In a draft class devoid of much star power beyond Zion Williamson, Jarrett Culver has ridden a breakout sophomore season to emerge as arguably the second-best prospect. With a versatile offensive game and stout defensive capabilities, Culver looks to be one of the safer lottery picks, combining a high floor with lower-level star upside.
His 54.2 percent true shooting is far from glamorous but it’s important to note he was thrust into primary creation duties for Texas Tech, a team lacking high-level scorers around him. When the Red Raiders needed a bucket or possessions stalled out, Culver was fed the ball with instructions to create. The only player with primary ball-handling equity in this year’s class is Zion (I’m skeptical of Ja Morant’s value there on good teams) and Culver won’t — or shouldn’t — be relied upon to spearhead the majority of his NBA team’s touches. He won’t see the opposition’s best defender; he won’t be the center of defensive game plans. Viewing him through the lens of an ancillary cog on teams like Atlanta, Memphis, Phoenix or Dallas heightens his allure.
Nonetheless, Culver sports an intriguing offensive package. With an offbeat cadence (think shades of Caris LeVert or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), he uses defenders’ timing and anticipation against them. Rather than drive or shoot when they expect him to, he attacks a moment earlier or flips up shots a second late. He eats up space with long, functional strides and contorts his body to slither through creases or wiggle around guys.
Despite playing alongside two poor/non-shooters in Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase, Culver converted 67.1 percent of his shots at the rim and only 23.8 percent of them were assisted upon (per Hoop-Math). Every prospect stands to benefit from NBA spacing but he exhibited a knack for thriving amidst adverse conditions with a variety of finishing moves — left- and right-handed — in the paint. He also ranked in the 78th percentile (0.96 points per possession) in isolation.
It isn’t just the distinct pace that enables Culver to get downhill. He utilizes his size well — trapping defenders on his hip/back or lowering his shoulders to create space — and displays precise footwork with subtle jab-steps to open up driving lanes. Not every wing/oversized ball-handler maximizes their physical traits — Culver does just that. He harnesses a wicked spin move to skirt around defenders in the key and a swift hesitation crossover to leave them in the rearview mirror, too.
Even with the sterling finishing numbers and isolation efficiency, some questions remain about Culver’s scoring upside. His first step isn’t anything to marvel at and he was bottled up by some longer, disciplined and athletic defenders. If they didn’t bite on fakes or succumb to his unique rhythm, he had a propensity to force up contested jumpers — though that’s largely due to the considerable burden he was tasked with this season.
The hope is a complementary role reduces the times he’s presented with those one-on-one sequences. As one of the smarter lottery prospects basketball IQ-wise, Culver should profit from compromised defenses while playing off of a primary ball-handler, sharp enough to spot openings for himself or others. He’s not a rare athlete by NBA standards but won’t be out of place at the next level, blessed with enough size, length and downhill quickness to succeed.
To truly buy into Culver as the No. 2 prospect in this class, you have to believe in his jumper becoming a weapon. Shooting 30.4 percent from 3-point range and 70.7 percent at the free-throw line aren’t generally conducive to future success but context is required. Culver radically changed his mechanics after his freshman year, when he shot 38.2 percent beyond the arc but only 64.8 percent at the charity stripe. Note the long wind up and wonky form last season:
Compare it to now, where the jumper is much more seamless:
It isn’t perfect yet. Sometimes, there’s a pronounced hitch and the release point is inconsistent. But that’s normal. He redesigned his entire jumper in one offseason; not everything can be fixed over that relatively brief time frame. But I believe in it long-term because of that 5.9 percentage point jump in free-throw shooting from year one to two and the fact that he flashes fluid, hitch-free shots from time to time. As it becomes second nature and muscle memory sets in, he should become a pretty good shooter — at least to the point of keeping defenses honest and creating paths to the paint. Not serving as a primary ball-handler and having to hoist bail-out shots will improve his efficiency as well.
Culver proved to be an intuitive off-ball player as well, periodically slipping picks, cutting along the baseline when defenders doze off or darting backdoor against ball-denial coverage. And despite amassing just 25 possessions as a post-up scorer, he looked comfortable shooting fadeaways near the block over smaller defenders.
As he grows into his frame — he will, he has broad shoulders, always a good sign, according to The Stepien’s Ben Rubin — it’s likely he becomes comfortable bullying guys down low rather than solely resorting to tough (but aesthetically pleasing) fallaway jumpers. And if you subscribe to Rubin’s theory that Culver is taller than his listed height of 6-foot-6 and is still sprouting up, his intrigue as a ball-handler and diverse shot creator only increases. A wing who grows to be 6-foot-9ish with perimeter skills is worthy of the second overall pick.
Scoring isn’t even the preeminent charm of his offensive package. A 3.7:2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio this season belies his talent as a facilitator. Again, that mark largely emphasizes the need for Culver to be a secondary playmaker rather than the primary role he was miscast in (though he is a bit of a high-dribbler whose dribble moves aren’t always fluid or clean).
He’s capable of squeezing in pocket passes to rollers, slinging dimes to cutters, hurling skip passes to shooters and kicking it out on drives. He can pass on the move or from a standstill and identifies reads before they’re available (or ones he’s physically incapable of making right now). Adhering to the notion that he’s going to continue growing and bulking up means his passing arsenal is only going to expand.
All of those traits are intriguing but Culver wouldn’t be the No. 2 prospect on my board if it weren’t for his defensive prowess. At 6-foot-6 with an estimated 6-foot-10 wingspan (nothing has been officially documented), he’s a versatile and effective perimeter defender. Whereas two other contenders for the second pick, Morant and RJ Barrett, struggled to toggle their offensive responsibilities with adequate defense, Culver rarely had difficulty.
He doesn’t have elite lateral quickness but his feet are active and rarely glued to the floor. He’s bouncing around on his toes and sliding his feet with arms out to pester the ball-handler and maximize his size. Early on in the league, he should be confined to guarding wings. But as he establishes NBA-caliber strength, that malleability — defending anyone from 2-guards to 4-men and the occasional point guard or smaller center — will shine through. Put simply, he just understands how to excel as an on-ball defender and totaled a combined 76 steals/blocks in 38 games.
Like most young players, he’s prone to fatigue-based mistakes (poor closeouts or routes around screens) and falling asleep off the ball. But those breakdowns were less frequent as a freshman when he sported a 22.1 percent usage rate rather than 32.2 percent this year. With fewer offensive duties in the NBA, he’ll be better equipped to be lock-in off the ball. It isn’t as though he lacks the awareness, instincts and IQ to be a defensive playmaker.
Morant or Barrett are poised to be taken second overall when the NBA Draft rolls around in late June. Culver’s playmaking acumen, elite finishing talents, physical profile and defensive aptitude mold together for the No. 2 prospect on my board, though. He might not have the ceiling of Morant or Barrett but his versatility provides the safer floor of a role player who spearheads the offense in a pinch. His game can be scaled down in a way Morant and Barrett’s cannot — at least in my eyes.
He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to impact the game and projects to be a multipositional defender with All-Defensive Team upside — something Barrett didn’t display at Duke. Culver combines youth (he doesn’t turn 21 until next February) with high-level skills that should enable him to be a complementary player on some really good teams down the line. All of that elevates him to the second-best talent in this class.