Kevin McCullar Jr. is a Star
Stars make the NBA world go round, but role players are essential to team success. Corey Tulaba examines the game of Kevin McCullar Jr. and how he can be a star in his role at the next level.
You’ll often hear that the NBA Draft is about hunting for stars. When applicable, this is a very good strategy. Landing a Luka Doncic or a Jayson Tatum, or a Victor Wembanyama (TBD) changes the trajectory of your franchise.
Most NBA players aren’t stars. And neither are most NBA prospects.
Whilst most NBA players may not be the center of their team’s orbit, successful teams have good players up and down their roster; not just theoretically talented, but actually tangibly good on-court producers. These types of dudes may not be stars in the traditional sense of the word, but they play a role and star in it.
I know the whole “star in your role” thing can often read like basketball’s “Live, Laugh, Love,” but the players that fit this mold can bump your team up another level, as evidenced by the impact of Josh Hart post-Knicks trade.
Kevin McCullar is a prospect that will be a star in his role.
If you were selling an NBA team on how he is going to do that at the next level, you’d start with the fact that McCullar is arguably the best perimeter defender in the draft.
Whether you’re an eye test guy or a numbers guy, you can’t mention the best defenders in college basketball without mentioning McCullar.
Over his four year college career, McCullar has routinely made life hell for his opponent, lining up against the opposing offense’s number one option on a nightly basis. On most nights, that means checking either pro-level prospects or guys currently playing in the league.
This possession on potential lottery pick Keyonte George does a good job illustrating McCullar’s ability to put the clamps on you in isolation. George is as buckety as it gets and struggles to get into his very deep NBA bag as McCullar acts as his shadow for the entirety of the possession before perfectly timing the contest and blocking George’s jumper.
George, while talented, is young and can be sped up at times. But his teammate Adam Flagler plays at a more mature nuanced pace. McCullar defends him masterfully on this possession, staying with him stride for stride, not biting for any of Flagler’s crafty tricks, forcing Flagler into a fall-away shot over his outstretched arms after Flagler dances with the ball and eats twelve seconds of the shot clock.
McCullar is straight clamps when left alone on an island, holding opponents to a FG% of 18.8% in isolation per Synergy.
There are no easy shots when Kevin McCullar is guarding. It isn’t just the movement tools, but the anticipation to contest shots that makes it so hard to get clean looks over McCullar. Whether a small guard or a big wing, McCullar is forcing you to settle for a tougher look than you’d like.
McCullar is a smooth mover on the perimeter, but he’s also 6’7” with a frame that can withstand the rigors of NBA physicality on day one.
I’m not going to try and convince you that McCullar is going to be a 1-5 defender in the NBA. I very much advise against giving him the Embiid assignment. However, McCullar offers the kind of defensive versatility that NBA teams crave and has a proven track record of holding his own when switched onto bigger players. This season, opponents shot just 36.4% on post-ups against McCullar per Synergy.
One of McCullar’s best attributes as a defender is that he doesn’t overly gamble. Some defenders boast gaudy defensive numbers by cheating passing lanes, leaving the defense vulnerable when it doesn’t work. McCullar still garners those gaudy numbers, but he does it by being disciplined and picking the right opportune moments to use his quick hands to swipe away at balls left in front of him.
Let’s dive a little deeper into those numbers to illustrate how effective and well-rounded McCullar was this season for the Jayhawks. McCullar was the only player in college basketball this season with a DRB% > 20, a BLK% > 2.5, and a STL% > 3.5. Not only did McCullar make possessions harder on opponents, but he also ended them by crashing the glass.
When it comes to defense, McCullar is the quintessential perimeter Swiss Army knife — a versatile and reliable option that can be utilized in a multitude of situations. Whether it’s to contain the opposing team’s top option or to disrupt their offensive flow, you can count on McCullar to make his man work tirelessly for every inch of ground they try to gain against him.
Now, let’s pivot our focus to the offensive end. A true star role player is expected to excel on both sides of the court. While there is certainly merit in being a specialist, those players are often relegated to limited and situational usage. McCullar, despite the likelihood of being primarily identified as a specialist upon his entry into the league, possesses an offensive arsenal that could elevate his game beyond that label as he continues to grow and evolve as a player.
