SACRAMENTO KINGS

Jaden Ivey Is The Next Russell Westbrook, But It Won’t Work With The Kings

Jun 10, 2022, 12:35 PM | Updated: 12:35 pm
Jaden Ivey...
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There are a lot of similarities in life. Whether it be the words we use or the foods we eat, there is a connection between everything we do. There’s no way around it, it’s human nature as we look to compare and connect entities that normally wouldn’t even be a thought in daily conversations. 

In the sports world, we call this analysis and as previously mentioned, it’s a part of everyday sports conversations, particularly with the NBA draft. With the 2022 draft coming in less than two weeks, sports personalities and so-called experts have ramped up their draft talk since the conclusion of the collegiate season. 

Most of the hot takes right now are focused on the big three of the draft, Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Auburn’s Jabari Smith, and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. Specifically when their names will be called in the draft as the sports world seems divided on the consensus No. 1 overall pick. Some say it’s Smith, some have him next to Banchero, and even more have neither as Holmgren’s 7’3” frame towers over them both.

Don’t get me wrong, all three options are great and have the resume and accolades to back it up. But while the focus is on them, the gem of the draft may be taken after the trio. A franchise-altering player that has one of the highest ceilings, and lowest of floors, in this year’s draft.  

Enter Jaden Ivey, sophomore guard out of Purdue, and potentially the next rising star in the NBA. Ivey made some noise this March, thanks to Purdue’s run to the Sweet Sixteen, as the talking heads have just started to shift their eyes to the future NBA guard, but it’s nowhere near the attention he deserves.

Regardless, the future star has gathered enough eyes to have comparisons made to his NBA predecessors. The consensus is almost unanimous with Ivey: Another Ja Morant. While this is a perfectly fine comparison for the Boilermaker, as the pair share a similar explosive playstyle, it’s lazy in my opinion. Sheep regurgitating the same take due to recency bias of Murray State’s tournament run in 2019, and an unwillingness to peel back the onion if you will.

The old timely analogy is simple: just like an onion, an NBA prospect has several layers to their game. Only when peeling back the layers and examining them individually, you start to see the full picture. In Ivey’s case, there’s more than what meets the eye. 

Watching Ivey, I saw a few things comparable to his NBA counterparts as the athleticism and “quick-twitch” ability resembles Morant’s game but there’s more to him than that. Watching him further, I started to notice the passing ability, vision, and knack for grabbing rebounds that reminded me of somebody in particular, a take most of the ESPN big-wigs would be afraid to make. Ivey reminds me of Mr. Triple Double himself, Russell Westbrook.

But before you click off this article and throw your hands in the air over another blasphemy take by an unknown writer (probably living in his mother’s basement, which I’m not), stay with me a bit as I make the case why Jaden Ivey is the next Russell Westbrook and why it might, JUST MIGHT, work out this time around.


The Comp. As A Whole/Measurables 

To be clear: I’m not referring to the Lakers version of Westbrook when comparing him to Ivey. A player undergoing his worst season since 2010, shooting a pedestrian 44.4% from the field, and an abysmal 29.4% from three. A shell of his former self, clearly past his prime. No. 

I’m talking about the mystical Westbrook, the guy who helped Kevin Durant reach an NBA finals with the OKC Thunder. The first person to average a triple double in a season since Oscar Robertson in 1962, winning the 2017 MVP trophy in the process. That’s who Ivey reminds me of, the shark-like, hard-nosed bucket getter that always looks to attack. One of the most exciting players in the game. And the measurables back it up.

On first glance, Ivey’s stature resembles that of Morant, his most commonly used league comparison, but as previously stated, Ivey is more like the layers of an onion. Standing at 6’4”, 195 pounds, Ivey is a long, physical guard that thrives on creating contact at the rim. While we’ll have to wait for the NBA combine to get official measurements, the Boilermaker sports a rumored 6’7” to 6’9” wingspan, using the extra length to contort his body in the paint. Both his NBA counterparts have a similar wingspan and finishing style but it’s Ivey’s weight that separates him from Morant as he and Russ are almost identical in that category. 

This is relevant as the almost 200-pound sophomore is able to attack the rim with more physicality and contact, like Westbrook, drawing fouls and creating scoring chances. Morant is also able to do this but his stature makes him a little more fragile when he’s in the air, similarly to Derrick Rose in his prime as every time these high-flyers take it above the rim, fans and NBA staffers alike fear it could result in a lower body injury. And we’ve already seen this happen with Morant as he has struggled with nitpicky leg injuries all season, causing him to miss over 20 regular season games. So while I understand the Morant takes, physically, Ivey is more like a bigger Russ, using his body to create contact and finish at the rim with authority. 

