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Spencer Jones Shouldn't be a Sleeper | The Prospect Overview
Spencer Jones looks like an NBA player, and he produces like one too. Let's talk about that! Plus: Quick Hits across the world of basketball!
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Feature: Spencer Jones Shouldn’t be a Sleeper
I watch a ton of film. Still, I understand the value and importance of numbers when it comes to the game of basketball. One thing I like to do is keep spreadsheets full of stats from longer-term NBA players during their college careers. It’s a useful tool to have at my disposal. If a prospect has, say, a poor effective field goal percentage, I can contrast it with the spreadsheets and see just how severe of a red flag that is. Conversely, if a player has a seemingly gaudy assist rate, I can compare it to what high-level pros did in college and see just how special they are.
Where I’ve gained a lot of value from these numbers is when it comes to finding players that hit a number of thresholds, but still aren’t receiving a lot of acclaim. One such player is Stanford’s Spencer Jones. When running through some numbers, I’d noticed that this past season, he placed average or above-average against long-term NBA forward players in the following categories:
Three-point percentage (38.9%)
Three-point shooting volume (12 attempts per 100 possessions)
Steal rate (2.4%)
Block rate (3.8%)
In a basketball world that increasingly values three-point shooting, defensive versatility, and positional size, somehow, the 6’7”, 225-pound Spencer Jones has been slipping through the cracks in terms of NBA Draft buzz. Today, we’re going to dive into how he excels in these areas and why it’s translatable to an NBA level. This piece will feature excerpts from my interview with Jones, which you can watch here or listen to here.
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How We Got Here
Spencer Jones’s ascent into being a coveted recruit was a slow one. Playing at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Kansas, things weren’t handed to him. The school has won seven state titles so far this century. Given the program’s prestige and the high level of talent needed to sustain that level of success, Jones didn’t see the floor much until his final two seasons. As a result, interest was slower to come around, even during a highly productive senior year that saw him earn a Sports In Kansas First Team Class 4A All-State selection.
“Senior year I got more of a role, so the recruitment came a little later than you’d expect. And even then, even in my senior year, I was averaging near 20 [points per game] and leading in most of the statistical categories, it still…I knew it could get better. So, we were actually looking into a post-grad year by the end of my senior year. We were looking at that, so I played another [grassroots] weekend into my senior year because I’m a little young for my class…Played just one weekend, then completely blew up. And so, and this was in like, May, I think. May, April. And, you know, I remember being in Bishop Miege after school in like May or April, and I have to stay after school because I’ve got like seven coaches staying back-to-back-to-back. Right after school, straight into talking to coaches until 7:30 with my parents.”
Eventually, an offer came from Stanford, and following an official visit, Jones accepted the scholarship. When he got to campus, Jones immediately stepped into an important role. He started 29 of the team’s 32 games and provided valuable floor spacing, going 43.1% from beyond the arc. The opportunity came as a bit of a surprise to Jones.
“I didn’t expect it. Me and Tyrell [Terry], who ended up being the one-and-done that year, if you asked him, he definitely didn’t expect his role either. We both came in pretty skinny, pretty small. I mean, I was able to put on weight a little easier than he was, but he figured out the offense a little better than I did. I was just looking for what the team needed and what could get me any minutes at all…I noticed that the team needed a little bit of three-point shooting. We had a lot of slashers, Oscar Da Silva’s a great post man, so we needed shooting from the wing position. I got to the gym, shot as many shots as I could, and ended up doing well with that. Coach Haase is a pretty defensive minded coach, and that’s how I’ve always been, anyway. I focused on the little things, ended up getting the starting spot and doing pretty well with it.”
After acting in a complementary capacity during his first two seasons, Jones became a leading man during his junior and senior seasons. Jones would have to set the table for himself and others more consistently. During his first two seasons, he took 6.8 FGA per game, and 5.4 of those attempts were threes. In the following two seasons, that ratio would change dramatically, as Jones developed more of an interior component to his game. This past season, he took 11.6 FGA per game, and 6.1 of those were inside the arc. He’s become more than just a shooter, and he’s done it while still playing defense at a high level. Now that we know how we got here, let’s get into the current iteration of Spencer Jones and what he could still become.
When evaluating prospects from an NBA perspective, one of the first questions I ask myself is, “what can this guy do on offense on an NBA floor right now or in the very near future?” For Spencer Jones, the answer is simple: space the floor and shoot threes.
