The Case for Cason Wallace
Kentucky freshman Cason Wallace is often discussed as a safe, high-floor prospect, but he's shown signs that he could be a whole lot more than that.
Sometimes, because something appears straightforward, the brilliance of it can be overlooked.
Consistent readers of my work know that I’m a big-time Food Guy. One of my favorite dishes to make is a twist on a one-pan pasta from Chef John over at FoodWishes.Com. The ingredients in my version aren’t anything fancy: sausage, onions, mushrooms, chicken broth, orecchiette pasta, and arugula. I start by browning the sausage in a Dutch oven. Then, I add the onions and mushrooms, along with a bit of minced garlic, and season them with salt and Italian seasoning. Once the onions are tender, I add the broth and pasta, and season with more salt, freshly cracked black pepper, and some red pepper flakes. The key is to barely cover the pasta with broth while bringing it to a boil. As the liquid reduces, add more if needed. When the pasta is just about al dente, add the arugula until it’s cooked down.
This dish is really easy to cook, and on paper, it may sound boring. But in reality, the flavor is off the charts. The fatty, meaty bits of sausage, the sweetness of the onions, the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the richness of the broth are all imparting themselves onto the pasta throughout the cooking process. There’s a beautiful balance in these flavors, but the fact that even what is typically a bland part of a dish (a noodle) is now enriched with goodness takes things to another level. Further deliciousness is added from the bitter, spicy bite of the arugula. On paper, it’s a weird, brothy pasta with a bunch of normal foods in it. But in execution, there is more than meets the eye.
This is a long, roundabout way of saying that because Cason Wallace makes for a straightforward evaluation as a prospect, I feel that the brilliance of his game has often gone overlooked. The freshman guard out of Kentucky is often pigeonholed as a defense-first playmaker who can fill the gaps on offense. There’s more to him than he tends to get credit for, and there are realistic avenues for him to continue to build upon his skill set.
Cason Wallace finds ways to pressure the rim consistently. It’s part of why I’m so bullish on him. Let’s start with the basic number. Below, you’ll see a chart compared to how Cason Wallace stacks up to his peers (more traditional guard projected to go in the first round) when it comes to getting to the rim, doing it on his own, and finishing at the basket.
This isn’t a great rim pressure/finishing class, but Cason Wallace stands out, nevertheless. He gets to the basket more than his competition despite often playing with more limited shooters at the 4/5 spots, and he gets there on his own. I found this fascinating because, in many ways, he’s pretty limited in terms of what he does with the ball. His footwork is pretty simple, his handle isn’t anything special, he doesn’t string together moves in combination, and he’s quick to move off the ball as opposed to countering when he doesn’t get to his spot. That being said, many of those things are workable, and workable even in a one-on-one, with a trainer environment. It’s easy to imagine him polishing up his feet and adding more depth to his dribble bag. Wallace isn’t the quickest or most vertically explosive finisher, so adding these layers will help him immensely.
If you’re unfamiliar with Cason Wallace or just diving into the pre-draft scouting process now, you may be wondering, “if he has these limitations, then how is he getting to the basket? And how is he efficient when he gets there?” Folks, it’s because Wallace has a thing that I just made up: The Three T’s. Toughness, Touch, and ‘Telligence. Is there a better word I could have come up with for the last T? Yeah, probably, shut up, we’re moving on. The bottom line is, he can get better at a few of the things holding him back. However, toughness, touch, and *deep sigh* ‘telligence are all much harder to ingrain.
We’re going to start off with the *deeply regretting this concept voice* ‘telligence portion of his attacking game. Wallace gets inside by outsmarting opponents and finding ways to get defenders out of position. Sometimes, it’s a basic hesitation move to change the speed, cadence, and tempo of his attack to catch the defender off balance. Other times, it’s an in-and-out crossover to get his man to overplay him to one side, only to leave them in the dust. Wallace is also underrated as a ball-screen operator. Even though Kentucky didn’t have the most dynamic roll men this past season, he ranked in the 77th percentile on those possessions including assists this past season, per Synergy. He’ll play the ball screen in different ways, and despite his limitations, he’s tougher to read than you might think.
That brings us to his toughness. Wallace plays like a snowball rolling down a hill, accumulating more and more power the further he goes. Already tipping the scales at 195.2 pounds, Cason Wallace has some serious meat on his bones for a young, 6’2.5” guard. He plays like it, too, fighting through contact both on the ground and in the air in order to get the best driving and finishing angle possible.
