Don't Cool on Jett | The Prospect Overview
Michigan's Jett Howard earned a lot of praise from evaluators but fell out of favor after a rough back-half of the season. Maxwell explains why he hasn't cooled his jets on the intriguing wing.
In scouting, context is key. Let’s do a quick exercise examining two big man prospects:
30.9 MPG, 19.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 2.5 TOV, 1.0 BPG, 0.8 SPG
11.6 MPG, 4.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.9 TOV, 0.5 BPG, 0.2 SPG
On paper, Player A is more appealing, right? His coach trusts him to play more minutes, his assist-to-turnover ratio is better, and he looks like a legitimate floor spacer. But because of the context, Player A isn’t on most draft radars, while Player B is considered to be a first-round prospect. That’s because Player A is Patrick Gardner, who posted those stats at Marist while playing in the MAAC. Gardner recently played at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, where he didn’t really stand out in one way or another. He’s also going to turn 24 years old right before the draft. Player B, meanwhile, is James Nnaji. He’s 18 years old, and he’s playing for a loaded Barcelona team that has a 25-5 record in Spain’s top league, which is one of the best in the world. Of course, Nnaji is going to play less behind the likes of Nikola Mirotic, Jan Vesely (who has become awesome overseas, by the way), and Sertac Sanli (a polished, reliable, 31-year-old 7-footer who can space the floor a little bit). Nnaji is already stronger than Gardner, he’s shown an ability to play stellar pick-and-roll defense against seasoned pros, and he finishes with efficient fury.
I say this not to diminish Patrick Gardner. He had an incredible, improbable college career, going from Nassau Community college to D-II Saint Michael’s before Marist. His combination of size and skill is going to enable him to play professional basketball for a very long time. But that’s why context is important! Scouting isn’t just briefly looking at numbers on a page.
That type of contextual understanding is pretty straightforward, though. There’s a clear difference in level of competition. Where it gets trickier is when it comes to following production trends and examining why things changed for a prospect. That brings us to the subject of today’s article, Jett Howard. He’s started to slide on Big Boards. Howard ranked ninth on our January 17th Consensus Big Board but was slotted 12th in our most recent edition. A prior $DRFT board from Corey Tulaba notes that ESPN had Jett Howard 10th back on January 4th, but now, he sits 16th. It’s understandable—Howard was less productive after January.
Jett Howard stats prior 1/22:
18 games, 15.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 1.2 TOV
44 FG%, 52.6% on 2s on 4.3/game, 38.8% on 3s 7.2/game, 78.9 FT% 3.2/game.
Jett Howard stats from 1/29 onward:
10 games, 13.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.1 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 1.5 TOV
38.7 FG%, 47.4% on 2s on 3.8/game, 34.6% on 3s 8.1/game, 83.3 FT% 1.8/game.
So, what happened? Did Jett suddenly become bad at basketball? Was he a non-con, stat-padding FRAUD who couldn’t get it done in the Big Ten? Not really—he just got hurt. On January 22nd, he left a game early against Minnesota with an ankle injury. He kept playing through it. Then, on February 18th, he injured his other ankle against Michigan State. Howard still played three more games after that. He finally took a rest, sitting out NIT play after the full extent of his injuries were outlined. In fact, his injuries went even deeper than the two ankle injuries! In Andrew Graham’s article about Jett sitting out NIT play, he provides this quote from Juwan Howard, Jett’s Head Coach at Michigan and his father.
“Jett has been injured all season long for us, unfortunately. But Jett, he’s a competitor and I’ve told you guys his all season. Dating back to his first injury that he had, Virginia game and rushed back played in…London versus Kentucky. I felt that he should not [have] played but he was going to make sure that he stepped out on that floor and be there for his teammates. Nowadays you hear about guys taking time off. I don’t know what that is. Jett has been a part of the Howard DNA. He knows that he has a passion for the game of basketball. Every time since he was younger, no matter if he got injured he always picked himself up and continued to keep competing.”
While battling through injuries isn’t uncommon, it raises questions about how much of Jett Howard we got to see at his best relative to his peers. Even still, he was effective against high-major competition prior to his first ankle injury—he wasn’t just posting video game numbers against inferior opposition.
