Tyler Kolek is a Mother Effer
Corey Tulaba examines why Tyler Kolek's combination of feel, skill, production, and 'tude makes him an intriguing draft option looking for NBA teams looking for an immediate contributor at the PG spot
Tyler Kolek is a mother fucker.
Excuse my French, but as the 2024 NBA Draft may be headlined by one, the use of their native tongue feels apt whilst describing this particular Marquette prospect. I mean it in the best possible way btw. In basketball, this particular phrasing is often a term of endearment. Kevin Garnett was a mother fucker. Chris Paul is a mother fucker. Draymond Green is a mother fucker (too much of one at this point). You get it. It means the kid has some shit to him.
Okay, that's enough with the profanities. Anyways…
Tyler Kolek is no stranger to college basketball fans, as he’s arguably the best point guard in, well, college basketball. For those uninitiated into the Cult of Kolek, we’re looking at a 6’3” 195-pound senior lefty guard who’s number 11 on your score card and number one in your hearts.
My first in-person experience watching Kolek was during last year’s Big East tournament at the Garden (not the Boston one, the real one), as the Golden Eagles faced off with the Johnnies in an overtime thriller. Kolek was sensational. He scored the rock, he made plays for his teammates, and he got after it defensively. You’d never consider Kolek the most traditionally athletic player on the floor, but he controlled the game with his pace and got to his spots with crafty manipulation and change of speeds. There was just an ephemeral confidence that Kolek provided for the team that bled onto the floor every time he was on it.
We saw Kolek make a massive leap during that 2022-23 college season. A leap in which Kolek went from a nice college point guard during his sophomore campaign to doling out real-deal NBA prospect production as a junior.
The season is young, but Kolek has been even more impactful this season.
At a different point on the NBA timeline, Kolek’s production may have been overshadowed by his age, but in recent years we have seen NBA teams outside of the lottery place more of an emphasis on proven skill and production rather than the idea of potential. Getting a dude who can contribute to NBA basketball games on a rookie scale contract is gold to teams that are in win-now mode. With that said, at the end of the day you still have to make sure that your process is good and that you’re betting on the right older prospect. Not every multi-year college dude is going to rock as hard as Jaime Jaquez just because they put numbers on the board while on campus.
So if you’re buying into Kolek as a potential first rounder, the question at hand becomes: can Tyler Kolek contribute to an NBA team early into his rookie deal?
Kolek will have his detractors, but I’m willing to hypothesize that the answer is yes.
The primary reason I believe that is because Tyler Kolek’s feel is through the roof. The secondary reason I believe that is because he is a mother fucker.
NBA teams want as many high feel .5 style processors on the floor as they can find. These guys keep your offense humming, as they will always have the keen court awareness to figure out who the open man is and where the ball needs to swing. And while Kolek is quick to make the one more pass, he is also the dude creating the original hum.
Kolek is a point guard’s point guard. He grabs a board or receives an outlet and pushes the pace, encouraging his teammates to get out and go with him.
When I say he’s pushing the pace, I don’t necessarily mean that Kolek is trying to one-man-fast-break teams to death. Kolek doesn’t have the traditional bursty athleticism to single-handedly blow by entire defenses every time down the floor. However, because he gets up the floor with fervor, Kolek dictates the tempo of the game and forces defenses to guard early offense.
And while Kolek is capable of playing fast, he can likewise slow things down and dime teams up in the half-court. Kolek is the kind of player that coaches can trust to run the offense and make smart decisions. He won’t play careless, but he won’t play too carefully either.
In the halfcourt, Kolek loves operating out of ball screens, where nearly 39% of his offensive possessions have come out of this year per our friends at Synergy. While Kolek is a super aggressive downhill driver who loves to make a last-second improvisational read. He also has the on-court feel to shift and manipulate the defense by getting to his spots with patience—creating playmaking windows that send the defense into a scramble. He’ll use crafty push dribbles to throw the ball ahead ever so slightly to create extra advantages, and he’s no stranger to snaking a ball screen and forcing a big into the cat-and-mouse game. Once he gets past the level, Kolek can make any read he now has at his disposal. Kolek has great chemistry setting up Oso Ighodaro with slick pocket passes on the roll, he finds and rewards cutters, and he can paint the corners to his endless barrage of shooters as he gets into the paint and collapses the defense.
