Regardless of upside, the Lakers just need a wing rotation player
One player that I haven’t talked about is Jabari Walker. I have been watching him for awhile, and if I looked at his freshman stat profile, he’d look like a lottery pick. There was more attention on him this season, and some of those statistical outliers fell back to earth. I needed the extra time to investigate why.
While Ron Harper Jr. and Scotty Pippen Jr. may get more attention as NBA sons, Jabari is arguably the best prospect of the three. Admittedly, I have been more interested in other prospects because, they were more fun to watch. However, there is something to be said at someone that excels at the dirty work.
That’s where Jabari Walker stands out.
Jabari Walker was listed as a 6’6.75” height without shoes with a 6’10.75” wingspan at the most recent NBA Pre-Draft combine. He had a standing reach measurement of 8’9” with a weight listing of just under 214lbs.
In short, he’s NBA wing-sized. This is both a blessing and a curse. One might project that his best position next level is at power forward, where he can be a switchable front-court player. But at that size, he may be outmatched. On the flip side, one might project him to be a 3-and-D wing that can take on bigs defensively for specific situations. Ideally, I’d prefer to have him next to a bigger player defensively to handle tough post match ups, but in the end, it’s his feet, chest, motor, and reach that allow him to be an effective defender.
Taking A Look At The Stats
So, what made his statistical profile stand out?
As someone that’s stared at Sports Reference sites for years, my eyes usually go straight to the advanced numbers. This is typically where it’s easiest for me to see improvement without having to take consideration of statistical averages by playing time.
Let’s look at that first year advanced row first. His True Shooting Percentage is outrageously high, complimented by a solid free throw rate, an outrageous 18.7% total rebound rate, and 2% steal rate with a 3.7% block rate? That’s just a flat out productive player. It doesn’t tell me if he has shooting range, but it does tell me that he’s willing to do the dirty work, especially in terms of crashing the glass and affecting things defensively. While that combination of numbers is special, I included the per-40 stat line to give it some context and point out the flaw. His per-40 averages for his freshman year translated into 12.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 1.3 blocks, but the big issue here is 6.0 personal fouls per game.
It’s not about the idea of fouling out in 40 minutes of playing time, but it’s also the problem of foul trouble throughout the game. How can I rely on a dirty work player that gets his second foul with four minutes left in the first quarter?
I can’t. Most teams can’t. Maybe that’s why he didn’t even start a game his freshman year.
His second year, showed tremendous improvement. While the numbers don’t look as gaudy, they are every bit as productive. Sure, the true shooting percentage fell down to earth, but the free throw rate jumped to .467 while still being able to increase his rebounding rate to 19.5%. The turnover rate didn’t change. The usage rate didn’t really change. The defensive numbers dropped a little. It’s easy to lead to the conclusion that he had more self-creation opportunities on offense, and didn’t have as much energy to expend defensively.
But, when you go to the tape, you’ll realize, he’s not really a shot creator at all.
Jabari Walker had a good outing at the Pre-Draft Combine. Unfortunately, the clip doesn’t show how he earned a couple of baskets and how he got to the free throw stripe for a couple of shot attempts.
What stood out to me, was how often he was able to get touches on the ball, without being the recipient of a pass. He’s often where the action is.
Let’s start a rebound + deflection counter.
0:20 - Taps the basketball and secures defensive rebound
0:40 - Defensive help under the hoop leading to a blocked shot
1:10 - Ready for the blocked shot, foul called on the possession
1:22 - Missed offensive rebound tip dunk
1:29 - Gets one-handed offensive rebound despite the right arm being tied up
1:38 - Drew the jump-ball from the offensive rebound, wins tip
1:44 - Offensive rebound tip-in off a missed free throw
2:27 - Blocked shot off an offensive rebound
2:46 - Deflects pass while sticking to a guard defensively in transition
3:00 - Gets the basketball mid-cut (not an intentional pass, but a blocked shot that went to his hands), blocked at the rim
3:16 - One of the few uncontested defensive rebounds he gets
How often did you see him creating his own shot? Not often.
This was the final box score for the game.
The Energy Is There. The Game Isn’t Respected.
Unfortunately, here are a few plays that leave me less optimistic for him, specifically as a Laker player. The drafted player must be able to draw 3-point gravity, which I think is more important than the 3-point accuracy. If a player can’t do that, then at least be able to attack a closeout and finish.
A couple clips from this game didn’t leave me optimistic.
0:01 - This, was a hesitant drive. It’s not that I care how hard he attacked the basket in this specific case, but players that can go downhill in a short amount of time, link their movements together and are able to explode to the hoop. Obviously he can’t do that on a short attack like this, but even after he gets a bit tied up, he still couldn’t finish the play on a semi-open shot near the rim.
0:46 - Semi-transition. He pushes the ball downcourt, gets a screen, and gets zero respect for his 3-point ability. Both defenders drop in coverage leaving him wide open. Miss.
I don’t have much optimism in how he draws free throws at the NCAA level and how that’ll translate to the next level. He doesn’t really have any kind of offensive gravity in the paint or behind the arc. He gets to the line through his energy and getting a lot of duck-in opportunities at the offensive end, something I can’t imagine will happen a lot next level.
Real Defensive Impact
I often talk about players that are good defensively have the awareness first, feet second, use their chest third, and then hands last. This allows them to stay out of trouble while affecting a player’s dribble, passing, and shot.
Jabari Walker has the tools and shows great defensive fundamentals across the board.
It’s worth it to sit and watch the entire 4:38 straight of this video. Walker excels at all sorts of defensive situations.
S/O to The Box-And-One on a great video.
In short, he does everything that any team, especially the Lakers, need defensively out of a front-court player. Close out to shooters? Check. Switch onto guards and force a bad shot? Check. Defend in the post and alter shots? Check. Take on opposing wings and cut off their drive lanes? Check. Perhaps one of my favorite aspects about his defensive game outside of the deflection rate, is that he’s able to stay grounded and out of foul trouble while forcing bad shots. Meanwhile, when he contests 3-point shots, he’s not searching for a blocked shot or outright sprinting to the shooter. He’s under control and makes a good contest. If the opponent makes the shot, so be it.
He Can Play
Jabari Walker is the kind of defensive player that every team needs. The season is a marathon and sometimes it’s tough to keep the motor up all season. Jabari’s motor doesn’t seem to stop, and unlike most players that have that kind of energy, he has a discipline about his game that keeps him out of foul trouble and truly has impact on the floor.
Now, the Lakers need talent everywhere and of course they could use a player like him. The path to him succeeding as a Laker seems tougher. The squad isn’t exactly stacked with five players that all draw perimeter gravity and open up spots on the floor. Guys are likely to pack the paint. That’s where LeBron gets his shots. That’s where Anthony Davis is likely to get shots. Those are the shots that defenses aren’t willing to give up, and they’d prefer both guys to just settle on 3-pointers.
Players like Jabari will thrive more than there are open gaps to fill in. Sometimes it’ll look like a lane to cut through. Sometimes it’ll look like a lane to attack the offensive glass. Just, unfortunately, LeBron, Davis, and even Walker may all be solid 3-point shooters, but don’t draw the kind of defensive gravity that opens up the floor. This just makes it tougher for everyone.
If defenders are simply willing to help off of Walker, then I’d be more than happy to see the Lakers give him a chance. I’ll take my changes on a mid-30’s 3pt shooter that’s open. Granted his accuracy is more geared towards the center of the floor than the corners, but sometimes a player just needs reps. That’s worth taking a chance on.