LSU power forward Tari Eason looks to be a defense-first NBA player with standout athleticism. Do the Knicks reach for him in the draft?
Tari Eason is an NBA Draft Twitter darling and it appears as if the rest of the draft community is catching up.
The almost-21-year-old wing shot up draft boards during his one year at LSU after transferring from Cincinnati. Eason came off the bench for the Tigers this year and largely played the center position, which only makes his top-10 place in steal percentage even more impressive. “NBA-ready body” is an overused term in the draft world, but as an older prospect who will be 21 by draft night, Eason’s physique will allow him to be ready to compete and contribute defensively immediately.
One of the buzzwords in draft circles around the modern NBA is “offensive connectors” or “secondary facilitators.” Those are usually terms for projections as that is a role that is less commonly held in college basketball by players that will be able to make NBA rosters. It is always a tough projection when looking at the translation to a different situation, but Eason was in a unique situation in the Bayou and that makes it a little easier.
The appeal of Tari Eason jumps off the page when you consider he is on the shortlist for the best athlete in the class and is arguably the best and most versatile perimeter defender in the class. The 6’8″ super-athlete has a 7’1″ wingspan, which allows him to switch 1-through-4 (1-through-5 at the college level), given his unique blend of lateral quickness and strength. While the offensive skill did not always pass the eye test in the extremely muddled offense in Baton Rouge, you could see flashes of skill despite the dearth of spacing presented by Will Wade’s team.
The LSU prospect projects most often as a late lottery, mid-first-round pick because there is a high level of variance on how he is viewed depending on your priorities in the evaluation process. Eason does have offensive limitations in his game, but you can also see significant growth with his shooting numbers as well as his raw totals. In his one year at Cincinnati, he shot an extremely underwhelming 24.1% from three, and similarly brutal 57.4% from the free-throw line. After transferring to the SEC, his percentages went up to 35.9% and 80.3%, respectively. What really stands out about those numbers, however, is that the attempts of both of those numbers have over doubled, which speaks to the legitimacy of the stats from this year when looking at how he will translate to the NBA.
While 52.1% from the field is very impressive, it is understandable that some will be skeptical about the offensive limitations that Eason presents. If you believe purely in the numbers, you will be impressed as the analytics are very friendly to the LSU wing’s athletic offensive style. However, the eye test can pose different deficiencies in his game, as his offense is built around pure athleticism and less typical skill moves. Eason tends to get sloppy with the ball, averaging a fairly high 2.2 turnovers a game considering his role as a backup 5-man. He struggled throughout the year when pressured as a ball-handler, which is concerning on one hand given the increase in defenses in the NBA, but his role at the next level will not be a lot of on-ball offensive situations.
The SEC Sixth Man of the Year had a rather unique role with LSU and no small part of that context was based around fast breaks where Tari showed to be a proficient grab-and-go rebounder as well as a more-than-able passer in fast-break situations. When looking at Eason’s passing projections, it is clear to see that he has great vision and is willing to make the extra pass. However, that got him into trouble at times at LSU when he tried to force passes that weren’t there and tried to thread imaginary needles that didn’t exist. You can even see more than a handful of times where he passes to a cutting lane where no cutter exists.
Eason really excels in the open floor both as a facilitator but even more so as a scorer and finisher. With the propensity for creating turnovers, a large portion of his game is successfully creating scoring opportunities on fast breaks. He has elite athleticism with significant length at getting to the hoop. While many players settle for tough finishes such as floaters or difficult layups, Tari has the coordination and agility to get to the basket and finish with dunks and finger rolls.
It is impossible to tell the story of Tari Eason’s offense without intertwining his defensive prowess. The LSU wing was one of three Division I players with block and steal percentages over 5.0% and 3.0%, respectively, and 30-plus dunks this year. The reason why this is an important stat for evaluating the Portsmouth, Virginia, product is because it speaks to how he is best utilized on the court. Halfcourt creation is not why you are drafting Eason, even though he is a capable shooter and passer and can still attack a closeout at a decent rate. Where he is special is turning his defense into offense. He is an absolute force in transition and, when he gets downhill, he is extremely difficult to stop and still will be at the NBA level.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 9, 2022
With that sort of athleticism and length, jumping with the LSU wing has proven to be a mistake on more than one occasion for opposing big men. Not only is blocking Eason an extremely tough proposition for the defense, but his body control and coordination make him nearly impossible to defend without fouling. The ability to finish with both hands allows him to attack defenders from a variety of angles, which allowed him to average nearly six free-throw attempts a game in just the 24 minutes he was playing. That sort of foul magnetism has to be extremely appealing to NBA teams who prioritize that skill now more than ever. Especially with the improved foul shooting, that looks to translate at a high rate to the next level.
