Kevin McCullar Jr.: A Lasting Impression
Kevin McCullar Jr., who is no stranger to the draft process, is making this last impression his greatest.
A Lasting Impression
I love basketball. While that probably isn’t a shocking revelation, it’s an honest one. While I love the game, I’ve waxed and waned on the discourse surrounding it. One of the things that I have become slightly annoyed with said discourse is how there are certain cliches that have become mainstays within it’s lexicon. On one side you’ll hear “Offense wins games; defense wins championships,” then on the other someone will say “Good offense beats good defense every time.” Sayings such as these are among the many that serve as tools of convenience, but sometimes they can be true.
Not only can these phrases be true, but oftentimes they can become overused—which causes the basketball community to become desensitized to them. One such phrase is “Progress isn’t linear.” We know already! While we are aware of this simple truth, how often do we exercise our understanding of it? How often do we show patience in the moment, when a player who has expectations doesn’t meet them in a month? In a season? In multiple seasons? If we’re honest, we as a community would probably admit we could all do a better job in practicing patience with prospects.
Last year, I wrote about Trayce Jackson-Davis—a player who had long shown the potential to be a draftable prospect but didn’t make strides in the areas some scouts, analysts, and fans believed were necessary. That is, until his final year of college. No, TJD didn’t make improvements in his shooting, but he did take an amazing leap in terms of his playmaking. Adding this new skill to a toolbox that consisted of stout defense, tenacious rebounding, remarkable strength, and effortless leaping ability led to Trayce Jackson-Davis being selected 57th in the 2023 NBA Draft. Not bad for a player everyone had figured out.
We may be in the midst of a similar transformation with Kansas Jayhawk senior Kevin McCullar Jr. McCullar has put together some impressive seasons over the past several seasons, prompting several of us at No Ceilings to scream through our keyboards that there is more to his game that has been shown.
Despite how we may feel, NBA teams have been wary about investing draft capital in a wing/forward who has been a sub-30% shooter from deep coming into the combine. On top of the low shooting numbers, Kevin was never really known as a high-volume/high-impact facilitator, either. With players like Andre Jackson Jr., Jordan Walsh, Jordan Miller, and Jaylen Clark being available, teams were likely to have come to the conclusion that the market was somewhat oversaturated at McCullar's archetype.
With such news and the incentives of NIL, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Kevin return to Lawrence to play his final season under coach Bill Self. Would the lack of surprise in his return serve as a precursor to a lack of surprise in his game and development? That’s what we’ll be looking at today!
Minutes Percentage - 79.0
BPM - 7.9
Offensive Rating - 109.4
Usage Percentage - 27.2
Effective Field Goal Percentage - 58.5
True Shooting Percentage - 61.8
Offensive Rebounding Percentage - 3.4
Defensive Rebounding Percentage - 18.6
Assist Percentage - 27.6
Turnover Percentage - 21.4
Assist : Turnover- 1.6
Block Percentage - 2.0
Steals Percentage - 1.4
Free Throw Rate - 40.7
Dunks - 3
Two Point Percentage - 61.5 (24/39)
Three Point Percentage - 33.3 (8/24)
Seeing McCullar put numbers up is nothing new for those who have followed him over the past few years. The numbers that McCullar is putting up right now are on par with many players who have made the leap to the NBA. Running the following query results in some impressive names registering:
Minutes Percentage - At least 79
BPM - At least 7
Offensive Rating - At least 109
Usage Percentage - At least 27
Effective Field Goal Percentage - At least 58
The majority of the names listed above consist of NBA players who have enjoyed several years of success at the highest level. If you continue to run the rest of his field through the entire Bart Torvik database, the lone player who compares is John Konchar. He isn’t the most flashy or well-known name in the league, but he has played in the NBA for five seasons for the Memphis Grizzlies.
