No Stone Unturned 2023: The Guards
No Stone Unturned 2023 concludes with five under-the-radar guards! Plus: Insights from South Dakota State Head Coach Eric Henderson and Old Dominion Head Coach Jeff Jones!
Welcome back to No Stone Unturned! In this series of articles, I am digging into five players at different positions who are flying under the radar but warrant attention. For my methodology, I started by seeking out players with interesting statistical profiles or players who had popped on film for me this past season. From there, I compiled a list, worked my way through the film and date, then chose my favorites. I avoided prospects who have received rankings on mainstream Top 100 lists and early mock drafts. I’m looking for deeper cuts who aren’t receiving much love yet but still have a real crack at making a mark in the draft space this coming season. Today, we are looking at unheralded guards who could sneak into the NBA Draft conversation by the end of this draft cycle.
Before we get into the players, I think it’s important to talk about the guard position and the direction basketball as a whole is headed. This is my second year doing this series, and this year’s guard group was the column I spent the most time dwelling on, both from a film and philosophy standpoint. It was tough to whittle down the list simply because playing the guard position in the NBA, especially for traditionally guard-sized players, is becoming increasingly difficult. Length is the name of the game to a greater degree than ever before. Smaller players can be mismatch-hunted on defense over the course of a playoff series. On offense, some guards find themselves overwhelmed by bigger defenders. So, when a player is the size of a “normal” point guard, the bar is higher than it has ever been. Smaller players don’t just need skills, they need damn-near superpowers. That made this assignment even tougher, as the ethos of this series is finding players who aren’t on the radar. There have been a lot of great, high-major college guards in recent years who still haven’t been able to find their footing in the NBA. In spite of that, I ended up going with these five players as guys that I think have a real chance or pathway to an NBA roster spot for different reasons. Enjoy!
Walter Clayton Jr., 6’2”, Florida, Junior
2022-2023 Season Stats: 16.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.8 TOV, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 47.2/43.1/95.3
Signature Performance: vs. Niagra. 30 points, three rebounds, four assists, one steal. 12-23 FG, 4-8 3FG, 2-2 FT.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. New Mexico. 14 points, four rebounds, three assists, one steal, one turnover. 3-12 FG, 3-8 3FG, 5-5 FT.
-vs. UConn. 15 points, four rebounds, four assists, one block, two turnovers. 4-10 FG, 3-6 3FG, 4-4 FT.
Walter Clayton Jr. was a dual-sport athlete at Bartow High School in Florida, competing in basketball and football. There, he was friends with former Florida Gators defensive tackle Gervon Dexter Sr., who was recently selected in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. Clayton led Bartow to two state titles in basketball. Clayton was a three-star prospect with offers from the likes of Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, Notre Dame, and Georgia…as a football player. Clayton would instead choose the basketball route and began making it his focus as a junior. 247Sports didn’t give him a star rating as a basketball prospect, and his three Division I offers came from Jacksonville, East Carolina, and Iona. He spent his first two college seasons at Iona. His freshman year was good but not spectacular, bringing stability as a decision-maker and a defensive punch off the bench. As a sophomore, Clayton’s production exploded across the board. He won the MAAC Player of the Year Award and helped lead Iona to the NCAA Tournament. Following the season, Iona Head Coach Rick Pitino left for St. John’s, and Clayton entered the transfer portal. He received another offer from Florida, this time as a basketball player, and he elected to take it.
If you’re going to be small, you have to shoot, and my goodness, can Walter Clayton Jr. shoot the basketball. He was an electric three-point shooter, converting 43.1% of his threes on 10 attempts per 100 possessions. To call him a knockdown shooter off the catch would be an understatement, as he hit 49.5% of his catch-and-shoot triples on over 100 attempts last year, per Synergy. Even better, he can still do it off the bounce, as he’s hit 35.7% of his pull-up threes through his two college seasons. Leave him open and he’ll make you pay. Go under a ball screen if you dare. He can get into his shot quickly from his dribble, he’s shown a consistent ability to shoot it from the NBA line, and he isn’t bothered by a hand in his face. His in-between game is coming along nicely, too, as he hit 40.9% of his off-the-dribble twos in his first year as a leading option, which is a strong mark. If you like to use free throw percentage as a shooting indicator, I’ve got great news for you—Walter Clayton Jr.’s 102-for-107 at the charity stripe last year made him the best free throw shooter in college hoops last season. As an outside scorer, Clayton has all the traits you could ask for in a modern guard and brings the necessary tools as both an on-ball and off-ball scorer.
