The Prospect Overview: The Peculiar Jalen Pickett
Penn State's Jalen Pickett stuffs the stat sheet in unusual ways. Can his odd play style translate to the NBA? PLUS: The Expanding Big Board and Quick Hits!
I’ll never forget that moment.
It was over winter break during my junior year of high school. A few of my friends and I went to watch our school’s girl’s basketball team compete in a Christmas tournament. Moments after we walked into the gym, it happened.
A 40-something-year-old woman toppled down the bleachers at warp speed. It was like watching a rock bounce down a paved, hilly road, her body careening all the way down to the hardwood floor.
But that isn’t the thing that happened. In fact, I probably would have long forgotten about that poor woman if it hadn’t been for what came next.
People were gasping, and a few spectators rushed to her side to see if she was okay. This was when it happened.
“It’s okay,” a nearby man stated, “she’s a jazzercise instructor.”
I think about that sentence every single day. What did he even mean?! Do jazzercise instructors have notoriously strong bones? Was he indicating that because she has a fitness-related job, she’s otherwise healthy and should recover without issue? Or was he making a cruel piece of social commentary, insinuating that “jazzercise instructor” is not an important job, and her potential death would be meaningless? “It’s okay, she’s a jazzercise instructor—no loss here.”
The lady was fine, I think. I don’t know that to be true, but she walked it off, and if something severely bad happened, I feel like I would have found out about it. But I still think about her, her fall, and that man’s weird comment at least once a week. It was the most peculiar thing I’ve ever heard. And sometimes, it’s the odd stuff that sticks with you. That’s probably why I think about Jalen Pickett as much as I do. I’m like the guy in that meme.
If you’re unfamiliar with Jalen Pickett, here’s where we’ll start. He is a 6’4”, 209-pound graduate point guard playing for Penn State. On the year, he’s averaging 18.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.0 APG, 2.2 TOV, 1.0 SPG, and 0.4 BPG with shooting splits of 52.3/37.8/80.3. Now, you may be thinking, “is that actually peculiar? He just sounds like a really good basketball player.” To that, I say, “it is indeed very peculiar.” Pickett is weird for two distinct reasons—how he produces, and the level to which he produces. To understand the first part, you’ll want to watch this video:
Per Synergy, 23.6% of Jalen Pickett’s offensive possessions come out of post-ups. That is an obscenely high number for a guard. The categorization gets tricky here, too. His most common type of possession is pick-and-roll, which he runs 30% of the time. But a lot of the time, Pickett will use a ball screen, then ultimately post up his opponent. The bottom line is, Jalen Pickett plays with his back to the basket lot. He ranks in Synergy’s 89th percentile on post-up scoring, tallying 1.079 points per possession on those opportunities. Sure, he’ll use his strong body to bully smaller guards, but he has some real craft on the low block, too. Pickett can use quick spins, head fakes, and turnarounds to get himself cleaner looks. When he’s posting up without the ball, he works to secure position the way a power forward or center would. For most guards, this is like being thrown into the deep end of the pool on the first day of swimming lessons. They are out of their element and not just uncomfortable, but unfamiliar with what they are facing. He’ll trick them, too—there have been times when Pickett uses the “Nash” technique of dribbling all the way under the basket and coming out on the other side. When Pickett does it, though, rather than going back out to the perimeter or taking a baseline jumper, he’ll then post up his diminutive defender. While there is a bully-ball element to it, writing his post play off as such understates the technical prowess that Pickett displays in generating and finishing these looks.