As is the case with most players, one cannot simply run a quick BT query to gain a full appreciation of what Kevin McCullar does on the floor. Last season Kevin ranked in the 54th percentile (Good) in overall offense, while ranking in the 70th percentile (Very Good) in overall defense. With Gradey Dick and Jalen Wilson off of the roster, the Jayhawks were likely to add even more responsibility on both sides of the floor to McCullar’s plate.
It’s still early, but McCullar is ranked in the 77th percentile (Very Good) in total offense. That’s with an increased bump in usage rate by about six percent. The efficiency in offense comes from a pretty clean split in the halfcourt and transition, as he ranks in the 74th percentile (Very Good) and 66th percentile in those areas, respectively. Despite not being run out of isolations or having much time operating the pick and roll, Kevin has proven this year that he is suitable for being a complimentary star.
With the exception of the exception of the 2021-2022 season with Texas Tech, McCullar has graded out in at least the 65th percentile (Very Good) in cutting every year of his collegiate career. This year, Kevin is in the 91st percentile (Excellent) on cuts—his highest grade ever. While we can get frustrated when a prospect doesn’t improve an area of weakness, I often feel we can easily overlook when a player perfects a strength.
This play against Tennessee encapsulates all of the subtleties McCullar brings to the table as an off-ball threat. Kevin is guarded by Josiah-Jordan James—a talented upperclassmen in his own right—and still is able to pull the wool over his eyes. As he and Elmarko Jackson run off of each other, KJ Adams and Hunter Dickinson come up from the low post to the elbows—assuming a horn set.
What really sets this play on McCullar’s part is how he opens up to face DaJuan Harris while approaching the left wing. This move gives the illusion that he will set up on the wing. With 21 seconds on the clock, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the Jayhawks were to run something through the elbows. As Kevin rotates into facing Harris, he plants his back foot and makes a 45 run to the hoop. Adams catches the pass from Harris, then drops a sweet bounce pass to the sprinting McCullar for a slick reverse lay-in.
Like most great slashers, there is an innate feel of when and how to attack gaps in the defense. Sometimes it can come from timing in a set play, or it can come from a quick read on the defense. The addition of Hunter Dickinson gave Kansas a unique wrinkle to their offense, while also giving the team a player who applies pressure to the defense.
That happens here in this clip, as KJ Adams gives Hunter the ball at the high post. Dickinson is immediately met by two defenders, but draws the attention of defenders in help as well. Kevin is defended by Kam Jones while being stationed in the opposite corner. He sees Kam staring intently at Hunter, perhaps wondering if he’s going to spin to his left and attack Kam’s help position. While Kam may be worried about Dickinson, he loses McCullar’s baseline sprint for a quick two points.
This play could be what gets NBA teams interested in adding Kevin to their roster. Harris and Dickinson get into a two-man play here on the left side of the court. Hunter sets a great screen, which causes the Chaminade big to rotate to defend the drive. Hunter has Harris’ man on his hip, giving another presence of pressure on this play. With the defense scrambling, McCullar recognizes his man will have to help account for the driving Harris. Kevin makes a hard cut baseline to get a nice pass for a two-handed jam. This is a nice play to demonstrate how McCullar can play off of others in the pros.
As mentioned earlier, Kevin has made a nice leap in his decision-making this season. While it is impressive that he ranks in the 77th percentile in overall offense, it’s amazing to see that he grades out in the 85th percentile (Excellent) in possessions including assists.
It’s not like McCullar is James Harden, where he is the system, but he has grown a ton in making the right read when moving the plays along.
This is another example of a seemingly simple play McCullar can make that will help him make the league. I say “seemingly simple” because viewers have it incredibly easy to think an entry pass to Hunter Dickinson shouldn’t take much. How often do we see this pass messed up?
Kevin throws this pass like an NFL quarterback; he throws the ball to where only his man can catch it. The ball is also delivered in a place where Hunter can catch, turn, and lay the ball in all in one fluid motion. Subtle but effective.
