How Shamorie Ponds adapts to the demands of being an NBA point guard will make or break his career.
Throughout his college career, Shamorie Ponds did a great job of establishing that he’s a good offensive player.
The St. John’s point guard scored nearly 1,900 points in his three-year college career, and despite being 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Ponds consistently offered primary initiation value at the college level thanks to his well-rounded offensive game. There’s no questioning the talent Ponds has on that end.
It starts with his shooting, as Ponds is a much better shooter than his college numbers suggest. Ponds shot 32.8 percent from 3 at St. John’s, but a 25.3 percent slump as a sophomore betrays solid jumper mechanics, as he has a good upper body release and he’s able to steady his momentum on pull-up jumpers from out to NBA range.
Ponds isn’t as advanced as Coby White or Darius Garland as a pull-up shooter, but he’s in the tier underneath them, falling into the Garland camp as someone who is good at using his handle to create separation for jumpers. His footwork is excellent, and he gets into the shot quick enough that opponents struggle to contest him on step backs.
Ponds couples that with a strong catch-and-shoot form. While on limited opportunities — he carried a 27 percent usage this year — he shot 43 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, and his tight release and good arc make him a threat despite his size.
Pond’s finishing is obviously more of a question mark, given his size. He’s not an elite athlete like Chris Clemons, the 5-foot-9 guard from Campbell whose explosiveness helped him lead the NCAA in scoring as a junior. But he’s a crafty finisher, able to leverage his handle and touch into being a 63 percent finisher at the rim, per the Stepien shot chart data. He does a good job of getting defenders off balance with dribble moves and a solid spin move, and he does a good job of extending his finishing hand towards the rim, helping him get close when his body can’t get him all the way.
It’s easy to wall Ponds off from the rim, which will be an issue at the next level. But he has shown the ability to score over contact, with much more consistency than a player like Garland has.
Ponds is also one of the better passers in the class, which he doesn’t get much credit for given he averaged a pedestrian 5.8 assists per 40 minutes. He has very good open court vision, and his ability to use deception to spring teammates open is in transition is one of his best skills.
But it’s not just in the halfcourt where Ponds’s vision shines. He taps into some very advanced pick-and-roll passing, headlined by a jaw-dropping skip pass out of the pick-and-roll to the corner.
And it’s not like that Luka Doncic-like pass was a one-time deal. That was a feature.
With some NBA Draft prospects, projection questions center around what the exact role of a player will be. A player like Ignas Brazdeikis of Michigan, who has an interesting array of skills but lacks the athleticism to lend confidence to projecting any of them, might be a case where his role is figured out on the fly as he continues to develop. Ponds is on the other end of the spectrum — figuring out his role is easy. With his offensive talents, size, and athleticism, it’s reasonable to expect that Ponds will grade out as a secondary offensive initiator, commanding the initiation of bench units either as a sixth man or a borderline starter. Filling that role requires a point guard to be an average-to-above-average 3-point shooter off the catch and on pull-ups; a useful enough finisher to provide a threat that collapses the defense; and a capable passer, especially as a manager in the open court on units that want to run. Ponds definitely has the first and second pieces, and is probably functional enough at the third to fill the role.
The question instead with Ponds centers around how he will transition from high-usage college creator into the different demands of being an NBA point guard. Undersized point guards who are good shooters come in bunches in every draft class; just this year, Ponds shares airspace with Clemons, Carsen Edwards, Myles Powell, Lindell Wigginton, Jordan Poole, and Kellan Grady. Not all of them make it. While sometimes you pull a Monte Morris, often you end up drafting Shane Larkin or Isaiah Canaan.
Ponds’ ability to make that jump is going to be tough to calculate because of his context at St. John’s. The Red Storm were definitely not a good team around Ponds during his three years in New York, even this year, when they rode Ponds and transfers to the NCAA Tournament. They never had a good offense while Ponds was there, and that muddies the waters.
On one hand, Ponds’ assist numbers and efficiency were probably repressed by the lack of scoring and spacing talent around him. On the other hand, you could certainly argue that Ponds wasn’t able to elevate the play of those around him, or truly be a difference-maker at the end of games. He finished well, but he struggled to get separation consistently from bigger or quicker defenders on drives. He was a decent clutch performer, but much of that came on a high free throw rate that won’t come as reliably with his new spot in the hierarchy of NBA talent. And his disappearance from the Arizona State game in the NCAA Tournament lingers, as it was a representation of how he could be a non-factor at times for St. John’s on offense despite carrying a usage that high.
Ponds has the talent to be a good backup point guard in the NBA. He has positive skills in all of the right areas. But the question of whether or not he can fill the role will depend on how well he can adapt to his new role. In the NBA, he’ll need to fit more into the “game manager” responsibility that drives the point guard role. How well he creates for others, how well he flips the switch between attacking and facilitating, and how well he can function in an off-ball role are all question marks that are largely independent of the question of what things he can do on the court. Ponds is probably the most talented player outside of the elite point guard prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft class. But the question for his projection is whether he can make that talent valuable.