The Prospect Overview: Walter Clayton Jr. and the Thrill of Surprise
Iona's Walter Clayton Jr. reminds me a lot of the N64 I got for Christmas in 1997. Come find out why! Plus: Jarace Walker, Leonard Miller, Reece Beekman, and more!
I’m going to tell you a Christmas story. It’s going to sound like a million Christmas stories you’ve heard, but I promise this one is a little different.
It was 1997. I unwrapped a large, square box. Inside was an N64 video game console. Separate, smaller packages contained Diddy Kong Racing and WCW vs. NWO: World Tour. I was excited—what a cool combination of gifts! But if I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t that excited. Truthfully…I don’t think I knew what an N64 was before I opened that box. I had just turned seven, and none of my friends were really into video games or anything. I don’t believe any of my cousins had an N64, so I wouldn’t have played one at their houses. My exposure to video games was limited. I’d seen my sisters play Mario Kart on our old Super Nintendo, and my dad used to let me kick field goals when he would play Madden, but that was the extent of it.
In the moment, it was like, “hey, a video game thing, cool.” But in time, the N64 ended up being one of the best gifts I’d ever received. Diddy Kong Racing was a family favorite. If we’re being real, it blows Mario Kart 64 out of the water. I used to play it with my sisters all the time, and we each had a “specialty.” One sister did the car races, the other did the airplane races, and I was the master of the hovercraft races. I remember a winter day when inclement weather led to a school cancellation, so we played Snowboard Kids 2 all day. Sometimes our cousins would come over, and we would play GoldenEye for hours.
I’m not sure I knew what the N64 was, I certainly didn’t expect it, and I certainly didn’t know how much joy it would bring me.
Before the college basketball season, I’m not sure I knew who Walter Clayton Jr. was, I didn’t expect his breakout, and I didn’t know how much joy his game would bring me.
You still may be unfamiliar with Walter Clayton Jr.! That’s understandable. He’s a 6’2” guard, tucked away from the mainstream spotlight at Iona. Clayton’s a real-deal athlete, though. Rated as a three-star prospect coming out of high school, Clayton received offers from bigger programs such as Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Nebraska, and Notre Dame. However, he received those offers as a football player. That’s right: Clayton was a high-level, dual-sport athlete prior to playing college hoops.
Part of that is what is so enticing to me about Clayton. This wasn’t a guy who lived and breathed basketball exclusively. His summers and falls were also taken up by football. Playing multiple sports reduces injury, leads to higher-level outcomes, and increases career longevity. It also helps explain Clayton’s sudden emergence—he’s now fully devoting himself to basketball, and that extra practice time is showing on the court. Let’s look at his statistics from year one to year two:
16.1 MPG, 7.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.3 BPG
43.4 FG%, 35.7 3PT%, 78.7% FT%
28.4 MPG, 15.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.8 BPG
43.7 FG%, 39.7 3PT%, 97.9 FT%
We’re seeing a classic “turning the dial” season from Walter Clayton Jr. His role has increased, and so has his production across the board. Now that you know the background, let’s get into what makes him so intriguing as a prospect!
Defense and Physicality
Walter Clayton Jr. is a physical force. He has good end-to-end speed, rock-solid quick-twitch instincts, and a strong chest. On top of that, he is a potent leaper. This makes Clayton a multifaceted defender. He is generally able to stay in front of opponents, and he has quick hands to knock the ball away. He holds opposing ball handlers to 0.65 points per possession on pick-and-roll possessions and forces a turnover 20% of the time, per Synergy. When he is beaten, though, his turn-and-chase game is far superior to most guards because of his strides and vertical athleticism, allowing him to meet opponents at the rim. Additionally, this enables him to act as a defensive playmaker in transition. He never quits on plays and consistently hustles to make something happen. His hands do wonders when he ends up switched onto a big, as he’s mastered the art of getting in low on the ball for strips when opponents go up to shoot. His 2.8 STL% and 2.8 BLK% are both excellent numbers for a sophomore point guard. He slides well, and his 195-pound frame prevents opponents from plowing through him.
There are some minor tweaks that can be added to his game. On occasion, he’ll sag too far off opponents and not trust his feet as much as he could. Still, Clayton’s physical tools, strength to body up, and motor make him the type of smaller guard who can’t be exploited at the next level.
Up until a recent brutal outing against SMU, Clayton’s assist-to-turnover ratio had been 3.5-to-1.4. While the seven-turnover performance against SMU can’t be (and shouldn’t be) disregarded, I’m still bullish on where Clayton can end up as a playmaker. An impressive 40.1% of his shots in the halfcourt come at the rim. He can get there on his own, too, and averages around 2.4 unassisted rim attempts per 40 minutes. His combination of power, speed, and ability to leverage ball screens allows him to get where he wants on the court consistently. This ability to pressure the rim opens things up for his teammates.
