In the tumultuous 2020-2021 season that was Tennessee Volunteers basketball, few would disagree that Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer were the highlights. The 5-star freshmen lived up to their billing, helping provide the offensive spark for Tennessee that was sorely missing from last year’s squad. It was a blast watching them get into grooves and adjust to the college game.
The downside of bringing in talents of their level means that they jump to the NBA fairly quickly. It’s the old paradox: The better they play, the sooner they leave.
Right now, most mock drafts have Johnson as the higher pick of the two. That’s a stark reversal from early in the season, when Springer actually looked like the more NBA ready prospect. But Johnson’s late season surge and incredible highlights have seemingly catapulted him to near lottery status. Meanwhile, Springer has maintained anywhere from a mid-first round to an early second round grade.
Today, we try and parse through whether or not Springer should take the risk and declare himself for the NBA draft.
I typically wouldn’t conclude that a potential first round pick should return, but I’m going to buck the trend and say Springer should seriously consider coming back. My reasoning is that Springer looks like a developmental combo guard, rather than a plug-and-play athlete. The latter is what Keon Johnson strikes me as (article on him coming soon).
Essentially, my thought is that Springer is further away from his ceiling than Johnson is. Whereas Johnson has a natural explosiveness and athleticism that translates almost immediately to the NBA, Springer’s game is more nuanced.
His ability to score down low, for instance, becomes more difficult at the next level against more talented players. In college he can get away with things that he simply wouldn’t be able to in the pros.
A prime example, look at how many times he scores around the basket off a singular jump stop move, and how many times he gets into trouble when the defense knows what’s coming. The concern applies to all college basketball players, but it’s a simple fact that those with a more natural scoring ability have an easier time translating to the NBA. That’s not to say Springer can’t be dominant with it at the NBA level—it’s just harder to do so when your shot selection can be fairly predictable. He’s going to need more diversity in how he attacks.
Despite the reliance on a couple of inside moves, I do think that Springer has the ability to unlock another skillset with deep shooting. His catch-and-shoot ability from behind the line is underrated when discussing his offensive prowess, largely because Tennessee doesn’t ask their players to take many 3s. That also makes it hard to gauge Springer’s reliability from deep. Which might actually be a motivation for him to leave to the NBA, where they will be more willing to let it fly.
Part of the appeal with Springer is that he’s a genuinely talented playmaker when attacking the basket—either as a scorer, or as a player that forces the defense to collapse on him. That’s going to involve a passing aspect which he is capable of. In fact, there’s a few plays where Springer makes a very advanced read of the defense, and finds a guy open in a crowded area. You really can’t coach this type of playmaking.
This is THE Jaden Springer sequence, and one of the best sequences I’ve ever seen of a prospect. pic.twitter.com/PTVyNdzpF0— Robel (@robeltussin) February 7, 2021
Defensively, it’s hard to find a bad thing to say about him. This is the area where I have zero concerns about him being ready for the NBA. Whereas his offensive game needs refinement, his play on defense only needs more reps against better guards. Springer is disciplined with his arms and knows how to move without getting called for blocks. When it’s Springer vs. a smaller guard, chances are Springer wins off size and defensive awareness. He’s got some issues when he’s not on the ball handler, but really nothing all that concerning. If he plays early in the NBA, it’s probably going to be when a team needs to force the other team’s scorer to get out of rhythm.
If the concern is that Springer won’t be developing much under Barnes, I would counter with someone like Admiral Schofield, or Grant Williams. Both players were similarly distant from their ceiling, but were able to maximize their time at Tennessee, with a lot of thanks to Rick Barnes. It wasn’t a physical transformation either, it was a focus on growing their confidence and becoming elite at what they did best.
If Springer takes that same route, he could put himself into top-10 discussion.
Which is why even if Springer never becomes an explosive scorer, he still has room to improve with his inside game. It’s also not crazy to say that Springer has more natural talent than either of Williams or Schofield. You can just see how good Springer can be— but he still has work to do.
Work that, in my opinion, could be accomplished with one more year in college.