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Sleeper Deep Dives: Iverson Molinar
After an impressive sophomore season, Iverson Molinar has built on that success during his junior year at Mississippi State and cemented himself as an underrated guard prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft.
The 2022 NBA Draft cohort is shaping up to be different from other recent draft classes. After three straight years of solid point guard crops, the 2022 group is light on franchise floor generals. Even if you (like me) believe that Jaden Ivey can be a lead guard, the chances of four of the first nine picks being point guards (as was the case last year) seem exceedingly slim.
The top-tier point guard types might not be available in 2022, but this draft class still has several intriguing guard prospects. They might be closer to NBA bench guards than headliners, but there are plenty of players who are flying under the radar now who could play a sizable role in the NBA.
Iverson Molinar was on the edges of the draft radar last season, and he has followed up his solid sophomore season with an impressive junior year for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. He is averaging 18.1 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.3 RPG, and 1.1 SPG this season. Molinar has taken advantage of the increase in on-ball reps and has made serious strides as a playmaker. Even before looking at Molinar’s improvement as a creator for others, his tough-nosed style and facility in half-court settings both bode well for his NBA future.
Molinar might not be able to work his way into the first round on Draft Night, but his well-rounded game makes it easy to see his potential NBA fits—especially when you dig into his long-range shooting numbers and realize that there is more to his shooting than his three-point percentages this season. In a shaky guard class overall, Iverson Molinar is one of the underrated gems. So…let’s dive deep!
Offense: Half-Court Excellence
Iverson Molinar’s main calling card as a prospect is his scoring ability in half-court settings. When the game slows down, he excels at creating a good look for himself or getting a good shot for one of his teammates. Despite being the main focus for every opposing defense (something that he will not have to deal with at the NBA level), Molinar puts up points as a top-tier pick-and-roll creator with plenty of personal scoring juice.
Molinar ranks in the 87th percentile in offensive efficiency this season per Synergy Sports. His half-court and pick-and-roll numbers are even better—Molinar ranks in the 92nd percentile in terms of both scoring and possessions plus assists. After averaging 2.3 APG and 2.2 turnovers per game last season, Molinar has dished out nearly twice as many assists per game this year while also cutting down his turnover rate to just over two per game. He has settled in as more of a game manager who makes the right reads, but he still will occasionally make slightly more challenging passes and quick decisions that speak to his ability to grow even more as a playmaker for others:
Even without the playmaking aspect, Molinar can still do damage in pick-and-roll settings. He also ranks in the 91st percentile in scoring as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, scoring exactly one point per possession when he takes the shot himself on those plays. He puts a ton of pressure on the rim on his frequent drives to the basket, and he is a remarkably crafty finisher once he gets there:
The primary driver of his success is his ability to score at the rim. This season, Molinar has converted his two-point shots at an astounding 57% clip, including a 65% mark on shots around the basket. Those are numbers that would look good for a big man, let alone a 6’3” guard who also thrives in the mid-range game. He doesn’t get to those buckets on pure athleticism alone, either; he is adept at cutting through the tiniest spaces on his way to the rim, and his ability to change speeds is exceptionally advanced for a young guard. He has a top-notch floater that he can pull out of his bag if he can’t get all the way to the rim, and that only serves to make him more dangerous when he’s driving to the basket, given his exceptional finishing skills. Once he sees an opening, there’s very little that anyone can do to stop him:
Molinar has shown that he can finish plays at a high rate when he has the ball in his hands, but NBA teams should bear in mind that he’s also an incredibly dangerous player without the ball in his hands. He ranks in the 97th percentile as a cutter, scoring a staggering 1.625 points per possession on those plays.
His proficiency as a cutter also makes it easier to discuss the elephant in the room: his three-point shooting. Despite his absurd efficiency inside the arc, Molinar’s overall shooting numbers look a bit worse when you look at his 28.8% mark from downtown this season.
Look a little deeper, though, and there’s plenty of reason to hold out hope for his jump shot. Even with that poor mark this season, Iverson Molinar is still shooting 37% from deep for his college career. He gets good height on his jump shot and pairs that with a high release that makes his shot more difficult to bother than many similarly-sized guards.
Molinar has also shot 83% from the free-throw line over his three years at Mississippi State, and he has knocked down 88.6% of his looks from the charity stripe this season. It’s not like his dip from long range is due to chucking up shots, either; he’s averaging 3.5 3PA per game this year, and he’s averaged…3.4 3PA per game this year.