Over the course of four high-major seasons, Jones has hit an outstanding 39.4% of his threes. Even these past two seasons, where he’s gotten fewer clean looks due to his starring role, he’s gone 38.3% while taking 12 attempts per 100 possessions. Jones is a high-volume, high-efficiency threat from beyond the arc at 6’7”. What pops on film, though, is how Jones gets to his threes. There’s a level of NBA functionality to his game due to how he plays within Stanford’s offense.
First, Jones is able to move into his shots. Per Synergy, he took 43 threes in transition and made 44.2% of them. Another 55 three-point attempts came from him moving off screens, and he went 36.4% of those attempts. The second part of the equation is that not only can Jones shoot coming off screens, but he’s also great at setting them. That simple act helps free him up. He’s also mastered the art of the ghost screen, and his shot prep footwork coming off that action is clean. During our discussion, Jones noted, “I’ve felt like I’ve been stronger than everybody I’m going against since then [gaining size during the COVID season]. It helps my game. The screening, that’s one thing a lot of kids don’t notice is the better you are at setting screens as a shooter, that’s usually going to get you open. It’s going to make the defense collapse if you’re setting a great screen. It’s going to cause your defender to overhelp, maybe you’re coming off a secondary screen, you’re a little bit more open. That’s how I get some of my space.” Additionally, Jones’s length helps him out here. Even in the face of an extended hand or hard closeout, his high release and consistent, quick, unchanging motion remain effective.
Over his four college seasons, Jones has made 39.4% of his triples off the catch. As a leading option, Jones doesn’t get many easy ones from deep, which should have him better equipped for tougher looks at the next level. At the bare minimum, teams are going to have to respect him in space. Not only is he going to make threes from a standstill, but he can also pose a real threat as a decoy, whether it’s as a screener or mover. Teams that utilize more movement within their offense, particularly with off-ball screen actions, could find tremendous value in Jones. Having a 6’7” shooter with a rock-solid frame who can set meaningful picks and move into his shot will make life more complicated for opposing defenses.
Inside The Arc
Simply chasing Jones off the line isn’t a direct path to victory. When explaining his process off the catch, Jones said, “The first thing is always you see how much space you’ve got. If it looks like they’re closing out short, you’re letting that go all the time. Every single time. After that, I’m reading the gaps. Where the help defender is at, is there a lane there…After that, it’s just read-and-react. You never want to think too far ahead and try to telegraph what you’re doing. [The] next thing is if I’m driving and I get cut off…turning it into a self-post. I’m 6’7”, 225, almost 230. I’m bigger than probably 80% of the guys I’m driving against. That’s a big advantage for me even if it’s drawing a second defender, and boom, sending the defense into rotation to get an open shot for somebody else.”
Despite taking few shots inside shots the arc during his first two college seasons, Jones has figured out how to make a mark there. Over the past two years, Jones has shot 60.7% at the rim in the halfcourt, per Synergy. When he has a taller player switched onto him, he’ll get low with his dribble to get past him. Against smaller opponents, he’ll use the strength and length advantage he noted before finishing over the top of them. Jones gets off one foot well in a straight line. Add in his soft touch and ability to withstand contact, and it’s tough to force him into a low-percentage shot around the basket. The in-between areas aren’t bad for Jones, either. His 40.5% on floaters isn’t too shabby. While he’s not a high-volume shooter in the mid-range, he’s been good on his pull-up twos, connecting on 42.9% of those over the past two years. Off the ball, he’s a crafty cutter who knows when to move and which angles will get him the best look at the rim. In plain terms, Jones’ scoring arsenal has more to it than just three-point shooting.
When looking at the stat sheet, Jones’s STL% of 2.4 and BLK% of 3.8 both stand out. But sometimes, numbers, specifically defensive playmaking numbers, can be deceiving. Occasionally, a player will post gaudy totals, but they will come strictly as a result of reckless, off-ball gambling. With Jones, that’s not the case. There’s a level of discipline, intelligence, and physicality that leads to him producing in a way that’s conducive to winning, whether he’s guarding the ball or defending within a team construct.
On-ball, few opponents present Jones with a truly significant mismatch. Against players his own height or taller, he’s never behind much of a strength curve. No one bosses him around or gets through his chest, and his frame is ready for the contact of the NBA. When switched onto smaller players, his feet are good enough that he manages to contain his opponent consistently and often forces them to take bad shots. His stable, balanced posture makes him difficult to shake. Opponents went 0-for-6 against him on isolation possessions last season. That figure is a testament to his skill as a defender, both in terms of results and how rarely opposing players were willing to go at him on an island.