Still, he’s so much more than just a shooting specialist. His first step is solid, enabling him to get inside the arc and pressure the rim. Though his 50% at the rim in the halfcourt wasn’t a great mark, it was one that improved throughout the year. His soft touch, strong body, and willingness to eat contact go a long way there. His growth last season, paired with those previously mentioned skills and his frame, indicate that the only way is up on that front. Clayton also finished a few halfcourt plays as a lob target last season, which you can’t say for many of his size. The man has serious hops off two feet. Where he really pops is as a decision-maker. His 20.9 AST% relative to a TO% of 11.2 shows that he can make plays for others while limiting his mistakes. He’s got heaps of poise. When teams pressure him hard out of handoffs or ball screens, he keeps his composure, can string out his dribble, and doesn’t get overwhelmed by the moment. His use of fakes and footwork, paired with some slipperiness, enable him to get inside the arc. Throughout the year, he did more as an interior passer, punishing help defenders when he got closer to the basket. His head stayed up until the last second more often, and he’s able to squeeze passes through tight windows on the move. While Clayton’s shooting will always give him equity off the ball as a floor spacer, he’s a budding initiator and trustworthy operator.
On the defensive end, Clayton brings physicality, toughness, and attentiveness to the table. These three traits combine to make him a potent playmaker. His STL% of 3.5 and BLK% of 2.1 are both top-of-the-line numbers for a guard prospect. Many of his steals come off the ball and in passing lanes, where he uses his ability to read the opposing offense and his speed to his advantage. On the ball, he can use his chest and strength well to prevent opponents from getting where they want. He does a nice job of going over screens and still containing his man. His hands are fast and he tracks the ball well. He’s also an abnormally strong shot blocker for a guard. Again, his instincts and awareness play a role, as he knows when to help at the basket, but such a high mark wouldn’t be possible without his leaping ability. Even when he’s simply contesting a shot in the mid-range or on the perimeter, he springs up well and is tough to shoot over. He’ll hustle and dive on the floor for loose balls. His tools and timing pop on the defensive glass, where his 13.9 DREB% is a good output for a guard. Of course, size will always be a question with players 6’3” and under at the next level, but Clayton’s engagement, playmaking, and strength make him much less of a traditional mismatch target than most of his peers.
What Needs Improvement
While his assist-to-turnover numbers are nice, I’d still like to see a more well-rounded playmaking output from Walter Clayton Jr. His decision-making while operating out of a ball screen doesn’t lead to mistakes, but it is pretty basic. It’s pretty rare to see him make a creative, advanced passing read. There’s nothing wrong with simplicity when it’s done effectively but expanding how he sees the floor and what types of passes he’s able to make would greatly increase his stock. Adding more to his handle and more misdirection to his game could help, too. Clayton needs to show a greater willingness/comfort with attacking left, as he rarely goes that direction and tries to find his way back right when he does. Despite his leaping ability, he can finish below the rim in the halfcourt on offense, largely because he’s so dependent on jumping off two feet. He doesn’t get the same elevation off one, and he can slow himself down to get both feet under him, allowing the defense to better prepare for him at the basket. Sometimes, he’ll take off from too far away or try to force it with his strong hand instead of his left. On defense, he can be too upright at times, but that may have been because his offensive workload was so high.
While transferring up can be a scary proposition, I’ve got my full confidence in Walter Clayton Jr. heading into next season. He was spectacular for Iona all year but add in the fact that he looked so comfortable against a National Championship winner in UConn, and it’s hard not to get excited. His shooting ability, shooting volume, defensive production, and the way that he drives winning on the court make for a stellar combination.
Trends can move at warp speed in the NBA. Right now, it feels like smaller guards are the inverse of running backs in the NFL. With running backs, NFL teams want them young and cheap, and to avoid paying them later in their career. With guards, it’s the opposite—teams appear to be more interested in seasoned players, and less interested in developing young ones on their own dime (See: Sharife Cooper, Kennedy Chandler, TyTy Washington, Trevor Keels). Every player on this list will have to overcome this challenge, but Walter Clayton Jr. is the guy that I am most confident in when it comes to carving out a meaningful NBA role. He brings off-ball value as a floor spacer, he’s growing as a creator for both himself and others, he’ll be ready for the physicality of an NBA game, and he makes things happen on defense. Plus, the fact that he’s “late to the game” in being fully committed to basketball indicates there may be plenty of more juice to be squeezed in terms of his potential.
Florida is coming into this season with a comically deep roster. Riley Kugel broke out at the end of last season and will likely have an even bigger role this year. Grad transfer Zyon Pullin is coming off a stellar season at UC-Riverside where he averaged 18-4-4. Will Richard had buzz as a freshman at Belmont, and despite his hype dying down, he had a tremendously efficient shooting season. I covered Micah Handlogten early in this series as a potential breakout candidate. Tyrese Samuel was an everyday starter in the Big East last year. EJ Jarvis is another experienced, productive player coming off a strong season at Yale. There are a lot of mouths to feed.
Still, I see Clayton’s predicament at Florida as low-risk, high-reward, at least when it comes to this season. There are few players in the country with his shooting prowess. Add in that he’s a good athlete who can make plays, take care of the ball, and defend, and it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t at least carve out a sizeable role this season. The questions then become: A) Can he have a breakout season, and B) If he doesn’t have one this year, can he have one next year? I think a 2023 breakout is possible in large part due to the speed of his upward trajectory. This is a guy who went from being a bench player to someone who doubled his counting numbers as a sophomore. Given his late transition into solely focusing on basketball, he may just be on a later developmental path than others. Don’t be shocked if Walter Clayton Jr. emerges as a serious 2023 NBA Draft candidate. Even if he doesn’t, it’s hard for me to see him not getting there the following season. He has all of the tools a scout can ask for in a modern guard.
