty bad, like most young players. Gets lost off-ball sometimes, leading to back-cut layups for the other team. I don’t think I’m especially good at assessing the different components of defense, but it also seems to me that he is sometimes worse at screen navigation than his “tools” would suggest. I might end up being completely wrong about this, and this could end up as a thing that he is totally fine at long-term, which is what I would be hoping for if the Pistons pick him just so that Cade doesn’t have to chase good small guards around picks all the time.
A lesson in the contextualization of raw stats: the block percentage (preposterously high as a freshman, and still very good for a 6-foot-4 player as a sophomore) is often just Ivey doing cruel things to the undersized future engineers and bank presidents of the college scene, repeatedly spiking the ball out of bounds from the left block like the opposite of Bill Russell. Those stats, while impressive, thus do not necessarily directly suggest defensive goodness, in my view. As always, I might be wrong; he might go on to a long and fruitful career doing a credible Dwyane Wade impersonation on the defensive end, but I’m not betting on that outcome.
Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis dropped 37 on their heads, and while basketball is a team sport, I still would hope that an ostensible top-five pick like Ivey would be able to do at least a little bit to mitigate that damage.
Overall, I don’t really have that much to offer here, beyond the suggestion that he is clearly and obviously athletic enough to be “fine” on the defensive end, despite his current shortcomings, if his offense is good enough to earn him a starting role.
Floater-touch maestro Tyrese Maxey shot 43% from deep on over 300 attempts this season; the bar is really high these days. If Ivey is not THAT level of shooter, I don’t see sufficient paths to value that would merit being a starter on the next great Pistons team, rather than a change-of-pace bench scorer who ideally would not be closing games.
Donovan Mitchell, a frequent comparison for Ivey as a ball-dominant shooting guard of normal human height, is both an outlier case of shooting development, having gone from relatively mediocre shooting stats as a collegian to the fifth-most three-point attempts per 36 minutes in the NBA this season, and also someone who was a dramatically superior defensive prospect than Ivey in all of the ways (STL%, DRTG, DBPM, DWS/40) that claim to measure that sort of thing. Mitchell also recorded a much lower (better) TO% in his sophomore season than did Ivey. Again, the bar is high, and is that even something I want, even if it works?
Our old friend Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was a dramatically superior defensive prospect than Ivey by these measures as well (thank you Tankathon for your extremely fun comparison tool!), and, speaking of KCP: that’s an example of better fit, our oft-discussed “2 who guards 1s so that Cade doesn’t have to,” right? If so, Benn Mathurin of Arizona is more likely to succeed in such a role, just because he is better than Ivey at shooting. He’s not quite the same level of athlete that Ivey is, and struggles with similar challenges as an off-ball defender as Ivey does, but if I am seeking a KCP “type” rather than a Mitchell “type” he strikes me as a cleaner fit.
A thing I fear is Ivey being cast in a role similar to Mitchell, or to Victor Oladipo, to whom Ivey has also frequently been compared, only to have his efficiency as a high-volume offensive player not be good enough to help his team achieve contention deep into the playoffs. This would basically be the dread Wrong Initiator, a term that to the best of my knowledge was originally coined by Ben Rubin. (It is also distinctly separate from Miami Hurricanes guard and billionaire-leveraging NIL-shenanigans legend Isaiah Wong, who I have previously described as a Wong Initiator.)
I want Cade’s long-term backcourt mate to be a better defender AND a better shooter than I expect Ivey to become in the NBA. Too many different things would have to go completely right for him to be an ideal fit in the starting lineup of The Cade Contender, and that premise is not the sort of thing I would want to bet on near the top of the draft.