The first question you’re probably asking is: can he shoot? After all, it is a shooters league, right? I’m going to hold off on answering that in full right now, but the short answer is ehh, not really. Before we open that can of worms, though, I want to break down some of the other offensive skills that he has in his arsenal that make him an intriguing ancillary piece.
At 6’7”, McCullar has real point guard skills. Throughout his college career, he would often bring the ball up the floor and initiate offense. NBA teams love running multi-ball handler systems and should feel comfortable putting the ball in McCullar’s hands and allowing him to make decisions. McCullar has a tight handle which allows him to handle pressure and, despite the lack of consistent shooting gravity, is crafty enough to beat his man off the bounce and finish or get to the rim and get to the line, as evidenced by his 67% FG% at the rim in the halfcourt and career 40% FTr.
Those numbers are important not just as a scoring indicator but also as a way to help quantify his ability to pressure the rim and use that rim pressure to collapse a defense and make plays for his teammates.
McCullar does exactly that on this possession by taking Kobe Brown off the bounce, collapsing the defense, and smoothly dropping the ball off to KJ Adams for an easy two points.
McCullar’s basketball acumen is rooted in his sharp instincts and high feel on the court. He’s a savvy pick-and-roll operator, and his plus height allows him to see over the defense and set up his teammates for easy looks.
At the next level, McCullar may not be used as often as a quasi-lead initiator but instead, he’ll be more likely to serve in a connective tissue role, attacking tilted defenses and making quick .5 decisions to keep the ball moving and the offense humming.
With the continuous blurring of the positional lens, I’d love to see McCullar in a Bruce Brown-type role, where he can take advantage of his timely off-ball cutting and operate as a screener and make plays out of the short roll.
McCullar, after honing his game through four years of high-level college ball, boasts a diverse set of skills that enable him to make impactful contributions in various facets of the game and ultimately through his willingness to do whatever is asked of him, make the type of winning plays that contribute to high-level basketball.
Let’s take a deeper look at those contributions from a more analytical perspective and run a query based on the skills we’ve covered thus far. Plugging in the criteria of a DRB% > 20, BLK% > 2.5, STL% > 3.5 and adding in an AST% > 10, FTr > 35, and 3PT/100 > 5, in a High Major Conference gives us just three players since 2008 to reach those thresholds…Draymond Green, Jae Crowder, and Kevin McCullar.
That is a hell of a short list to be on—one which includes a Hall of Famer and a ten-year veteran who keeps finding his way onto contenders. The bar set by that statistical query is high, and to avoid confusion isn’t meant to be used as stylistic comps. McCullar the player is much more in the mold of the aforementioned Bruce Brown or Josh Hart. However, like the names listed above, McCullar has the versatile skill set needed to get him on the floor and outproduce his draft slot.
Now let’s hit on the elephant in the room: the shooting. I briefly touched on it earlier, noting that it’s not great, Bob. But here’s the thing: even though he’s teetered on 30% from deep on minimal volume for four years, I still think he’ll get to a point where he’s adequate enough to keep the defense honest. I’ve spent time with him over two off-seasons, and seeing the kind of worker and person that he is, I can confidently say that he’s humble and hungry. I think he is the type of person that is willing to rebuild his form from scratch. And even though there are serious mechanical issues with his form as it stands right now, the eye test tells me to buy into the touch. The form may be wonky, but he shoots a soft ball, was over 76% from the FT line this season, and never shot below 70% over his four-year college career. Those may not be indicators you’d bet your life on, but they’re also not nothing.
Ultimately, though, faith only gets you so far, and the jumper has to come along. We’ve seen in playoff settings just how much more difficult it is to get good shots on offense when teams feel comfortable ignoring a non-shooter on the floor by selling out on opposing stars.
The development of the shot will take some time, and not every NBA team may be willing to be patient with a 22-year-old prospect. But I think that they should be, because McCullar brings enough to the table already with his quarterback charisma and versatile skill set that when the jumper does develop, it won’t just get him on the floor, it’ll allow him to cement a role for ten years and star in it.
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