Jaden Springer came to Tennessee as part of the Vols’ nationally 5th-ranked recruiting class, and as many expected, declared for the NBA Draft after just one season at Tennessee.
That’s the time period we’ll focus on, as his play against that level competition is most pertinent to his eventual development in the NBA.
Springer’s been entrenched in 2021 NBA mock drafts since his senior year of high school, and while his season in Knoxville didn’t go as collectively for the Vols, Springer demonstrated some NBA-level skills and is projected to be a late-lottery to mid-first round pick in the draft next Thursday. Also, he’s one of, if not the youngest, players in the draft since he’s 18 and doesn’t turn 19 until September.
His combine numbers didn’t wow anybody, but they didn’t do him any real disservice, either.
He measured in at 6-4.25, a little under his 6-5 listed height and tipped the scales at a solid 202 pounds. His standing reach is 8-3 and fairly typical for prospects his size while his wingspan of 6-7.75 is likely a bit narrower than most front offices would like for a SG, but not narrow enough to be a red flag.
He didn’t blow away his speed tests — he tied for the 10th-best 3⁄4 court sprint and had the fifth-best shuttle run — but he jumped well, posting the second highest standing and max vertical jumps for SGs at 34.5 and 41.5 inches, respectively.
Springer led the Vols in scoring by averaging 12.5 points per game. He was also one of the most efficient player for Tennessee last season with 47/81/44 shooting splits. His near-60 true shooting percentage ranked him in the 80th percentile for college players last season.
Tennessee Head Coach brought both of his prized freshmen (Springer and Keon Johnson) along slowly last season. Springer didn’t start and played around 19 mins per game through the first nine contest of the year but started all but one of the remaining games in the year and ended up playing 26 minutes on average. He ended up finishing the season second in usage, at 26 percent, behind Johnson. While his 44-percent shooting from deep will catch the eye of NBA front offices, his ability to get downhill and to the rim is his most advanced offensive skill.
STRENGTH/ FRAME/ BUILD
Just looking at Springer, you can see he’s got some umph to his frame. He looked like he’d been in a college strength and conditioning program the minute he stepped on Tennessee’s campus. Though he’s a capable outside scorer, Springer tended to use his bulk to take his men into the paint and create mismatches. And he’s strong enough to muscle the ball up if he’s not able to get a clean shot off.
Jaden Springer was so good Friday. Here, Pons gets a steal and pushes it up floor. #Vols don't have numbers -- the Tech D gets back -- but Springer gets the ball & has a size/speed/strength mismatch on his defender. So he bullies his man into the lane and finishes thru contact pic.twitter.com/rqJE4CkM2T— // nichabod crane // (@_NicoSuave_) December 20, 2020
I’ll talk you through the play up here and then you can hit the play and watch it.
First — triple threat position into a jab step that gets his defender’s leverage all outta wack. Then, he rips straight through the help defender’s arms in the midst of his jump stop. Finally, he uses his tremendously strong lower body to go up off two feet and finish with his off-hand as he’s falling down. I’m outta breath just typing all that. That’s some serious power and body control converging into a made basket. He finished through traffic and didn’t take a dribble in the paint.
Below is a play from Tennessee’s win against Kentucky last season in Rupp Arena. Springer played a team-high 34 minutes in the Vols’ 82-71 comeback win. He scored 14 of his 23 points in the second half and ended with a +16 plus-minus rating. On this possession, he’s got fellow 2021 NBA Draft prospect BJ Boston checking him on the left wing, where Springer hit five of 11 from behind the arc on the season. Springer get’s Boston’s feet tangled with a quick in-and-out dribble, then uses his strong base to bump Boston off him transferring energy from an emphatic jump stop through his legs into Boston’s midsection. At finish, he’s under the hoop for an easy two.
The were grumblings last season about Tennessee’s offense as it struggled to generate good shots at times while several players were content to pass up decent shots from 3 and let fly mid-range jumpers instead of getting looks at the hoop. 44.5 percent of Springer’s total shots came in the paint but not at the rim. That mathed out to 4 attempts per game and ranked him in the 96th percentile of all college hoopers, which, obviously includes forwards and centers, positions from which you’d expect players to take a higher percentage of their shots in the paint than a guard. With that sort of proficiency, I’m relatively okay with Springer taking shots from there.