Kolek’s ability to consistently collapse said defense wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he wasn’t a threat around the hoop himself. Kolek attacks the rim with force and intent. Nearly half of Kolek’s halfcourt scoring possessions end up at the rim, and when he gets there, he is making teams pay for it, scoring on 62.8% of those possessions. While Kolek has been an undeniably proficient finisher around the cup this year, there are certainly some concerns about how exactly that translates to the next level. No matter how fresh his legs may be, it doesn’t take a rocket scientologist to identify that Kolek isn’t playing above the rim. He has precisely zero dunks during his four year college career per Synergy. That should typically raise some alarm bells. NBA rim protectors are bigger, faster, and stronger than their college counterparts. They will send your shit into the third row if you don’t come correct. I’m sure there will be some level of adjustment that Kolek will have to make early on. However, while we’re not yet in conference play, Kolek has already been met with plenty of NBA size and length this season, and he’s made up for any lack of athleticism with craft, skill, and mother fuckery.
Kolek is not afraid to attack those bigger, more athletic players. Kolek plays at different speeds when he gets downhill to manipulate a defender’s timing, he’ll get into their body and bump them off their spot to shift their balance, he’s adept at decelerating as he approaches the paint so that he can decide whether to pass or shoot, he can use his off hand, he uses what length he does have to extend his finishes, he has soft touch, and he makes good use of ball placement off the glass.
Kolek had no trepidation about going right at very draftable behemoth 7’4” center Zach Edey on multiple occasions. Kolek comes off the screen, uses that little push dribble to get a step on the defense, and proceeds to get right into Edey’s body, finishing high off the glass through contact with no issue. The next clip from earlier in the first half shows Kolek finishing with finesse over Edey’s outstretched arms. Lack of bounce be damned.
Kolek hasn’t just been prolific near the rim, he’s been a beacon of efficiency at all three levels and is a current member of the 50/40/90 club. Kolek plays a very modern style, avoiding inefficient mid-range jumpers; instead, he relies on floaters when entering the in-between area.
Kolek isn’t a volume three-point shooter, but he’s knock-down when he takes them. And outside of a wonky sophomore year during his first season at Marquette, that has always been the case. Kolek was right at the 40% mark last year, and he’s at 43.6% thus far this season. If you leave him open or go under a screen, he can make you pay for it. And with how frequently Kolek looks to get downhill off a screen or handoff, that is often how he’s played.
While Kolek can punish defenders for going under, I’d like to see him be a bit more willing to do it. At times he can almost be too unselfish about hunting his shots. It isn’t that the volume is super low – Kolek is attempting 6.6 3PA per 100 possessions – but it should probably be a touch higher. At the college level, it doesn’t prevent him from getting to his spots. At the next level, though, it may not be as easy. Part of the issue is that Kolek has a slowish release. He also doesn’t have the smooth footwork that elite shot creators have to consistently create space off of step-backs. Kolek doesn’t project as the cog of the machine at the next level, and he won’t necessarily shoulder the offensive load the way he does at Marquette, but he’ll still need to meet a threshold of three-point shooting volume to truly leverage his playmaking. Shooting it at volume is a requisite NBA skill for guards of his stature, and the hesitancy to take tougher threes may limit his ultimate upside.
Let’s talk defense. Even more than the shooting, this is perhaps Kolek’s biggest swing skill.
We’ve already established Kolek isn’t the best athlete, nor does he have the modern-day standard jumbo guard height that lends itself to switchability, so Kolek’s playability will ultimately come down to whether or not he can survive on that side of the floor. Teams will test him, they’ll try to get him into mismatches on switches where elite wings will try to shoot over the reach of his wingspan, and they’ll want to take advantage of the fact that he isn’t the fleetest of foot and challenge him on drives.
While these concerns are warranted, I think that Kolek will be fine defensively after he takes his lumps adjusting to the NBA game. Kolek is a super processor with an excellent nose for positioning on and off the ball, he’s stronger and more physical than you’d assume, and he uses his quick hands to poke balls away from sloppy ball handlers. Kolek’s penchant for always being in the right spots allows him to take smart gambles off the ball and his active hands allow him to constantly create defensive events that lead to easy offense. Kolek has generated a STL% of 3.0+ for the last two seasons. We aren’t talking about the next Alex Caruso here, but Kolek does positive things on the defensive side of the ball that should allow him to survive.