Jaelen House, 6’1”, New Mexico, Graduate
2022-2023 Season Stats: 16.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.2 TOV, 2.7 SPG, 0.6 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 43.4/37.7/85.3
Signature Performance: vs. Wyoming. 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals. 8-15 FG, 2-6 3FG, 10-10 FT.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. Saint Mary’s. 17 points, five rebounds, one assist, six steals, one block, three turnovers. 5-11 FG, 3-5 3FG, 4-4 FT.
-vs. San Diego State. 29 points, six rebounds, four steals, one turnover. 10-21 FG, 3-8 3FG, 6-6 FT.
-vs. Boise State. 16 points, one rebound, four assists, one turnover. 7-15 FG, 1-4 3FG, 1-2 FT.
-vs. Nevada. 17 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists, two steals, four turnovers. 5-15 FG, 3-9 3FG, 4-4 FT.
-vs. Utah State. 14 points, two rebounds, three assists, two steals, two turnovers. 6-14 FG, 1-4 3FG, 1-1 FT.
-vs. Boise State. 14 points, six rebounds, six assists, one steal, two blocks, four turnovers. 4-14 FG, 1-6 3FG, 5-5 FT.
-vs. San Diego State. 15 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals, two turnovers. 5-12 FG, 2-4 3FG, 3-5 FT.
-vs. Utah State. 14 points, four rebounds, one assist, three steals, one block, two turnovers. 5-14 FG, 2-5 3FG, 2-4 FT.
Jaelen House comes from a strong NBA point guard bloodline. He is the grandson of Henry Bibby, the nephew of Mike Bibby, and the son of Eddie House. Jaelen played high school ball under his uncle Mike Bibby at Shadow Mountain High School, where he won an Arizona State Championship as a senior. 247Sports labeled him as a four-star recruit, and he generally sat just outside of most Top 100 rankings in his high school class. He received offers from Long Beach State, Southern Utah, and Arizona State before he ultimately committed to the Sun Devils. During his freshman and sophomore seasons, he was primarily used as an energy defender off the bench. After his second year there, House entered the transfer portal and hopped state lines to attend New Mexico. He had a breakout junior campaign for the Lobos, scoring 16.9 PPG and making the Mountain West All-Defense Team and All-Mountain West Third-Team. House took another step forward as a senior, earning another All-Defense nod and an All-Mountain West Second-Team selection. Despite the positive momentum, House elected to return to school for a graduate year.
Jaelen House is an absolute pest on the defensive end of the floor. He’ll hound opponents the entire length of the floor. House generates extra possessions on a consistent basis by taking away the ball in the backcourt. He’s quicker than a hiccup, enabling him to sneak in front of or behind unsuspecting opponents for strips. His hands are obscenely fast, enabling him to swipe or knock the ball loose without the slightest bit of warning, whether it’s at the point of attack or while he’s acting as a helper. Even though he’s small in frame, he’s tough and competitive. Add in his speed and quickness, and House isn’t as easy to plow through or blow past as one might expect given his length. Opponents struggled mightily against him in pick-and-roll situations last season. Per Synergy, House held opposing ball handlers to 0.545 points per possession in those scenarios, and he forced a turnover 22.3% of the time. He’ll stay with his man and meet them at the rim for a block or swat the shot of an unsuspecting big when they go for a putback. His 2.1 BLK% is a fantastic number for his guard, but his 4.7 STL% is truly an elite mark. That means he’s more likely to nab a steal than guards like Jose Alvarado, Kris Dunn, Gary Payton II, Alex Caruso, and DeAnthony Melton were in their final pre-draft college seasons. Defensive playmaking is truly a superpower for Jaelen House.
House has also made tremendous strides as a playmaker over the years. During his first two college seasons, his turnover rate was higher than his assist rate. Last season, he posted a 27.1 AST% to a 13.1 TOV%. Much of House’s playmaking stems from his excellent speed. He’s not just quick—he’s sudden, and when you factor in his ability to play low to the floor, it’s no wonder that he’s consistently able to leave defenders in the dust. He’ll blow by opponents in a straight line or split pick and rolls using his bursty first step in order to get deep into the paint. He has counters if he doesn’t get to his spot initially, and he’s capable of keeping his dribble alive when need be. House keeps his head up on the move, enabling him to find teammates when they open up as defenses collapse on him. This led to his career-best 4.7 APG to a low 2.2 TOV. He has a good nose for interior passes and can sling out of his live dribble using his right without having to slow himself down.