Jett Howard stats vs. High-Major opponents prior to his first ankle injury:
15.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.0 TOV, 0.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Those are rock-solid numbers for a 6’7” freshman wing! There’s a lot to be excited about here. I understand not wanting to fall victim to anchoring bias, but the context gives us a reason to value Jett Howard’s first half of the season more than the second. Now that I’ve outlined his production against good teams, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of his game and what he can bring to an NBA team!
First and foremost, a big part of Jett Howard’s appeal is that he can really shoot the basketball. Howard made 36.8% of his threes as a freshman, and he did it on high volume, launching 13.6 attempts per 100 possessions. What’s more, he’s capable of hitting shots off movement and from NBA distance. Between shots in transition, off screens, and handoffs, Howard made 43.5% of his triples, per Synergy. That’s outrageous.
While Howard is often knocked for his lack of quick-twitch athleticism, his second and third step are actually pretty solid. Once he gets moving, he isn’t slow. Even better, Howard sets up his initial movements well. He’ll sidestep one way, misdirecting the defender, and then charge in the other direction. With the defender off balance, they’re often less prepared from the screen coming in the opposite direction. Howard also excels with how he positions himself after coming off an action. Much like Corey Kispert, he knows when to fully come around a pick, or when to “tuck himself in” and force the defender to take a longer path to get to his shot. There’s minimal dip in his shooting motion. Add in that he sets his feet well to regain his body control and has a high release, and he’s one of the craftier, harder-to-defend off-ball shooters in this class. He’ll be ready to come in and shoot from the NBA line off flares and down screens, not just as a dude parked in the corner.
Another reason I’m bullish on Howard as an NBA shooter is his general touch. He made 80% of his free throws while also displaying polish in the mid-range and on floaters. While the volume wasn’t extraordinarily high, Howard knocked down 18 of his 34 pull-up twos. The biggest thing that stands out on those plays is how easy it looks for him. He comes to a full stop on a dime before rising up with a gorgeous, high-shooting motion. His ability to decelerate with complete coordination doesn’t give the defender much time to react or recover, and his release point is difficult to impede. Even when he keeps heading downhill with his floater, he lobs the ball up softly and it falls gently through the net.
The numbers for Jett Howard, in terms of his ability to make threes at high volume, knock down long twos, and convert at the charity stripe as a freshman all seemed pretty remarkable. As such, I ran a BartTorvik query. The only high-major freshmen in the last ten years to make over 36% of their threes on 200 attempts, make over 40% of their long twos, and shoot 80% or better at the free throw line are Trae Young, Malik Monk, and Jett Howard.
Even if you lower the three-point volume threshold, few players that have Jett Howard’s size come up. It’s mostly smaller guards that display this level of touch. Reducing the number of three-point attempts to 150, and the only players over 6’5” that come up are Lauri Markkanen and Alex Karaban, who was an older redshirt freshman that will still likely play in the NBA at some point. Players Jett Howard’s size and touch are a rare commodity.
I’ve touched a bit on Jett Howard’s feel as an off-ball mover, but it’s also present when he has the ball in his hands. His 2.0-to-1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio is a splendid mark for a young wing. Howard finished the season ranked in Synergy’s 71st percentile on pick-and-roll possessions including passes. A common criticism of Howard is that because he doesn’t have much burst with his first step, he doesn’t get inside much or collapse the defense. I’ll dive into that more later, but what helps Howard lessen that issue is how well he keeps his head up and reads the floor.
Even when Jett can’t get two feet in the paint, he sees everything. If a weakside defender starts to sag off a shooter, he’ll make them pay. The same is true if a cutter bolts from the weakside corner while their man is snoozing. He also did a tremendous job of leveraging Hunter Dickinson’s skill as a short-roll passer. If his big man comes open right after a ball screen, Howard is more than comfortable threading that needle to set up a four-on-three advantage. He’s clever with his deliveries as a pocket passer, and he looks off his feeds to add in another level of trickery.