SO WHAT'S THE VISION?
An NBA front office executive once asked me who a certain player I pitched to him played similarly to in the league. This excited me because I’ve often felt a bit as if I was on an island in thinking there is tremendous value in player comps. I excitedly replied “oh, you’re a player comp guy?” To which he replied “Hell yeah! If you can’t use player comps, you couldn’t sit in on our meetings. If you don’t see a blueprint for how a similar player is working out in the league, how do you know that they could hit?”
Comps are an important tool in my evals. If I can watch a prospect mirror what guys are already doing in the league, I can envision that prospect translating that aspect of their game to the NBA level.
When comparing a prospect to an NBA player, I try to go deeper than just numbers or similar positional size. For me, I find value in stylistic and kinesthetic comparisons. And with lefties especially, I think there is a stylistic flair that they play with that differs from that of righties.
When I watch Tyler Kolek, I see a lot of similarities to Goran Dragic. It should go without saying that I am not using this as a one-to-one, just that I see some stylistic things that Kolek does on the court that Dragic also did. Similar to Kolek, Dragic was a guard who would always push the pace to get into early offense. He wasn’t flying up the floor like a Westbrook or Rose, but he played with non-traditional speed. He would briskly jog the ball up the floor or run hard off screens and DHOs. Dragic played quick but not hurried, there was an endurance to his pace that gave him speed advantages over his opponents. But he could also slow it down and execute.
When looking at both Dragic and Kolek, I think there is an interesting juxtaposition to be made between Dragic’s Miami Heat years and Kolek’s Marquette years. Dragic got to play off a DHO hub in Bam Adebayo, and Kolek currently plays off one in Oso Ighodaro.
Neither guard looks to generate their offense by breaking you down one-on-one. Instead, they prefer to utilize ball screens on around 35-40% of their possessions, where they could keep the defense guessing as they decide when to be a scorer and when to be a playmaker.
On this possession, the on-ball defender goes under the screen, and Dragic and Kolek make the defense pay by letting it fly. It is the threat of that shot that allows ball screen guards to attack downhill and make plays for their teammates or get to the rim and finish. If you can’t shoot, teams have an easier time going under everything and meeting you at the spot, taking away the strength of the drive.
Because Kolek and Dragic have established that they can punish a team for going under a screen, guards now have to fight over the screen, allowing the guards to attack the paint where they can either score at the rim or make a play for their teammate. On this possession, we see the guards come off the screen and get to the middle of the floor, where they can now apply pressure to the backpedaling drop big and use their craft to throw off the defender’s rhythm and finish at the rim with their off hands.
Now that the guards have established that they are capable of attacking the rim and finishing, the bigs have to play a little higher up to impede their downhill progress. To counter how the defender is now positioned, Dragic and Kolek get to their spot at the elbow and dump off a slick pocket pass to set up an open look for their roller.
If Kolek or Dragic are working out of the first third of the court and find their progress unimpeded after they come off the screen, the downhill lefties can then attack the sideline gap, generate a paint touch, force a rotation, and whip a clean ball out to the weak-side corner for an open three with a scrambling defense.
Deceleration around the hoop is an essential skill for smallish guards. Both Dragic and Kolek share an acute spatial awareness around a packed paint. Their knack for playing with different speeds and ability to decipher when to decelerate in traffic throws the rhythm of the defense off-kilter, creating openings for unique passing options—in this case, a drop-off for a finish around the hoop.
Kolek spending time playing in a very NBA-oriented system has given us a glimpse into how he may be used at the NBA level, and when projecting college prospects to the draft, all that really matters is answering the age-old question: does this dude’s game actually translate up to the NBA? Kolek doesn’t have the look of the archetypical modern NBA point guard, but looks be damned with a guy like Kolek; the dude knows how to play the game of basketball. Kolek probably isn’t going to be a star at the next level—he won’t be the first guy opposing coaches list on the scouting report, and he won’t be on posters or billboards, but he won’t really care about any of that. Kolek just wants to win. He’s going to compete his ass off when he gets on the floor and probably piss off a lot of his competition while doing it. At the end of the day, what it really boils down to is that on a basketball court, Tyler Kolek is a mother fucker.
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