Even the way Pickett goes about getting his jump shots off can be quirky. Because of his strength and willingness to embrace physicality, Pickett has no qualms with acting as a screener. From there, he can pop out to the perimeter, where he has clean shot preparation footwork. This isn’t how most point guards get to their three-point shot, but for Pickett, it works. While he isn’t a high-volume three-point shooter, he isn’t shy from long range, either, taking 8.4 threes per 100 possessions over the course of his college career and connecting on 35.3% off them. He’s hit his stride from long range during conference play this year, going 43.1% from deep during conference play. His 33.3% on threes off the dribble (per Synergy) isn’t excellent, but it’s at least enough to make defenders think about it before they sag on ball screens. The fact that he’s made 40.4% of his threes off the catch (per Synergy), though, is an encouraging figure, given that he’s likely to have the ball in his hands far less at the next level. Even during the last season, the worst three-point shooting season of his college career, Pickett was 34.7% on those looks. While the type of movement to set up those looks has been unorthodox, Pickett has proven capable of moving into a triple and hitting it. He’s good on long twos, too, hitting 50% of his shots from 17 feet to the three-point line, according to Synergy’s tracking data.
Idiosyncrasies aside, Pickett does the normal point guard stuff well, too. Over the course of his college career, he’s averaged 5.8 assists to 2.1 turnovers. Pickett is exceptionally patient as an attacker and takes wonderful care of the ball. On top of limiting his mistakes, he reliably finds ways to collapse the defense and hit the open man. Pickett ranks in Synergy’s 78th percentile on pick-and-roll possessions including assists. His efficiency in that metric is driven by his ability to find spot-up shooters on the perimeter. While some high-scoring guards tend to play a more simplified pick-and-roll game where they either get a bucket or feed the roll man, Pickett sees the entire floor. Every read is on the table for him, and if someone is open, he’ll find a sharp, effective way to get the ball to them. His ability to read the floor and deliver the ball is at an NBA level, and his trustworthiness will give him an edge with coaching staffs over his first-year peers out of the gate.
Now that I’ve covered how he produces, let’s look at the level at which he’s producing. Here’s a list of the players in college basketball averaging over 17 PPG, 6 APG, and 6 RPG this season:
That’s the list! And here’s a list of players since 2013 who have had an AST% over 40, DRB% over 20, STL% and BLK% over 1, and shot over 33% from three:
Once again, that’s the list. Searching that same timespan, there are only three other players who posted an eFG% over 55, DREB% over 20, AST% over 30, 3FG% over 33, and took over 5.0 threes per 100 possessions. They are Denzel Valentine, John Konchar, and Jason Preston, all of whom have played in the NBA. Still, in spite of his standout production, I have some doubts.
My concerns with Pickett come down to three things: age, role, and athleticism. For starters, Pickett will turn 24 two days before the start of the 2023-2024 season. He’s only four months younger than Anfernee Simons, and he’s older than guards like Tyrese Maxey and Tyrese Haliburton. Not many teams are eager to add 24-year-old rookies, as the margin of error is exceptionally narrow. If Pickett doesn’t stick out of the gate, there likely won’t be teams lining up to take a “second draft” swing on him.
Role and athleticism dovetail to a degree. Right now, Jalen Pickett gets to play with the ball in his hands a lot. His usage rate of 27.9 is high, and it still feels low. His assist percentage of 42.0% does a better job of conveying how often he plays with the rock. Possessions tend to end with Pickett scoring or setting someone else up to score. While he’s posted strong shooting numbers off the catch and displayed the ability to hit shots off movement, he’s going to have to do a lot more of those things than he does now, and he’ll have to do them from further away, given the NBA’s three-point line. Because he’s a mundane athlete, it’s hard to imagine an NBA team running the offense through him on such a frequent basis, especially out of the gate. Pickett plays with pace, but really, he plays with one pace: slow. He’ll turn his back to the basket on the perimeter and take his sweet time setting things up. With a shorter shot clock and a more connector-oriented role, he’ll have to be quicker in his decision-making. He also lacks the straight-line burst to penetrate the way most traditional guards do. His bullying, post-oriented method of getting to the basket unassisted will become increasingly difficult as he faces other grown men.
It’s not just Pickett’s speed that worries me—it’s also his leaping ability. Per BartTorvik, Pickett has registered zero dunks on the season. The same can be said for last season, as well as the season before that. He is simply not an elevator in traffic. Right now, Pickett converts 63.8% of his lay-ups at the rim in the halfcourt. It’s a great number, but his below-the-rim finishing game will become more of an obstacle at the next level. He doesn’t rise through contact now against college opposition, and it’s hard to imagine him undergoing a physical development that changes things for him in the NBA given his age. Where Pickett’s physical profile concerns me the most is on the defensive end.
