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The Ascension of Jaden Ivey
Jaden Ivey bet on himself by returning for his sophomore season and it paid off in a big way as he proved to be one of the country's most explosive players.
Jaden Ivey was one of the most electrifying players in the country this season. After being widely projected as a mid to late first-round pick in 2021, Ivey made a big bet on himself and returned to Purdue for his sophomore season. Talk about a hell of an ROI. Ivey is now projected towards the top of most 2022 NBA Draft boards, and it would be shocking if he fell out of the top five.
Simply stating that a player should/will go in a certain range of the draft is lazy and uninformative. Yes, Ivey will likely go in the top five, but what does that mean? What does that say about him as a player today and a prospect for the future? How will his athleticism measure against opponents at the next level? Will the shooting continue to improve? Is he ever going to defend at a high level? Is the rest of this article just going to be rhetorical questions? Ivey isn’t a perfect prospect, but few players have the same combination of tantalizing ceiling and sturdy floor.
The expectation with many top draft picks, especially wings and guards, is that they will have plenty of on-ball equity. They need to be able to get their own shot, create for others, and bend the defense. Some do it through supreme skill and feel, while others use otherworldly athleticism. While Ivey is far from “unskilled,” he certainly falls into the latter bucket.
Ivey’s athleticism seems to know no bounds. He goes from 0-100 quicker than you read that, finishes over contact at the rim, and has the strength to finish through said contact at the rim. When he’s in the open court, he almost looks like Dash in the Incredibles, with his family in the stands pleading with him to slow down and not expose his superpowers.
Ivey’s blazing speed is most highlighted in transition. This season, Ivey scored 1.106 points per possession (PPP) in transition (66th percentile), per Synergy. Ivey outpaces everyone in space, and he is nearly impossible to stop once he gets going. What makes Ivey so special, though, is his versatility in transition. He doesn’t need a clear path as he slithers through traffic. He also isn’t deterred by contests at the rim as he has the strength to finish through contact and the body control to avoid contact. The biggest standout in his transition offense, though, is how much more comfortable and natural his playmaking is than in the halfcourt. He has immense gravity and is more than willing to dump it off or make acrobatic kick outs to teammates who run with him.
Ivey’s transition game translating to the NBA shouldn’t have any questions. Where the uncertainty comes into play is what position he plays in the halfcourt. For some reason, Ivey has developed a reputation that he has to have the ball to succeed. We’ll break down that nonsense in a bit, but that isn’t to say there is plenty to love about his on-ball creation in the halfcourt.
The most common types of plays for ball-handlers are either pick-and-roll or isolation. This season, Ivey excelled at both as he scored 0.919 PPP (84th percentile) and 0.982 PPP (80th percentile), respectively.
Ivey is an adept ball-handler, but he relies mostly on his absurd burst to create in the halfcourt. Like his transition game, containing Ivey was nearly impossible if he was given a sliver of space. In the pick-and-roll, Ivey relied on screens to create this space, as 78.1% of his pick-and-roll possessions involved him dribbling off the screen, where he scored 1.035 PPP (80th percentile) overall and 1.364 PPP (93rd percentile) when he took it to the rim.
Here, Ivey shows immense pick-and-roll savvy. The temptation for athletes like Ivey is to attack drop coverage at full speed because it’s a rare instance of free space. The more effective way to attack, though, is by changing speeds. As Ivey comes off the screen, he knows he has the two-on-one advantage and ensures that he keeps it by putting on the breaks to keep his defender on his back. This move eliminates Ivey’s defender from the play and allows Zach Edey to seal his defender. From here, Ivey has a clear lane to the rim and finishes through the late contest.
While craft and patience are highly effective, raw speed frequently does the trick too. The difference here is that Ivey receives the screen near mid-court, creating a massive runway as the screener’s defender is below the three-point line. As Ivey turns on the afterburners, he gives the drop defender a shimmy that sends him the wrong way. Ivey snakes to the rim, first to his left to beat the drop defender and then to the right to avoid the help rotation and protect the ball from the recovering drop defender. Almost too easy.
What makes Ivey’s halfcourt scoring so impressive is that he can get to the rim almost whenever he wants to. The concerns arise with the pull-up shooting, playmaking, and lack of a left hand. Hold on a second. I’m afraid you read “concerns” as “insurmountable damning flaws,” and that is not the case in the slightest. They are just areas that require improvement, and that’s ok.
