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Workout SZN with Kevin McCullar and Jake LaRavia
The NBA Draft Dude took a trip out to Toms River, NJ to chop it up with Texas Tech wing Kevin McCullar and Wake Forest forward Jake LaRavia as they workout in preparation for the 2022 NBA Draft.
One of my favorite parts of scouting the NBA Draft is having the opportunity to see guys up close and in person. In season, you go to games with the hopes that you can pick up on subtle details you may not have the opportunity to see on film. How do these guys interact with their teammates, does their demeanor change after missing a few shots, and how locked in to the huddle are they?
Once the college hoops season is over, however, you start to see a slew of one-minute teaser videos of draft prospects in a not-so-crowded gym, working out in preparation for the pre-draft process. This affords you the opportunity to see guys up close in a different context. This is Workout SZN.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to hit the road and head to Toms River, New Jersey, to consume a massive amount of Wawa (we don’t have them on Long Island) but, more importantly, to spend a couple of days getting an up-close look at Wake Forest’s Jake LaRavia and Texas Tech’s Kevin McCullar as they go through three-a-day training sessions in preparation for the 2022 Draft. The impression left, from the workouts and conversations had, was that the two training partners are intriguing NBA prospects that possess the kind of modern ancillary skills that every NBA team covets.
Texas Tech’s Kevin McCullar is someone who college hoops fans should be familiar with, having led the Red Raiders to the Sweet 16, where they faced off in a highly competitive game against Duke; however, McCullar has mostly flown under the radar in draft conversations.
If you’re still sleeping, wake up because it’s time to put McCullar on your radar.
When I asked McCullar to describe his game, the San Antonio native told me that he’s “a versatile player that can do it on both ends of the floor, can guard one through four. On the offensive end, I can create my own shot and also create for others.”
That versatility is what makes McCullar an appealing prospect for a team, and it first and foremost starts on the defensive side of the floor.
At 6’7” and 215 pounds with a plus wingspan, McCullar has the physical attributes you’d want out of a defensive wing looking to play multiple coverages and switch up and down lineups. The 2022 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year semi-finalist showed off his impressive defensive versatility and the kind of impact he can make on that end at the next level by checking a wide range of NBA prospects on a nightly basis; spending possessions on everyone from Blake Wesley, to Chet Holmgren, to Iverson Molinar, to AJ Griffin, to Ochai Agbaji.
“In the Big 12, you have to play everybody twice, home and away. It’s a battle every night and matching up with guys like Ochai on a night-in basis is gonna help me (at the next level)...I’m ready to match up with anybody.”
It’s clear how much McCullar values the defensive side of the ball when you turn on the film. The lengthy wing quarterbacked a stingy Texas Tech defense, constantly pointing things out and communicating with his teammates, taking cues from Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart on the value of two-way play.
“Marcus Smart, the Defensive Player of the Year, he just contributes so much on the defensive end, and I feel like he’s underrated on the offensive end. So I love watching guys like that, who play on both ends of the floor.”
The defensive translatability with McCullar isn’t in question. Where scouts have their concerns are on the offensive side of the floor. McCullar ranked in the 40th percentile in overall offense per synergy, a stark contrast to his defense, where he finished in the 85th percentile. The shooting concerns are understandable, and if you’re just browsing his sports-reference page, you may skim over McCullar as a draft prospect after seeing his 50.3 TS%. But if you’re just looking at the surface-level stats, you may miss the context in which McCullar may be asked to play under in an NBA offense.
While McCullar was tasked with initiating a lot of Texas Tech’s offense this season, he’s much more likely to be playing an auxiliary role in the NBA. When I look at McCullar’s offensive package, I see a utility player in the mold of Brooklyn’s Bruce Brown. He is a player who had the ball in his hands a ton in college but now functions as a swiss army knife that can be used as a screener to make plays out of the short roll, make timely cuts to the hoop, attack closeouts, and knock down open shots, all while playing off of some of the NBA’s most prolific primary scorers. That is a role that McCullar is ready to play.
“I feel like I can do a little of everything, you know, going back to the versatility part. I can be a ball-handler and facilitate for others but also play off the ball and knock down shots. And that’s what I’ve been working on. Just knocking down shots, reading the defense, cutting, and just making winning plays.”
McCullar’s shooting numbers may also be a bit misleading due to the context of his shot diet and the load that he had to carry this season. Open gym shooting isn’t exactly something I’d recommend basing an evaluation on, but it has been a clear focus for McCullar during his pre-draft work. McCullar didn’t look the part of a 30% three-point shooter when I went to watch him, as he confidently knocked down shots in a variety of ways over the two-day span.
