The Kindred Spirits of PBJ & Toni Kukoč
Highlighting the similarities between Milwaukee freshman Patrick Baldwin Jr. and NBA Hall of Famer Toni Kukoc's skillsets.
Are you having trouble figuring out the 2022 NBA Draft class? Shit, me too. Even though we’re now in February and more clarity has been added to the evaluation process with bigger sample sizes of game film for us psychos to dissect, the picture has also been more muddled with big boards as chaotic as Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
It’s also the time of year when selling your stock on a certain prospect you might’ve loved preseason becomes very easy to do. You can get caught up in the narratives surrounding someone and panic that they haven’t panned out in the way you've expected. Personally, I feel this can be dangerous to do as an evaluator. I think this also plays into a bigger issue with the hyper-filled highlight-culture we live in nowadays and how it can be really foolish to put definitive labels on 17-18-year-olds coming out of high school. It’s also an example of why patience is the best approach more often than not when ultimately trying to figure out ceilings for these NBA prospects.
Too often, a 6’10” kid will show he can shoot deep threes off of the dribble, and we immediately anoint them the next Kevin Durant; if they don’t live up to those expectations right out of the gate at the collegiate level against better competition, they sort of just get written off as overrated. But just because a prospect might not be a transcendent superstar talent doesn’t mean they won’t be an impactful player as a pro.
We mistakenly blame the prospect for not living up to our potentially non-realistic expectations instead of looking at how we can be better talent evaluators ourselves to make better, more realistic, pro comparisons for these players who are still in the middle of crucial developmental years. A great example of this pertaining specifically to the 2022 NBA Draft cycle is Milwaukee freshman Patrick Baldwin Jr.
I feel he embodies the sort of player I’m talking about here. Coming into this season, Baldwin Jr. was viewed as someone who could maybe contend for a Top Five selection. However, after a rocky season with the Panthers that has been plagued by injuries and poor box scores, the perceived pro potential of PBJ has become extremely murky. After diving in on the film, though, I’m more of a believer than ever in the Green Bay, Wisconsin native’s abilities and the role I think he can thrive in at the NBA level.
On the surface, PBJ’s stat line is decent, with averages of 12.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.6 APG, and 0.9 BPG. The problems for Baldwin Jr.’s draft stock, though, start with the fact that he’s only played in 10 of Milwaukee’s 24 games this season due to injury issues. Then you add in the fact that his two biggest chances to shine in front of NBA scouts against Florida and Colorado ended with him scoring only a combined 25 points on 9-28 (32%) shooting from the field, and there are yet more red flags for evaluators to consider. The final cherry on top, if you will, in regards to PBJ’s slight plummet down big boards is the fact that a player who was perceived as possibly the best shooter in the class is sporting a 46% True Shooting percentage currently and has hit a pedestrian 16-57 (28%) of his attempts from beyond the arc.
When you get past just looking at the numbers, the limitations Baldwin Jr.’s also shown at times with his lack of consistency shooting off of the dribble, as a shot creator, and defensively only adds more fuel to the fire of the doubts surrounding his pro upside. I’m not here to act like PBJ or any prospect is perfect, none of these guys are even close to finished products yet in the game of basketball or life. I think all of these things are fair critiques of his current overall skillset and the areas in which he can improve still.
You’ll see in the clips below, especially in the game against Colorado where PBJ was guarded by fellow pro prospects Jabari Walker and Tristan da Silva, his lack of great first-step quickness and refined handling ability stick out often. If you’re or were expecting him to be KD or Paul George, I think you might be really disappointed with what you’ve seen so far from PBJ. However, I think you also could possibly be mispositioning him and the role he should fit in best as a pro.
I’ve never really bought into the idea of Baldwin Jr. being some iso-scoring machine who is going to be the number one, go-to option for an NBA franchise. I don’t think that’s a recipe for success for him or whatever team selects him this summer, as I view PBJ as more of the perfect complimentary piece at the next level. You might hear that and go: “Evan, why would I want my favorite team to draft a complementary piece in the top ten?” and I would say this is where again, as evaluators, we have to self-scout. Complementary players are enormous to a team’s success—they can end up being the backbones to multiple Finals runs and eventual championships.
When you put Baldwin Jr.’s skills in the context of how he could fit as a great number two or number three option, instead of viewing him as an elite scoring wing, the value and appeal of what he could bring to a pro team become much more straightforward. It’s why if I were the general manager selecting PBJ, I would be looking to use NBA Hall of Famer, and three-time NBA champion, Toni Kukoč as the NBA player archetype for Baldwin Jr. to mimic.
After watching the Milwaukee Panthers game film from this season, primarily the games PBJ has played in, I kept racking my brain for what was a realistic pro comparison for this kid. With his combination of shooting and size, I initially thought of former New Jersey Nets great Keith Van Horn as a reasonable comp. Then something kept happening over and over as I continued to watch the film. Time and time again, Baldwin Jr. just kept making these pristine passes that made me gasp in excitement.
