Discover more from No Ceilings
The Prospect Overview: Jake Stephens is Surreal
Jake Stephens is 7'0" with a 7'10" wingspan, and he's hit 45.1% of his threes the past two seasons. The Chattanooga big man is one of the most interesting and exciting sleepers in the 2023 NBA Draft!
This past weekend, my wife and I went to visit her family. They live in the middle of nowhere. Like, REALLY the middle of nowhere—a town of under 500 people surrounded by towns of similar or smaller size. The nearest Wal-Mart is 25 minutes away. We went to a restaurant in a “bigger town” by them. Bigger town=about 1,300 people. Her family has visited this same place for decades. There is an off-menu order named after my wife’s grandmother, The Granny Special, which is a trip to the salad bar and a fried chicken breast. Granny skipped out on The Granny Special on Sunday, though, instead pointing at my mother-in-law and ordering, “that breakfast thing she ordered last week.” The waitress somehow knew exactly what she was talking about. Their signature dish is a Central Illinois delicacy, The Horse Shoe. It’s two pieces of Texas Toast, the meat of your choice, and a ton of fries, all covered in cheese sauce.
You know I ordered one of those bad boys. Always do. You can get horseshoes everywhere around there, but the blend of white and yellow cheeses at this restaurant is the best you’ll find, in my humble opinion.
Between the wildly unhealthy food and absurd small-town familiarity, I felt like I was in an episode of Parks and Rec. There’s actually a town somewhat nearby named Pawnee, and some have pondered if it was actually the inspiration for that show, though no proof exists. The entire dining experience there always feels surreal, made up, and absurd. The interactions, the ridiculous food, and off-menu orders all feel like something you would only see in a sitcom or movie.
You’re probably thinking, “Hey, I thought this was a basketball column! Get to the hoops, nerd!” And I am! I bring up my dining experience here because it’s the closest real-life parallel to my journey following Jake Stephens’s basketball career unfold.
If you’re not familiar with Jake Stephens, I get it. I wasn’t either. He spent his first four seasons at Virginia Military Institute before spending a graduate year at Chattanooga. Last season, I couldn’t stop coming across his name, though. Not because he was heating up across mainstream publications, though. I’m a big-time data nerd, constantly searching different statistical combinations in hopes of finding new prospects or learning if I’m potentially undervaluing one that I already know. Because of his well-rounded statistical output, Stephens’s name was turning up constantly. But when I threw on the film, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see. It felt completely surreal.
The first thing you need to know about Jake Stephens is that he is an absolutely enormous human being.
He measures in at 7’0” with a 7’10” wingspan and is listed at 275 pounds. He’s good at all the things you’d expect him to be good at. Stephens averaged 9.8 rebounds per game this past season. He uses his large, powerful frame to destroy opponents inside. Stephens made 70.6% of his shots at the basket, per Synergy, ranking him in Division I’s 91st percentile. He scored 1.073 points per possession on post-ups, slotting him in the 89th percentile on those possessions. Stephens sets awesome screens, making contact with his intended target and getting space for his guards. His comically long arms and strong chest make him a formidable rim protector, too. Opponents bounce off his chest, and he’s able to impede just about everything. Stephens blocked 2.2 shots per game this past season and had a block percentage of 8.0. Per Synergy, opposing teams shoot 40.4% at the rim against him in the halfcourt. Simply put, it’s not easy to put the ball in the basket when he’s on the floor.
Here’s the kicker—Stephens is really good at the thing you wouldn’t expect him to be good at. He’s more than just really good—he’s an elite three-point shooter. During his first three college seasons, he was good for his position, hitting 33% of his 3.9 triples per contest. However, it was before his senior campaign that he made a leap. During an interview with Jake, which you can listen to in full on our podcast feed, he outlined what led to that jump.