Additionally, Ivey’s college statistics mirror Westbrook more so than Morant. The Purdue guard played two seasons, identical to the NBA pair, but never reached the scoring numbers of his stereotypical predecessor from Murray State. Ivey averaged 11.1 points per game his first year, starting in only 12 games for the Big Ten school. His second year: 17.3 ppg, starting in 34 out of 36 games played.

Westbrook shared a similar college trajectory at UCLA, averaging a mere 3.4 ppg while only starting in one game for the Bruins his freshman year. The sophomore jump is what mirrors Ivey, leaping to 12.7 ppg in 34 games started for the former MVP. 

While Morant also played two seasons for his college program, he should be seen more as an anomaly. Most prospects from smaller schools don’t normally pan out the way the young star has, leading the Memphis Grizzlies to their second consecutive playoffs berth this season, before losing to the Golden State Warriors in the second round. Morant went from 12.7 to 24.5 ppg in his second year at Murray State, while starting in all 65 games played in his college career.

My point being that Morant was already the emerging star on his team in his freshman year for a lower level program, Ivey and Westbrook weren’t. They had some moments but it was the development over the offseason within premier college programs that helped the two guards, unlike Morant who’s famous for his backyard workouts that made him the player he is today.

Similar but not quite, Ivey and Westbrook are the better pair for comparisons on statistical, and developmental, levels.

‘Blood In The Water’ Defensive Instincts/Strength In His Attack

Ivey’s biggest strength as an NBA prospect is obviously his ability to score the basketball, specifically when he turns on the jets to attack the rim. He’s able to do this in a variety of ways, from off the dribble in a catch and attack manner to using the pick and roll to blow by his defenders. 

Much of Jaden’s attacking play is also generated from a defensive stop, similar to Russ in his early Oklahoma City days. Countless times in his career he’d shoot out like a cannon after an errant pass from an opposing player, going into a full sprint in a matter of seconds, off to the races for a ferocious slam. 

Ivey does it too, surveying the play as it unfolds before picking the perfect moment to steal the ball and race home for an easy two points. This was apparent in the Indiana State game when Ivey got the steal on one end, before grabbing and going full speed to deliver a SportsCenter Top 10 play of the night. 

I call this the ‘blood in the water’ technique because like Westbrook, Ivey is a shark on defense. He’s not the best pure on-ball defender but it’s his instincts that bail him out, almost “smelling” when it’s the right time to attack, just like a shark stalking his prey. 

You can always teach players the fundamentals of defense, you can’t teach instincts. And while Ivey has room to improve in that department (we’ll get to that later), he has a solid foundation to be a good defender, if not great guard defender.

Vision And Rebounds

Ivey not only flashed his scoring ability at Purdue, but the vision and rebounding attributes that put him on the Westbrook trajectory. 

First his vision as Ivey only averaged 3.1 assists per game last season, but when asked, he could deliver a pinpoint pass to his teammates. I say “when asked” because that wasn’t his role for the Boilermakers, using him more as an offensive scorer rather than creator for others. In fact, both Trevion Williams and Sasha Stefanovic had more total assists than Ivey for Purdue last season. His job was to get the bucket, not supply it. 

As the young guard matures in an NBA offense with the ball in his hands, he’ll be able to dissect the defense and deliver more open passes for an open three or cutter to the basket. And he’s already doing it with his ability to create separation, zipping a pass down the lane or over the top to trailing man. One play that comes to mind was when Purdue played Illinois in January around the 16:30 mark in the first half. Playing off-ball, Ivey zipped to the corner to receive the pass before cutting into the middle of the paint where he was met by two defenders, leaving Mason Gillis wide open underneath the basket for Ivey to drop a great pass for an easy two. He also did this in their second meeting with Illinois in February, driving in the paint before stopping to survey, eventually finding the open three ball at the top of the arc. He finds those weird and unusual angles you need from a lead ball handler because of his ability to attack the basket, similar to Westbrook over the years.

Ivey actually averaged more rebounds than assists in college, partially because of his role but also because of his ability to push the tempo off a rebound. Averaging almost five rebounds a game, the Purdue guard would use his athleticism and length to snatch rebounds out of the sky and push the floor, just like Russ has done in his NBA career. Rebound, block, steal, it doesn’t matter for the young guard because once the ball is in his hands on the break, look out, he’s coming at you for the dunk or laying it off to his teammate. 

His best weapon is his transition offense, and that all starts on the defensive end for him. 