The thing is, even though Springer shot 45 percent in the paint on non-rim 2s (just about average compared to other NCAA players), outside of the paint, Springer’s 2-point percentage falls to 35 percent.
Though Chris Paul and Kris Middleton dusted off the mid-range shot in the NBA Finals, a lot of teams are shooting more shots at the rim and more shots from 3 due to those shots being the most efficient.
While Springer didn’t attempt a large volume of 3s last season, he was particularly accurate from deep. His nearly 58-percent true shooting figure was bolstered by him hitting his 3s at a 45-percent clip which put Springer in the 92nd percentile among NCAA players in 2020-2021.
He was mostly a catch-and-shoot guy from deep last season and scored a respectable 1 PPP in those situations, but on occasion he demonstrated a flare for some shot creation, like this step-back against Kentucky:
He very rarely took a bad shot from deep, but the other side of that coin is he passed up some decent looks from 3 and the offense ended up with a worse shot as a consequence. There’s a school of thought that believes 3-point volume is actually a better predictor of future success shooting from long range than 3-point accuracy, but still, I don’t imagine any NBA front offices look at his percentage, even on just 2.8 attempts per 40 minutes, and think it’s anything but a positive feather in Jaden’s evaluation cap.
I reckon that video is a good segue into what’s one of my favorite Springer attributes — his facilitating. He took no prisoners on his spin into the lane and then flipped a slick wrap-around pass to Pons who just didn’t finish. But still, a great pass from Jaden.
He played a lot of PG his senior season at IMG Academy, and I expected him to end up as the Vols’ primary PG by the end of the year. Though Tennessee had plenty of options at guard — recently eligible transfer Victor Bailey, Santiago Vescovi, who was coming off a fantastic sophomore season, Johnson and even, at times Josiah-Jordan James —there weren’t any who proved consistently reliable enough to take hold of the Vols’ lead-guard duties. He absolutely showed off at times with his vision, but it’s likely his handle has him more suited as a secondary ball-handler and distributor in the NBA.
Here’s Springer in his first start at Tennessee in the Vols’ 10th game of the season against Texas A&M. At this time, he’s pretty recently turned 18 years old.
Vescovi pushing the pace here after a miss. Pass to JJJ who hits Springer in the corner. Before you press play notice that A&M's defense is still catching up. Springer uses that & goes baseline. He draws the help & hits Pons with a no-look pass. Pons wasn't ready & fumbles it. pic.twitter.com/W8lENylkWA— // nichabod crane // (@_NicoSuave_) January 10, 2021
He initially uses the defender’s poor leverage against him by going baseline after the catch. Springer’s a righty, but goes left and as soon as the help comes, he flips a no-look pass to Yves Pons who maybe wasn’t quite ready for the pass.
For the season, Springer’s assist percentage was 23.3 and in the 87th percentile of NCAA players, which means he assisted on nearly a quarter of his teammates baskets while he was on the floor. Some of that comes as a function of his high usage — 25.8, 89th percentile and second on the team to Keon Johnson — but it’s also an indication of Springer’s ability to find and create scoring opportunities for his teammates.
A high percentage of Springer’s offensive game revolves around getting to the paint. He scores from there, but he likes to penetrate and then read the defense’s reaction and capitalize off the chaos.
My concerns with him as a playmaker revolve around his seeming limitations in the pick and roll, which is the heartbeat of the modern NBA game.
At the hoop, Springer’s shooting percentage was pretty close to average, 63 percent,
It’s interesting watching Springer’s film at times because his athletic gifts aren’t always noticeable. That kinda sounds strange when talking about somebody with a 40-plus inch vertical jump, and I could also be influenced by watching a lot of Keon Johnson and Yves Pons highlights recently prepping for the draft. But Springer does something like this in pregame warmups:
lol jaden— // nichabod crane // (@_NicoSuave_) July 27, 2021
Almost exclusively a two-foot dunker. Going off two feet, he generates a lot of force out of his jumps.
