The Emergence of Kobe Bufkin
Come draft time, don't be surprised if Kobe Bufkin is a name that makes waves.
In today’s NBA, specialists and specific roles are being phased out. Instead, teams are in an endless search for players who have skill, size, and versatility. This used to be the approach that was employed solely for the franchise stars, but as players continue to evolve, what was once the exception is quickly becoming the rule. In the 2023 NBA Draft, Kobe Bufkin could be a surprise prospect who NBA teams fall in love with later in the draft due to his positional size and versatility.
While he wasn’t necessarily a household name as a high school recruit, Bufkin was still a four-star recruit who ESPN had ranked 40th overall. As a freshman, Bufkin had a sporadic role as he didn’t start any of the 28 games he played in and averaged only 10.6 minutes. This season, though, Bufkin has started all 16 games he’s played in while averaging over 30 minutes, along with 12.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals on 45/30/83 shooting splits. On the surface, these numbers aren’t overwhelming, but they are significant improvements from the previous season.
After adding 15 pounds in the offseason, Bufkin is now 6’4” and 195 pounds, and he has the versatility that he previously lacked. Instead of solely using his length and positioning to defend, Bufkin now has the strength to go along with it. His increased mass has made interior finishing easier, allowed him to hold off pesky defenders, and made it possible for him to switch multiple positions on the perimeter. Bufkin now not only has the physical tools to succeed but also the cerebral ones as the game continues to slow down for him on what feels like a nightly basis.
Bufkin is a tricky player to get a grasp on because he does a lot of stuff that most players at his position don’t do. Dalen Terry is one of the closest stylistic comparisons that comes to mind, but he never pops up in any of the statistical queries that align with Bufkin. There are myriad queries that you can run with Bufkin that show fascinating results, but the one I settled on was a usage over 20, assist rate over 15, a turnover rate under 15, block and steal rates over 2.5, and being from a high-major conference. I settled on these numbers because they showed players who had a reasonable level of responsibility, made good decisions with the ball, and were impactful on defense against high-level competition. This query resulted in Bufkin being one of nine players since 2008 to (currently) hit those benchmarks, per Barttorvik. Some other notable names include Otto Porter, Talen Horton-Tucker, Dean Wade, Jacob Evans, Sindarius Thornwell, and Trevor Booker. Not necessarily first-ballot Hall of Famers, but guys who have had, mostly, solid NBA careers. The tricky thing with Bufkin, though, is that the numbers don’t really tell the whole story with him. The tape is crucial.
One of the most impressive things about Bufkin’s leap this season has been his playmaking. He is significantly more confident on-ball, has excellent vision, and has the size to hold off defenders while he waits for teammates to become open.
Here, Bufkin is running a side pick-and-roll and signals to Dug McDaniel to clear out, allowing Bufkin to work with an empty corner. As McDaniel relocates, Bufkin uses a hang dribble while Tarris Reed slightly shifts the angle of his screen to get a bump on the defender. Bufkin patiently probes the baseline as the drop defender impedes his path to the lane. By attacking when he did, though, Bufkin ensnared the curiosity of McDaniel’s defender, who is now showing to Bufkin’s drive and leaving his teammate alone on the weakside to cover both the corner and wing shooters. Now that Bufkin’s drive has attracted the attention of all five defenders, he reads the help defender dropping to cut off McDaniel in the corner and kicks to Terrance Williams for the open three that refuses to go in.
This time, Bufkin goes straight into a pick-and-roll with Hunter Dickinson after receiving the handoff. Pittsburgh provides a hard hedge that Bufkin dances around, which requires Williams’s defender to help out of the corner and tag Dickinson on the roll. As Bufkin gets around the hedge, his eyes immediately identify Dickinson and the help defender. Dickinson shooting a layup is a better shot than Williams taking a three, so Bufkin realizes that he has to move the pesky defender who is currently prohibiting him from getting that shot. As Bufkin picks up his dribble, he stares down Williams. This deception pulls the defender away from Dickinson. Bufkin throws a laser of a pass to Dickinson for the score and the foul.