First, let’s start with the positive. Pickett is a wonderfully in-tune off-ball defender. He knows precisely where to stand. There are times when I pause the film, and I wouldn’t want him to be a single inch off from where he’s positioned himself. This level of engagement with a high workload is a big positive. He’ll also do the little things well, swarming his man when they pick up their dribble or denying his man with fervor when such a case happens off the ball. His strength also helps him wall off drives and prevent opponents from barreling through him. That said, Pickett lacks the type of quick-twitch movement that will be necessary to contain NBA guards. His initial reaction can come a second too late. To make matters worse, his foot speed leaves a lot to be desired. As a result, Pickett is in deep trouble if his man has a head of steam or if he gets clipped by a screen. His lack of springiness limits the value of his contests, and his inability to shift directions swiftly can prevent him from covering ground well on rotations.
Jalen Pickett is peculiar. I don’t know of a single player in college basketball with an output as impactful and well-rounded as his. Still, the odd nature of his game makes an NBA projection difficult. I’m not sure I would use a draft pick on Pickett. Right now, he sits just outside my Top 60, but that could change come draft season when players will remove their names from the pool, and we get to see prospects face off at the various combine events. Still, a team absolutely has to give him a shot as an undrafted free agent if he doesn’t hear his name called in June. The production is too difficult to ignore and makes him a more intriguing option than most players in that range on my board. NBA teams have found success with oddballs like Jose Alvarado, Javonte Green, and even the more extreme examples like Nikola Jokic and Draymond Green. Alvarado was also an older prospect when he came out for the draft! Sure, we haven’t seen a back-to-the-basket guard like Pickett in ages, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be a place for him in the modern NBA.
The Expanding Big Board
Welcome to The Expanding Big Board! Every week, one new player is added to the board. Once a player is added, they cannot be removed. The current ranking is listed first, with last week’s ranking in parenthesis.
1. Victor Wembanyama (1)
2. Scoot Henderson (2)
3. Brandon Miller (3)
4. Jarace Walker (4)
5. Cam Whitmore (5)
6. Ausar Thompson (6)
7. Amen Thompson (7)
8. Jett Howard (8)
9. Keyonte George (9)
10. Nick Smith Jr. (10)
I want to give Nick Smith Jr. some quick love here, because he’s been COOKING lately. I like Smith a lot coming into the year, and he can easily climb back up my board if he keeps playing like this. He posted back-to-back 20+ point games against Georgia and Alabama. While he only totaled three assists in those two games, his passing vision and slick, live-dribble deliveries reminded me why I was more bought into that element of his game prior to the start of the season. I still have concerns about his frame, interior finishing, and rim pressure capabilities. Only 9.1% of his shots in the halfcourt have come at the basket.
11. Gradey Dick (11)
12. Cason Wallace (12)
13. Taylor Hendricks (13)
14. Jalen Hood-Schifino (14)
15. Brice Sensabaugh (15)
16. Anthony Black (16)
17. Rayan Rupert (unranked)
Rayan Rupert, welcome to The Expanding Big Board!