“It had been three years in the mid-to-low thirties. And Coach Earl brings me in at our end of the year meeting…and he’s like, ‘great player, love everything you do, but for you to take us to the next step, you’re gonna have to become a knockdown shooter.’ And I’m like, kinda hurt! That’s the name of my game, that’s what I do, but obviously, the numbers are saying otherwise…At that point, I’m like, let’s scrap it, let’s go back to the drawing board, more reps, more shots.”
Stephens went on to outline how he worked on speeding up his motion, tweaking his elbow placement, and the different shooting drills he went through. To say the work paid off would be a giant understatement. Stephens ranked in the 95th percentile as a jump shooter this past season, per Synergy. Over the past two seasons, he’s converted 45.3% of his threes on 5.1 attempts per game. These aren’t wide-open, standing-in-the-corner, catch-and-shoot looks, either. Stephens often has to move into his shot, whether it be as a trailer, setting his feet after a screen, or backpedaling into his shot. The way he prepares for his shot, getting his feet under him and his knees bent just the right amount, is a thing of beauty. His pre-shot motion resembles that of a much smaller player. Because he’s so huge, his shot is a nightmare to impede and contest.
The icing on the cake is Stephens’s absurd passing game. He’s wildly skilled in this department, making him a nightmare in handoff settings. His jump shot pulls the opposing big away from the basket, so if a guard turns the corner quickly, they have to keep pace. Sag, and you’ll be giving a high-end shooter an open three. Whether it’s the basic feed to a cutter or a long, cross-court pass from the post, Stephens can make it.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know I was a great passer. My brother’s a point guard, he has great vision, he would find me. That was his job, not mine. I didn’t really see that in my game. Which is even crazier for Coach Earl [his coach at both VMI and Chattanooga] to bring me in as a [then] 6’9” big and be like, ‘this is gonna be the guy that passes and we run the offense through him…The biggest thing for me with passing came down to, ‘how can you effect the game without scoring?’…It’s not so much about the fancy pass, it’s about the right pass, and finding the guy that’s open.”
Stephens averaged 3.4 assists per game this past season. His 25.2 Assist Percentage is absurd, one of the three highest in Division I for players 6’10” and above. His decision-making is sound, too—he posted a 14.5 turnover percentage, which was the lowest of his career. Not only does Stephens make plays for his teammates, but he limits his own mistakes. Still, he’s mesmerizing with the ball. His timing and ability to hit his teammate right where he needs to while they are in motion are stellar. It’d be impressive if it were anyone, but it’s especially impressive for a big man.
Where it gets tricky for Stephens is projecting his defensive role at the next level. Particularly, his athleticism is concerning. By NBA standards, Jake Stephens is slow and he doesn’t get off the ground that well. For teams that prefer switchable schemes or a more mobile big man, Stephens doesn’t fit that mold at the moment. When I asked about his primary focus headed into pre-draft process, Stephens noted his athleticism right away.
“I think the obvious thing is the athleticism. I wanna be as bouncy, as quick-twitch as I can possibly be…I feel like I can show some signs of is improvement…I don’t want to be the guy they look at and say, ‘he hasn’t done much since his season ended back in March.’”
I followed up more specifically with a question in regard to his mobility and agility, and how he feels about his ability to play in different ball screen coverages.
“I actually feel pretty confident. When I went down with my hand injury…how can I come back from this even better? I went to the strength coach and was like, ‘I can still jump, I can still run, lets start all of that now.’ So I feel like I ahve an eight week head start on what I could have done. Even when I came back from injury, I felt like I was moving my feet better, my leaping is getting better, so I do feel comfortable. We even got a couple switches, and I was like, ‘I feel comfortable guarding this guy.’ I’d tell the guard, ‘if he gets in the paint, I got him don’t worry about it.’ So I do feel comfortable in different schemes. I think a lot of the hesitation with me is obviously, drop coverage or different ball screen coverage, but there’s a give and take. I was playing 38 minutes, I couldn’t foul, most of the time we’re running a match-up zone defense, so communicating everything out. So at the next level, obviously, I want to play 38 to 40 minutes, but my role will be different. In there for 5-10 minutes at a time, I think I’ll be even more comfortable. I feel comfortable with it now, and that’s with having to play every single minute of the game, basically.”