While Clayton has yet to show that he can make highly advanced reads, he is tremendous at making the simple ones. His interior passing game is fantastic, and he consistently burns opposing big men when they come to help against him. Most impressively, Clayton can make plays while operating at full speed, a testament to his floor mapping and mental processing. Still, he’s shown the ability to mix in pace at times, and he can utilize a hostage dribble well coming off a ball screen. He generally takes good care of the ball and is accurate with his passes. Clayton isn’t going to make a coach rip his hair out because he tried to get too flashy with his delivery or because he premeditated a read that never came open. Simply put, he creates advantages and executes while minimizing his mistakes.
Part of what opens up Clayton’s passing is his scoring. He’s a threat to pull up off the bounce, so defenders can’t play back on him. Clayton ranks in the 83rd percentile for jumpers off the dribble, per Synergy. He’ll pull up and hit a three in transition or hit one in the mid-range if his man is clipped by a screen and the big defender is playing in too deep of a drop. Clayton needs to get better at the rim (47.8% in the halfcourt), but his all-around shooting touch, leaping ability, and powerful body should help improve that in time. Defenders also need to be extra careful about fouling him, as Clayton is making a video game-like 97.6% of his free throws on 3.4 attempts per game.
Another thing working in Clayton’s favor is that while he can play with the ball, he doesn’t need to play with the ball. Iona is loaded with guard talent, so Clayton plays off the ball for them consistently, and he’s great at it. He’s made 52.2% of his no-dribble jumpers from three-point range, per Synergy. He’ll pull the trigger from beyond NBA range, too. As a result, he commands attention as a floor spacer and opens up the court for his teammates. His first step is solid, so he can attack closeouts or drive hard off the catch. Clayton is willing to attack in either direction. While he isn’t totally ambidextrous, he’s not allergic to using his left at the basket. Most NBA players don’t get to play with the ball, and Clayton’s skillset as a shooter who can attack a closeout and make reads is a wonderful one for a potential tertiary playmaker.
I don’t think Walter Clayton Jr. is a “this year” guy. That may sound harsh, and it may sound like a bummer, but six months ago, I didn’t think he was a guy at all. It’s tough out there for guards right now. There are more human beings that are 6’3” and under than there are human beings that are 6’4” or taller. As a result, the talent pool is deeper. The bar has become higher for smaller players, especially at the NBA level. Look at Colorado’s KJ Simpson. He’s producing on a similar level to Clayton, but he’s a former Top 100 recruit and playing in a power conference. Simpson is still absent on ESPN’s latest Top 100 for the 2023 NBA Draft.
Still, I would encourage you to give Walter Clayton Jr. a shot. He grades out well for an NBA guard in terms of his defensive rebound rate and stock (steal+block) numbers. He can shoot the cover off the ball, too. While he may not have been late to playing the game of basketball, he is late to devoting his life to it. As a plus defender with athleticism and offensive versatility, Clayton looks a lot like a modern NBA guard. I don’t think he is one yet, but I think there’s a good chance he could be one in a few years. As a real-deal sophomore, he still has plenty of college eligibility in front of him. The national spotlight isn’t often shining down on the Iona Gaels, but if you get the opportunity, give him a look. He might be the surprise you didn’t know you wanted.
The Expanding Big Board
1. Victor Wembanyama (1)
2. Scoot Henderson (2)
3. Amen Thompson (3)
4. Cam Whitmore (4)
5. Ausar Thompson (5)
6. Nick Smith Jr. (6)
7. Anthony Black (7)
8. Jett Howard (9)
I’m jumping Jett Howard further up the board after watching his performance against North Carolina. His defense, both on and off the ball, looked meaningfully better. He didn’t get burned by back cuts and made proactive reads. Given that improvement, his inside finishing, superior playmaking, and youth, I see a better case for him than Brandon Miller at this stage.
9. Brandon Miller (8)
10. Jarace Walker (unranked)
Jarace Walker, welcome to the Expanding Big Board! The Houston freshman is a powerhouse, standing 6’8” and weighing in at 240 pounds. He’s physically developed for his age. When I saw him in person at the McDonald’s All-American Game, he looked more like an NBA player than a high schooler. You could throw Jarace on a WWE or AEW TV show tomorrow, and he wouldn’t look out of place. Beyond looking the part, Jarace has a mental grasp on the game that few his age possess.
Recently, our own Tyler Metcalf did a tremendous breakdown of Walker’s defensive versatility. Every NBA front office is looking for players that can fit multiple schemes and defend up and down the positional spectrum—Walker can do just that. He offers a lot of optionality on offense, too. Walker isn’t a devastating three-point shooter, and his pull-up jumper looks ugly. Still, if you leave him open, he’ll take and make threes at a respectable clip (40% on 1.5 3PA/game). Houston has also started to let him handle more offensive responsibility. During his time at IMG Academy, Walker got to make plays more than he did out of the gate at Houston. Those skills were always there, but over the last five games, he’s gotten to put them on display, averaging 2.6 assists to 0.8 turnovers. He’s great on high-low deliveries and can orchestrate from the top of the key.
Walker looks like a modern NBA player. He has size, he can stay in front of guards, he won’t get feasted upon by big men, he can hit open threes, and he makes quick, smart decisions. The shot needs to come along a little bit, and I’d love it if he could add more off the bounce the way Grant Williams has in Boston the past few seasons. While I’m not as high on his ceiling as others on our staff, Walker could be an important contributor to very good teams for a long time if he keeps progressing.