This versatility has made Jones Stanford’s go-to stopper. Despite his big offensive role, he’s still often asked with taking the opposing team’s toughest assignment. He covered everyone from Jaime Jaquez Jr. to KJ Simpson in PAC-12 play last season. Constantly facing tough competition at a variety of positions should have Jones well-primed for what NBA teams could throw at him in the future. “I always welcome the challenge. It’s made me a better defender. The fact that I can guard the best four man or maybe the best two man. Whoever it is, I’m usually on them because I’m quick enough laterally, obviously strong, and the length has always been a plus for me,” Jones remarked.
Within a team concept, Jones is just as effective. His understanding of the game is thorough. Sometimes, attempts at playmaking on defense can lead to mistakes and easy baskets. Jones, however, knows when a gamble will pay off. He positions himself in the right spots, his timing is sublime, and he covers ground well when closing out. He’ll use his long arms to eat up space or bait opponents into throwing passes that he’s able to get his hands on. Simply put, he finds ways to take up space or eat it up. Jones has a strong nose for blocks around the basket. When a player doesn’t pay enough attention to their surroundings on a post-up or putback, Jones is ready to fly in and reject them. This additional rim protection is further bolstered by his ability to stay vertical around the basket. Whether he’s guarding the ball or playing off it, Spencer Jones will bring positive value on the defensive end.
The biggest addition I’d like to see to Jones’s game is an additional playmaking punch. While he’s not a careless player and just posted the lowest turnover rate of his career, he’s never been a high-assist guy or a jaw-dropping playmaker. This has been a focus area for Jones this offseason. “Now, I feel very comfortable seeing all reads coming out of the pick and roll,” he told me, “Seeing the big rolling, the opposite corner, the throwback guy, your own shot. Knowing how to read the defense. The next step is how to manipulate, how to use a shot fake to get someone out of position to open up a passing lane, using eyes to sink them in or out. Those little nuances are things I keep trying to add on…I’ll probably be coming off the most ball screens I’ve probably ever come off since I’ve been here. The assist numbers, you’ll definitely see go up.”
Jones also noted that he’s continued to work on his off-the-dribble game, particularly behind the three-point line, to add greater dynamism to his scoring arsenal. I’d like to see a few more athletic steps from Jones, too. While he’s far from sluggish, there are times when I wish he was a hair quicker and better able to gain separation from his opponent. It would help him get open easier when coming off screens, and it would also bolster his ability to attack closeouts. Getting further above the rim would add more punch to his finishing package, too.
I feel like there’s a strange cognitive dissonance going on with evaluators and Spencer Jones. Time and again, emphasisis is put on size, shooting, and defensive versatility. Spencer Jones brings all three, but his name doesn’t come up often enough as a Top 60, draftable prospect. I get the hangups—he’s not super shifty, his playmaking film isn’t the most exciting to examine, and he’s going to be on the older side relative to his draft-eligible peers. However, the big picture items are simply too hard for me to ignore. He’s a knockdown shooter with the physical tools to scale up to the NBA, he can defend multiple positions, he knows how to play off the ball on both ends, and he limits his mistakes. I was also blown away by his character, intelligence, and self-awareness when we spoke. There will be no delusions of grandeur when it comes to what his role should be on a team.
Barring catastrophe, there feels to be a pretty solid range of outcomes for Jones heading into next year’s draft. A player like Landers Nolley had similar height and shooting acumen. While Nolley was a better passer, he wasn’t as physically imposing, polished inside the arc, or versatile defensively. Nolley still got his foot in the door with an Exhibit 10 contract before being released by the Pelicans. Seth Lundy is another name that comes to mind, who faced similar passing concerns to Jones, but brought shooting, cutting, toughness, and defensive optionality. He was picked 46th and signed a two-way contract with the Hawks. The dream outcome from a draft standpoint is Ben Sheppard. Sheppard struggled with a high handle and looked below the rim athletically at college, but made tremendous improvements on those fronts during his final season and throughout the pre-draft process. Sheppard went 26th to the Indiana Pacers.