For Stephens, his ability to survive on the defensive end will likely determine his ceiling. If he can get to a point where he’s able to play drop coverage effectively, show at the level when needed, and not be completely toast in switch settings, his offense should theoretically get him over the hump.
I understand the Jake Stephens doubters. He’s a subpar athlete for the NBA level, and there is a big jump in competition from the NCAA’s Southern Conference to the NBA’s Eastern and Western Conferences. Maybe he’s just a big dude who feasted on outmatched opposition the past few seasons and is more suited to an overseas league. He’ll also be 24 years old around the start of next season. As a graduate, he’s unlikely to hear his name called on draft night—not a single fifth-year player was chosen last year.
But frankly, Jake Stephens is a flier I would be more than willing to take. I’d want him in my building, plain and simple. When I interviewed his college coach Dan Earl this past off-season, he raved about Jake’s worth ethic and leadership. Using my draft model which tracks the production of NBA players who earned or are on pace to earn a second NBA contract, Stephens has no red flags and grades out well in most areas, a common trait for mid-major success stories. His Synergy page speaks to his offensive versatility—he scores more than one point per possession as a pick-and-roll roll man, as well as on post-ups, spot-ups, transition plays, cuts, put-backs, and handoffs. He’s a useful scorer everywhere on the floor. Throw a small on him and he’ll bully them. Put a big on him and live with the fact that they’ll have to play away from the basket. He’s a mismatch problem on offense, but because he’s a dynamite passer, he actively makes his other teammates better, too. For Stephens, the name of the game is being such an offensive powerhouse that it overrides any issues that arise on defense. On that end of the floor, he just needs to become passable. If he can thrive in a drop, or if a team is comfortable going to a zone with him (something we’ve seen more often lately, and a tactic the Dallas Mavericks used in the playoffs a few years ago to keep Boban Marjanovic on the floor), there’s a path for him to be a unique, effective back-up. The offense is about spacing the floor as a shooter and operating handoffs, the defense is about staying above water.
I get it—Jake Stephens is not Bam Adebayo. He’s not even close. But he’s 7’0”, he’s got a 7’10” wingspan, he’ll space the floor as well as anyone, and he’s a dynamite passer. I understand the agility and mobility concerns, and I recognize that they may keep him out of the league. But the NBA is increasingly focused on size and skill, and Stephens has heaps of both. If it’s a size and skill league, it feels preposterous to not bring him in for a look. Whether it’s on an Exhibit-10 contract or a mere Summer League invite, every team should be considering it. Personally, he’d be a priority Exhibit-10 player for me. That way, if things don’t go as planned and I don’t want him on a two-way deal, I can at least funnel him to my G League affiliate and see where he can get athletically in the next year. Coming from schools like Chattanooga and VMI, Stephens hasn’t had access to the highest levels of training. Despite that, he’s moved better and gotten off the floor better each season. As Tyler Rucker recently mentioned, it’s overthinking season. Let’s not do that with Jake Stephens. He just finished growing, he’s moving better, and his across-the-board production is absurd. On top of that, he’s improved every single year of his college career. They don’t grow high feel, elite shooters on trees, and if they did, this one would be so big that he uprooted the entire thing. If Jake Stephens isn’t worth a low-risk flier, then I don’t know who is.
A little something different here! I cut off The Expanding Big Board around the tournament last year, and I’ll be doing the same this year. However, to end the column, I’ll be giving you a look at my current Top 30—some “Quick Hits” style thoughts. I also made this board in a rapid-fire manner, going off the top of my head as opposed to deep diving into the notes. From there, I added my thoughts. It’s more of a “go with your guts” style board. It’s The Quick Hits Big Board!