Not only can House create for others, but he can also get his own shot, too. That blazing speed that gets him inside so frequently goes hand-in-hand with his finishing ability. Per Synergy, 25.6% of his halfcourt shots came at the rim, and he made a fantastic 60% of them. Just like on the defensive end, House punches above his weight in terms of his physicality, getting to the charity stripe on a consistent basis and taking 8.3 free throws per 100 possessions. This downhill gravity helps House on the perimeter, where he’ll use his excellent jab step to get defenders off-balance before going up with a jump shot. The jumper is a good one, too, particularly off the catch. Last season, he ranked in the 91st percentile in Division I on catch-and-shoot jumpers and went 42.4% on threes in those settings. This makes closing out on him difficult—players don’t want to give him a clean look, but his catch-and-go explosiveness makes them fearful of selling out.
What Needs Improvement
The biggest thing that Jaelen House can add to his game is a more reliable pull-up jump shot. On an encouraging note, the confidence is there from behind the arc, as he took 67 threes off the dribble last season. Unfortunately, he only hit 31.3% of them. He doesn’t fare much better in the mid-range, either, having hit 32.1% of his pull-up twos. While his nasty first step helps him get into the lane, that will only be harder at the NBA level, and it’s easy to imagine teams sagging off of him if he’s not able to make them pay. If teams are consistently able to go deep under against him, his offensive impact will be significantly diminished. As is the case with many defensive playmakers, House can get a little too gutsy at times with when he tries to get an off-ball strip and when he tries to play behind his man to poke the ball loose. While he’s great at it in college, the margins get tighter at the next level, and coaches might not appreciate those tactics when they backfire. Lastly, House may want to put on some extra weight if his frame allows it. Listed at 170 pounds, House would have been one of the nine lightest players in the league last year. Extra heft may help him when teams hunt mismatches against him with bigger players.
There are times when I’m watching Jaelen House and it feels like I’m watching Jose Alvarado. He’s pesky, relentless, and has some real offensive juice to him. However, replicating “oddball” NBA players has proven to be an exceedingly difficult task. Think about how many players have been dubbed “the next Draymond Green” only to fail to meet those expectations. While the volume was lower, Alvarado hit 42.1% of his pull-up threes and 40.7% of his pull-up twos in his final college season, numbers far superior to House’s. Also, Alvarado has still struggled to translate that style of shooting into an efficient part of his NBA game. In college, he pressured the rim more than House (30.5% of his halfcourt shots came at the basket vs. 25.9% for House) and was slightly more efficient there. Here’s where it gets dicey, though—the diminishing returns on guard are far more severe. 75% or 80% of Draymond Green is still a tremendously useful player, but 75% or 80% of Jose Alvarado might not even be a guy who sticks on NBA rosters.
Still, writing off House feels foolish. His motor never fades, he held up well against good competition, and he’s consistently found ways to get better year over year. Coming from a rich NBA bloodline, he’s going to be well aware of the work required of a professional at that level. His speed, ball control, and defensive playmaking are checking “small guard requirements” boxes in a major way. He’s truly special in terms of steal and block rates. House will likely end up a Top 100 player in the next class, even in the face of his limitations. His skill set is rare, his family history bodes well for him, he’ll consistently up his team’s level of intensity, and his overall production is difficult to ignore. How House shoots it from deep and grows as a shooter will determine where in that hierarchy he ends up.
Zeke Mayo, 6’4”, South Dakota State, Junior
2022-2023 Season Stats: 18.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.4 APG, 3.0 TOV, 1.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 42.6/36.9/90.4
Signature Performance: vs. North Dakota State. 41 points, three rebounds, five assists, two steals. 14-25 FG, 6-9 3FG, 7-8 FT.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. Boise State. 13 points, four rebounds, two assists, four turnovers. 4-12 FG, 3-8 3FG, 2-2 FT.
-vs. Arkansas. Nine points, eight rebounds, one assist, two steals, two turnovers. 4-8 FG, 1-3 3FG.
-vs. Kent State. 12 points, four rebounds, one assist, one steal, four turnovers. 4-7 FG, 2-4 3FG, 2-2 FT.
-vs. Alabama. 12 points, seven rebounds, one steal, one turnover. 5-15 FG, 0-6 3FG, 2-3 FT.
-vs. Oral Roberts. Six points, four rebounds, one assist, one block, four turnovers. 2-10 FG, 0-4 3FG, 2-2 FT.
Zeke Mayo played high school ball at Lawrence High School in Kansas. There, he was an All-State Selection. During his senior season, he was a co-winner of the DiRenna Award for the state’s best basketball player alongside Duke’s Mark Mitchell. Still, he was not given a star rating by 247Sports. He received offers from Tulsa, Northern Kentucky, Northern Colorado, North Alabama, Jacksonville, Central Arkansas, and the school he would enroll in, South Dakota State. In a conversation with South Dakota State Head Coach Eric Henderson, he opened up about what drew their staff to Mayo, saying “a couple things stood out to me. He has a terrific personality. He’s easy to talk to and be around, he’s a fun-loving guy and a connector. On the court, we value skill at a high level here. The way he made shots, created his own shots, and his ability to be a playmaker stood out. He had good size for a guard and some versatility to play point guard and off the ball as well.”
