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Thrill of the Chase
Determining which returning college prospects are poised for a breakout season is a nuanced art rather than an exact science. Corey Tulaba hypothesizes why Chase Ross could burst onto the draft scene.
Freshmen are exciting. Who doesn’t love the allure of the shiny new toy? The mystery is the adventure, and as the legendary Barney Stinson wisely once said, “new is always better.”
Or is it?
The true draft sickos know that while scouring hours of high school and AAU film is an essential element of off-season preparation, it is equally as important to dive deep into the weeds of the NCAA and explore the world of college returners.
Development is not linear. Some players don’t begin to come into their own as NBA prospects until they get to campus. Having coached young players for ten years, I have seen firsthand just how big of a leap a player can take with a strong off-season of work. The game begins to slow down, there are physical improvements, and the flashes start to become more consistent. Players graduate and roles accentuate. There is a confidence a player can bring into a sophomore season, having been fully acclimated to the college game.
Trying to figure out which returners may come back and make the leap is challenging but compelling. A statistical query can nudge you in the right direction, but sometimes you have to do it the old-fashioned way and trust your eyes.
Either way, there is no exact science to doing the research at this point of the draft cycle. We do our best to formulate calculated hypotheses knowing that there may be elements of a prospect’s development that are predicated on variables that may be out of a player’s control. All we can do is let the cycle play out.
This is the part of the process when we get to use our imagination and have some fun. The thrill is in the Chase.
Follow the NBA Draft Dude on Twitter/X : @CoreyTulaba
Thrill of the Chase
One of the most fun aspects of scouting for me is watching a game for one prospect and leaving the same game completely enamored with another prospect.
Last March I attended the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden to get up close eyes on a number of 2023 NBA Draft prospects. The day opened with St. John’s taking on Marquette, and although my main focus was on future first round pick Olivier-Maxence Prosper, I left the game intrigued with Chase Ross—the 6’4” freshman guard for the Golden Eagles from Dallas, TX.
Ross didn’t stand out and catch my eye because he was out there breaking ankles, hitting step-backs, or manipulating pick-and-rolls. Ross garnered my attention because he was wreaking havoc and just being a fucking dog on the court. When he was on the floor, he was starring in his role and doing the little things that don’t always show up on the stat sheet but ultimately impact winning.
There’s no denying that versatility is the name of the game in the modern NBA. Prospects that can dribble, pass, shoot, and defend are all the rage. These are the guys that generate palpable buzz around draft time due to the multitude of roles and lineup constructions that we can imagine them playing in at the next level.
It’s not always a bad thing, though, to have a smaller yet more defined role when evaluating prospects. NBA rookies are seldom useful in contributing to winning NBA basketball games. Outside of the outlier star prospects, coaches mostly try to simplify a rookie’s responsibilities so that they can learn the pro game and develop at their own pace. There is so much going on in an NBA game and it’s all happening so fast that keeping the game simple and focusing on doing a few things well could earn a player minutes early on. Usually, those skills entail doing the dirty work and easing the burden of a team’s star.
Ross didn’t play a ton of consistent minutes during his freshman season at Marquette as Tyler Kolek, Kam Jones, and Stevie Mitchell ate up the bulk of the backcourt minutes as established college basketball players. Ross’s role was small and sometimes inconsistent, but it was defined. Defend your ass off, shoot it when you’re open, be an athlete in transition, and attack the hoop when you see a lane.
And defend his ass off he did. Ross is bound to earn the clamps badge from evaluators this year as his length, motor, and strength allow him to be a menace at the point of attack, slither through screens, and be disruptive in the passing lanes. Ross will pick up full court, getting up in your shirt and taking away your space, smothering you before you even put the ball on the deck. He uses his quick active hands to poke balls loose, and his agility to slide his feet and flip his hips. His strength and length allow him to play with his chest, embrace physicality, and guard up. With a STL% of 3.9% and a BLK% of 1.0, the numbers back up the eye test. Ross was the only high-major freshman in the country to create events at the rate that he did.
When Ross is in the game, he just refuses to give up anything easy. Even in transition, Ross will hustle his ass off to make sure the offensive player hears footsteps and once he gets back in the play he’ll rise up to contest using his length. Even when he has to take tough angles to contest the shot he displays excellent midair body control that allows him to get vertical and contest without fouling.
Lead ball-handlers know they are in for a long night when he checks in, but as disruptive as Ross can be on the ball, he also understands the nuance of team defensive principles and positioning. He rotates well, has good timing on digs, tags cutters coming through the lane, and recovers like a maniac out to the perimeter on closeouts when the ball skips to the weak side. You can always see him pointing and talking; he rarely loses focus and doesn’t take possessions off.
When Marquette played a team with a movement shooter, Ross was often tasked with shadowing him, chasing through and over screens and making sure they earned their looks.
Even with the raw defensive talent, there are areas for Ross to clean up. When he guards on the ball he can get stuck playing a bit flat at times, letting the offensive player dictate the possession. He can get a tad over-aggressive when gambling for strips, allowing the ball-handler to create an advantage and get into the paint. Due to his aggressive nature, he can be prone to fouls.
Ross’s role called for him to enter the game and be a lightning rod of energy: check in and bring it right to his opponent’s front door. With a potentially expanded role, he’ll have to prove that he can dial it back a smidge and stay disciplined while keeping the defensive event creation that got him on the floor as a freshman.