“My numbers may not back it up all the way right now. I’ve just been in the gym, grinding, working on my shot day-by-day. I feel like it’s underrated right now, and I’m looking forward to getting in front of some teams and showing them that.”
McCullar may not go into his rookie season as the next Cam Johnson, and the shooting development will take some time, but there’s reason to be optimistic going forward. McCullar won’t have to take tough, highly contested off-the-bounce shots at the next level; he’ll mostly be used as a spot-up threat, spacing the floor.
As a spot-up shooter, McCullar’s percentages become much more encouraging for his long-term projections. McCullar shot 42% on open catch-and-shoot threes, 35% overall on catch-and-shoot threes, and 35% on three-pointers in the halfcourt, per Synergy. Those percentages may not get him in the three-point contest at All-Star Weekend, but they should be enough to allow him to draw closeouts, which will allow him to attack downhill and make plays for himself and his teammates.
But my favorite part about watching Kevin this weekend was seeing his personality on and off the floor. My takeaway? McCullar will be a welcome addition to any locker room.
One instance that showed me the kind of person that Kevin is was when McCullar’s teenage rebounder let him know that he couldn't attend the nightly workout session because he had his own basketball game in the morning. McCullar responded by asking what time it was because he wanted to pull up and support him. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t see by watching game film.
It’s easy to see Wake Forest’s Jake LaRavia’s fit at the next level. The 6’8” 20-year-old junior (yes, 20!) flashes shades of modern NBA forwards like Franz Wagner and Kevin Love, and he offers the kind of versatility on both sides of the floor that will allow him to fit into any kind of NBA offense or defense.
“I’m pretty much just an all-around player; wherever coach puts me at, I’ll do it, one through four. I can guard one through four, one through five, really. Wherever you put me, I have a lot of versatility.”
The versatility of which LaRavia speaks was a necessary part of his game as a cog in Wake Forest’s defense this season. LaRavia was tasked with defending big lottery level forwards like Paolo Banchero and Tari Eason while also switching out onto twitchy bucket getting guards like Isaiah Wong and Caleb Love.
“I know a lot of teams will switch all ways, and when you have a bigger guy like me that’s able to switch onto a guard, it’s easier on the defense.”
Equally impressive is LaRavia’s IQ as an off-ball defender, where he showed a nuanced understanding of team concepts that will allow him to play in multiple coverages at the next level.
LaRavia can play as the big in drop coverage, come up and guard at the level, hard hedge and recover, or switch and guard on an island. And he’s disruptive. The timing and IQ show up on film, but it’s backed up by the numbers, as the Wake Forest swing-wing averaged 2.7 Stocks a game with a STL% of 2.7 and a BLK% of 3.0 during his junior campaign.
But what makes LaRavia such a seamless NBA fit is the Liam Neeson range of skills that he offers on the offensive side of the floor.
While LaRavia has a versatile scoring package, highlighted by his advanced footwork, he isn’t going to come into the league as a big time bucket getter. As a potential back-end first rounder, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At that part of the draft, playoff teams are looking for role players to provide supplementary skills that compliment their stars. That’s what LaRavia offers. LaRavia didn’t dominate the ball the way some college stars do, making for a tougher transition in a completely new role. LaRavia’s game is tailor made to smoothly slide in next to a Luka Doncic or a Ja Morant, where he can continue to focus on knocking down open shots, making timely cuts for easy buckets (as he did playing off of teammate Alondes Williams), as well as, operating as a ball mover playing .5 basketball and making plays for his teammates.
The versatile forward is confident in his ability to play off NBA stars, highlighting how his textbook jumper, with an arch that nearly grazed the low ceilings at the Toms River facilities, compliments the game’s best.
“As far as shooting goes, I’m able to do it all. If they need me to space out and just catch and shoot, I’ll make that shot.”
But it’s the playmaking LaRavia provides that he feels may be the most underrated and overlooked part of his game.
“When you see me, I’m 6’8” so you might think that I’m a big man, but a lot of times, I’m the one bringing the ball up the court and making plays for the team.”
You could see the joy that LaRavia brings to the basketball court during the workouts. A true hooper, born and bred in the culture of Indiana basketball.
“We live and breathe basketball. We’re taught basketball from a young age. We have the movie Hoosiers; we all watch that. We just live basketball.”
LaRavia has slowly crept up draft boards over the last few months, and as team workouts commence in the coming months, he’s a name that is sure to heat up even more.