With Bufkin’s size and skill set, he will also spend plenty of time playing off-ball, but that shouldn’t hinder the effectiveness of his playmaking. Here, Bufkin runs off a down screen and immediately drives baseline to counter the defender’s momentum. Bufkin uses a subtle hesitation that momentarily freezes his defender and sends Dickinson’s defender a step off the baseline. Bufkin’s instinctual subterfuge creates a beautiful passing lane along the baseline for a Jett Howard corner three. Bufkin delivers a live dribble pass with his off-hand on a rope directly into Howard’s shooting pocket for a relatively open three that doesn’t fall.
Bufkin’s playmaking is like the lone curly fry you find in your order of regular fries. You weren’t expecting it, but it made the entire meal so much better. He’ll likely never be a dominant assist generator, but Bufkin will be an excellent connector who improves a team’s overall ball movement.
The bigger question, however, is his scoring. The numbers alone show a significant and meaningful improvement on much higher volume than last season, but numbers can be deceiving. Well, not in this case. Bufkin’s scoring improvement isn’t just because he’s learned how to knock down standstill jumpers or because he’s feasting on easy layups. He’s added craft, versatility, and touch to his scoring repertoire.
Bufkin’s current three-point percentage of 30.4% doesn’t exactly ignite excitement, but the indicators are really encouraging. Not only is that percentage up from 22.2% last season, but he’s also taking over double the attempts per game. Additionally, he is proving that his touch is legitimate as he’s shooting 82.6% from the line, 63.5% on close two-pointers, and 42.6% on far two-pointers. While he doesn’t project to be a lethal shooter, there are plenty of signs that he’ll continue to improve.
Shots like this one below engender a ton of confidence in Bufkin’s ability to develop into a quality shooter. As Dickinson comes to set the screen, Bufkin’s defender quickly jumps out to keep the ball away from the middle of the floor. Bufkin times his move perfectly as the defender is still in the air and can’t react in time. Bufkin uses a hard jab step to his left that propels him back to his right, away from the defender. With ease, Bufkin rises and knocks down the self-created three.
This time, Bufkin is in the exact same spot, but Dickinson sets the screen on the other side. This now creates a situation where Bufkin can attack based on the drop defender’s positioning. Given where the drop defender and the two help defenders are, Bufkin realizes that attacking the rim wouldn’t be the most prudent decision, and a kick out isn’t available, especially with the clock winding down. Instead, Bufkin again implements the side-step that propels him back to his left towards the elbow. This move allowed Bufkin to find a pocket of space, send one help defender back toward the off-ball shooter, and enabled Bufkin to reuse the screen to further hinder his defender from getting a strong contest in. Bufkin rises, fades, and knocks down the mid-range jumper.
Bufkin’s implementation of footwork and finesse has been a tremendous evolution to his game, but he didn’t add 15 pounds just for the hell of it. The fact that he’s actively using it to his advantage is impressive. Here, he receives the handoff, surveys the situation, realizes nothing is open, and says screw it, let’s get downhill. Bufkin loads up and attacks the smaller defender, a characterization that was put on him plenty of times last season. A year ago, Bufkin would’ve struggled to turn the corner and keep his drive inside the lane. Now, though, Bufkin lowers his shoulder to move the defender, keeps his drive inside the lane to maintain a quality scoring angle, and finishes through the contact while drawing the foul.
Similar to his playmaking, Bufkin’s scoring is still effective in an off-ball role. I’m not going to show a series of catch-and-shoot threes because those are boring, at least the ones he takes. There are some off movement and handoffs, which is a promising trend, but most of them are spot-up jumpers. What is fascinating, though, is Bufkin’s ability to attack closeouts, counter rotations, and manipulate his defender’s momentum—things which are all available to him due to the improved shooting.
Here, Michigan rotates the ball from one wing to the other, and even though the ball sticks with Jace Howard longer than it should, negating Bufkin’s opportunity to attack a recovering defender, Bufkin still makes something out of the situation. Bufkin is begging for the ball because he sees that the baseline and the left block are completely unattended. Once he gets it, Bufkin uses a strong rip-through and immediately attacks. This decisiveness allows him to immediately beat his defender and get a step of a head start on the rotating defenders. With a full head of steam and a stronger physical build, Bufkin is able to elevate, absorb the contact, and finish through it.
