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How Much Playmaking Upside Does Jarace Walker Actually Have?
At Houston, Jarace Walker only showed a sliver of his offensive capabilities, and his playmaking could vault him into a special tier of player.
NBA lineups are exceedingly trending away from specialists and towards players who possess both size and skill. Despite possessing both of those, along with stellar defense, Jarace Walker is somehow becoming one of the more polarizing prospects in the 2023 NBA Draft lottery. Some view him as a brutish defender and rebounder with minimal offensive upside, while others see the potential for a well-rounded All-Star. These disputes are some of what make the draft process so much fun, but it also engenders the debate on how much pre-college production matters.
With Houston, Walker’s offensive role was largely muted compared to high school. He was still largely involved, but mainly in an off-ball, play-finishing manner. There were flashes of creation but given his role as a freshman on an older team with title ambitions, his leash for creativity wasn’t very long. Looking at just his Synergy statistical profile at Houston, the concern over his offense is understandable. Walker scored just 0.639 points per possession (PPP) (28th percentile) in isolation, 0.921 PPP (66th percentile) on post-ups, and 0.625 PPP (25th percentile) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. Even when we factor in his passes to these play types, Walker generated 0.667 PPP (25th percentile) in isolation, 0.906 PPP (54th percentile) on post-ups, and 0.870 PPP (54th percentile) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
The Walker detractors will lean heavily on the Houston sample. While it is important to factor it in, it doesn’t tell the whole story of who Walker is as a creator. In his senior year at IMG, one of the best high school programs in the country, Walker consistently showed a plethora of on-ball creation. In terms of scoring, the numbers were much more impressive as he scored 1.375 PPP (97th percentile) in isolation, 1.182 PPP (92nd percentile) on post-ups (only 11 possessions), and 0.609 PPP (39th percentile) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. Also, as the ball-handler in transition, Walker scored 1.222 PPP while shooting 94.1%. When we factor in his passes, Walker generated 1.308 PPP (97th percentile) in isolation, 1.261 PPP (93rd percentile) on post-ups, and 0.903 PPP (73rd percentile) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
So, how important is the pre-college sample?
For Walker and his playmaking upside, it’s significant. Over the last two seasons, he’s played drastically different roles. Playing with and going against the best high school talent in the country, Walker operated as more of a point forward. As a freshman on an older Houston team with title expectations, he played more of a bit role and filled in where needed. Going forward with Walker’s expectations, it’s important that we look to the past on his entire sample, not just what was the most recent.
In the NBA, it is unlikely that Walker will be operating as a dynamic on-ball creator, at least early in his career. His pick-and-roll volume will probably be minimal, but there will be opportunities for his team to use him in unique ways like he was used in high school given his passing vision, accuracy, and handle.
Here, Walker runs an inverted pick-and-roll with Jaden Bradley that gets Walker an advantageous switch. Walker quickly initiates the post-up, which pulls the weakside defender into the paint with both feet. Walker is reading that side of the floor and spots his teammate open in the corner. Right before the help defender picks his pocket, maybe lucky timing, Walker whips a live dribble skip pass perfectly into his teammate’s shooting pocket.
This time, Walker shows off his handle and ability to collapse the defense to create for others. As he comes off the screen, he hits his defender with an in-and-out dribble with his weak hand. This move gets the defender leaning and opens a lane for Walker to attack. Walker draws the attention of four defenders before he kicks out to the opposite corner.
Even though we saw fewer of these pick-and-roll creation possessions from Walker at Houston, it doesn’t mean that his ability to read the weakside vanished. Here, Walker quickly faces up once he gets the ball and rips through to drive baseline. The defender reacts accordingly, but Walker has the handle and footwork to spin against the defender’s momentum back to the middle of the floor. This move draws the rotation from the help defender, but Walker is unphased. He immediately processes the rotation and the additional weak side defenders, which leads to him making the skip pass without hesitation.