For all the talk I’d heard about his shooting, which is very much a legitimate ability he possesses, the playmaking potential and vision I saw on display is what caught my attention the most when evaluating PBJ myself. This dude isn’t just a shooter—in only a ten-game sample size, Baldwin Jr. has created a highlight reel of passes that should leave any scout impressed. Whether it be behind-the-back passes out of the post or no-look darts in transition, the court vision and arsenal of passes PBJ has at his disposal is special.
It’s also the main thing that led me down the rabbit hole of seeing Toni Kukoč as a very plausible pro comp for PBJ. Their shared combination of offensive versatility with their size, shooting, and passing ability is just eerily similar to me. Kukoč was probably a better creator off the dribble, and was more of your prototypical point forward, but who’s to say Baldwin Jr. can’t eventually develop into that kind of playmaker?
I just believe Baldwin Jr. has the sort of passing chops that the Croatian legend possessed. He can attack opposing defenses in the same way Kukoč did as a secondary playmaker, a role in which he could be potentially lethal. I think PBJ’s ability as a passing connector, mainly out of the high post, and his vision in transition are only going to add to the potency of a pro offense. His natural feel and craft as a passer at only 19 years old is something I’m willing to bet blossoms in the right setting and with the right talent around him.
Obviously, you can’t look at these two guys without talking about their shooting prowess. Again, I know the shooting numbers have been rough for PBJ, but there’s enough on tape that makes me confident in what his efficiency should or could be as a shooter. He’s got smooth shooting mechanics, sporting a high release and an effortless follow-through. Baldwin Jr. excels in catch-and-shoot situations, primarily as a trailer in transition. If you lose him as a defender in the open floor, it’s basically game over. PBJ’s also flashed having a capable step-back jumper in his bag, another layer to his scoring repertoire that adds to the intrigue of what he could develop into as a scorer.
Kukoč only shot 33.5% over the course of his 15 year NBA career, a clip that is beyond reachable for PBJ. I think there’s actually a lot of evidence to make a good argument that Baldwin Jr. projects as being a better shooter than Kukoč was as a pro in multiple aspects. The bigger point though is that Kukoč benefited from playing off of players like Jordan and Pippen, converting on good catch-and-shoot opportunities from three because the defense’s attention was elsewhere. Can you imagine the kind of looks Baldwin Jr. can get in the NBA when he’s not being viewed as the opposing team’s primary option offensively?
I also like that PBJ can score inside of the three-point line, and similarly to Kukoč, PBJ has good touch around the rim. Although neither was an explosive athlete, they’ve got enough quick-twitch off the dribble to beat slower bigs off the bounce and have the size to finish over smaller forwards or guards on switches.
You see PBJ exploit this frequently from the high post, and the in-between scoring game he has is another reason to believe he probably has more talent as a scorer than Kukoč did at a similar point in his development as a player. Baldwin Jr.’s mid-range shooting, floater, and the fadeaway he has to attack defenders are a pleasant sight to watch. If he matures his weaponry from a scoring standpoint, it’s hard to not fantasize about what the ultimate ceiling is for him as an offensive weapon in the NBA.
The last thing I want to spotlight with Baldwin Jr. is his capabilities as a defender. I know I mentioned earlier some of the deficiencies he’s had on the defensive end of the floor, but I’m not quite sure he will necessarily be a liability either as a pro. PBJ’s showcased active hands as a defender to disrupt passes and force steals, while also displaying his capabilities at times as a help/weak side shot blocker.
His Defensive Rating of 102.1 this season is a good indicator of the sort of defender I think he can be at the next level. Baldwin Jr.’s not going to carry a team on that end or even be a difference-maker at times, but again he’s not going to get killed either. Like Kukoč, I see him more as a versatile offensive specialist, but he’ll be serviceable defensively in my opinion.
Kukoč might’ve been the third option on those great Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen-led 1990s Chicago Bulls teams, but he played an invaluable role in the franchise’s championship success. Being a second or third option on a team doesn’t mean you can’t be an impactful, star player. This is simply why I would still take Baldwin Jr. in the lottery of this draft pretty comfortably.
The injury issues and just overall lack of production at Milwaukee this year are without question a concern, but I’m a believer in PBJ’s value as a Toni Kukoč type as a pro. For a franchise that already has their guy, Baldwin Jr. could be the ultimate Robin to their Batman. The offensive flexibility PBJ possesses as a three-level scorer, combined with what I think he can eventually become as a secondary shotmaker and playmaker in the NBA, is still intriguing. There is just too much for me to still like about Baldwin Jr.’s game to give up hopes on him as a pro prospect.