Then, we get to the touch. While he wasn’t the best on floaters this past season, he’s generally been good on them prior, and he maintains control of the ball well when he’s bumped in mid-air. Wallace may not be the highest leaper or an acrobatic contortionist, but when players meet him at the rim, he doesn’t wilt against contact and still does everything in his power to send the ball home.
There are some minor nits to pick, like the fact that he’s clearly far more comfortable using his right hand on both sides of the basket. Still, he can convert with his left, and even when he goes to his inside hand, it usually works out for him. Simply put, Wallace gets to the rim consistently, and he finishes when he gets there.
The other thing Cason Wallace has going for him is that he’s a pretty dang good shot-maker. This area of his skill set is often overlooked, likely because he shot a pretty mundane percentage from deep (34.6% on 4.0 3PA per game). Still, that can partially be attributed to a back injury he suffered against South Carolina on January 10th. From a movement perspective, he was never quite the same after that, not elevating his well and generally looking stiffer in all facets of the game. Prior to that back injury, Wallace was shooting 41.9% on nearly five threes per game. Sure, the schedule was easier than during the SEC portion of play, but the Wildcats faced some legitimate competition, and it’s worth noting.
What makes Wallace interesting isn’t just that he can make threes, but rather, the variety of shots he’s able to hit off the dribble. Pull-up skills are a must for guards, given their role in the offense. If a player isn’t a threat to pull up, defenses sag and generally have a much easier time. There are fewer necessary movements and rotations to be made when you’re allowed to sit back against a ball handler. Wallace can keep defenders honest, though, and he often does when a defender goes too far under a ball screen. He isn’t shy in the slightest when he’s given space. He made 33.3% of his pull-up threes and 44.8% of pull-up twos, both marks that grade out well compared to his draftable peers. Wallace is much more comfortable in the mid-range for now, and he took 1/3 of the number of pull-up threes as Baylor’s Keyonte George. His deep-range game is evolving and still needs work, but it’s starting off in a good place as he prepares to make the leap to the NBA.
Wallace isn’t the most dynamic in terms of his footwork or dribble moves in this area of the court, either. Much like with his rim pressure, it’s more predicated on navigating screens in a way that is difficult for opponents to decipher. Still, it enables him to generate space, get off clean looks, and score. His pull-up mechanics are smooth and seamless. The motion looks the same time and time again. Plus, he keeps his release nice and high, maximizing the size that he does have and not leaving the ball out there like food on the table for bigger defenders.
Given his efficiency at the rim, in the mid-range, and from beyond the arc when healthy, Cason Wallace doesn’t just have three-level scoring upside, he’s already proven to a degree that he can score at each level of the floor against good competition. By adding more craft to how he gets his looks and being more assertive when he takes them, he could take his scoring to a high level in the NBA. He already has the most important part down— the ability to put the ball into the basket paired.
For now, the word I would feel most comfortable using to describe Cason Wallace’s playmaking is “steady.” He’ll make the quick “extra pass” skips. He’s capable of slinging the ball with one hand, but he’s not a deadly live-dribble passer. He makes the right reads consistently, and he’s quick to jump on mistakes that opposing teams make in scramble settings. Wallace excels at having the floor mapped, knowing where he can quickly route the ball to keep the offense humming. He’s a great inbounder, too, an often underrated facet of a player’s game. Generally speaking, he takes good care of the ball, posting 4.3 APG to only 2.1 TOV despite playing in a loaded SEC.
What makes Wallace intriguing here though is that he made clear, demonstrable growth later in the season, and there is still one big avenue for him to get much better. As the year progressed, Wallace started to make more clever, advanced reads. Early in the year, he was quick to move on and pass when he didn’t get where he wanted, or if he didn’t think he could get where he wanted. By season’s end, he was keeping plays alive longer and seeing more of the floor than the basic “next pass.” Add in that the bigs he played with didn’t have the most rim gravity, nor were they pick-and-pop threats, and I start to wonder what he could have looked like with a more dynamic big man flanking him.
