Ryan Rollins' Symphony of Buckets
The NBA Draft Dude sat down to chop it up with Toledo guard Ryan Rollins to talk about his smooth game, his modern influences, and what he's doing in preparation for the 2022 NBA Draft.
They say that basketball is jazz. A game that is at its most aesthetically pleasing when you see each creative improvisational note composed by the artistry of each unique player on the floor. And yet, too often, it can appear as choreographed as the most polished Max Martin pop song. The consequence of a generation of players that would rather train for a one-on-one pro day than run fives.
Toledo’s Ryan Rollins is jazz. A pure hooper, raised by the basketball scene in Detroit.
Rollins' game is as smooth as butter. It takes no more than a minute of Rollins gliding around the floor to realize the natural fluidity of his game. While some of his contemporaries are visibly going through progressions in their head, Rollins is riding the tide, taking what the defense gives him and exploring ways to creatively curate the offensive flow—a style of play that Rollins developed from growing up playing nothing but pick-up hoops.
“That’s really all I did as a kid. It wasn’t until college that I started training with my coaches, but before that, I was just getting up a lot of shots and playing 5-on-5. That was my workout. Just find a gym and go play with people.”
Rollins didn’t enter the ‘22 draft cycle on many watchlists. Playing in a mid-major conference like the MAC doesn’t lend as many eyeballs towards the NBA Draft as the Power Five schools tend to. Rollins’ games aren’t broadcast on ESPN or Fox Sports. Rollins is a sleeper in every sense of the word. That’s why he was looking forward to playing in the NBA Draft Combine Scrimmage, a free-flowing environment in which he felt at home and could prove to the skeptics that his production was more than the result of playing in a smaller conference.
“That's something I want to prove to people that don’t think playing at a mid-major is the same level of talent. Just coming in and playing against the top guys and showing them that I can still do what I do.”
Rollins ended the Game One scrimmage with 11 points on 5-9 shooting while adding six boards, three assists, two steals, and a block (which should have been two blocks if not for an egregious foul call on a monster rejection at the rim), while playing at the mature pace he displayed nightly during his time at Toledo.
Rollins never looked sped up against his opponents in the scrimmage, maneuvering to the same spots he got to with the Rockets. More encouraging than the scoring, however, may be some of the reads that Rollins made as a playmaker.
While many may view Rollins as an undersized two-guard (the nearly 6’10” wingspan helps), Rollins looked quite poised operating with the ball in his hands as the de facto facilitator; getting the ball up the floor quickly and making advanced reads to the weak-side corner, setting his teammates up for high value looks. That playmaking, Rollins says, is the most underrated part of his game.
“I think I’m a way better passer and facilitator [than given credit for being]. I’m very unselfish, so I’m not gonna force things. If you spot up, I’m gonna hit you. I’m gonna get you the ball.”
It felt like there was real growth on that front, not just from last season to this season, but on a game-to-game basis. As Rollins started becoming the focus of nightly scouting reports, he started actualizing how to leverage his scoring prowess to make plays for his teammates.
“For sure during the season, there were a lot of game plans towards me and what I like to do and how to stop it…there's a lot of scouting. Especially with me, they would play the gaps a lot. Play it early. So it was something my coaches would put into my head and just me knowing that I have to get the ball out early. When I drive, just take one less dribble and just kick it. Keep the game simple.”
The playmaking growth is important for Rollins to hit his ultimate ceiling of a high-level starting guard, but it’s the advanced scoring package that will be the selling point early on. Rollins' gracefulness will slap you in the face after just one minute of on-court action. Some basketball players move around the court, but Rollins glides. That inherent smoothness, advanced skill set, and mid-major background will no doubt draw comparisons to CJ McCollum, a player that Rollins likes to study on film.
“I do watch quite a lot of film on CJ McCollum…Guys like that, that can create for themselves, like the midrange, the faders; three-level scorers that can create for others.”
It’s rare for a young guard prospect to come equipped with the scoring package that Rollins already possesses, but the 19-year-old guard refuses to rest on his laurels, putting in three-a-day pre-draft workouts to help hone his craft and turn perceived weaknesses into strengths.
“For the past month, I’ve been out in Dallas. I wake up at 8am and go to a morning lift session at 9am. Then from there, I go to a basketball workout at Drive Nation. I’ll be there from about 12-2pm. Then I have another workout later on that night at like 9:30pm.”
Rollins believes he is a better long-range shooter than he’s given credit for, but he also understands there is work to be done. While one could attribute his inconsistent shooting from distance to some of the tough shots he took as the number one option for his team, Rollins also has a mature self-awareness that there are nuanced details that he needs to consistently focus on to reach his potential as a true three-level scorer.
“I think also it’s my consistency of how I shoot the ball from three. Just my form mainly, sometimes it’ll go to the right, my arm will flare out to the right or the left, or I don’t hold my follow-through, but that’s something I’ve been keying on through the pre-draft process, just shooting the same shots at all times.”
The third-level scoring may be a work in progress, but the second-level is quite polished. Rollins is a disciple of the church of Booker (the NBA player he’s most looking forward to guarding at the next level) and likes to get to similar spots on the floor—spots from which he connected on 47% of his attempts as a sophomore per InStat. You see that influence particularly clearly in the maturity with which he operates out of the mid-post. Rollins doesn’t spam dribbles or force up inefficient junk. The young guard is deliberate and surgical, using his shoulders to turn and create space before dusting off an array of dazzling footwork to manipulate his defender and knock down high-level middies.
CJ McCollum, Devin Booker, and buckety guards of that ilk may be the guys that most resemble the modern NBA influences that Rollins borrows bits and pieces of to add to his own arsenal of offensive weaponry, but there was one particular possession this season that made me do a double-take rewind. In a home matchup against Ohio, with his defender on an island at the top of the arc, Rollins brought out of his bag, frame for frame, the famed Allen Iverson cross on Michael Jordan.
Hesi-cross, between the legs, double-cross, right elbow pull-up. Just unadulterated filth on a basketball court. It looked so natural that it felt like it had to be rehearsed. Only it wasn’t.
“I do work on it, I do a lot of crosses, but I didn’t plan to do it. I did something like that in high school. It wasn’t a double-cross, but it was a cross like that into a shot that was similar. But I think it just happened.”
It just happened.
That’s what gets me so excited about Rollins’ bag. There’s beauty in how the potential first-rounder ad-libs on the floor. There’s beauty in how Rollins uses the rock as his instrument of choice, freestyling every note and turning it into a symphony of buckets.
That is a prime skill that NBA teams need in the playoffs. When things get loud and ugly, can you create beauty in the chaos?
Ryan Rollins has that potential. Ryan Rollins is jazz.