Jaden Ivey has become the perfect partner for Cade Cunningham

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Jaden Ivey has demonstrated enough during his rookie season to suggest he could be the perfect long-term partner for Cade Cunningham in the Pistons’ backcourt.

When the Sacramento Kings shocked the draft world by selecting Keegan Murray over blue-chip speedster Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons fans rejoiced.

Haha! The foolish Sacramento Kings have done it again! They have just let Cade Cunningham’s dream backcourt partner fall right into our laps!

But now that we are nearly a full season removed from that evening, we now have enough information to begin to determine whether the Pistons’ celebrations were warranted or premature.

Is Ivey proving to be worth all the hype? Just how good can a smaller player be in the tall ball era? And most importantly, how well does he fit alongside the team’s franchise cornerstone?

Jaden Ivey: The Good

As we alluded to in the introduction, Ivey is fast. In fact, he’s so fast that the United States Army issued a no-blink order to all defensive players because if they bat their eyelashes for even a second, they just might miss him.

Ivey plays basketball like he was shot out of a canon. Where someone like Shaedon Sharpe uses verticality to soar over defenders, and Paolo Banchero uses power to bulldoze his way through them, Ivey uses his blazing first step to zoom his way into the paint.

He’s in the 71st percentile leaguewide in shots at the rim per 75 possessions (5.6 attempts, per Dunks & Threes). Whether it be via transition (95th percentile in transition possessions per game, per NBA.com) or in the halfcourt, Ivey is always looking for an excuse to get downhill:

Not only does his relentless attacking lead to a large quantity of the second-most efficient shot in basketball (shots at the rim), but it also cajoles his defenders into fouling him, which leads to the most efficient shot in basketball — free throws.

Ivey’s 5.8 free throws per 75 are third among all rookies (behind only Banchero and Bennedict Mathurin) and put him in the 90th percentile in the NBA overall.

Even with the immense pressure he puts on the rim, he’s not the on-ball scorer Mathurin is, and he’s not the off-ball scorer Sharpe is, either (more on that in a bit). But what he lacks in that area, he more than makes up for with his passing.

One of the best publicly-available measures for contextualizing a player’s pure passing ability is Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating metric (an estimate of a player’s passing ability on an ‘approximately’ 1-10 scale).

Ivey’s Passer Rating of 6.0 is third among all rookies. But the two rookies he trails (Dyson Daniels and Andrew Nembhard) play more of an off-ball role on their team, meaning that he’s got the highest Passer Rating of all on-ball rookies.

He combines his passing powers with his drive game to collapse the defense and hit shooters on the perimeter or dunkers on the interior.

[Sidebar: Another promising sign is that his sight lines appear to be balanced. That means that he doesn’t see open guys on the perimeter more than he finds them on the interior or vice versa. For instance, Donovan Mitchell tends to identify open 3-pointers more than he does open layups (much to the chagrin of Rudy Gobert). So the fact that Ivey isn’t plagued by this imbalance raises his ceiling as a facilitator.]

Now, he’s far from a perfect passer. He still often misses more advanced passes like the corner skip pass that the great playmakers hit with regularity. But he’s already good enough to take advantage of the open shots his dribble penetration creates for his teammates. No rookie is estimated to create more open shots for their teammates (per 100 possessions) than the former Purdue prodigy (per thinkingbasketball.net).

Jaden Ivey: The Bad

Ivey, like most rookies, is wildly inefficient. His true shooting percentage (52.6) is only in the 18th percentile in the league.

As we said, this is a normal trend for players in their inaugural season. But what makes this specifically worrisome for Ivey is he’s inefficient in the one facet of the game he hangs his hat on the most: shots at the rim.

On the year, he’s in the 20th percentile for his position in rim field goal percentage (55 percent, per Cleaning the Glass). Since Dec. 1, his percentage has dwindled down to a 52 percent conversation rate on those shots, putting him in the 13th percentile among combo guards during that time.

Many will chalk this up to the uncontrollable pace he plays with (to remedy this, I prescribe learning to subtly drag his off-foot to decelerate on drives, like Zach LaVine), but there’s more to the story than just that.

