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Why Not Ja'Kobe Walter?
Ja'Kobe Walter is one of the most well-rounded guards in the 2024 NBA Draft class, and his game demands that you scout with love, not obsession.
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The 2024 NBA Draft class has been widely discredited and diminished for its lack of talent and void of superstars compared to other recent drafts. While this class may not have a player with all-time-great upside, it’s important to remember that most drafts don’t. Almost every draft class produces talented players who have tremendous careers, and there is almost always at least one player who seemingly comes out of nowhere to aggressively boost his draft stock. Which begs the question: why couldn’t that player be Ja’Kobe Walter?
Walter is a 6’5” 180-pound shooting guard who will be playing his freshman season for the Baylor Bears. Walter ended his high school career as the RSCI #8 prospect, so by no means is he an unknown commodity. Walter also played at the prestigious Link Academy, for Team Trae Young, was a McDonald’s All-American, and was invited to the Nike Hoop Summit. Yet, his name still rarely gets mentioned in the Top 5 discussion, and when it is, it is often met with surprise. In full transparency, I was also one of the skeptics before I began to see what could be one of the most versatile guards in the country.
My first impression of Walter came at the Nike Hoop Summit. Walter had a good week, but by no means stood out in an overwhelming fashion. His athleticism and defense were clear as day, but his offensive role was a bit more muted. He operated almost exclusively off-ball, but he was constantly working on form shooting and ball-handling during breaks. I left that week incredibly intrigued and excited to comb through his high-school film but had the impression he could be a prime sophomore breakout candidate.
After diving through the high-school film on Walter, though, it became clear that he can be so much more than a 3-and-D guard. What’s so difficult about the evaluation with Walter is that he contorts his game into whatever his team needs and is asked of him. At Link, Walter was asked to be a defensive menace and off-ball scorer as Elliot Cadeau ran the show. So, he was. However, with Team Trae Young, Walter was asked to be a defensive menace with substantially more on-ball creation. So, he was.
Regardless of his role or volume, Walter’s efficiency per play type remained relatively the same. With Link, Walter ended 28.1% of his possessions spotting up and 7.6% running off screens. He ranked in the 67th and 75th percentiles respectively in scoring. Conversely, he spent just 7.1% of his possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and 6% in isolation. He ranked in the 80th and 61st percentiles respectively in scoring.
With Team Trae Young, Walter almost never ran off screens but had 19.7% of his possessions end in spot-ups, where he ranked in the 70th percentile in scoring. Unlike with Link, Walter saw significantly more on-ball reps, as 17.5% of his possessions came in isolation and 16.3% came running the pick-and-roll. Walter ranked in the 82nd and 88th percentile, respectively, in scoring.
The long and short of it is this: no matter what Walter was asked to do on offense, he did it at an extremely high level. It is rare for players his age to be able to fluctuate between an on and off-ball role and experience minimal fluctuation in efficiency. To sweeten the deal, Walter was still a proficient defender regardless of what his offensive role was.
This year’s Baylor team has a crowded backcourt, but Walter’s two-way proficiency and flexibility should see him skyrocket toward the top of the minutes load. With his athleticism and size, Walter should be one of the more versatile defenders for Baylor as he will likely be able to switch 1-3. Walter can get happy feet defending on ball, which can leave him vulnerable to blow-by drives, but even when that happens, he never gives up on a play. He has great hands and instincts, and he relentlessly recovers. There are some warts in his on-ball defense that should get smoothed out in time, but his off-ball defense should be day one ready. Walter is active away from the ball and has tremendous instincts for jumping passing lanes.
Walter’s defensive playmaking isn’t limited to jumping passing lanes either. He has good hands on-ball, and he has shown proficiency at blocking shots, primarily as a help defender. Even though Walter can occasionally be beaten off the dribble, he is never out of the play.
Here, Walter is playing solid nail defense and is eager to turn an unfocused pass into a pick six. Walter deflects the pass but doesn’t yet force the turnover. Walter does a great job of recovering rim side, but the ball-handler executes a lovely counter to his momentum by spinning back middle. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a defender to be taken out of the play here, but Walter has other ideas. As the ball-handler spins, Walter flips his hips and reacts to the spin as if he’s Velcroed to the ball-handler and picks his pocket.
This time, Walter switches on the screen against the small guard. Cutting off the drive would’ve been ideal, but instead of abandoning his balance and scrambling to cut off the baseline drive, Walter maintains solid footwork and stays attached. The drive attracts the weak side rotation and subsequent cut from the corner. This should result in an easy score, but Walter stayed engaged the entire time. He times his jump to perfection and blocks the dunk.
Walter’s defensive tools are sound and translatable, and they should earn him minutes. It is his offensive game, though, where the untapped potential resides. Given the points per possession rankings I detailed earlier, untapped potential may seem a bit aggressive. However, given Walter’s widespread efficiency, versatility, and consistency, there could be a whole other level for him to reach as an offensive creator.
One of the areas that Walter needs to improve his consistency is his at-rim finishing. With Team Trae Young (which was prior to the Link season), Walter shot just 45.8% at the rim. With Link, though, he shot 64.7% on almost 30 more attempts. The additional strength that Walter added has certainly helped and should continue to improve as he doesn’t shy away from contact.