A lot has been said about Eason’s defensive capabilities, but what really makes him such an elite defensive prospect? It starts with his body; first and foremost he is a true specimen. Eason has been described as having the quickness of the guard but the strength of a big man, and that is a really important part of his frame. The lateral quickness and agility that Eason possesses are truly unique for someone of his size and make him a special prospect on the defensive side of the ball. He is so uniquely built for modern basketball with a body build made for switching, and a true proven ability to stay in front of NBA caliber guards such as TyTy Washington and Kennedy Chandler.
Not only has LSU’s constant switchability allowed Eason to show his versatility defensively, but the way he was used as a modern 5 allowed him to show his unique rim-protecting ability for a 3-and-D prospect. For an NBA wing prospect to have as much experience with post defending and rim protection is incredibly rare and unique. He is an extremely heady and smart defender with elite help-side defense that projects to translate well at the NBA level. He will likely never be a starting center in the NBA, but Eason certainly brings enough to that side where he can give lineup flexibility as a small-ball 5 or help in the post with high levels of success.
With any collegiate defender, the risk is always going to be on how the “stock” numbers will hold up in the faster-paced NBA with higher levels of athleticism and length across the board. However, with the style of basketball that LSU played, it is a frenetic pace that lends itself well to the Association. Not only does that breed confidence in what Tari will look like in the NBA, but his defense is not just built upon his length and athleticism. Even though he will be ready to go come day one physically, he is a smart defender that is always active with an extremely high motor. What really brings his defense to the next level is that he never stops moving and picks those spots really well. This is what led to at times historically high steal and block rates and absurd defensive metrics.
Tari Eason does a great job reading this pass, and jumps the passing lane for the steal, before showing his athleticism on the dunk in transition pic.twitter.com/HrrG6fosLd
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) February 2, 2022
There were foul troubles that plagued Eason at LSU with him fouling out of six games this year, including some important conference games. That is something that he will have to work on, while the uber-aggressive LSU defense did play into his strengths defensively, it also played into some of the negative fouling habits that he will need to work on at the next level. Sometimes those fouls came from being too aggressive and other times they came from being unaware of positioning. He will need to improve and show he can stay on the court, but given what his likely role will be in the NBA, he will have time to develop in that way; however, the rest of his defensive upside more than makes up for those mistakes.
Eason has been described as a “siphon-off the court” defender because of how much ground he covers and his propensity for open court steals. That will allow him to flourish in the right system in the NBA where he will be surrounded by better defenders and will be able to create havoc on opposing offenses. As a point-of-attack defender, Eason is not as strong, but he has the lateral quickness to still be an above-average defender who uses angles to make ball handlers uncomfortable and lead to turnovers.
The defensive upside of Tari Eason is absolutely unmatched in this draft class, and that alone makes him an extremely intriguing prospect. Few players in this class match the defensive activity that Tari brings to a team. He has everything that you look for in a “gritty,” defensive-minded prospect: he is smart and extremely active with a high motor as well as all of the physical tools. He projects to be a potential All-NBA-level defender and be an absolute difference-maker on that side of the ball.
Tari Eason with 21 and 6, 2 steals and 2 blocks yesterday. 3rd time this yr over 20 points “off the bench.”
Not credited with the steal here but may as well have.
Best playmaking defensive forward in the country. He’s an NBA player. Ep tomorrow.
Move him up. pic.twitter.com/rcg1852LEc
— Chucking Darts NBA & Draft Podcast (@ChuckingDarts) December 12, 2021
Not only does the 20-year-old project to be a potentially elite defender in the future, but Eason also looks to be a ready-made contributor at the NBA level. His age as well as his body and motor make him appear ready to help teams in a limited role as a rookie. With the right coach (maybe a defensive-minded coach you may have in mind), Eason could very easily be an All-Rookie-type sleeper next year because of those contributions. Think about the way that Herb Jones has been able to help the Pelicans this year when thinking about Tari Eason who has similar projections in a better, physical body.
If Tari Eason can consistently hit a three-point shot, he can be an elite 3-and-D wing. And even if that shot does not come to the point that you may hope, he will still likely be an extremely positive defender that can get downhill and help going to the hoop. That is something every team should be prioritizing and parlayed with his defensive versatility, it is not surprising whatsoever that he has risen up draft boards. Do not be surprised if he continues to rise with an impressive combine and you hear Adam Silver call his name earlier than expected on draft night.