Overall, the concerns that get brought up with Ivey’s shooting are largely overblown. He improved from outside and off the dribble (0.822 PPP, 60th percentile) despite his lower push release. The glaring hole in his shooting game is the complete absence of a mid-range jumper. This season, Ivey only took five mid-range jumpers. His shooting mechanics make this a tough shot, and it may just never be part of his game. An interesting counter could be his floater, which he found success with (0.938 PPP, 78th percentile), but only 9.2% of his shots were floaters, so it wasn’t a consistent weapon.
The final hang-up for fully buying into Ivey as a point guard is his playmaking. If you’ve seen his highlight film, you’re likely rolling your eyes because he makes some brilliant passes. The concern is that his passes aren’t “point guard” passes. I know that sounds really dumb, and I hate that I worded it that way but let me explain. The Ja Morant comparison is a common one, but Morant was frequently bending defenses to his will. He had plenty of assists that stemmed from his scoring gravity, but he also moved defenders, passed teammates open, and anticipated player movement well before it happened. Ivey isn’t there yet. He is brilliant at using his scoring gravity to create dump-offs and kick outs, but he doesn’t consistently forecast and manipulate possessions through his playmaking.
Ivey’s on-ball offense is what makes him a top-tier prospect, but his off-ball offense makes him malleable in an NBA offense. The notion that Ivey “has to have the ball to succeed” is pure nonsense. Ivey scored 1.043 PPP when he shot off the catch (61st percentile) and was one of the most effective scorers in the country when put in motion.
The same pace Ivey uses to lose defenders when he has the ball is also implemented when he’s running off screens without the ball. He has blinding speed and does an excellent job of organizing his feet. He was a reliable shooter off screens, but he also used his off-ball movement to create driving opportunities. Overall, Ivey scored 1.175 PPP when running off screens (81st percentile) and 1.143 PPP on hand-offs (89th percentile).
Ivey also leverages his athleticism to be an excellent cutter. His timing and burst allow him to lose his defender easily. His improved strength and vertical pop then make him a consistent at-rim finisher. On cuts, Ivey scored 1.278 PPP (70th percentile).
Thinking that Ivey has to have the ball to be impactful is a misconception. The pushback with his off-ball play is that his cuts, off-screen movement, and hand-offs constituted only 14.9% of his play finishing possessions. It may be a symptom of small sample size, but with NBA spacing, it’s hard to believe that it’ll be a complete mirage.
In totality, Jaden Ivey is a ball of clay defensively, and he has a much wider range of outcomes on this side of the floor. Many of his issues can be chalked up to youth, inexperience, and high usage. Still, that doesn’t make any of his errors less frustrating. Still, after diving into the film, there are some outstanding flashes that give reason for optimism. His physical tools and ability to process the game shine through at times, and if he can lock in consistently, he could be a plus-guard defender at the next level. If he remains inconsistent, though, his projection becomes murkier.
There are ostensibly three types of outcomes when Jaden Ivey guards on the ball. The best is the first one that we’ll discuss, where his physical tools allow him to be a pesky, menacing force who makes life difficult for the defenders. These possessions are Ivey at his best.
Here, Ivey is matched up against Seth Lundy, an 11 PPG scorer who made 34.8% of his threes on good volume (6.1 attempts/game). Ivey plays Lundy tight, not allowing him to launch one of his trademark jumpers. The quickness of Jaden Ivey allows him to do this because he knows that step for step, Lundy won’t be able to blow past him. When Lundy swings through and initiates his drive, Ivey doesn’t get handsy and moves his feet with Lundy, forcing him to pick up his dribble in no man’s land on the baseline. As soon as Lundy goes to pick it up, Ivey’s fast hands allow him to knock the ball loose and cause a turnover.
Here, it’s more of the same for Ivey. His opponent tries to use his momentum against him, but Ivey springs right back into position. Once he’s there, he’s not getting beat, especially without a counter move. Ivey swallows up the driver and swats his shot.
Ivey’s shiftiness and vertical pop give him upside defending against the pick-and-roll, too. We see Ivey covering a savvy senior in Courtney Ramey. During the hand-off action, Ivey goes under, avoiding the screen. You normally don’t want to go under against Ramey, but that was the best choice here so as not to give Ramey a runway. Additionally, given how high the action was initiated, you can live with Ramey taking one that far away. Ramey sees Ivey pop around the action, so he immediately reverses course and attempts to run Ivey into Christian Bishop a second time. This time, Ivey slinks around the top of Bishop entirely, avoiding the screen and not allowing Ramey to get a good look from distance. Ramey heads toward the basket before stepping back, creating a bit of separation. Ivey recovers well, though, and his bounce allows him to contest the shot well. His ability to evade screens prevented an easy three, his quickness didn’t allow Ramey to get to the basket, and he forced Ramey to settle for the most inefficient, difficult shot in the halfcourt: the contested mid-range jumper.