Here we see a little bit more creativity with the ball in his hands. Again, Kevin isn’t going to be the system, but he just needs to be a solid connective passer in order to make the NBA leap. On this play, we see him catch the ball on the left wing and then dribble his way into an assist.
The decision to dribble off to the left gives Hunter the room to set up on the left elbow, while also drawing the defense away from him. Having the awareness to draw the defense from where he wants the ball to go is a major improvement from what we have seen from Kevin.
On top of using his handle to pull the defense away, McCullar has also become adept at looking his teammates open. Freshman guard Jamari McDowell brings the ball up to begin this action. He and McCullar run off of each other under the rim, as Dickinson sets a pindown screen for Kevin.
Because Hunter is such a load on offense, Tennessee opts to show a ton of help on him in the restricted area. Kevin sees this, knowing he isn’t going to get him the ball. This initial look to Hunter freezes the defense, which leaves McDowell open in the opposite corner. Kevin zips the pass directly to where it needed to be, and McDowell hits the open jumper. Great find, and great use of the look-off.
The shooting is the major area of concern regarding McCullar as an NBA player. On one hand, you can argue that he’s been a bad shooter his entire time in college. On the other hand, you can take note of how his efficiency is higher this season than it has been at any other point on higher volume.
The approach to the shot seems mechanical. Kevin looks like he is thinking through his shot as he is taking it. It’s almost like a paint-by-numbers motion. But, when he has the time to get it off, he is making it. If you just look at the release point and the touch on it as it comes off of his hands, there is something there to work with.
McCullar is shooting 32% on over four attempts per game from deep. Synergy grades him out in the 58th percentile (Good) on catch-and-shoot opportunities. When he’s been guarded he is in the 54th percentile (Good), and when he’s been left open he grades out in the 59th percentile.
The defense is where McCullar has been promising throughout the majority of his career. Aside from the 2020-2021 season—where he graded out in the 40th percentile (Average)—Kevin has been considered to be one of the better college defended. In his first season at Kansas, McCullar was in the 70th percentile (Very Good) on over 300 credited defensive possessions. He’s been phenomenal in the early part of this season, as he has been in the 94th percentile (Excellent)—his highest grade ever.
Dalton Knecht has become a favorite among the No Ceilings family, and others out there have started to take notice of him. His hot start has been amazing. This game against Kansas may serve as a measuring stick as to how talented he is when facing off against defenders like Kevin McCullar.
In this game, McCullar held Dalton to a season-low 13 points on 23.5% shooting from the floor. Kevin made Knecht work for every shot he took, as shown in this clip where McCullar fought around a screen to force the miss from the potential first round pick.
McCullar isn’t just forcing wings to take difficult shots. On this play, we can see how he’s posting a 2.0 block percentage. Even playing against a shifty guard like Kam Jones, McCullar is able to stick to his man with sound footwork and relentless effort.
Sticking with Kam on the baseline drive, Kevin is able to stay on his hip, while also knowing Jones will likely go to a reverse layup to decrease the chances of the attempt being blocked. While the idea may have been correct, McCullar uses his strength, athleticism, and outstanding ball tracking to reject the shot.
This is yet another example of the versatility McCullar has in his defensive toolkit. Chaminade does a solid job of getting Kevin into a screen to create an open shot. As soon as McCullar tries to get around the screen, his man rejects it and drives hard to the mid post. Despite having to fight around a screen, Kevin recovers hard and is able to get a piece of the shot.
The sell for Kevin McCullar isn’t sexy, but there is a rightful sense of security in selecting him. Defending talented offense players requires players who have the capability of doing so at a high level. That is something Kevin has done. The perfecting of his slashing game gives him an identity that an NBA team can lean into.
The improvements in his passing are similar to what we have seen with Trayce Jackson-Davis, which led to him being a drafted player last season. The lack of shooting is what teams have been hung up on—and rightfully so. While it is of concern, teams have been willing in recent drafts to still value players who seem to be a shot away from becoming the best versions of themselves. Already a winning and intelligent player, McCullar is still adding to his game—making this last impression his best one yet.