During Mayo’s first season with the Jackrabbits, he did a tremendous job as an off-guard, scoring 9.6 PPG on 46.7/41.5/93.3 splits while posting 2.1 APG to 1.2 TOV. With Baylor Scheierman running the show, Mayo proved he could contribute without the ball in his hands. “We were always extremely confident that he would be able to make an impact pretty early in his career. He’s very confident, and he knew that he didn’t have to do too much. We had playmakers, and he was able to find a complementary role and make a positive mark as a freshman. I was proud of how he found his way with an experienced team,” Coach Henderson noted. As a sophomore, Mayo was thrust into a leading role. The team lost their three top scorers from the prior season, but with Mayo at the helm, they still finished second in their conference. His efforts earned him an All-Summit League First-Team selection. This off-season, he was invited to be a Formula Zero Elite Camp Counselor, an event hosted by Damian Lillard. He’ll now return to South Dakota State for his junior season.
Zeke Mayo is a fantastic playmaker, both for himself and others. Per Synergy, he ranked in the 80th percentile in D-I as a pick-and-roll scorer, and in the 75th percentile on pick-and-roll possessions including passes. It’s a game predicated on pace and manipulation. He’ll change speeds, but his knack as a screen navigator is what shines brightest. Mayo will use screens, reject them, or re-use them depending on what the defense gives him. Nothing is pre-meditated. Instead, he consistently reads his man, the second level, and the third to find what makes the most sense for himself and his team in that moment. When discussing pick-and-roll play, Coach Henderson explained, “To be super effective, you have to make the right read. So, you have to be a willing passer. If in a ball screen action, you are mainly looking to score, the other team can dictate around that, too. His willingness to pass the basketball while also having deep range…if they go under, that makes him extremely effective. If we set the screen higher, we can make even more space for our offense.”
Mayo can pull from NBA distance off the dribble, so going under screens against him is a foolish endeavor. Last season, Mayo took 175 threes off the dribble and converted a tremendous 37.1% of them. In isolation, Mayo can blend his footwork and intelligence to generate separation, thriving in those settings too (88th percentile on all isolation possessions, per Synergy). His balance when side-stepping or stepping back is outstanding, allowing him to maintain a proper shooting base when he goes into his shooting motion after getting himself space. If teams go over screens, Mayo has answers in the form of his wicked hostage dribble game. With his man on his back, if the opposing man gives Mayo space, he can use his touch to convert in the mid-range (41.3% pull-up twos in the halfcourt) or with his floater (44.7% in the halfcourt). While he doesn’t get all the way to the rim a lot, Mayo thrives when he gets there due to the way he embraces physicality, converting 63.2% of his rim attempts in a halfcourt setting. Plus, fouling him is not a great option—he’s shot over 90% at the charity stripe in both of his college seasons.
Mayo went from being more of a combo guard to a traditional point guard. As a freshman, his AST% was 11.8, but as a sophomore in conference play, that number increased to 22.3%. Critically, he knows how to use his scoring gravity to lure in defenders before finding the open man, especially when operating out of ball screens. “This year, we’re even more excited,” Coach Henderson started, before saying, “He’s put a lot of work into finding the open man and finding the right pass, and he’s shown great improvements.” Mayo has the ability to pass out of his dribble with both hands. His place placement is rock solid, and he does a nice job of looking off his feeds to further exploit openings. He finds those openings quickly, too, and loves to bust out his slick pocket passes to find his rolling screener.
Mayo made strides on the defensive end, too. He increased both his STL% and BLK% last year, taking them from 1.1 to 1.8 and 0.2 to 0.9, respectively. “He’s a willing defender. He’s a better lateral athlete than he is vertically. He moves his feet, his wingspan’s good. He has the ability to keep the ball in front of him. He tips passes, and the rebounding aspect on that side is huge for us. He gets overlooked on that side a little bit,” Coach Henderson remarked. Mayo does truly make a big mark as a defensive rebounder, and actually led the team in that statistic last season.
What Needs Improvement
There are three key components here: ball control, defense, and athleticism. Sometimes, Mayo gets overzealous as a passer, trying to thread too small of needles, or whipping too long of passes without the requisite zip. Defensively, he’ll need to continue to make strides. His foot speed on the ball and effort isn’t always consistent. He’ll need to grow athletically, too. When Mayo gets low, he can show real speed, but I’m not sure he has NBA point guard quickness at times. Can he catch-and-go on the perimeter and immediately get inside the paint? I’m not certain, and front offices will want to see that from him. It would be nice to see him get all the way to the rim on a more consistent basis, considering how efficient he is there. He also had no dunks this past season, which can be an athletic red flag.
At the end of the day, I’m pretty optimistic about what Zeke Mayo can become. He went from being a tertiary option to a front man. He not only held his own—he excelled. He expanded his game, led his team to a great record, and still managed to play an efficient brand of basketball. Even better, it looked like Mayo got better down the stretch as he adapted to his new role. Check this out:
Zeke Mayo, prior to 1/1/23:
15 games, 34 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.6 APG, 3.1 TOV, 0.7 SPG, 0.1 BPG
Zeke Mayo, after 1/1/23:
17 games, 37 MPG, 21.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.1 APG, 2.8 TOV, 1.3 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Folks, that’s what we call a leap. Sure, part of it could be his three-ball falling at a peculiarly low clip for him early in the year. A naysayer might claim it was the result of competing in conference play as opposed to against a more difficult portion of the schedule. But I really think he genuinely figured things out and turned a corner. He grew more comfortable as a scorer on the ball. As a playmaker, he began to make more advanced reads and find the open man faster. His defensive production started to click, too. Crucially, Mayo became more proficient with the skills he will need to be an NBA point guard—as a shooter, distributor, and defender.