Ivey’s most glaring flaw at the point of attack is his jumpiness. He’s hyper-reactive, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it can be exploited by patient players with counter moves. On this play, Ivey again gets around the screen and recovers well against Ramey, but a simple pump fake allows Ramey to get off a much cleaner look. I don’t think Ivey is stat-chasing for blocks or anything; it’s something that will sort itself out in time. But more experienced players at the next level will take advantage of his occasional over-aggressiveness. I can live with overactivity; it’s something that polish should theoretically clean up well. It’s Ivey’s odd bouts of underactivity that frustrate the most.
Sure, he’s not a high-major player, but Azar Swain is no joke; the 6’0” guard was a two-time All-Ivy League selection and nearly scored 20 points per game as a senior. Even though Purdue had this game well in hand with a massive lead, I’d still like to see a bit more pride out of Ivey while covering the opposing team’s best player. Without a strong rim protector on the floor, Ivey is too content to concede the lane here and allow Swain to the bucket with little resistance.
This next play is technically an on-ball play, but it plays off the last clip I just covered. Ivey’s competitive drive isn’t always there on defense, and where I saw it the most was when he covered on the ball after a rotation.
Eric Hunter came in unbalanced with too much momentum on Boo Buie, Northwestern’s best guard. As a result, Ivey is now switched onto him. Despite being a far lesser athlete both laterally and vertically, Buie uses hesitation and ends up getting the inside track on Ivey for an easy finish at the rim. Ivey played slower than he is on this play, and his right-hand contest wasn’t nearly enough to interfere with Buie’s attempt. At times, it feels like Ivey has a “someone else made a mistake first, so it is what it is” approach. When he’s keyed in, his recovery skills are elite, but when he isn’t, he looks like this.
The more movement that was happening on the floor, the harder the game became for Jaden Ivey as an off-ball defender. The good news is that you can apply that sentiment to every player on earth. Sure, Ivey can be prone to losing his man or being less willing to move his feet at times. But the best thing about Ivey is that he’s not clueless in this department; in fact, he very much knows what he is doing as a defender.
If you just take a cursory glance at this play, you’ll see the obvious stuff that everyone likes about Jaden Ivey. Yes, he’s quick, and he jumps high, and that will allow him to be a better shot-blocking presence than most guards. However, as a nerd and draft sicko, my favorite part of the clip is the boring part! Watch Jaden Ivey’s head and eyes at the beginning of the play. It’s brief, but Ivey is quickly working out the calculus in his head as to where his man is, how far off of him he can realistically play without being a detriment to his team, and if the gamble to help for the block will make sense. It’s rudimentary; the first thing I ever remember about learning defensively in basketball practice is that you should always be able to point at your man and the ball. As basic as it may be, even the best slip up in this department from time to time.
This same fundamental understanding of how to play defense pops up on this play. Ivey is tasked with covering Chucky Hepburn. I like Hepburn as a prospect long-term, but as a 34.8% three-point shooter on 3.4/game, he’s not exactly Ray Allen. When Tyler Wahl gets double-teamed, Ivey knows two things: the pass to 7’1” Chris Vogt on the baseline is easier, and the one Wahl is more likely to make, and even if Wahl can deliver the ball to Hepburn, it’s less likely to result in disaster than the easy big man dunk. Ivey monitored his man, the ball, and the big man down low throughout this possession before using his quickness to gobble up the steal. Simply being fleet of foot wouldn’t have been enough if Ivey wasn’t sharp enough to assess the floor throughout the possession.
Ivey’s defense can be frustrating at times. Still, barring a complete backslide in attentiveness, it’s hard to imagine him being a hunting target in the playoffs. There is genuine upside for him to be a positive contributor on that end of the floor. Everyone always wants to talk about the tools with Ivey, and I get it; you can’t ignore them, they make him jump off the page, and it’s why he’s in the draft range that he is. But if you take the time to look outside of the physical, Jaden Ivey is still an intriguing prospect. His understanding of fundamental principles is rock solid; it’s just a matter of marrying them with consistent effort and intensity.
We don’t see Jaden Ivey falling past five on draft night. He’s one of the highest upside players in this draft who also offers a safe floor. Ivey’s ability to generate pressure on the rim, knock down threes, and defend the point-of-attack, along with his high-level athleticism, make it hard to imagine a scenario where he isn’t a positive contributor in the NBA for years to come. What will determine his destiny is consistency; becoming a steadier playmaker with the ball in his hands and a constant defensive presence would take him to another level. If everything clicks, there is a chance Jaden Ivey could become the best player in this class.