We’ve seen a number of games already this college basketball season season, and players have begun to make a name for themselves. Since we have a reasonable sample size of production, I’ve fired up my old draft model to see which prospects may be slipping through the cracks. So far, I’ve limited this to young players—sophomores and freshmen—and appreciable size. The results have been encouraging thus far, and after turning on the film, a select few will be mentioned here this week:
Alexis is a very long, athletic frontcourt player who has strung together a good season so far. Listed at 6’9”, Alexis is averaging 15.3 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 3.0 BPG, and 1.8 APG. Sam has shooting splits of 72/42/54. Because he plays at Chattanooga, Alexis plays out of position in terms of how he would likely play on a more complete roster. He has shown some nice touch around the rim—even from deep, but the free throw and volume truthers out there will be concerned about the numbers he is putting up in those respective areas. He looks very active on the defensive end, contesting a ton of shots and sliding his feet well. He may draw some comps to players like Taylor Henricks and Jonathan Isaacs from some.
Playing on a tough San Diego State team, Saunders has popped on film and in the analytics. As a freshman for the Aztecs, Elijah played only six minutes per outing, but he has seen a huge uptick in play this year. In over 25 MPG, Saunders is putting up 9.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.0 BPG, and 0.8 APG. Standing at 6’8” and 240 pounds, he gives me some PJ Washington/Grant Williams vibes. He’s capable of hitting open jumpers, as he is hitting 35.7% of shots from distance. He’s also a 91% free-throw shooter. His strong frame gives him some defensive versatility to play with some bigger players, but he has the tools to defend in open space as well.
Toppin was a four-star recruit for the 2023 class, being ranked somewhere around the 130th player in the class—being ranked 10th in the state of Texas. Toppin has already started four of five games for the Lobos, playing around 23 MPG. In that time on the floor, he’s posting 14.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.2 SPG, and 0.8 APG. Toppin’s game is relatively simple, but it’s effective. He’s a very efficient finisher around the rim, and he is a threat to throw it on the defense’s head. He is a high-energy defender as well. He is a real NBA athlete, despite being “undersized” at 6’9” for his position.
A deep cut’s deep cut here, but there is substance. I promise. This unheralded guard has a very blank recruiting history, but one interesting article I found in my research was an article detailing the winners of the 2022 Grassroots Basketball Finale. Montgomery impressed a ton of people despite not being ranked nationally or in state (Florida). Brianna Patton wrote this when describing his performance:
“My first game watching him against 3D empire, he opened the game up with two powerful back-to-back dunks that left the gym buzzing. As you can imagine with most athletic wings, he shines in transitions. Defensively, he caused a ton of turnovers with his disruptive play on that end.”
He has done the same thing this season. In 22 MPG, he’s putting up 11.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG, and 0.5 APG. He’s putting up a steals percentage of 4.7 and a block percentage of 4.0, all while being a 40% shooter from deep on low volume. He’s very likely to be a slow burn due to a lack of connective feel, but he is so much fun to watch play hoops.
Probably the most known of the players I have listed here, Oweh has been a ton of fun to watch this season. In his second season with the Sooners, Otega is +10 in PPG this season, while also nabbing 5.0 RPG. Defensively, his strength and athleticism have resulted in him becoming somewhat of a stalwart on that end. He’s boasting a 6.3 steal percentage while grabbing 2.6 SPG, and a block percentage of 1.6. I don’t love his handle, but I do buy the strength, length, and athleticism to guide him into the league someday. He’s hit all three of his attempts from deep but is shooting 69% from the free-throw line. Not nice. The pressure he can put on the rim has led to a free throw rate of 35.6. He’s also converted seven of seven dunk attempts, which puts him in the top 50 in college hoops—not bad considering he is listed at 6’5”.
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