What Spencer Jones does in his final college season will ultimately determine where he ends up come June. After that, he’ll still have the opportunity to round out his game and add to his skill set. There are shades of Taurean Prince, Saddiq Bey, and Corey Kispert in his game. Whether he can achieve those outcomes will depend on his developmental trajectory going forward. He’ll need to continue to grow more athletic, more well-rounded as a passer, and develop more polish off the dribble. But as it stands, Jones could make for a stellar value play for a team looking for more ready, experienced players come draft night.
-So, I guess it’s time I comment on Alex Sarr, huh? To put it simply, I’ve been blown away by what I’ve seen. He’s firmly in the top tier of my board. I have Justin Edwards at #1, and I want to give him a chance to play before bumping Sarr over him. But man, it’s hard to ask for much else. His defensive mobility was always an intriguing component of his game, but his recognition and reactivity have caught up in a frightening way. The passing flashes that were on display in Overtime Elite have actualized themselves more consistently. While he was always a capable jump shooter for his age and size, he’s now being more assertive with his three-ball. At 7’1” with a good frame, top-of-the-line movement, and a rapidly increasing skill level, he’s going to make a front office very happy on draft night.
-The Nikola Djurisic bounce-back continues! He was always going to remain interesting/on radars because he’s 6’8”, changes speeds well, and can make plays for himself as well as others when attacking. His shooting last year was dismal, though, as he went 21.4% from deep and shot below 70% at the free-throw line. This season has brought about a course correction, as he’s 46.2% from deep and 72.7% at the charity stripe through four contests. Still, the sample remains small. He’s also not without other flaws, as his defensive effort, particularly around screens, can come and go. At the end of the day, he’s not a bad athlete, and given his downhill juice, a solid jump-shooting season will have him more than draftable. Size and feel tend to be a winning combination, and Djurisic has both.
-Now, it’s deep cut time. Let’s talk Wojciech Tomaszewski. The 6’6”, 21-year-old from Poland brings some speed to the table. He’s a quick penetrator who toys with pace well to get to his spots. He has soft touch around the basket and is able to maintain it through contact. His passing vision is solid, too. Through five games, he’s at 42.9% from long range, which is exciting. His speed helps on defense, too, where he’s able to chase players off the ball and nimble enough to slink around screens. Tomaszewski has pesky, well-timed hands when guarding the ball and does a nice job of playing long to keep his man in front of him. He’ll be held back by his thin frame and lack of overall productivity (6.6 PPG in the Polish OBL, which isn’t exactly Spain’s ACB). But if he can break out down the stretch and get his numbers up, there might be a path for him to work his way into Top 100s.
-Lefteris Mantzoukas is only 20 years old, but his name has been circling around the draft space for a few years now. At 6’9”, he can shoot it quickly off the catch with minimal dip. He’s looked particularly deadly from the corners, where he’s always prepared to launch the second he gets an open look. Through seven games in Greece’s domestic league and the EuroLeague, he’s hit 10 of his 13 triples. While he’s not a point-forward or anything, his basic skip it/next pass instincts are great. Where it gets tricky is that he’s a rather mundane athlete, and playing against such good competition, he’ll likely be relegated to a smaller role all season unless something dramatically changes. If he can make athletic improvements and get above water defensively, he’ll have a real case by the time he’s draft-eligible.
-On a secret scrimmage note, Twitter Icon Trilly Donovan reported that Chad Venning posted 19 points against Kent State. Venning is a guy I spent some time on this off-season, mostly because of his bizarre emergence. After spending two years at Morgan State and only starting 11 games, he transferred to St. Bonaventure. There, he started 29 out of 32 games and posted averages of 12.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 1.4 BPG. It’s pretty uncommon for a player to transfer up and play markedly better. For Venning, it was the result of a fitness transformation, as he’s slimmed down dramatically over the past few seasons. There may be more juice left to be squeezed athletically as he acclimates to his new body. He already has soft touch, craft on the block, and a strong competitive fire to him. The redshirt junior has two years of eligibility left, and if he can keep up this trajectory, don’t be surprised if he ends up on real radars at some point.
-Jon Rothstein tweeted that Dalton Knecht has looked like Tennessee’s best offensive player, per his well-embedded moles. To steal a line from Rothstein himself, BUY STOCK NOW. I wrote about Knecht during my No Stone Unturned series, but the bottom line is this: he’s 6’6”, he’s an exceptional athlete who can finish above the rim in the halfcourt, and he’s a lights-out three-point shooter. Get familiar with him now if you haven’t already.