Magic 8 Ballers: Ware to the Throne
Kel'el Ware's freshman campaign was one to forget, but he's come back with a vengeance in his sophomore year at Indiana. How has he taken the leap?
While I usually focus on the stars in the constellations above, today’s Magic 8 Ballers is keenly interested in a different set of stars. Five of them, to be exact. I’m here to dig into a particular five-star recruit from last year’s recruiting class who had a first year to forget but has come on with a draconic fire and fury at a new school: Kel’el Ware.
Before embarking on the mythic Magic 8 Ballers quest, it’s worth considering how much those five stars rarely bestowed on prospects mean. The prestigious five-star club isn’t just for show; it is a solid predictor of whether or not a player will eventually reach the NBA.
In the past five recruiting classes that have had a complete draft cycle (2018-2022), of the 139 players ranked as five-star players on 247sports’s Composite Player Rankings from several recruiting sites, 63% of those five-star players were drafted, with a handful of player still at the college level who look draftable this year.
With the stars being such strong predictors of the future, it’s that much more notable when a five-star player like Kel’el Ware has such a dismal first season. The top high school players are expected to take the one-and-done expressway to the league, not to disappear and ride the pine in Eugene, Oregon.
That’s why it’s time to chart the stars, grind the film, sort the stats, and figure out what’s been behind the meteoric rise of Indiana sophomore Kel’el Ware and whether he can reach the lofty pre-season projections that he had as Oregon freshman Kel’el Ware.
Quick Shakes of the 8 Ball:
Kel’el Ware has been in the spotlight for the past few years as a prospect, earning and maintaining his five-star status through his stellar play at North Little Rock High School in Arkansas. After his successful high school and EYBL career, Ware chose to play for the Oregon Ducks and Dana Altman, trading in his home roots for the Pacific Northwest.
Before diving into how it went for Ware at Oregon, it’s worth mentioning what was so appealing about him heading into college. Ware’s a legitimate seven-footer, but he isn’t stiff: he can slide his feet well on defense, he has fluid hips that help him stay agile on both ends, and he has good functional length as a rim protector. He’s also a talented offensive weapon, with good touch on his passes and push shots, ferocity at the rim, and a solid shooting stroke with room to grow.
At least, that’s what Oregon thought they were getting. It didn’t work out for Ware and the Ducks for many reasons, but let’s start with the counting stats. Ware played just 15.8 minutes a game for Oregon, averaging 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds. He only shot 45.7% from the field and 27.3% from three, neither good enough to earn the title of a stretch big man.
Ware could never get into a rhythm with his play, nor was he afforded enough consistent playing time to try. Whatever issues Dana Altman had with Ware, whether it was a perceived lack of effort or extensive freshman mistakes, held more weight than Ware’s massive potential on both ends. It wasn’t even like the Ducks were a powerhouse team with a glut of older bigs to play over Ware; neither N’Faly Dante nor Nate Bittle, despite their skills, demanded their playing over Ware. Instead, it was deeper than a talent issue that kept Ware off the floor for Oregon.
Not content to risk wasting another season, Ware transferred to play for Mike Woodson at Indiana and has more than capitalized on his past buzz. Ware’s leading the team in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and field goal percentage, putting up 16.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks on 56/43/72 shooting splits.
So, how has he done it?
The best place to start with Ware’s offense is around the hoop, where he does most of his damage. Ware has taken full advantage of these touches by working in the paint. Few players can match his 7’0” size on either end of the court, much less his fluidity for a guy his size. The Hoosiers have done a great job mixing up the looks for Ware in the paint, sprinkling in lobs, dump-offs, and post-ups.
He’s feasted there, per Synergy, shooting 66.0% at the rim. He hasn’t been automatic, as evidenced by his 50.0% mark on 28 lay-up attempts, but unlike last year, Ware’s been a dunking machine. He’s missed just one dunk all year and has already thrown down more aggressive and powerful dunks than he did all of last year.
There aren’t many more dangerous lob threats in the country, as Ware is the complete package as a pick-and-roll big man. He creates good contact on his screens, can vary his tempo to crash toward the rim, and has the length to catch a lob from the heavens and hammer it down. It’s like night and day from last year, where Ware would have trouble finishing at the rim all too often at Oregon.
Ware missed ten dunks last year, most of which could be attributed to his lack of comfort and flow in the offense and poor timing on the attempts. The opposite is true for Indiana, as Ware has been the fulcrum of their interior offense. That speaks well to his chances to be a potent interior finisher at the next level, as his massive catch radius and foot speed will make him a lob threat in the NBA in just his rookie year.
Ware’s complemented his great power game at the rim with his silky touch. Although it’s out of style in the NBA, Ware has a well-developed post game featuring balanced turn-around jumpers, hook shots he can hit off of either foot with a soft touch, and the core strength to finish through contact he didn’t have last year. It’s led to him being rated as “excellent” as a post scorer on Synergy, shooting 55.8% on his post shot attempts this year.