Bufkin has made tremendous strides as an offensive player. While his physical development has empowered him offensively, it has also elevated his defensive capabilities, which were already impressive. With his improved frame, Bufkin has the tools to be a menace of a point-of-attack defender. He has excellent feet, lightning-quick hands, telepathic instincts, and good length. He also consistently shows up as a quality off-ball defender.
Here, Bufkin is guarding fellow draft hopeful Reece Beekman. Knowing Beekman isn’t an overly threatening pull-up shooter, Bufkin goes under the first screen before slithering over it once Beekman crosses over. Bufkin’s fluid screen navigation allows him to quickly get back rim side of Beekman. This skill is great for his individual defense, but it also makes life easier for his teammates as they can stay home on shooters and recover to the roller. Bufkin quickly cuts off Beekman’s drive and eagerly blocks the half-hearted floater attempt. There’s a reason why he’s one of nine players who are under 6’5” from high major conferences with a block rate of at least 2.5.
This time, Bufkin doesn’t even allow the screen to come into play. As Beekman brings the ball up, Bufkin quickly jumps in front of the incoming screen, which naturally triggers Beekman’s reaction to crossover and use it going the other way. Bufkin knows that this is Beekman’s plan, especially with the clock winding down, so he uses his length and quick hands to pounce. Bufkin pokes the ball loose and immediately sprints to beat the clock. Beekman, also an astute defender, gives chase, but Bufkin has the strength to shrug off his hopeful steal attempt before beating the clock with a layup.
Bufkin’s defensive playmaking numbers are impressive on their own, but how he uses those as tools to spark the fastbreak is just as important. We just saw how he is capable of being a lone wolf, but he isn’t averse to running with the pack either. Yes, I know that’s incredibly tacky and has absolutely nothing to do with their mascot. Likely would’ve been better used for other prospects, but here we are.
Despite getting tripped by the screen, Bufkin promptly recovers to smothering his assignment. Bufkin stays attached and realizes that the ball-handler has a rather high and casual dribble despite Bufkin’s pressure. Bufkin isn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he enthusiastically pokes the ball loose and chases it down to ignite the fast break. As he approaches the arc, Bufkin realizes that he doesn’t have an advantage. He slows it down not with the intention of setting up the halfcourt offense but to allow his trailing teammates to drag defenders with them. Howard floats out to the opposite wing, dragging one defender. Williams cuts to the right block, dragging the other. This action creates a wide-open lane to the rim for Dickinson to fill. Bufkin analyzes the situation perfectly and delivers a perfect pass through traffic for the dunk.
Even when Bufkin is generating highlight after highlight on defense, he’s still playing high-quality team defense. As Penn State enters the ball into the post, Michigan sends help from the baseline. This triggers defensive rotations to take away skip passes and account for cutters. Bufkin sinks inside the elbow, which takes away the outlet to the top of the arc, but allows him to still watch his man and the ball. Once the ball circulates back to his man, Bufkin’s closeout is focused on taking away the drive, given that his assignment is a non-shooter. Bufkin quickly cuts off the right and shows off his balance and quick hips as he pivots to contain the drive to the left. His footwork isn’t perfect, but it allows him to use his long strides to catch up quickly to completely extinguish any hopes of getting to the rim.
The 2023 NBA Draft is flush with wings, but there aren’t a ton of guards who have emerged in the late first round to early second round range. Just like Dalen Terry did last season, it wouldn’t be shocking if Kobe Bufkin filled that role this year. Bufkin has made extraordinary strides in every aspect of his offense. His shot is more consistent, he has the strength to finish through contact, and he continues to display the ability to get to his spots in all three levels. Defensively, Bufkin is a menace. He has some of the quickest hands in the country, positions himself brilliantly off-ball, and is almost reading his opponent’s mind when they have the ball. Bufkin still has plenty to improve on and has barely scratched the surface of what he could grow into, but he could be one of the most exciting blank canvases in this draft class.