Competitiveness  

Every lead guard needs that competitive edge to be the top dog on their team and Ivey has that. Whether it’s in his attacking play, overall demeanor or flashiness in transition, the Boilermaker is a bull in a china shop just like Westbrook. He plays with such an aggression and competitiveness that can fuel a team to outperform their expectations, one of the reasons Purdue was ranked as high as No.4 in the country last season. He gets his team to believe  they can win any game. 

The flashy plays were on full display in 2021-2022 for Ivey, showing off his moxie after a tough And-1 with staredowns, mean mugging and chatter with the crowd. Same as Westbrook, Ivey is an entertainer on the court, the fans are always in for a treat when he touches the ball. He’s not afraid of the moment, leading his team to the sweet sixteen in the tournament with a plethora of clutch shots. It’ll be interesting to see how that showtime ability transitions over to the league as he goes from one of the best to emerging rookie, but the demeanor and confidence should be there from the jump, the mark of a true lead guard.

An Improved Three Ball 

This is the area where Ivey separates himself from Westbrook (or “Westbrick” whichever you prefer), as the Purdue guard improved mightily on his three-ball last season. Jumping from 25.8% to 35.8% is no coincidence as Ivey put countless hours into the development of his three, and it shows, getting the separation from deep in a variety of ways. 

He’s effective from all angles but thrives mostly from the top or the wings of the three-point line, often coming off a screen to take a catch and shoot three. The move that stands out the most however, is his stepback, using his quick twitch to create the separation and open jumper in less than two seconds. He also made several clutch threes for the Boilermakers in 2022, pointing to the confidence and trust we discussed previously. 

The continued development of his deep ball will be the key to his success in the NBA as opponents will have to respect his ability to hit from three, opening up other avenues of his game on the offensive end. Still, he’s miles ahead of where Russ was in college from outside, an aspect of his game he needs to be successful in the league.

Why The Kings Shouldn’t Take Him

You may be asking yourself “If Ivey is such a great prospect, why shouldn’t the Kings take him with the fourth pick?” The answer is simple: Fit. 

I know that Sacramento has gotten in trouble in the past when picking for need and fit(still mad about passing on Luka Doncic) but this time it’s a bit different. If the Kings were to select Ivey with the fourth pick, it would put them in the exact same situation they were faced with last season: Too many guards. The Kings just traded Tyrese Haliburton away because of a backcourt logjam, do we really need another?

Additionally, Jaden Ivey had a usage rate of 32.4% while at Purdue with an assist ratio of only 9.2%, extremely low for a primary ball handler. Do we really expect him to thrive alongside De’Aaron Fox when both play almost the exact same way, especially after Fox’s late resurgence last season after the Sabonis trade. De’Aaron isn’t as effective without the ball in his hands and unless Ivey becomes a knockdown shooter from three (which I don’t), the backcourt won’t work with that tandem.

Ivey’s on-ball defense is also a concern for me too. While he does have the instincts to create off a turnover, I don’t see him ever becoming the lockdown defender that this franchise desperately needs. Furthermore, general manager Monte McNair is clearly trying to build a playoff team as soon as possible and Ivey doesn’t fit that timeline. He’ll need a few years to develop his decision-making and feel on both sides of the ball which the Kings don’t have if the goal is to make the playoffs this season. 

Combo guards are like running backs in the NFL, easier to find. Sure the ones that are stars you hold on to but you know what’s harder to find: perimeter defenders/scorers, like Iowa’s Keegan Murray, who can defend positions two through five on the court. Ivey has an incredibly high ceiling but also an incredibly low floor. For those reasons, give me Murray over Ivey on draft night for the Kings.

Conclusion

Jaden Ivey is one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2022 draft, simply because he’s a potential franchise-altering player that can spearhead an offensive attack. And it’s for that reason I don’t want the Sacramento Kings to take him. The team that selects him will need to be patient in his development and transition in the NBA, handing him the keys to the kingdom when he’s ready. That should not be Kings’ approach this year. They want to make the playoffs and the development and similar playing styles of Ivey and Fox will only slow that down. 

This is not an indictment on the player Ivey could be, I believe in his potential, just not with the Kings. His best fit would be going to a slow, rebuilding team that is looking to be competitive in a few years, not now. Detroit, Indiana and New York come to mind for this spotlight player to truly shine in the NBA. If the team that selects him on draft night allows him to grow at his own pace, they may end up with the next Russell Westbrook in his prime for a decade. If not, he could be another pedestrian combo guard in a league filled with them.

We’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds come June 23rd.

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