The 18-year-old French native is currently playing in the NBL for the New Zealand Breakers. The league’s Next Stars program has been a pathway for current NBA players such as LaMelo Ball, Josh Giddey, Ousmane Dieng, and RJ Hampton. It’s not an easy pathway, though—the NBL is a tough, physical professional league. As a result, many of those players struggled with efficiency playing in the NBL. The same can be said for Rupert, and it’s been a knock on him. He’s scoring 7.6 PPG with a 38.3 FG% and 33.3 3FG%, but the context is important. Let’s look at how others fared in the NBL:
Terrance Ferguson: 4.6 PPG, 38.1 FG%, 31.3 3FG%
Brian Bowen II: 6.3 PPG, 45.1 FG%, 34.2 3FG%
LaMelo Ball: 17 PPG, 37.7 FG%, 25 3FG%
RJ Hampton: 8.8 PPG, 40.7 FG%, 29.5 3FG%
Josh Giddey: 10.7 PPG, 42.5 FG%, 29.4 3FG%
Ousmane Dieng: 8.9 PPG, 39.8 FG%, 27.1 3FG%
In that context, Rupert isn’t struggling to score that badly. My biggest concern is his off-the-dribble scoring, which is a mess. He’s 21.1% on pull-up twos and 30.8% on runners, per Synergy. If he doesn’t get all the way to the rim or pass it off (which he can do well), he’s not a threat. On a positive note, he’s held his own at the rim (54.2% per Synergy), and he’s been a solid spot-up option (34.8% on catch-and-shoot threes)
Additionally, he is locking dudes up on the defensive end. His quick feet and 7’3” wingspan make him impenetrable on the perimeter, and he covers ground exceptionally well. Given his length and frame, he could potentially be a stellar 1 through 4 defender in time. It’s rare for young players to be even serviceable on the defensive end in a pro league, let alone a go-to stopper.
Rupert’s feel, size, and mobility are all intriguing. It’s easy to get carried away with his projection, as he’s starting in an incredible place with his shooting off the catch, defensive prowess, and passing acumen. If he can improve as a shooter, particularly off the dribble, Rupert could be the type of modern player every NBA team desires. However, as my colleague Nathan Grubel laid out yesterday, the offensive bar is getting increasingly higher. If Rupert’s scoring doesn’t come along, he’ll be more of a fit-dependent player, which could be tricky. Still, I ultimately buy into his tools, intellect, and technique getting him over the bar.
18. GG Jackson (17)
-The Mid-Major Game of the week was Dayton vs. UMass! Sadly, I didn’t get to see two of the prospects I was interested in, as both Mike Sharavjamts and Matt Cross were out. I’ll still give my thoughts on them later, though. As for the game itself, it was close through the first half, but Dayton ran away with it in the second to win 72-54. They simply had far more offensive firepower than their opposition.
The biggest name here was obviously Dayton’s 6’10” big man, DaRon Holmes II. I feel that he can unfairly be typecast as a boring, blocks-and-dunks mobile big man. While he hasn’t been quite as dominant as I hoped this season, he’s still made real improvements, particularly to his face-up game. Holmes has been more willing to shoot mid-range jumpers and threes, and it’s forced defenders to come out of the paint more against him. This enabled him to deliver a slick dime to Kobe Elvis early in the game. These shots have also allowed Holmes to better leverage his quickness relative to other big men, using his first step to blow by opponents. He drew a ton of fouls, too, getting to the line five times. Holmes finished with 22 points on 14 shots, seven rebounds, three assists, three blocks, and two steals. His defensive recognition was on full display too, seeing the floor quickly, getting into position, and making plays. That is a critical skill when it comes to considering his NBA projection. I’d still like to see his passing become more consistent, but at worst, he profiles to be a big man who moves well, can hold his own on an island, protect the rim, and finish plays.
Toumani Camara had a big second half and was a crucial part of Dayton putting the game away. The 6’8” forward is versatile. He’s strong and athletic, able to guard multiple positions on defense. Offensively, he can put it on the floor and he’s a willing outside shooter, hitting 32.4% of his 2.4 threes per game. Still, he suffers from tunnel vision at times and can be overambitious as a passer (though he does have incredible flashes there, too). Without a jump shot, he profiles more as a Summer League/Exhibit-10/two-way type, but if he ever gets range going consistently, he could be immensely valuable. Koby Brea played a well-rounded game, too, scoring 11 points, going 3-5 on 3PA, racking up four assists, and tallying three rebounds. The 6’6” junior doesn’t offer much on the defensive end, but historically, he’s been a fantastic outside shooter. Dayton’s injuries throughout the year have forced him to play the point at times, giving him reps as a playmaker. While it’s likely damaged his efficiency, it’s been a good developmental opportunity for him. He’ll still have two years of eligibility left after this year, and we should get a clearer picture of what he can be during that period.