Here, we see one of Walter’s rare pick-and-roll possessions with Link. As he comes off the screen, one which does a good job of knocking the point-of-attack defender off course, Walter uses a perfect hang dribble. The importance of this move is that it freezes the drop defender at the elbow with the roller and widens the driving lane for Walter. Walter proceeds to attack the rim and elevate into the body of the retreating rim protector before finishing through the contact.
This time, we see how Walter can confidently shoot from outside out of the pick-and-roll. As Walter comes off the screen, he is only worried about the drop defender as he knows his defender is caught in no-man’s land between recovering or switching to the roller. Walter recognizes that the drop defender has stayed around the free-throw line instead of stepping up, so Walter quickly and confidently knocks down the pull-up three.
Walter isn’t solely reliant on a screen to create his own shot, either. Here, Walter takes advantage of a recovering defense after sprinting to the corner. As he catches the ball, Walter uses a shot fake into a step-back that completely disrupts the defender’s momentum. Now that he’s created space, Walter is unbothered by the secondary defender and fluidly knocks down the step-back three.
Like his at-rim finishing, Walter also saw varied results in his midrange shooting based on what team he was competing for (81st percentile for Team Trae Young and eighth percentile for Link). Both samples are rather small, so the differential isn’t shocking. What is encouraging, though, is some of the patience and craft that Walter showed in this area of the floor.
Here, Walter gets the smaller guard switched on him and effortlessly drives to the block. The defense rotates well and cuts off the drive. After slamming on the breaks, Walter maintains his composure and pivots away from the pressure. Instead of chucking up a wild fadeaway, Walter keeps his pivot alive and maneuvers himself into an open jumper.
The versatility and fluidity of Walter’s scoring game are enough on their own to engender excitement about his offensive potential. Where things start to get exhilarating, though, is when we look at Walter’s playmaking. On the surface, Walter’s numbers aren’t overwhelming. In 27 games with Link, Walter recorded 50 assists, 32 turnovers, an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.56, and a turnover rate of 8.7%. In 18 games with Team Trae Young, Walter recorded 45, 39, 1.15, and 9.9% respectively. Nothing crazy, but numbers that suggest quality connective passing and sound ball security. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t always show the quality and difficulty of the assists. Some of the playmaking flashes that Walter showed in high school suggest that he could be in store for a playmaking leap that resembles what we saw from Keyonte George last year.
Even when Walter is used as an off-ball weapon, the threat of his passing persists. Here, Walter runs off a stagger screen and receives the ball at the top of the arc. Walter takes one dribble and uses a shot fake, which gets his defender to continue chasing and the rim protector to jump at the fake. Link now has a 2v1 situation on the weak side. As Walter pivots back to where he came from, he eyes the wing shooter. This deception moves the lone weak-side defender just enough to open a lane for the easy dunk.
Walter’s playmaking also translates to his on-ball reps as he’s proven he’s capable of making the simple reads, changing angles, and moving defenders. Here, Walter runs a side pick-and-roll and catches his defender peeking at the screen. Once the defender’s head turns, Walter blows by him. This attack forces the weak side rotation, and Walter tosses a perfect lob to the baseline cutter.
It wasn’t anything overtly complicated, but it is a simple read that every on-ball creator must consistently make. The truly fun stuff comes when Walter starts moving defenders and playing with unique angles. Here, Walter runs a high pick-and-roll. His teammate slips the screen as the defense blitzes Walter. Instead of going into the pressure, Walter crosses back to where he was to change the angle. Now, instead of forcing a contested over-the-head pass into traffic, Walter sped up the process by delivering a live dribble scoop pass to his teammate for the dunk.
Walter is more than capable of knifing through the defense to create his own shot, which inevitably attracts extra defenders. What sets Walter apart from most dynamic scoring guards, though, is his ability and willingness to use that scoring gravity to create for others.
Here, Walter disposes of his defender and creates a solid look at the elbow. Instead of forcing an inefficient shot over the help defender, though, Walter uses a pump fake to get the defender to fully commit and leave his man wide-open under the rim. Walter proceeds to step through the two defenders and shovel the pass to his teammate for the easy dunk.
Just because a consensus #1 pick hasn’t already broken down the door like the Kool-Aid Man doesn’t mean that there isn’t talent in this draft class. The whole point of draft evaluation is to find and identify those players. Simply chalking this draft class up as a lost cause is lazy. To paraphrase Margot from The Menu, “You’ve taken the joy out of scouting. Every argument you’ve made has been some intellectual exercise rather than something you want to sit and enjoy. When I read your scouting report, it felt like it was made with no love. You don’t scout with love; you scout with obsession.”
Ja’Kobe Walter has all the makings of a surprise prospect who leaps to the upper echelon of a draft class. He defends, shoots, scores, and creates for others. Even better, he morphs his game into whatever the team needs from him. Don’t write off a draft class already just because it’s what the consensus is doing. Don’t scout with obsession, scout with love. Because Ja’Kobe Walter sure as hell plays with it.