For starters, Ivey needs to add more tricks to his in-between game bag. As SB Nation’s Jackson Frank recently pointed out, he’s learned how to better navigate the long mid-range area (60th percentile accuracy since Dec. 1). But he still struggles from the short mid-range (15th percentile on the season), and as a result, he’s often opting to challenge paint protectors when he’d probably be better off settling for a floater.

The other issue is that while Ivey is fast, he doesn’t have that Anthony Edwards, 99th percentile burst. And because of this, he can’t solely rely on his first step to gain separation. Sometimes, he needs to initiate contact to pave out a driving pathway for himself.

And interestingly enough, the fearless Ivey tends to be a bit contact aversive on his escapades toward the rim. The best drivers use their off-shoulder to create contact and carve out space for themselves (i.e., Banchero).

Unfortunately, all too often, Ivey either tries using his off-arm to gain separation from his defender (second and third clip in the montage) or avoids head-on collisions altogether (first clip). Needless to say, neither method is as effective as leading with your shoulder (just look what happens when Ivey does use it!).

We mentioned this briefly earlier, but Ivey hasn’t flashed the off-ball acumen of his colleague Shaedon Sharpe. That’s not to say he’s a poor off-ball player. He provides value as a cutter, offensive rebounder (79th percentile), closeout attacker, and off-ball passer.

But there are questions about whether he can be a good enough shooter to play off of Cunningham. In my eyes, the platonic offensive ideal for that tandem would be if they could emulate the Cleveland Cavaliers backcourt tandem of Mitchell and Darius Garland. In this hypothetical, Cunningham would be the Pistons’ version of Garland, and Ivey would be their Mitchell.

The problem with that vision is that both Garland and Mitchell are great catch-and-shoot 3-point shooters — 44.3 percent and 37 percent on the season, respectively (per NBA.com). Meanwhile, Ivey is at 35.3 percent this year, and Cunningham was only a 32.3 percent shooter last year (if you recall, a shin injury has caused Cunningham to miss all but 12 games this year).

As a career 84.4 percent free throw shooter, Cunningham’s 3-point percentage is sure to perk up (free throw shooting is a strong indicator of future shooting success). But can the same be said of Ivey, who has been a 74 percent free throw shooter over the last three years (two at Purdue, one with Detroit)?

Ivey also follows the rookie trend of being bad on defense. On the surface, none of his defensive indicators — Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus in the 1st percentile, positional steal rate in the 24th percentile, and a positional foul rate in the 12th percentile — appear to be particularly promising.

However, I maintain optimism about his room for growth on that end because of his physical gifts (solid defensive stance and lower body mobility), high motor (better than any of the other slashers selected in the lottery outside of Jalen Williams), and the poor defensive infrastructure he’s been forced to deal with this season (Detroit is 28th in Defensive Rating).

Jaden Ivey: The Outlook

Many fans/analysts have gotten excited about Ivey’s potential because of the stark similarities that exist between his and former MVP Russell Westbrook’s rookie seasons. However, one could argue that his rookie campaign bears just as much resemblance to that of Dennis Smith Jr. — a former lottery “bust” who has since revitalized his career as a backup point guard in Charlotte.

Now, this isn’t to say that his career will definitively head in that direction as opposed to the other. But it does illustrate the inherent variability of the archetype he, Mathurin, and Sharpe occupy.

All three of these slasher guards/wings possess a great deal of athleticism, and have a couple of skills that really jump off the page. But, for the most part, the rest of their game is littered with flaws that could earn them the “bust” label if not properly addressed.

With this in mind, of the three of them, I feel the most confident that Ivey figures it all out, as his burgeoning on-ball playmaking and unrelenting motor give him a level of dimensionality that the other two don’t yet seem to possess.

And if he can clean up his efficiency, improve his shooting and defense to respectable levels, and continue to add to that passing vocabulary, his ceiling is as high as anyone in the 2022 draft class not named Paolo Banchero or Jabari Smith Jr. (and potentially Chet Holmgren).

As for his fit alongside Mr. Cunningham, if Ivey can improve on his current areas of weakness and Cunningham continues on the trajectory he displayed before his injury, then the duo has a real chance at replicating the guard tandem in Cleveland we referenced earlier.

And if that happens, Pistons’ fans should feel validated by their reaction on draft night; because the Kings’ decision let them put together an All-Star backcourt in the Motor City.

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