That leaves us with Mike Sharavjamts, who didn’t play. I’m intrigued by him, but not as in on him as a “this year” guy as some others. He’s an older freshman at 20 years old, his jumper isn’t totally there yet (29.6% on 3.0 threes per game), and he struggles mightily defensively. He’s both thin and slower-footed, so he has a hard time containing opponents at the point of attack. Still, he’s a fascinating long-term prospect. Sharavjamts has outstanding feel, particularly as a passer. While the 6’8” freshman is more of a wing than a true point guard, he has a polished handle and tremendous vision. He’s able to thread needles and does an awesome job of pushing the ball in transition, which will allow him to either generate fast break points or start an early offensive set at the next level. While his sub-40 FG% and frame have me out on him for this year, I think a giant leap is on the table for him.
On the UMass side of things, freshman RJ Luis led the way. The 6’7” wing is interesting to me as a multi-year prospect. Despite having to play in a face mask, he finished with 21 points on 14 shots, nine rebounds, and two steals. The wiry Luis plays stronger than his frame would suggest and gets after it on the glass. He also has some slither, footwork, and pace to get to his spots off the dribble. While he’s 34.1% from three on the year, I think there may be more to him as a shooter, given his prowess in the mid-range, where he’s hitting 39.0% of his shots off the dribble. Defensively, he can look a bit lost at times or be slightly slow on the draw, but his steal rate of 2.7% and block rate of 1.5% are encouraging indicators for a freshman playing in a good conference.
A 6’7” junior and the team’s leading scorer, Matt Cross could also work his way into the mix next year. A former Top 100 recruit, Cross had mediocre stops at Miami (FL) and Louisville before breaking out this season. He does a little bit of everything, averaging 12.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.4 SPG, and 0.6 BPG with shooting splits of 41.3/35.3/79.6. He’s a high work-rate player—he’s always moving and attacks with fervor. While his three-point percentage is just okay, he can hit off movement from NBA range. Defensively, he’s attentive and doesn’t miss rotations. He’s a good mover, he’s strong, and he’ll prey upon mistakes. There’s some slither to him going downhill. An offensive explosion as a senior could put him on the map.
-Next week, there will not be a dedicated Mid-Major Game of the Week due to conference tournaments beginning and the schedule being in flux, but rest assured, there will be plenty of Mid-Major content in Quick Hits!
-Brandin Podziemski gets a lot of love for his absurd scoring profile, and pundits have taken note of his budding passing game. I want to touch on his rebounding, though. Podz’s nose for the glass is absurd. The 6’5” sweet-shooting sophomore is averaging 8.8 rebounds per game for Santa Clara. His 21.5 DRB% and 5.9 OREB% grade out very well for guys who play the 3 or the 4, let alone a 2/combo guard type of role. He knows when his man is going to leak out in transition, and he uses those opportunities to slither in on the offensive boards. It’s a bizarre, unorthodox value add that should be taken into account when evaluating him.
-Riley Kugel has been a hot name as of late. The Florida freshman dropped 24 points on 12 shots against Kentucky this past week, and he’s averaging 17.2 PPG on 54.4/36.8/73.9 over his last five games. While his overall production (8.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG) and lack of hype will likely keep him out of the 2023 draft, he’s definitely one to watch in 2024. The 6’5” guard has speed and polished footwork, allowing him to weave through traffic. Though he’s averaging under one assist per game, Kugel plays with his head up and has demonstrated functional flashiness and creativity as a distributor. He moves well off the ball, showing great instincts for relocating and cutting. He moves his feet well on defense, but he isn’t anything special on that end yet, and he’s still a bit thin. Another year of filling out his frame, further adapting to the speed of the game, and honing his defensive skills could allow him to pop off in a major way next season.
