Jarrett Culver isn’t your flashy lottery pick, but he makes plenty of sense at no. 3 for the Knicks, who could use the defensive-minded, oozing-with-potential guard.

The Knicks Wall is setting a spotlight on the top prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft. Follow along with weekly features on the draft and players. We’re almost there: next up is Texas Tech swingman Jarrett Culver.

While Knicks fans continue to sob over the merciless lottery gods, the possibility of Kevin Durant opting in to his player option, and Kyrie Irving signing with Roc Nation, it seems we’ve all lost sight of the fact that the Knicks are finally set up to build a team the right way for the first time in what feels like forever. Equipped with a decent young core and more first-round draft picks than any other team in the league over the next five years, New York has legitimate pieces to build with.

Running it back with the kids and accruing more assets with cap space may feel like a loss to most given all the pumped up expectations for this summer, but it’s a prudent move if the team can’t lock in one of the top few free agents. So with the third pick, the Knicks have a chance to add another building block to the foundations that have been set, and Jarrett Culver out of Texas Tech would be a great addition.

Overlooked as a three-star recruit coming out of high school, Culver is currently being overlooked at the top end of the 2019 draft too. Born and raised in Lubbock, Texas, he stayed local for college, joining Tech after he caught coach Chris Beard’s eyes as a late addition to the AAU circuit with standout performances in the Nike EYBL with Pro Skills.

After a solid freshman year in which he played a vital part in TTU’s Elite Eight run, Culver was thrust in to a much bigger role after the losses of lead scorers Zhaire Smith and Keenan Evans. He stepped up to the challenge, becoming far and away the best player on the team and leading the squad to the NCAA championship game, propelling himself into a lottery pick in the process.

Before getting into the details about his game, I think a lot of what sets Culver up for success at the next level is his mindset. Everyone who has been around Culver has described him as a high character, love of the game type of guy. He comes from a family that values public service and community, with his father being a pastor and his mother working as a Head Start regional director. The whole family is full of athletes, too, as his brother Trey is a two-time indoor national champion high jumper with the fourth-highest jump in NCAA history, and his other brother plays collegiate ball as well.

Faith and spirituality are very important to Culver, and Beard said Culver hones in on what he wants and goes after it relentlessly. He tells stories of Culver working out in “anything he could find,” whether it be high school gyms or 24 Hour Fitnesses, late at night on the road with managers. Jarrett is very humble in interviews—but still has that competitive drive deep within that you can see out on the floor.

This mentality affects the way he approaches the game. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people cite the Michigan State game in the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament as a reason they don’t like Culver as a prospect.

Winning Mentality and Combine Measurables

That game showed a lot about his resilience. He was seriously struggling with his shot all game, starting off 1-of-10 from the field. But he stayed the course and came up huge in the final minutes of the game to single-handedly will TTU to a win, using his body to protect the ball for a go-ahead bucket, confidently stepping into a dagger three, and then sealing it with a huge rebound in traffic.

Culver’s physical traits appear underwhelming at first glance. He’s not the most quick-footed laterally, but he still manages to use his physicality to stay in front of smaller guards.

I’ve seen him called slow and unathletic in some media, and his combine measurements were uninspiring. He checked in at 6’6.75″ with shoes, 194 pounds, with a 6’9.5″ wingspan, and an 8’4.5″ standing reach. But he plays much bigger than that with his physicality, and he grew from the 6-foot-5 height he was measured at 18 months ago, so there’s reason to believe he can continue to sprout. He has a broad-shouldered frame that appears like it should be able to pack on some serious muscle, with a solid base and horse-like thighs.

Despite what some may have you think about his athleticism because he might not have the same explosion to get separation as other top players, he’s a very functional athlete in the sense that he still gets what he wants out of his moves. Also, his vert looked [incredibly Larry David voice] preeeeeetty springy in his Lakers workout.

Apparently, the Lakers give a little runway that inflates the max vert by a few inches, but Culver’s was still measured here at a godly 45 inches.

Outside of his measurables, Culver has a lot of those little traits you see in polished NBA vets. Resilience, the ability to stay calm under pressure, high-level footwork, motor, and the understanding of where creases are about to open up on the floor and how to take advantage of them are all vital parts of his game. I don’t like breaking down prospects by their offense and defense so much as how their traits play out on both ends, and the way he sees the game unfold has just been a step ahead of almost everyone else on the floor.

Finishing Ability

He understands where and how to find the little advantages to get to his spots. On his drives, for example, Culver’s first step isn’t super quick or twitchy, but he uses other ways to get around his defender and to the cup. In the following video, you’ll see little hip checks, subtle shoulder fakes that give him an extra few tenths of a second, slick ways he can burrow his shoulders around people, and how he keeps his center of gravity really low (while retaining speed) so he can slip through cracks in the defense to get to the rim. And he protects the ball really well with his body.