My other favorite element of Howard’s playmaking, which lends itself to both creation for himself and others, is his rhythm. Even though he’s not the fastest, Howard found ways to create space for himself using pace, his handle, and his footwork. He’s fluid, he keeps his dribble alive, and his handle stays tight. He’ll string together counters, change directions, and plays ball screens in different ways, which makes him hard to telegraph. Even against Leaky Black, one of college basketball’s premier stoppers, Howard managed to get where he wanted on multiple occasions. His on-ball skillset can bait off-ball defenders who think they need to help, and when that happens, Howard can reliably find his open teammate. If a player can’t gain an advantage using speed, balanced, controlled unpredictability is their best bet—and Howard has that element.
Howard’s ability to hit the short roller, pick on snoozing defenders, and gain separation from his man will all lend themselves to secondary and tertiary creation at the next level. If he needs to run a quick ball screen or swing the ball in a hurry, he’ll be ready to act.
The Concerns, but also The Flashes
The two biggest concerns with Jett Howard are his rim pressure/interior finishing and his defense. Still, I think he has a solid chance to make up real ground in these areas, and I’m not disastrously worried.
Only 8.8% of Jett Howard’s shots in the halfcourt came at the rim, and he only made 50% of those attempts, per Synergy. Those are low numbers relative to his peers. Still, when remembering the context of Howard’s ankle injury, it’s far less worrisome. He wasn’t a non-stop paint touch generator before that, but he did get downhill more often. I also think that in an NBA role, where he is more of an off-ball player charging off actions, he’ll actually be better suited to get inside. When he has a head of steam behind him and gets the defender on his tail, he’s able to maintain that track and finish. Howard also tends to take wide angles around screens, as you can see in some of his playmaking clips—shoring that up (a simple fix) will help him. He showcased some solid bounce off one foot earlier in the year, and as previously noted, his touch is pretty.
Another part of Howard’s struggles are with his size and angles at the basket. There’s room for optimism here, too! Howard is a classic Growth Spurt Guy! During the 2020-2021 season, IMG Academy's roster had him listed at 6’4”. Howard is on the thin side, and he’s still filling out his late-blooming frame. As he gets stronger, I anticipate that he’ll become more welcoming of contact, and he’ll be better able to handle it. He’s unlikely to ever become a powerhouse, but it’s easy to imagine him getting inside more and getting better looks once there when he’s less boney.
Defensively, Jett had a pretty odd season. Earlier in the year, he posted better counting numbers than he did later in the year, but he actually grew in ways that don’t show up in the stat sheet during that stretch. In some ways, I wonder if Howard’s ankle injuries made him a better off-ball defender. During the early part of the season, I called Howard an “either/or defender.” He’d either be watching his man or the ball as opposed to monitoring both. However, once hobbled, Howard did a better job of tracking both, likely because he had to. Even if it didn’t lead to a boosted steal or block rate, I saw fewer situations where he missed out on easy helping opportunities or plays where he got burned back door.
Still, teams would target Howard at times. He falls victim to a “hunchy stance,” bending at his waist vs. sitting down. Against ball screens, he doesn’t always wiggle his way around them. His initial reaction time can be troubling, allowing faster players to leave him in the dust. Add in his strength issues, and bigger wings will be able to plow through him initially. While that’s all true, I don’t think he’s going to be a total mess on that end. The fixes are fundamental and rather rudimentary. He’s got to play lower and he has to remain engaged. At times early in the year, he had moments where he could stay in front of other players with his lateral movement. Even if he isn’t the quickest, Howard used his length well on multiple occasions to stay in plays and garner blocks from behind. He also does a great job of tracking the ball in general, which is significant and worth noting. While one can quibble about his blocks coming after getting beat, a 2.1 BLK% is still a nice mark for a wing. He can use his length to stay connected off the ball, too, an important skill for someone who projects to guard 2s and 3s who will often be moving around the court.
Jett will never be a lockdown guy, and his lack of quickness will prevent him from darting passing lanes at a high level. Still, his growth in terms of off-ball effort and understanding was encouraging. It showed up on the glass, too, with his rebounding rate improving during conference play. His stance issues aren’t uncommon for a young player, and the technical fixes are simple ones. Add in his injuries, acclimating to his new height, a jump in competition, and the fact that he has more athletic development ahead of him now that he’s done growing, and his struggles suddenly feel pretty understandable.