Now, we get to see post-adaptation Zeke Mayo—the Zeke Mayo that’s been there before. I’m also buying his character, as Coach Henderson gave him credit for stepping into a leadership role last season and setting a positive example for his teammates with things like his workouts, diet, sleep, and general lifestyle. He’s an exceptional pick-and-roll player with great size for a guard, and he’s shown that he’s adaptable to the “off-ball point guard” role that many NBA guards now find themselves playing. There needs to continue to be strides as a playmaker, defender, and athlete. But I think there will be real noise around Zeke Mayo by the end of this season, as there’s beginning to be a level of undeniability to his production. With two years of eligibility remaining, I think it’s “when, not if” he starts to make a Top 100 push, and then some.
Chaunce Jenkins, 6’4”, Old Dominion, Fourth Year Junior
2022-2023 Season Stats: 13.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, 2.2 TOV, 0.9 SPG, 0.5 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 45.9/36.6/76.1
Signature Performance: vs. Virginia Tech. 24 points, six rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block. 10-15 FG, 1-3 3FG, 3-4 FT.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. College of Charleston. 17 points, two rebounds, four assists, one steal, five turnovers. 7-12 FG, 3-3 3FG.
Chaunce Jenkins attended Menchville High School in Newport News, Virginia. There, he led his team to a district title and earned a Class 4A Second Team All-State Selection. Labeled a three-star recruit by Rivals and 247Sports, Jenkins elected to attend Wichita State over VMI, Hampton, and Robert Morris. He saw limited action in two seasons with the Shockers, appearing in 24 total games for an average of 7.4 MPG. Following the conclusion of the 2021-2022 season, Jenkins entered the transfer portal. I had the chance to speak with Old Dominion Head Coach Jeff Jones, who told me that “he’s a local kid, so we were familiar with him when he was in high school. We weren’t really looking for a guard at the time when he was coming out, so we didn’t really pursue him. There wasn’t very much film [at the college level], so a lot of it had to do with what we already knew…we knew then what we know now, which is that he’s a phenomenal athlete. You don’t have many guys like that.”
To say Jenkins had a breakout year in his third season would be an understatement. He went from a bench player to an everyday starter en route to an All-Sun Belt Third Team selection. The Monarchs went 19-12 as Jenkins led the team in points and assists. “We weren’t really sure what his role was going to be. In the pre-season, he was feeling himself out, but every once in a while, you’d see glimpses into what he could do. His work ethic, willingness to get in the gym on his own, and put in extra work was encouraging. This was a guy that came to us determined, with a chip on his shoulder as if he had something to prove. The more comfortable he got, the better he got,” Coach Jones noted.
Jeff Jones described Chaunce Jenkins as “a plus-plus athlete.” His prior coach at Wichita State remarked in a press conference that “his game is kind of like Ja Morant. He’s obviously not Ja Morant, the Rookie of the Year in the NBA, but that's who he reminds you of. He has some characteristics like Ja Morant. He’s long and extremely bouncy. He’s a highlight reel waiting to happen.”
On defense, he has quick twitch instincts, good length, and competes with a high level of intensity. This does him wonders on an island. It’s exceptionally hard to get around or gain any sort of advantage against Jenkins. In a game against Coastal Carolina, he blocked Antonio Daye’s shot three different times when the guard kept testing him. Even if you do get by him, his recovery skills are tremendous. Coach Jones explained, “He’s invested in defense. That’s the best thing I could hope for in any of our players. Different players have different God-given gifts, but Chaunce cares…He wants to be good and takes pride on that side of the court.” Jenkins’s 1.8 STL% is a solid mark. His hands and ability to jump passing lanes stand out. Still, he’s not an over-the-top gambler and contains the ball well. He’s another high-end shot blocker in this group, too, with a 2.2 BLK%. Jenkins soars off the floor, whether it be for a contest on the perimeter or to reject an opponent at the rim. His athletic tools and defensive output were summed up well when Jones commented, “He’s very, very, very fast endline to endline. He’s quick, able to move his feet laterally and stay in front of ball handlers. There are plenty of people who can run fast but can’t slide laterally, he can do both. Plus, he can jump off one foot or two feet.”