One could argue that Molinar’s 43.6% mark on triples last year was the aberration and assume that he’s not a threat from beyond the arc. However, given his touch around the basket, his mid-range scoring game, and his stellar free-throw numbers, it’s reasonable to assume that he’s much closer to being the 37% long-range shooter that he’s been throughout his college career than the sub-30% shooter that he’s been so far this season.
Defense: Effort and Playmaking Growth
Iverson Molinar will make his case for a draft slot on the basis of his offensive game, but he has also shown encouraging signs on the defensive end of the floor this season. The toughness that he shows in his finishing around the basket comes into play on the defensive end as well; Molinar is not the type of player to back down from a challenge, no matter what his offensive load might be on any given night.
He can get back-cut on occasion defensively, and his screen navigation when defending off-ball could use some work. However, his screen navigation is more a matter of technique than effort; even when he goes the wrong way around a pick, he still tries to fight his way over the top. The back-cuts that he sometimes surrenders are less due to inattentiveness and more due to trying to be in multiple different places at once. He has no fear when it comes to switching onto opposing big men, and he will stick his nose into rebounding scrums with reckless abandon.
Molinar has bumped up his defensive counting stats this season in a way that is encouraging for his projection as a defensive playmaker at the NBA level. He’s bumped his steal percentage up above 2% this season for the first time in his college career, and he has even blocked a few shots this year after just seven rejections in his first two college seasons. Even against some of the best athletes in college basketball, Molinar can more than hold his own:
This particular play does not end well for Molinar, but it does bode well for his defensive development. His growth in terms of generating turnovers gives him more opportunities to drive to the basket and use his sensational at-rim finishing skills.
While Molinar’s box score stats on defense have looked better this season, his advanced numbers on that end have not been as positive. He rates out as just “average” on defense overall per Synergy Sports, allowing 0.896 points per possession as the primary defender.
As with the three-point shooting numbers, however, a closer look at those numbers paints a much more positive picture of Molinar’s defensive prowess. His overall numbers are dragged down significantly by good opponent shooting luck on spot-ups; he has been responsible for allowing 1.1 points per possession on those spot-up looks. His 77th percentile ranking as a pick-and-roll defender (allowing a measly 0.586 points per possession on those plays) is more indicative of his defensive capabilities—especially since those looks make up 39.6% of his defended shots, while only 28.3% of his defensive possessions have been on spot-ups.
Molinar’s numbers from last season, as with his long-range shooting numbers, also paint a much brighter picture—he ranked in the 84th percentile as a defender last season, allowing a much more reasonable 0.840 points per possession on those looks. His improvement in terms of getting into passing lanes is encouraging, and his effort on defense is much closer to the 84th percentile mark from last season than it is to this year’s middling advanced numbers on defense.
There might not be time for Iverson Molinar to turn his three-point shooting percentage around this season, but he will have plenty of chances to prove himself before the season is over. Mississippi State would probably have to make some serious noise in the SEC Tournament to earn a March Madness bid; they have dropped five of their last seven games despite heroic efforts from Molinar in those losses. Even if the Bulldogs fall short of the Big Dance, the team still has showcase games against Alabama and Auburn on the schedule before the end of the regular season. Molinar played well in their game against Tennessee on Wednesday night; he finished the game with 16 points and five assists, helping to keep his squad in the game against the #19 team in the nation in a 72-63 contest that was neck-and-neck until the final few minutes.
The 2022 NBA Draft might be lacking in terms of top-line guard prospects, but there are still some potential diamonds in the rough. Iverson Molinar might not be the shiniest name in the bunch, but his exceptional half-court play makes it easy to see him finding a fit at the NBA level. If his poor long-range shooting numbers from this season are closer to an aberration than this truth (as his previous seasons would indicate), Molinar will prove himself sooner rather than later at the NBA level.
There will be quite a few NBA teams who will be trying to talk themselves into a guard prospect in the back half of the first round of this year’s draft. Molinar might not climb that high on any team’s draft board, but his proficiency in half-court settings alone will be enough for him to have a real shot as an end-of-the-bench guard early on in his NBA career.
Ultimately, Molinar has shown important improvements in key areas this season. While this season hasn’t been perfect for him on either end of the floor, most of the perceived downside is due to him suffering from poor shooting luck—both as a shooter and as a defender. If his shooting numbers turn around after his one disappointing year from beyond the arc, and his poor spot-up numbers stop masking his positive impact on the defensive end of the floor, Iverson Molinar could easily end up being one of the steals of the 2022 NBA Draft.