Jackson Shelstad Can Flat Out Play
By the game, Jackson Shelstad is steadily showing why he deserves to be mentioned with some of the top guards in the 2024 NBA Draft class.
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The NBA consistently tells us what they value based on who gets drafted, who gets minutes, and who gets opportunities. Year after year, small guards are continuing to fall out of fashion despite how skilled they are. With every trend, though, there are outliers who prove that they can flat out play. Oregon freshman Jackson Shelstad is looking to be one of those outliers in the 2024 NBA Draft.
My first exposure to Shelstad was at Nike Hoop Summit (drink) where he was a star all week. Shelstad shined in practices, displayed his tremendous work ethic, proved to be one of the most skilled players in the building, and received the biggest pop during introductions at the actual game (not surprising since he’s the hometown kid, but still very cool).
Despite all of that, it was impossible to ignore the obvious and that nagging voice in the back of my head that kept circling back to “gosh, he’s small.” It’s a reductive evaluation, but in a league that’s so dependent on size and athleticism, it’s impossible to ignore. Even on film this year, Shelstad looks tiny compared to his peers and every bit of the 6’0” and 170 pounds that he’s listed at. However, the lasting image for me of Shelstad from that week came from one of their practices. Team USA was running a fullcourt drill or scrimmage; it doesn’t really matter which. Someone put up a shot that hit the back of the rim and resulted in an arcing rebound toward the middle of the lane that attracted a mass of bodies. From that mob, a single hand skyed above the rest to snatch the rebound. That hand was Shelstad’s, and in that moment it became obvious that Shelstad’s lack of size not only barely affects his game but also doesn’t affect his mindset.
Shelstad has only played in nine games so far this season due to an injury at the start, but it’s evident that he processes the game in a way that very few freshmen do. If Shelstad was 6’4”, he’d likely be in the conversation as a Top 5 pick. His size may even keep him in school for multiple years, but it would be absolutely astounding if it kept him out of the league. While small guards are rare in the NBA, they aren’t extinct.
Currently, out of the 403 NBA players who have played at least 10 games this season, 25 of them are 6’1” or shorter. Not great odds, but not impossible. Most of these guards were multi-year college players, but they all showed a sense of versatility, maturity, and self-awareness when they came into the league. They knew what their strengths were, and they found ways to play to those strengths while amplifying the games of their teammates. All of that is exactly what Shelstad is currently doing at Oregon.
One of the most encouraging aspects of Shelstad’s game has been the versatility and effectiveness of his scoring. His quickness allows him to consistently get to his spots, he’s quick off the ground, and he has shown a lot of craft around the rim. His ability to efficiently score in all three levels has been a major selling point.
For comparison, let’s look at how a few of the current 6’1” or lower NBA guards faired at the rim in their final college season. Let’s use Payton Pritchard (because everyone loves using this comp since they’re both Oregon guards) and Trae Young. Please don’t take the selection of these two names too literally as comparisons; we’re just using two small, creative, quick guards who had a pedigree in college and are still playing in the NBA. Per Synergy, Pritchard took 31.4% of his shots at the rim and shot 60.5%, while Young took 30.5% of his shots there and shot 52.9%. Shelstad is taking 26.4% of his shots at the rim and is currently shooting 57.1%.
NBA rim protectors are a different beast, though, so surely the at-rim numbers for Pritchard and Young fell off severely, right? Not quite. The frequency for both certainly fell, but the percentages are still in the same ballpark. This season, Pritchard is only taking 18.1% of his shots at the rim while shooting 60%, while Young is taking 22.2% of his shots at the rim while shooting 49.3%. Having a few success stories can help with projecting Shelstad’s at-rim finishing to the NBA, but the tape is what matters the most as it shows us how Shelstad implements his craft, athleticism, and creativity.
As we can see, Shelstad doesn’t just capitalize on open layups. He is extremely effective at changing speeds and using his quick first step to leave his defender in the dust. Even with a defender present, Shelstad is still more than competent. His combination of strength and explosiveness allows him to elevate into the defender’s body to negate their shot blocking ability. He also consistently displays a sense of ambidexterity as he finishes with both hands at unorthodox angles.
While being an effective at-rim finisher is important, Shelstad’s ability to consistently knock down jumpers from the midrange and outside is crucial. Currently, Shelstad is a lethal midrange shooter as he is scoring 1.23 points per shot (PPS) (96th percentile) and shooting 61.5%. As we saw with his at-rim finishing, Shelstad is very adept at using his explosiveness to get any midrange jumper he wants.
Here, Shelstad runs off the DHO and immediately reuses the screen. As Shelstad comes off the screen, he immediately gets a step on Isaiah Collier, which forces Collier to completely turn his hips and chase. As the drop defender disengages back to his man, Shelstad slams on the brakes and steps back because he knows that Collier’s momentum will send him toward the baseline. Shelstad quickly rises up, fades a bit to create even more space, and is unaffected by the help contest as he knocks down the jumper.