Offensively, Jenkins uses his physical tools to pressure the rim. Per Synergy, 31.7% of his halfcourt shots came at the basket, which is a great percentage for a guard. Even better, BartTorvik’s data notes that only 15.6% of his shots at the rim were assisted. Jenkins gets into the restricted area, and he does it on his own volition. His first step is potent, but he’s more than just an athlete—there’s craft here, too. He has burst, but he also has shake and wiggle. Jenkins doesn’t panic when under heavy defensive pressure, and his dribble combinations further aid him in generating space, whether it be north-south or east-west. He gets to the line a ton, too, with an obscene .424 free throw rate and 8.4 free throw attempts per 100 possessions. “He’s fearless. He’s not going to shy away from contact. He’s going to take it strong, and you’re either going to have to foul him or get up to where he is, and that’s a challenge. His great first step off the bounce gives him the advantage, and he holds the line, can take the bump, and go up. He’s taking it to and through the defender,” Coach Jones said.
Jenkins can create for himself inside, but he can set up his teammates and show off some range, too. When driving, Jenkins does a nice job of reading the interior big man and finding his teammates. On the perimeter, he’s shown an ability to whip sharp, accurate passes out of a live dribble. He’s much more comfortable doing it with his strong hand (right), but he’ll sling with his left on occasion too. A 20.8 AST% and firmly positive assist-to-turnover mark in his first year as a lead guard with few in-game reps heading into this season indicate that he’s on a positive trajectory. His shot is coming around, too. After being a career 24.8% from three and 45.5% from the free throw line (albeit on a very low number of attempts), Jenkins went 36.6% from long range and 76.1% at the charity stripe. His mid-range pull-up looks clean, as he elevates over defenders and shoots with a high release.
What Needs Improvement
Of the players on this list, Chaunce Jenkins is definitely the rawest from a skill standpoint. He’ll need to continue to read the floor more consistently and be able to go deeper into his progression to find teammates. When asked what the staff has been working on with Jenkins, Coach Jones noted, “Learning how to be a better passer. With his length and his size, he can see the court. We put him in a lot of ball screen situations. Learning where the defense is going to be, reading the roller, seeing the skip to the opposite corner. I think we’ll see him have an even better year than last year because he understands defensive coverages better and what options he has passing the basketball.” While his percentage on threes was good, his volume was very low for his position, taking only 4.5 threes per 100 possessions. This has been another focal point for him this off-season. “I think his jump shot keeps getting better. The amount of time, the number of repetitions before practice, and in the evening, we’re just getting started. He’s been doing it all summer. He’s going to keep improving as a shooter… I want to see him be confident enough on the reversal to knock down threes. I think that’s another progression and all these repetitions will only make him a better marksman. I would think his volume is going to go up, too,” Jones said. Lastly, Jenkins is on the thin side at 173 pounds. Adding size will help him defend up the lineup more easily at the next level and further bolster his downhill attacking arsenal.
Some players just have a different developmental arc than others. Jenkins may be a late bloomer with heaps of upside remaining. In his first season with a consistent, defined role, he knocked it out of the park. Now, he’ll have more individualized attention and the freedom to workshop his skills. When he had the opportunity, he seized it, hitting shots and developing as a playmaker. If he does that again next season, there will be a lot to love, because as Coach Jones noted, “There are not many guys that can do the things he does.” You can’t teach his speed, leaping ability, or tenacity. He’s truly a high-end athlete from a run-and-jump standpoint, even by NBA standards.
This is certainly an “eye test swing,” to be clear. With Jenkins, the tape had me feeling like this was a guy who was going to work for it. My conversation with Jeff Jones only further reassured me of that. With a burgeoning combo guard skill package and physical tools that others can only dream about, I wouldn’t be stunned to see Chaunce Jenkins get himself on draft radars next season. As a fourth-year guy in a smaller league, he’s still more of an Exhibit-10/Summer League projection when he comes out (for now), but if he takes a significant leap as a scorer and distributor, there would undoubtedly be bigger things on the table. I’m hoping that’s the case, because selfishly, I really enjoy the exciting brand of basketball that he brings to the table.
Max Shulga, 6’4”, VCU, Senior
2022-2023 Season Stats: 11.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.3 TOV, 0.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 42.8/36.4/82.4
Signature Performance: vs. Air Force. 29 points, seven rebounds, three assists. 8-16 FG, 5-8 3FG, 8-9 FT.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. Boise State. Nine points, six rebounds, three assists, one steal, one block, three turnovers. 3-9 FG, 1-5 3FG, 2-4 FT.
-vs. Nevada. Nine points, one rebound, six assists, one steal, four turnovers. 3-9 FG, 1-4 3FG, 2-2 FT.
-vs. San Diego State. Eight points, two rebounds, one assist. 3-9 FG, 2-8 3FG.
-vs. San Diego State. Seven points, three rebounds, one assist, two steals, three turnovers. 2-11 FG, 0-3 FG, 3-6 FT.
-vs. Boise State. 11 points, four rebounds, six assists, one turnover. 4-7 FG, 0-1 3FG, 3-3 FT.
-vs. San Diego State. Four points, six rebounds, three assists, one steal, one turnover. 2-12 FG, 0-5 3FG.
-vs. Boise State. 19 points, two rebounds, five assists, one turnover. 5-11 FG, 3-7 3FG, 6-6 FT.