It’s also been a major boon for Ware’s interior offense that he’s shown an improved motor. Most of his concerns in his career have stemmed from his attitude and motivation, but so far at Indiana, that hasn’t been the case. It’s more common to see Ware crashing toward the rim for a miss, fighting through contact for a tough rebound, or making tough plays that were not on the table for him as a freshman.
That’s not to say he’s been perfect; there are some concerns about how much of Ware’s production has been fluffed by playing a weaker non-conference slate. In his six games against power conference opponents (UCONN, Louisville, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, and Auburn), Ware has shot just 41.5% from two-point range, which gives sickly flashbacks to his freshman campaign.
The most worrying games came against UCONN and Auburn, who both field big men with likely NBA futures. Auburn threw a handful of defenders like Johni Broome and Chaney Johnson to throw off his game, but Ware was overpowered and outworked against Donovan Clingan on UCONN, a deadly combo for a big-man prospect.
I still remain mostly bullish on Ware’s inside scoring, however. He won’t have a heavy diet of post opportunities at the NBA level, which will minimize some of the Clingan-adjacent issues. Instead, Ware will be tasked with guiding in thunder dunks, cleaning up misses, and flashing his feathery touch on hooks and push shots off drop-off passes. In that role, he can excel.
Ware’s more than just a maven at the rim, however. He had a reputation as a future shooter as a younger prospect, as he wasn’t ever a knockdown sniper but flashed enough tools with his jumper to show promise as a shooter. He’s taken a notable step towards actualization with his jumper improvement this year, which changes his ceiling as a prospect.
Through a mix of trail threes, spot-up bombs, and pick-and-pop shots, Ware has greatly improved his catch-and-shoot numbers. He’s up from 26.2% on these attempts to 42.9%, including 46.2% on 13 catch-and-shoot three-pointers this year. Combine that with the increased confidence that Ware’s shown on his post fades, and he’s no longer just an imaginary stretch big; he’s a bonafide dual threat.
It’s still early in the season, but if Ware can keep up his torrid pace or stay within the same ballpark, he’ll have more than just some shooting buzz. It’s a major swing skill at the NBA level for big men to shoot, and if Ware can come into the league with even a semi-threatening jumper, the trajectory and ceiling of his career will change.
Add some improvements as a passer this year, and you have a full package for a modern center. Ware’s pulled off the rare threading of the needle by more than tripling his assists per game while lowering his turnover percentage. This impressive reversal speaks to Ware flexing his above-average touch on his passes while making better decisions in the flow of the Indiana offense.
He’ll never be used as an offensive centerpiece like Domantas Sabonis or Bam Adebayo, but with the placement of his passes, Ware could make more plays off of the catch or out of the high post than expected. That’s more than he could do last year and speaks to his increased potential to be an NBA center.
Overall, Kel’el Ware’s offense has been better than last year, when he was a major disappointment. He’s now an unignorable threat at the rim, has a jumper that forces defenses to take him seriously, and keeps the ball moving at a good pace. As far as NBA big men go, there’s little else you’d want to see from a player marketed as a two-way presence.
Inside Scoring Package: Without a Doubt
Outside Scoring Package: Outlook Good
Passing Package: Signs Point to Yes
NBA big men are asked to do more than they’ve ever had to do, making being good at offense and defense essential to Kel’el Ware’s long-term career. It’s not enough that he’s a skilled offensive big; he’ll need to be a staunch rim protector, a passable perimeter defender, and one who can do both without fouling.
Luckily, the theme of his college change stays here, as Ware has looked like a much better defender for the Hoosiers than he did for the Ducks. He’s anchored the Indiana defense all season, which, per BartTorvik, ranks 64th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s a step down from last year, but it isn’t Ware’s fault.
The Hoosiers have run a drop defensive scheme with their pick-and-roll coverage, which has kept Ware close to the basket. They also barely play any zone, instead switching on the perimeter to keep him close to the cup, where he can do most of his damage.
Ware’s excelled in this role, as he has just enough lateral agility to step up as the drop big man without compromising his rim anchor role. Per Synergy, Ware’s holding opponents to just a 35.3% field goal percentage on shots at the rim, which speaks to his shot-blocking prowess and ability to affect shots without stats. Look at some of the plays that Ware makes with his hands, size, and placement, and tell me that he’s not a good interior defender.
As a shot-blocker, Ware is no slouch. He has a plus wingspan that he uses to contest difficult floaters, has a good second jump that helps him even if he mistimes his first swat attempt, and has shown the same increased ferocity on his blocks that he has on his slams. It’s no longer just the threat of Ware’s length that deters opponents; now, it’s also the demoralizing factor of his blocks that both stymie offenses and open up transition chances for the Hoosiers.