Now, let’s talk about where Wallace can make a big leap— passing at the rim. As I noted earlier, Wallace gets to the basket quite well. However, he’s still yet to fully leverage that into part of his playmaking portfolio. He didn’t show a ton in the way of sleek, interior dump-offs, nor was he one to wrap the ball around to an open corner three-point shooter when the defense closed in on him. Given how well he grew as a playmaker for others throughout the year, this is a realistic, attainable development area for Wallace.
Wallace is already solid in this department. When he gets to the NBA, he’s not going to have to change how he plays in order to win over the trust of a coaching staff. He already plays the right way, makes decisions quickly, and places the ball in the right spots. Given that he’s already a solid on-ball “game manager,” that is going to enable him to play with the ball more, and I hope he begins to explore the studio space as the game slows down for him. By becoming a more dynamic, creative passer and better leveraging his rim pressure with kicks to teammates for open looks, Wallace could boom in an area where it feels impossible for him to bust.
I saved the defense for last because I wanted to give some love to Cason Wallace in areas of his game that don’t normally get as much love as they deserve. But straight up, Cason Wallace is a terror on the defensive end of the floor. He’s a stellar playmaker, racking up 2.0 SPG and 0.5 BPG. His 3.7 STL% in his pre-draft college season puts him in similar or favorable company to the likes of Davion Mitchell, Bones Hyland, and Fred Van Vleet. He had a 1.6 BLK%, too, putting him in a tier with Davion Mitchell (again), Jevon Carter, and Alex Caruso.
Cason Wallace uses his 6’8.5” wingspan exceedingly well. He’s great with help digs, he does a phenomenal job of poking the ball loose at the point of attack when players get sloppy with their dribbles, and he soars for blocks as a transition defender. His hands are lightning-fast, and before you realize he’s about to make a play on the ball, it’s too late. Lazy skip passes are impermissible when he’s on the floor, as he’ll snag the rock and create a transition opportunity off it almost every single time. From a rotational standpoint, he offers better ground coverage than most his size. If he needs to rotate or help, he’ll recognize it, and get where he needs to be in a hurry.
Still, no prospect is perfect, and Wallace has some work to do on defense. He could better leverage his strength by playing tighter on players, and he wasn’t always the most consistent in terms of providing resistance at the point of attack. Wallace struggled in ball screens, but I think there’s a solid, three-prong excuse here. The first is that Oscar Tshiebwe has garnered a bit of a reputation for letting his guards get rocked by screens and not calling them out. That doesn’t let Wallace completely off the hook for not feeling them out, but it’s worth considering. The second is that he didn’t have the best rim protectors behind him, so his mistakes weren’t cleaned up as often as those of some other prospects. Lastly, Wallace had the aforementioned back injury, and navigating screens with a bad back doesn’t seem like a joyous activity. This element of his game is by no means a mess, and I see him becoming at least solid at the NBA level there in time. It’s simply worth noting as an area for improvement, and to note that he’s more of a playmaker than a playmaker + POA stopper at this juncture.
Ultimately, Wallace is going to be a plus defender at the next level. His steal and block rates are typically only attained by guards who either defended at a high level or managed to consistently outsmart college opposition. Between his physical profile and ability to read the game, Wallace knows how to make plays while minimizing his mistakes. If he can round out some of the more fundamental, on-ball aspects to his game and become consistent there, he’ll be one of the better guard defenders in the league, and that outcome is absolutely on the table.
Conclusion and Projection
Cason Wallace has a firm lottery grade from me, and I feel that anything from pick nine onward is totally reasonable. He is going to come into the league ready to make plays on the defensive end while being to operate within the flow of an NBA offense. As the point guard position has become less traditional, Wallace’s more complementary skill set will serve him well. He knows how to make decisions quickly, he’s ready to shoot off the catch, and he doesn’t need to dominate the ball. Still, he’s already flashed the capabilities of a three-level scorer. If he can continue to develop his pull-up three-point shot while furthering his development as a passer (the second of which happens naturally for many young NBA players that get on the floor early in their careers), he can greatly raise his ceiling.
At worst, Wallace should be able to carve out a rotational role. Even if his jump shot is further behind or more average than his hot start made it appear to be, few guards bring his dynamic, playmaking punch on the defensive end of the floor. Add in that he’s a low-ego offensive player, and it’s easy for him to see him fitting into any type of offensive system. At best, though, we could be looking at a high-level starter. There’s a path for Wallace to be a three-level scorer who reliably distributes the ball while disrupting opposing offenses on the other end.
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