Ross breads his butter as a defender, but he has the types of ancillary offensive skills that will allow him to slide into any lineup that Marquette throws out on the floor.
With Marquette’s offensive infrastructure still mostly intact from last season, Ross isn’t going to be featured as an offensive creator. As a frosh, Ross had the 14th-highest usage rate on the team. While he may receive a slight uptick in on-ball responsibility just from playing a more consistent role and having spent a year in Marquette’s system, barring injury, we won’t get to see Ross operate a ton more with the ball in his hands. That’s completely fine, because that isn’t the role he’ll play in the NBA.
Ross is a play finisher. He’s going to earn his minutes by playing his aforementioned menacing defense and playing efficient complementary offense. Just how much Ross pops as a potential draft prospect this year will ultimately come down to how well he shoots the deep ball and how well he finishes at the rim.
Ross only shot 32% from downtown as a freshman on 1.7 attempts a game. You gotta pump those numbers up; those are rookie numbers in this racket. The volume was low, so there may be some variance in those percentages, but Ross is also only an adequate free-throw shooter, so there’s work to be done. But with a more consistent role, I’m buying him becoming a more consistent shooter. Ross has a smooth lefty stroke with a clean release and a high arc and he isn’t afraid of the moment. The ball splashes through the net on makes. With Kolek and Oso Ighodaro being such crafty creators, Ross will get plenty of opportunities to make teams pay for late rotations, getting off clean looks in spot-up situations. Ross has a good track record of knocking down shots when he is open. He knocked down 37.5% of his unguarded spot-ups as a freshman and 57.1% of his unguarded spot-ups during his 17U EYBL season with Drive Nation.
Making teams pay for sagging off is important for Marquette, especially when they play through Ighodaro, but if he wants to become a mainstay on draft boards, Ross will have to start knocking down shots with a hand in his face more often. While the unguarded numbers are solid, the guarded numbers are…um...not. When teams closed out to him in time to get a clean contest, Ross shot just 26.9% last season. While you can look at the low volume and use that as a potential reason for the low number, the percentages are consistent with his priors, as he shot just 18.8% on guarded spot-ups in 2021 with Drive Nation per Synergy.
Hitting spot-up shots is an important aspect of Ross’s game because it opens up lanes to the rim where he can be an explosive play finisher. When the ball swings his way and he sees a gap, Ross can explode like a running back hitting the hole, attacking the rim with ferocity. Ross also has the tools to come off zoom actions and play out of hand-offs, attacking with downhill momentum. Playing off of a crafty playmaking big like Ighodaro gives us a glimpse at how Ross can play off of creator bigs at the next level.
Ross finished 58% of his attempts at the rim, which is good, but I’d like to see that number get in the 60-65% range during his sophomore campaign because he has the tools and versatile finishing package to make it happen. He is athletic enough to play above the rim, strong enough to finish through a defender’s body, long enough to finish with extension, and crafty enough to go up and under and finish with touch.
Adding a more consistent in-between game could be an interesting next step for Ross inside the arc. I don’t mean that I think that he should add a pull-up middy to his bag, but when it’s just rim and threes you can become predictable. Bigs will know how to guard you and can cheat to the rim anticipating the attack. Showing a willingness to counter that by punishing the big with a floater when he drops too far could become an effective part of his finishing package. Given Ross’s comfortability with shooting a high-arcing ball on his jumper, the float game could become a natural and dynamic tool for him to expand his offensive repertoire if he makes an effort to utilize it more often this season.
Ross’s energy ignites Marquette with his frenetic defensive fervor but his willingness to get out and run will spark the offense as well. Whether leaking out or handling the ball himself, Ross is a pace pusher—over a quarter of his possessions came in transition where the extra spacing allows him to show more as a self-creator. When the game is free-flowing and spread, you can see some shiftiness to his handle, and he flashes some ability to get paint touches with the ball in his hands.
When I envision Ross at the next level, I see him as a gadgety role player—someone that teams can use in unorthodox ways. I can see creative NBA teams using him in similar ways to Gary Payton II or Bruce Brown, utilizing him as a screener, allowing him to pressure the rim, pop, or make plays out of the short roll. Ross’s raw playmaking numbers leave a lot to be desired when it comes to volume, but the positive AST/TO ratio leads me to believe that it is an opportunity issue more than a skill and feel deficiency. I don’t think there is an underlying primary playmaking component to his game, but he’s shown flashes of good touch and feel to build upon to be used in that gadget role.
That’s why I love Ross as a potential breakout prospect this year. He’s got some unique funkiness to him and the kind of role player skills that translate to the next level. He’s playing for a great coach, and in a great system, with great players that will allow him to star in that role. Starring in your role may not scream superstar, but it does help establish a potential floor. Sometimes that steady floor, which we often mistake for a lower ceiling, allows a prospect to stay on the court, earn the trust of the staff, and eventually gain some freedom to work on expanding untapped aspects of their game. The reports on Ross have been positive coming out of camp, and he has an opportunity to make a name for himself. Marquette is going to win a lot of games this year, and the roster has a number of NBA prospects outside of Ross. Sharing that spotlight may dim some of his shine, but if you look closely, there is an uncut gem in Wisconsin just waiting to be polished.