Here, we see how effortlessly Shelstad manipulates his defender’s momentum as he gets to his spots. He constantly loses his defender with a quick first step and attacks open pockets. As soon as Shelstad gets his defender in turn-and-chase mode, he’s extremely adept at slamming on the breaks and exploding into his jumper before the defender has time to react.
Shelstad’s shooting prowess also expands to beyond the arc. Even though he tends to miss short, something that should correct itself as he continues to get stronger, Shelstad has seen a ton of success both on and off the ball. Overall, Shelstad is scoring 1.21 PPS (81st percentile) while shooting 40.5% from three. While Shelstad has shown some proficiency pulling up from three (40%), the volume is still low. The real intrigue and versatility come with his ability to play off the ball. When spotting up, Shelstad is scoring 1.24 points per possession (88th percentile) and shooting 41.2% from three. He is very active without the ball and constantly relocates. His comfort level of scoring with or without the ball should allow him to be a seamless fit in rotations down the line as he can play a more traditional point guard role or alongside a jumbo creator without seeing a significant fluctuation in his scoring impact.
By the numbers, Shelstad doesn’t look like an influential playmaker. He has an assist rate of 18.7, a turnover rate of 18, and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.3 while averaging just 2.9 assists per game. None of these are bad numbers, but they also aren’t exactly eye-popping.
Shelstad certainly has more upside as a playmaker, but he also hasn’t really been asked to play that role yet. Oregon has been playing a rather egalitarian offense where the usage and assist numbers are widely distributed. Shelstad leads the team in assists per game, but there are three other players who are averaging at least 2.0 assists per game (excluding N’Faly Dante due to games played) and another four who are averaging at least 1.0 (excluding Nate Bittle due to games played). Additionally, they have six players with a usage rate between 17 and 25, all of whom have an assist rate between 10 and 19. So, while the numbers are an important indicator, we still need the film to show us what type of passer Shelstad is.
Here, Shelstad gets the switch on the opposing center, Adem Bona, and tells everyone to clear out. Shelstad uses his quick first step to attack with ease. As he drives, Shelstad knows that his read is the weak side defender. Once Shelstad sees the defender fully rotate to the restricted area, he leaves his feet to improve his passing angle and delivers a dart to his teammate for the open three.
This time, Shelstad combines his quick first step with his off-ball movement to create a great shot. As he circles through the lane, Shelstad explodes to the wing where he receives the ball. Before Judah Mintz can get his feet set on the closeout, Shelstad uses a lightning-quick jab step into a rip-through to create the uncontested baseline drive. Shelstad’s attack has yet again forced the weak side rotation which he is ready for. As Shelstad elevates, he makes sure to avoid contact and kicks out to the open corner shooter.
Finally, this one isn’t as sexy as the previous two, but it’s a fun example of how quickly Shelstad recognizes where the ball needs to go. As Oregon pushes in transition, Shelstad is running down the right side of the floor, where there is only one defender, with his teammate. Before the ball gets to halfcourt, Shelstad is already raising his hand and pointing to his teammate in the corner. The ball swings to Shelstad, and he immediately makes the touch pass to his teammate before the defender can react. It isn’t a jaw-dropping assist, but it is a great example of Shelstad’s floor and situational awareness.
Defense and Rebounding
As you may expect with a 6’0” freshman point guard, Shelstad’s defense and rebounding need some work. Unfortunately, there’s only so much that can be done given his physical limitations. In the NBA, he’ll likely get targeted regularly until he can prove to hold his own.
In terms of rebounding, Shelstad will likely never have great numbers despite being a really good athlete. He’s currently averaging 2.1 rebounds per game, a defensive rebounding rate of 5.3, and an offensive rebounding rate of 2.5. Some of those numbers could be higher, but it’s doubtful, especially given how Oregon looks to play with pace. When we look at their play types, transition is their second most frequent one at 16.9%. Oregon wants their guards as outlets to push the pace, which makes sense given Shelstad’s most common play type, at 28% frequency, is transition.
Defensively, Shelstad has potential but also a lot of work to do. His steal rate of 2.0 is fine for now, but it would be encouraging to see it climb as the year goes on. The main hesitation is that the game looks really fast on that end of the floor for him.
Shelstad really struggles with screen navigation and consistently gets caught up on them. For someone his size and with his quickness, he has to be elite at slithering around screens. Additionally, Shelstad has consistently gotten lost defending away from the ball. Whether it’s miscommunication, ball-watching, or screen navigation issues, there are a handful of blunders every game.
On the bright side, Shelstad has had some flashes of pesky on-ball defense. He moves his feet well and is generally competent at keeping the ball in front of him. He also has quick hands that can be highly disruptive. If he can significantly improve his screen navigation, Shelstad could at a minimum grow into a competent defender.
While it has become incredibly difficult for small guards to make the NBA, it isn’t impossible. Jackson Shelstad’s stellar play continues to make him look like an outlier through his explosive scoring, offensive versatility, and impressive passing. If size is a major hang-up for you, I understand the hesitation. However, in a draft class with so many question marks, guys who can simply play should be highly valued. Game by game, Shelstad is proving that he can flat out play.