-Kevin McCullar continues to be one of my favorite defensive prospects in this upcoming class. His ground coverage is truly special, and his quickness is worlds ahead of where it was a year ago. Combining his speed with his strength, he’s a great rotational defender and can create a problem at the point of attack for just about anybody. He does a wonderful job of navigating screens while still managing to keep smaller players in front of him. The elephant in the room will always be his jump shot (27.5% on 3.0 3PA per game), but if it ever becomes respectable, his quick processing and savvy decision-making would make him one of the more complete 3-and-D role players around. If he can get his shot falling during the pre-draft process, there’s a real chance for him to rise up boards, given how open the 25-60 range is at the moment.
-On the Kansas tip, Ernest Udeh has had a nice little February. While his numbers don’t fly off the page, his 5.4 PPG and 13-13 from the field over the last five games are both lovely to see, given where he was earlier in the year. The 6’11” freshman runs the floor hard and gets up for lobs well. Given his mobility and length, an NBA outcome is still on the table for him after a quiet freshman year. He showed some passing chops in high school, too, and there’s a chance that could blossom next year.
-Circling back to Penn State, Jalen Pickett’s teammate Seth Lundy continues to be a Top 100-type who I feel is slept on. Lundy is 6’6” with a strong, 220-pound frame. His career BLK% of 2.5 and STL% of 1.7 demonstrate his defensive abilities. His power, lateral movement, and ground coverage make him a stout defender. He’s often covering the opposing team’s best player. Offensively, he’s a rock-solid 54.5% at the rim in the halfcourt and hits 41.7% of his threes on 6.4 attempts per game. Lundy is ready to let it fly off the catch, has minimal dip on his shot, and can hit off movement. He’s a reliable, low-maintenance, inside-out threat who can reliably guard a few different positions. His passing, particularly on the go, leaves a lot to be desired. Still, much of his anemic 5.9 AST% can be attributed to playing alongside Pickett, who dominates the ball for much of the shot clock. That limitation, combined with his average athleticism, may hold him back, but he’s worth considering.
-I posted a tweet this past week asking about players who are largely out of the draft conversation that people will think will play multiple NBA seasons. One of the most common answers was Isaiah Stevens, a 6’0” senior at Colorado State, so I dug into his film this past week. The guard has a thick, sturdy body, preventing him from being a bullying target at the point of attack. Still, he has the flexibility, quickness, and awareness to navigate screens well. His balance is good on that end, and he changes direction well. Offensively, he’s selfless and a sharp passer, moving it in a hurry when needed. He’s hit 40% of his threes on the year, and he’s a tremendous pull-up shooter in the mid-range, too. There’s a good pace to his attacking game. Similar to Mike Miles (but not quite on that same level), he’s a better rim finisher than you’d expect given his size, knocking down 61.8% of his shots at the rim in the halfcourt, per Synergy. While Stevens is small, he takes care of the ball, he’s powerful, and he takes excellent care of the ball. Defensively, his size will always hold him back, and he’s not going to offer much playmaking at all on that end of the floor. For that reason, I can’t quite get there with him, but he definitely has a chance, given his scoring prowess, passing, intelligence, and toughness.
-I checked back in on my favorite Division-II prospect, KJ Jones, after hearing that he dropped 34 points in a win against fifth-ranked UNC Pembroke. The 6’6” guard has the footwork and craft to get to his spots, and he’s connecting on 42% of his threes, with many coming from NBA range. He’s currently leading Division-II in points per game. While he doesn’t jump off the page physically, he got to the line 16 times in that game, so he’s at the very least willing to deal with contact. He had some great possessions defensively down the stretch, moving his feet well, demonstrating good balance, and covering ground with big strides. I wish he posted more dominant numbers on that end, and the fact that he doesn’t scream “NBA athlete” can be daunting when projecting a potential pro future. Still, you can only play who’s in front of you, and it’s hard to ask for more than 26.3 PPG on 50/42/86 splits, 7.3 RPG, and 3.4 APG. A high-feel player with size and dribble-pass-shoot potential, I’d love to see Jones get into the combine events mix (Portsmouth, Elite Camp, etc.) to see what he looks like scaling up a level. Similar to Trevor Hudgins, he could gain Top 100 consideration during that process and get an NBA opportunity.