-Let’s talk about Leonard Miller! He didn’t even make our Consensus Big Board, but he had a first round grade from me. The G League Ignite prospect has been productive, posting 15.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG, and 1.6 APG in 14 games this season. Still, he’s a confusing prospect. His turnovers can be frustrating, he fouls too much, and he makes confusing decisions. In a recent game against the Santa Cruz Warriors, the 6’10” Miller had a smaller player on him on the perimeter. He called for a screen, which led to a bigger defender covering him after a switch. Miller then launched a contested three, which missed. Rather than simply taking advantage of the mismatch, he gave himself a tougher opponent and forced a bad look (he’s a sub-30% three-point shooter). Defensively, he’ll occasionally be way out of position and miss rotations.
When we did our Playback stream of the Ignite vs. Metropolitans 92 game, I noted that with Miller, it’s all about Point A to Point B, and Leonard Miller is already way better than he was six months ago at the NBA Combine. He’s gaining more control over his handle, he’s worlds better on the ball defensively, he’s recognizing where he needs to rotate more consistently, and he’s compensating with his motor. The film tells the tale of a hard worker who plays with a high level of energy. He’s always going at it on the glass and has a quick, potent second jump. Given his size (he was a late growth spurt guy, too), work rate, and production in a professional league, I can’t put him any lower than 25.
-USC’s Kobe Johnson has been heating up lately. The 6’5” sophomore (and brother of NBA player Jalen Johnson) is best on the defensive end. His balance is uncanny. Even when he charges at high speeds to close out, if an opponent drives at him, he gets his feet back under him at the drop of a hat. His hands are great on the ball, and he can poke the ball away when ball handlers aren’t careful. Off-ball, he keeps a tremendous read on passing lanes. He knows when it’s okay to help and when he can afford to cheat off his man. Johnson currently has a 5.6 STL% and 2.4 BLK%, both absurd numbers. The best part is that he gets those steals and blocks primarily through his mental acumen and physical tools rather than outright gambling. I’m not sure there’s another player in college basketball who is as productive as him defensively that plays as poised of a game as Johnson. Offensively, he’s a work in progress. He’s strong enough to finish through contact and uses smart angles at the rim. Johnson is only a 33.3% shooter from three, but his right-hand stroke is clean, and he’s shown some polish in the mid-range. His passing should allow him to play a connector role, too, as he makes decisions quickly and can fit the ball through tight windows when needed. I think he’s going to play in the NBA at some point. His stock could really explode for this year or next if his scoring momentum continues.
-While we’re talking defensive specialists, let’s talk Reece Beekman. As of this writing, he’s on pace to be one of three high-major players in the last decade to have an assist percentage over 30%, block and steal percentages over 2.5%, and three-point percentage over 35% (min. 1.0 3PA/game). The two others? Delon Wright and Kyle Anderson. The Virginia junior may not be a sexy, splashy name, and he is smaller than both Wright and Anderson, but it’s good company. Those two have both had long NBA careers. Beekman is a terror on defense, he reliably finds open teammates, his outside shot has improved steadily each season, and he can finish at the basket (63% at the rim in the halfcourt, per Synergy). He looks a lot like a long-term complimentary piece.
-Jaelen House is a DUDE. The son of NBA veteran Eddie House is small (6’1”), so it’s always going to be an uphill battle. As a senior, it’ll be even harder for him to get NBA teams to bite. But House has been an integral force for New Mexico’s 12-0 start. Like his father, he can shoot the cover off the ball, having made 45.8% of his 48 threes on the year. House has taken strides as a playmaker, too, increasing his assist totals (4.5 APG to 5.3 APG) and decreasing his turnover volume (3.4 TOV/game to 2.3/game). Despite his stature, he’s good through contact and has made 57.8% of his halfcourt shots at the rim, Per Synergy. He gets there well, too, having taken 36 unassisted shots at the rim through 12 games. House is a feisty defender, too, with a penchant for stealing lazy inbounds passes after a made basket. His STL% of 5.0 tracks with the rest of his college tenure, too. It’s tough out there for small guards, but Jaelen House has a lot of the tools that allow them to stick. He should have a real Top 100 case come June, should he choose to enter the draft.
-Hawaii’s Kamaka Hepa is in a similar boat. The 6’9” graduate has a wonderful stretch-four game and recently lit up Pepperdine for 19 points. His jumper is fantastic, and he has a nice face-up game. If he needs to put it on the floor or attack a closeout, he can. He’s made just under 40% of his threes over the past two seasons. Hepa is good on the glass, snaking in for position with good timing, a willingness to put a body on someone, and a nose for the ball. Defensively, he does a nice job in ball screen coverages. His instincts off the ball are strong, reading plays and knowing where to be before opponents anticipate his presence. Hepa is older and largely off the mainstream radar in the Big West. Still, he was once a Top 100 recruit, he has size, he can shoot, and he knows what he’s doing out there.