Conclusion and Projection
Players with Jett Howard’s size and shooting skill don’t come around too often. His propensity to hit tough threes off movement at his size, paired with his playmaking prowess and feel, make him an intriguing floor spacer and secondary/tertiary creator at the NBA level. While he may never be a defensive playmaker, his length will do him favors, and he should look more competitive on that end as he ages and fills out his body. Ultimately, I see him as a 2/3 wing with plus length who shoots at a high level, makes plays when called upon, and holds his own on defense. I have a lottery grade on Jett Howard and think taking him as early as 8 or 9 could be reasonable in the right context. Movement shooters with size who can move the ball selflessly always have a place and tend to be valuable in a playoff setting. Given his context, there may be an athletic leap within Howard. Even if there isn’t, he’s still going to bring a valuable set of skills and tools to the table.
This week in Quick Hits, as we gear up for the NBA Combine and G League Elite Camp, I want to touch on a few players who missed the cut.
-I want to lead off with Jake Stephens, who has perpetually been one of my favorite sleepers throughout the year. The 7’0” with a near 7’10” wingspan didn’t look out of his depths athletically at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, and to me, that should have been enough to get him over the hump. With massive size, a high level of feel on both ends of the floor, and a lethal jump shot (45.3% over the past two seasons), I’m stunned he wasn’t in the mix. He’s popped up in team workouts, which is good to see. I’d still consider him for a two-way spot or Exhibit-10.
-Two other bigs leaped out to me. While he’s not the sexiest or the highest-ceiling guy, I thought Trey Jemison was worth a shot. The more I’ve thought about his PIT performance, the more I liked it—he screened hard, rebounded well, finished plays, and showcased his NBA-ready body. Given that he was younger than someone like Nathan Mensah, I should have given him more love at the time. The second one is a very deep cut—Brendan Medley-Bacon. The NBA has been getting more HBCU players into the combine mix, and Medley-Bacon was one of my favorites. He bounced around between four colleges, so his college career was a bit tumultuous. But at 7’0”, Medley-Bacon is super limber and mobile, and he was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year this past season. Opponents only took 29 shots at the rim against him this season, and they only converted 4 of them. He’s a deterrent in the paint with switchability, and given his 73.7 FT%, I think there’s a chance there’s a jump shot in him.
-Two other Portsmouth snubs came in the form of 3-and-D-ish wings, Javan Johnson and Tevian Jones. Johnson posted a really high block rate for a wing (2.8 BLK% across three high-major seasons), is an impressive long-range shot-maker (40.8% from three on 5.3/game the last two seasons), and has shown an ability to read the floor on the go (2.4 APG). While Tevian Jones has never brought much to the table defensively, he does have a 6’10” wingspan and promising athletic tools. After a 36-point scoring outburst in his second PIT game, it seemed like teams may be willing to roll the dice and see what they could get out of the rest of his game. I imagine he’ll still be in the mix, but I would have loved to see him in another pre-draft event against better competition.
-I recently made the case for Jaylen Forbes, which you can read here.
-On the guard side of the equation, Jordan “Jelly” Walker, Craig Porter, and Dwayne Cohill were my highest-ranked omissions. Jelly didn’t decimate the field at PIT, and I understand hangups about his lack of size. Ultimately, though, I prefer his scoring and playmaking profile to some of the other small, bucket-getting guards who were selected. Craig Porter remains interesting to me simply because he’s an outrageous athlete who stuffs the stat sheet, particularly on defense. He’s an absolute livewire who can make plays and given his late-blooming development (played two years of JuCo before exploding in his fifth college season at Wichita State this past year), he seems to have more upside than many of his older peers. Cohill is someone I’ve been perpetually higher on. He’s a walking paint touch, an outstanding finisher (60.2% at the rim in the half court, per Synergy), he hit 42.2% of his threes on lower volume the past two seasons, and his quickness can keep him competitive defensively. I wasn’t stunned he wasn’t included since he didn’t make the Portsmouth field, but I like him quite a bit given his burst, production, and competitiveness.