1. Victor Wembanyama
2. Scoot Henderson
3. Brandon Miller
4. Cam Whitmore
5. Jarace Walker
I think I’ve talked myself back into Cam Whitmore. To be blunt, I absolutely despise how often Whitmore takes a second to assess the floor before attacking. His 6.3% assist rate for a forward is real “danger zone” territory. The only forward in recent years with a worse one in their final college season that stuck around? Anthony Gill. I guarantee you that this is the only time you’ll see the two of them compared anywhere this draft cycle. Still, I think Whitmore can get there. From a physical standpoint, he’s undeniable. Even when matched against bigger opponents, Whitmore still manages to fight his way to the basket. His cutting instincts are good, his first step is potent for his size, and he flies off the floor to finish. I’ve long bought his shot, which has been steady since the start of his senior year of high school. Defensively, he’s been far more consistent over the last month. There are shaky moments off the ball, but he guards it well across the spectrum. On paper, he should be an inside-out threat who creates for himself and defends well. He just needs to be more assertive the instant he gets the ball and keep his eyes up more consistently. I believe he’s capable of both.
6. Amen Thompson
7. Ausar Thompson
8. Taylor Hendricks
9. Jett Howard
Plain and simple, I’m buying it with UCF’s freshman forward Taylor Hendricks. There are the obvious drawbacks—like Whitmore, he’s a lower assist rate guy. Unlike Whitmore, he’s very thin and will get bumped around out of the gate. Still, at 6’9” with great length, I trust him as an instinctual, off-ball defender. He’s become far more consistent on that end of the floor, utilizing his feet better, keeping his hands high, and his arms wide. As he fills out his frame, he could be a guy who holds his own 1 through 4. His jump shot is absolutely gorgeous, and he hits 39.4% of them on 4.6 per game. Lastly, while he is a low-assist guy, he’s a snappy decision-maker who played in a play-finishing role. I don’t think he’ll ever make a wild leap as a handler and distributor, but if you’re talking about a tertiary starter next to a star, he’s already shown the ability to do what he’ll need to do. I’m not selling my Jett Howard stock, either. The 6’7” freshman is a real-deal movement shooter and trustworthy decision-maker. His handle and rhythm were on full display early in the season. As the year progressed, though, he struggled to get to his spots and saw his efficiency plummet inside the arc. Defensively, the less said, the better. From both a skill and physical standpoint, Howard was a late bloomer. He just finished growing and his frame needs to fill out. Growth spurt guys have proven to be something of a market inefficiency in recent years (Trey Murphy, Jalen Williams), and Howard could be another one of them. He has his warts, but his pedigree and physical profile, paired with shot-making, make him too enticing at this stage.
10. Anthony Black
11. Cason Wallace
12. Brice Sensabaugh
In my database, the NBA player who stuck around with the most Points Per 100 possessions in their final college season was Zion Williamson with 41.2. Brice Sensabaugh’s 40.3 would make him second on the list, and he did it on 52.3/40.5/83.0 splits with a usage percentage of 34. I get it—he can be a space cadet off the ball on defense and he’s not much of a passer. He doesn’t generate a ton of space for himself and his handle needs work. But the shot-making and scoring prowess here are historically absurd. I’ll take him 12th any day of the week.
13. Gradey Dick
14. Keyonte George
15. Jalen Hood-Schifino
16. Max Lewis
17. Kobe Bufkin
Michigan sophomore Kobe Bufkin has a September birthday, meaning that he’s actually the age of most freshmen in this class. The lightbulb went off for him in December, and he’s been on a rampage ever since. His skinny frame might make early minutes tough to come by, but he’s the prototypical “guard next to a star” in the modern NBA. He’s a slithery downhill attacker and an ambidextrous passer, he gets up to finish, and he’s a solid outside shooter. On defense, he’s an absolute pest. He contests shots well thanks to his vertical pop, and his timing is a big plus across the board. Given his youth, free throw numbers, and pull-up shooting statistics, I think the shot is real.