Scottie Barnes is a player that Walker has drawn comparisons to in terms of his game. Barnes is another stocky, versatile, skilled forward who has shown how important his playmaking is. Here, Barnes uses the screen to set up a post-up since the defender went way under the screen. While Walker’s shooting numbers are more encouraging than Barnes’s numbers, it is likely Walker will see similar coverages early on. As Barnes probes the lane, he is reading Paul George and Chris Boucher on the weak side. Barnes sees that Boucher has flared to the corner while George is solely focused on the ball. Barnes utilizes a similar floor vision to what we saw from Walker, avoids the help defender, and sets up the open three.
Walker likely won’t be afforded a bounty of on-ball creation opportunities, but instead used more as a connector out of the pick-and-roll and dribble handoffs. This will require him to read and react out of the short roll, quickly analyze defensive rotations, and quickly take what the defense gives him. This is more of the role that he worked in at Houston.
Here, Walker slips the screen as the defense blitzes the ball-handler. Walker immediately recognizes the help rotation and knows that his teammate is wide-open on the wing. He takes a single dribble to compose his balance before delivering a perfect pass.
This time, Houston runs an empty side pick-and-roll, which gives Walker a bit more space to operate. He again slips the screen and attacks downhill, forcing the defensive rotations the free up his teammate in the corner. Walker again correctly reads the floor and sets up the open three.
Two of the best players in the league at creating out of similar situations are Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo. Those are big names that I’m sure just elicited an eye roll from you. I get it. However, there are a lot of similarities in their effectiveness, on-ball composure, and playmaking versatility out of the pick-and-roll and dribble handoff.
Here, Green sets a high screen and rolls into acres of space. Once he initiates the roll, he knows that D’Angelo Russell has to fully rotate to him or surrender the dunk. Green takes a single dribble to compose his balance and force Russell to fully commit before delivering a perfect pass for the corner three.
Here, we see Adebayo create in a similar way. Adebayo receives the pocket pass with plenty of room at the free-throw line. Adebayo is a reluctant shooter, so you know his head is up looking for teammates. As he gathers the ball, he sees Haywood Highsmith cutting baseline and his defender RJ Barrett solely locked in on the ball. By subtly rising into a shooting-esque motion, Adebayo freezes Barret, gets Isaiah Hartenstein to step to him, and sets up Highsmith for the easy score.
Like Green and Adebayo, Walker has shown the ability to quickly make reads and create on the interior and perimeter. Here, Walker gets to the middle of the zone and creates for his teammate with a similar subtle move that we saw from Adebayo. As Walker faces the rim, he sees the corner defender dropping to the block, while the rim protector is in no man’s land. To create a passing lane, Walker takes one dribble to his right and stares down the corner shooter. This action moves the corner defender, and the rim protector has no clue where Walker’s teammate is. Walker delivers a live-dribble no-look pass to set up the dunk.
This time, Walker runs a dribble handoff and both defenders leave the ball. Walker immediately attacks the space, drawing the rotation from the rim protector. Walker reads that the rest of the weak side defenders haven’t made their requisite rotations and delivers an easy bounce pass for the dunk.
Going back to his high school sample, Walker’s interior passing was on display there as well. This time, he’s running horns set and the defender blitzes him. Walker shows off his handle by keeping his composure and discarding the defender to attack downhill. As Walker attacks, his teammate correctly reads that he has a free cutting lane. Walker draws his defender up a step before delivering a live dribble shovel pass with his off hand to the cutter in stride for the layup.
Producing names like Scottie Barnes, Draymond Green, and Bam Adebayo prompts massive expectations and even more skepticism. Front offices have lost their jobs by trying to chase these prospects, and Green is one of the handful of players that should be on the band comparison list. Jarace Walker may not hit those same levels, but he has the potential to given the already impressive versatility of his playmaking, quick decision-making, and passing vision. Walker’s floor awareness and basketball IQ are incredibly impressive for any prospect, not just at his position. Over the last two years, he’s operated as a play finisher, a point forward, and a connective passer. He’s had samplings of being the main option to being ignored and everything in between. Players with his size, skill, and versatility are tough to come by. What he was allowed to show at Houston was just a sliver of his offensive arsenal.