-vs. Missouri. Seven points, six rebounds, two assists, four turnovers. 2-7 FG, 0-2 3FG, 3-4 FT.
A native of Ukraine, Max Shulga attended the Basketball School of Excellence in Torrelodones, Spain. Still, he got the opportunity to represent his home country during the FIBA U18 European Championships in 2019 and the FIBA U20 European Championships in 2022. He led his team in scoring during the 2022 event. Shulga began his college career at Utah State. As a freshman, he saw limited playing time, scoring 1.6 PPG in 6.8 MPG across 23 appearances. As a sophomore, he became an everyday player but was still eighth on the team in minutes per game. His junior year was a real “wait a minute, who is this guy?” campaign. Shulga and Steven Ashworth made for a dynamic backcourt in the Mountain West. Despite Ashworth being one of the better guards in college hoops, Shulga got to operate with the ball on a consistent basis, setting up teammates while showing off an intriguing scoring profile paired with a strong frame. After the season, Shulga entered the transfer portal and followed his Utah State Coach, Ryan Odom, to VCU.
Max Shulga is a guard with good size who takes care of the ball and can score at all three levels in the halfcourt. Let’s start with his physicality. At nearly 200 pounds, Shulga loves contact. He has no problem plowing through opponents or converting against contact at the basket. This past season, he converted 62% of his halfcourt shots at the rim. The icing on the cake is his sky-high .466 free throw rate. As an 82.4% shooter, teams don’t want to send him to the free throw line, but they often don’t have a choice. The fact that Shulga is a poised ball-screen operator makes it easier for him to get inside. He can keep his handle going through adversity and maintains good control of the ball when countering or pulling the ball back out to the perimeter. There’s some pace and funk to him downhill. His mentality is a fluid one, and if he gets to the rim but doesn’t like his look, he has the processing ability to serve up a last-second dish to an open teammate. Shulga moves the ball well in general, making sharp passes as a perimeter connector and seeing multiple reads. In ball screens, he’s able to fit the ball through tight windows when needed. His 4.0 APG and AST% of 23.0 are even more impressive when considering he operated alongside another strong lead guard in Steven Ashworth. With more on-ball reps next season at VCU, there’s a chance his playmaking finally gets the greater recognition it deserves.
He’s not a one-trick pony, either. Shulga can get it done from three and in the mid-range. He hit 40.7% of both his pull-up twos and pull-up threes. This prevents teams from sagging off on him in pick-and-roll settings and opens things up for him as an attacker. The mechanics are beautiful, with his body moving in a consistent, seamless motion free of any kinks. He’ll bring gravity off the ball, too, as he hit 37.9% of his catch-and-shoot threes in the halfcourt. Per Synergy, he ranked in the 87th percentile on Spot Up possessions last season. When he needs to get his shot off in a hurry, he can demonstrate a quick trigger, and having a hand in his face isn’t a dealbreaker. Add in his ability to make snappy decisions with regard to swing and reversal passes, and there’s not really an area of halfcourt offense where he’s not useful.
His toughness helps him on the defensive end. He’s not as much of a mismatch target as other guards because of his strength and grit. Shulga is still pretty light on his feet. He’ll do a good job of slinking around screens, and when his man throws counters at him, he does a good job of sticking with them. Rarely does he overly sell out or gamble only to get left in the dust. If there’s a loose ball, he’ll hustle and dive on the floor for it. Shulga’s demeanor and physicality shows up on the glass, too, where his 14.2 DREB% is a good number for a guard and can pay off when his team plays a smaller lineup.
What Needs Improvement
Shulga is not a quick-twitch athlete, and that can be a scary proposition for someone who will likely be relegated to guarding 1s at the next level given his size. He’s strong, and he’s not a total slug, but NBA speed is a different story than what he faced in the Mountain West. Add in a measly 1.4 STL% last year, and it’s clear that defense is likely the biggest barrier to entry for him. The lack of a bursty first step complicates things on offense, too. It will be harder for him to get to his spots in a game so predicated on pace and feel against NBA athletes who can match those principles but also have greater physical tools. More concerning was that while he doesn’t turn it over a ton, many of his turnovers did come when he got sped up. At the NBA level, there might not be much of a choice—it’s simply a faster game, and there will need to be an adaptation for him to reach those outcomes.
In each of these columns, I’ve ended with someone who, maybe against my better judgment, I think has more of a shot than others. Shulga is one of those guys. He has good size from a height and weight standpoint, he’s tougher than a two-dollar steak, and his feel for the game is top-of-the-line. It’s simply the athleticism that’s holding him back. Still, some players manage to overcome that barrier, and the ones who do often have the traits that Shulga is bringing to the table. At VCU, he’ll likely be the guard instead of the other guard. This presents Shulga with a massive opportunity. Given his skills as a pull-up shooter and distributor, I think he’s ready to rock, and that he’s going to do a fantastic job for the Rams in this capacity. If he does, a Portsmouth Invitation Tournament invite could very well be in his future. It’s not going to be a piece of cake, but there’s a path for Max Shulga to work his way into the Top 100 mix.