18. Dariq Whitehead
19. Jordan Hawkins
20. Nick Smith Jr.
Here is a list of guards in my database who had a worse eFG% in their final college season than Nick Smith Jr. and earned a second NBA contract:
Uh oh! You’ve reached the end of the list! Look, I think there’s a path for Smith to be an outlier. His floater touch is great, he can pull up in the mid-range, and I think he’s a better three-point shooter than he’s shown at Arkansas. I’m also pretty bullish on his passing despite the assist totals. He can whip the ball out of the live dribble, and Arkansas is…not a great shooting team. In fact, they’re a dreadful one. They are 350th in three-pointers taken per game, and 327th in three-point percentage. When my grandfather’s memory and day-to-day brain function started to decline, he once referred to something as a, “double s***ter,” a phrase I’ve never heard before or since. However, the shooting for Arkansas may fit that bill. While that excuses the passing counting numbers, I worry that spacing isn’t the only reason NSJ can’t pressure the rim. A meager 16% of his shots in the halfcourt come at the rim. Add in his skinny frame and injury history, and it can be hard to be encouraged. He’s a big “let’s go back to the high school film” guy. The same can be said for Dariq Whitehead, who at least showed that he can be a nasty shooter off the catch and offers more size.
21. Dereck Lively II
This column aged well. Lively has real offensive limitations and desperately needs to add mass, but I’m ultimately a believer in his passing, rim protection, and catch radius.
22. Rayan Rupert
23. Leonard Miller
24. Sidy Cissoko
25. Colby Jones
26. Marcus Sasser
27. GG Jackson
28. Kris Murray
This is a fun little trio here. Marcus Sasser is a player of a dying archetype—the small point guard. At 6’1”, size will always be a question. Still, he’s become a ridiculous shooter. Whether it’s off the catch or the dribble, it feels like it has a chance to go in if it came out of Marcus Sasser’s hands. He doesn’t pressure the rim well, but he does have the burst to get inside when he wants to, and he’s done better as a finisher this season. His passing games has improved substantially, too. He’s less erratic while still maintaining a healthy level of unpredictability. GG Jackson is the biggest upside play. It’s downright daunting to bet against an agile 6’10” guy who had big flashes as a high school age player competing at the high-major level. Still, it felt like he regressed throughout the season. His shot diet is abysmal, with Jackson settling for long, contested, off-the-dribble twos too frequently. Buying him as a shotmaker can be tough when he only made 31.8% of his off-the-dribble twos. He didn’t seem entirely engaged or interested without the ball. On defense, his shorter wingspan and relative lack of rotational awareness will make him playing the five a tricky proposition, taking away a potential mismatch role. But if he hits, man, I’m going to feel stupid. Kris Murray doesn’t seem to have the same upside as his brother Keegan. He dunks less often, doesn’t move nearly as well in any respect, and didn’t match his efficiency in any respect. Still, I think he’s a better shooter than his 33.5% on the year indicated. His passing vision developed nicely as the year progressed, and mentally, he’s a top-of-the-line operator. Murray manages to slither in on the glass on both ends and punishes everyone who doesn’t box him out. While he’s not working with the best physical tools defensively, his keen sense of the floor and ability to read opposing offenses should keep him afloat. If the shot is legitimate, there’s a rotation player in here at an important position.
29. Trayce Jackson-Davis
30. Adem Bona
I don’t think there’s a bigger, “he is going to hit his ceiling” prospect than Adem Bona. The 6’9” UCLA big man has an obscene motor. It’s clear that he “gets it,” too, as evident by how well he has improved his defensive technique while guarding down throughout the season. On the offensive end, it’s hard to get too excited. Bona’s an outstanding rim-runner and play-finisher, but he’s shown little in the way of range and passing. He could be a great, versatile defender, but without a super reliable way for him to punish teams for going small, it’s a bit trickier.