He’s slippery but always balanced and under control, which, combined with his soft touch around the basket, helped him finish 67.8% of his shots at the rim. Yes, that’s really good. He put on an impressive display of that finishing and shotmaking ability in the first round of the Big Dance.

One of my favorite attributes of Culver is his patience. He reads defensive coverages well, like when guys are about to back off of helping to recover to their man, and he’ll take advantage of that extra space and indecision in split seconds. And he combines this with pro-level footwork, which gives him time to let things develop and make the correct reads.

In the last two clips, he shows that powerful triple threat footwork that is such a useful pro skill, especially in the role he’ll likely start off in, playing mostly off the catch and making those quick reads when the ball finds him. Here it is again:

Passing and Vision

Everyone who’s been watching the NBA playoffs can see that good and quick decision-making is an important skill that directly contributes to team success. How Culver sees the synchronistic dance of players moving together allows him to make high-level, decisive passing reads. He feeds the ball right into shooting pockets, often whipping it a step ahead of rotating defenses. And he’s smart with the ball too, never panicking in a pinch. Even though his usage rate shot up between his freshman and sophomore years, his turnover percentage remained nearly identical.

A pass that is super useful in the NBA’s drive-and-kick economy is one that I saw Culver make at least seven or eight times this year, where he drives baseline and jumps out of bounds, fakes a pass to the corner, and hits a teammate for a wing trey. The last clip in that previous compilation is an example of him doing it against Duke. And here’s another one from the upset TTU pulled against Gonzaga in the tourney:

Leadership on Defense

Seeing how everyone moves in sync also plays out in his team defense. He’s stout defending one-on-one because of his strong base, but what makes him such an effective defender is the anticipation of where players are about to be. Off-ball, he sees the plays develop ahead of others and knows instinctively where to be to strip or cut someone off to swipe the ball. He’ll bait someone in to throwing a pass he knows he can get.

I’m generally wary of defensive stats as the best storyteller, but he does have pretty elite Synergy numbers by defensive play type. Per The Stepien, “Culver held opponents to 0.63 points per possession in isolation and 0.558 points per possession guarding the pick-and-roll. Along with that, opponents scored only 0.675 points per possession on spot-ups with him as the main defender, and only 0.727 points per possession in the post.”

Culver’s high motor and sticktoitiveness are traits that are hard to teach. His hands are like magnets—and he never gives up on a play, always fighting and getting back to blow up actions on defense if he gets knocked out of them for a second. He has that “wants it more” attitude you’ll see in a guy like Kawhi Leonard, who just will keep willing the ball back into his grasp with his vacuum cleaners if it’s taken from him. His rebound percentage this season was a very strong 11.8%.

Clutch Play and Shooting

That determination surely plays a role in his ability to elevate his game in the clutch. The Michigan State game was not an isolated incident. Culver lives for the moment. Per Dribble Handoff: “Since the start of conference play, Culver has shot 56% from the field in clutch time (two-possession game and under five minutes). He accounts for 25% of Texas Tech’s overall points, yet 47%(!) of the Red Raiders’ points in clutch time.”

Shooting 56% from the field in clutch time is no small accomplishment, especially when he’s the focal point of every opposing team’s defensive gameplan. He can create those shots for himself with an array of side-step and step-back dribble moves. Again, we’re going back to his footwork here. And the high release on his shot makes him look very comfortable pulling up in difficult situations.

The shot is still one of his biggest works in progress though, as the little hitch and inconsistency in his form could be cause for concern. But it looks much improved from last year, and he still jumps straight up and down and has a smooth release through the finish. Though he only shot 30.4% from three this year with primary creation duties, he shot a much stronger 38.2% his freshman year, when he played in the off-ball role he’ll be playing in the NBA initially.

Free throw success and improvement have historically been better indicators of success from NBA distance than college three-point percentage, and his free throw percentage jumped from about 65% to 71% in college. It obviously still needs improvement, but the growth in FT%, along with all the soft bounces around the rim he gets, leaves me with an encouraged projection of his shot.

He’s also a decent post-up player on a fairly small sample size. We’ve seen in the playoffs how often the Warriors have gone to Klay Thompson in the mid-post. This could be a skill that’s genuinely useful in grind-it-out NBA games.

The upshot with Culver is that he’s the smart type of player who always seems to make the right play. That’s a type of guy you want on your team, no matter the roster makeup. He’s versatile and doesn’t have many holes in his game on either end, but he has somehow become an underrated scorer because of how often he’s been compared to R.J. Barrett in the lead up to the draft. But that’s a situation Culver thrives in.

Underrated and overlooked, but he’ll keep the faith.

 

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