Ware will need to gain some weight to complete his status as a stopper in the middle, but he’s already taken the necessary steps to become a good interior defender. Given his success this season, he’d be best suited to play a drop at the next level, but that makes him a less versatile NBA defender. It would help for Ware to be a big man who could switch on the perimeter, but that hasn’t been an area of growth for him… yet.
Indiana’s opponents have so far not hunted Ware on the defensive end with switches, instead playing more into Indiana’s hands than I’d expect. It’s worth it for teams to try to get Ware on an island by the three-point line, not because he’s a sieve, but because he’s been such a stalwart in the paint. A quick guard with good ball skills could at least give Ware more issues twenty feet from the basket than on a drive toward a stationary Ware at the rim.
On the few possessions where he’s had to slide his feet on the perimeter, he’s mostly held up. No one will confuse Ware with the skeleton key switch defenders in the NBA, but he’s athletic enough in college not to be roast chicken. Whether that’ll be true at the next level is up for debate, given the jump in athleticism, but there are many worse places for Kel’el Ware to be starting as a perimeter defender.
The biggest area for Ware to grow is his perimeter defense and foot speed, which also puts a bit of a cap on his ceiling. It’s hard to improve one’s athleticism, especially laterally, but that’s exactly what he must do to be more than just an average NBA defensive big. Such is the cruel nature of the game today, but there’s enough interior defensive aptitude for Ware not to be targeted by hungry ball-handlers.
Consider that Ware is a solid defensive rebounder, and you have enough positive signs, even though they’ve all come this season, to envision him as a solid NBA defender. Whether he can be an anchor for an NBA team or become good enough to be a switch big is the crux of his value and where Ware will have to improve to become a complete defender.
Perimeter Defense: Reply Hazy, Try Again
Interior Defense: You May Rely on It
The team context has been key for Kel’el Ware almost more than any other prospect in the 2024 draft class. Sure, some other players have hit the transfer portal and seen their stock rise, like Dalton Knecht, Matthew Cleveland, and Harrison Ingram, but none of their trajectories are as abruptly positive as Ware’s.
It’s the result of Mike Woodson’s belief and confidence in Ware that has helped him to make this leap. Had Woodson not targeted him in the portal, immediately slotted him at starting center, and given him a glut of post touches, it’s hard to imagine that Ware would’ve been able to resuscitate his draft stock. Such is the unfair nature of the NBA draft, but the sword’s edge can also cut in the positive direction as it has for Ware.
It also doesn’t hurt that Woodson’s pursuit of Ware was both a recognition of talent but also a marriage of necessity. Trayce Jackson-Davis manned the middle for the Hoosiers for four seasons, but with his graduation and drafting to the Golden State Warriors, there was a massive hole for Indiana that needed to be filled.
A fun and informative hypothetical scenario to consider is that Kel’el Ware has made these strides at Indiana without the benefit of the stellar point guard play last year. Imagine Ware having the passing brilliance of Jalen Hood-Schifino with him; there might not just be increased calls for Ware to be a first-rounder if so.
Instead, Ware’s played all year with Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway as his lead guards. Both are solid college players, but neither has the type of burst or advantage creation that could truly open up Ware’s game.
Another element that would open up the floor and lead Ware to higher planes of hooping would be having any semblance of shooting around him to space the floor. Indiana ranks 341st out of 351 D1 schools in three-point percentage with a horrendous 27.2% from deep as a team. It’s hard to imagine a squad shooting that poorly in the modern era, but in some ways, that makes it all the more impressive that Ware’s shown a bump even with a difficult team context.
Even with its warts, this Indiana team and its opportunities have been nothing but a blessing for Ware, as he’s fulfilled the promise of his high school flashes. Credit goes to Mike Woodson, but most of it should be Ware’s alone for recognizing his opportunity and dominating in his role once he got to Bloomington.
The Final Shake:
Any time a player has a single season skyrocket, it’s worth pumping the brakes to dig deeper into the eruption. That’s a fair concern with Kel’el Ware, given how poorly he played at Oregon, but based upon his historical context and the positive tape he’s shown, it’s more believable that this is who Ware is instead of how he played last year.
So much of player success is fit and context, and although some cupcake games have pumped up Ware’s early start, the way he’s played is much improved. The worries about his motor have been quelled, his yips around the rim have been silenced, and with consistent minutes, Ware’s been a force on offense and defense.
Outside of Alexandre Sarr and Donovan Clingan, there aren’t any surefire first round prospects at center. There’s even a question of whether Sarr would be best in the middle, which further opens up the spot for Ware to be the second-best center in the draft. Two years ago, that would’ve seemed preordained, but just a year ago, that would’ve seemed impossible.
Through his mixture of scoring, defending, and athleticism, Kel’el Ware has emerged from Eugene's murky mirth to reassert himself as a tantalizing draft prospect. He’ll need to keep it up against better opponents, but if he can, there’s no reason that Ware can’t put himself back in line with the NBA coronation that seemed assured after his high five-star ranking as a high school senior.