But kinda seems like an important limitation when thinking about his transition to the NBA pic.twitter.com/arCwDVRpGB
And then during games, sometimes, he finishes plays like this:
This finish ended up looking a bit wonky because Springer almost exclusively jumps off two feet. It’s important to note, though, that despite the lack in variety of his finishing style, Springer managed 1.26 points per possession in transition last season, which ranked him in the 84th percentile of NCAA players for the year.
Jumping off two feet allows him to generate a lot of force in his leaps, which is good, but it limits his takeoff package to a degree. Now, his two-foot leaps could be a mental or physically driven tendency. He might go off two because that’s just what he’s comfortable doing, and he’s likely been talented enough for it to not limit his success. That’s fixable. But it could also be caused by some inflexibility in his hips. And messing with his hips might take away from the power he exerts from his lower half. IDK — not an expert in that field. Also, there have been plenty of guys in the NBA who went their whole careers as two-foot jumpers: Stephon Marbury, Donovan Mitchell, Derrick Rose, so there’s not even a guarantee it’s something Springer will ever need to address.
PICK AND ROLL
For Jaden to become a dependable secondary ball handler in the NBA, he’s gotta improve in the pick and roll as it’s the heartbeat of the modern NBA game.
Let’s get this out of the way: the sample size from his time at Tennessee is way small. But still, Springer tallied just .5 PPP in 25 possessions as the P&R ball-handler last year and had a 20-percent TO% in those situations. Further, his 25-ish effective FG percentage indicates that he’s not comfortable shooting out of the P&R, either.
Above, we saw the ability to make plays out of the post, and I think that’s a positive indicator for his ability to grow as a P&R ball handler, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s just something he’s gonna have to work on.
Springer’s strength defensively is in his point-of-attack defense. His frame and build paired with ability to move and slide laterally are an excellent combination for a guard playing defense.
Below, he’s checking fellow soon-to-be draftee BJ Boston.
He gets crossed up a bit but keeps his feet moving and meets Boston back at the spot. Notice Boston getting into Springer’s chest a bit, but Springer doesn’t budge.
This time, Springer navigates around the pick without losing leverage either direction. His balance is great — he keeps that low center of gravity but also has his arms up and bother’s the ball-handler into an errant pass and a TO.
Next is one of my favorite clips of Springer’s on-ball defense. He’s guarding UF guard Tyree Appleby, who’s 6-1, 170.
He keeps his butt low and his base wide, and his hips look more fluid here than when he’s finishing at the rim on offense. His wide stance lets him match the ball-handler’s steps but actually cover more ground. Appleby ends up using a slight hesitation dribble to get room to get his shot off, but Springer’s still in his back pocket and challenges enough to cause a miss from close range.
Good feet and hips are important defensively, but having quick and nimble hands adds significant value, too.
Steals are an art for good defenders. They require great timing and pinpoint execution. Springer’s got a pretty standard reach for players his size, so he can’t rely on using octopus-like tentacles to reach around the ball-handler’s frame. He’s gotta do it more with an understanding of angles and timing. He stayed with the ball and as soon as the dribbler got just a little loose with his handle, Springer picks it and is off to the races on a fastbreak.
For the year, Springer had a 94-ish defensive rating that ranked him third on the Vols in terms of regular contributors. Put another way, Springer was one of the best defenders on a top-5 NCAA defense last season. He had a 3.1-percent steal % in the last five games of the season (87th percentile), and while he didn’t block a lot of shots, he used his body well and manufactured some swats with good fundamentals.
Springer seems to be sitting in the mid-to-late first round in most mock drafts now with the draft happening Thursday. I almost think that’s due to his sorta subdued athleticism on tape. He just doesn’t make a ton of plays that pop off the screen. And to be clear, there’s plenty of stuff I didn’t go over here that evaluators look at. For instance, he was a turnover machine at times last season — he averaged nearly four per 40 minutes and thusly had a pretty subpar assist-to-turnover ratio.
But, again, he’s so young. In fact, he’s younger than Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 player in the 2021 class who will play for Gonzaga as a freshman next season.
Springer looks like the blueprint for the modern NBA 3&D mold. Young, two-way players with some inherent playmaking ability? That’s a winning combination for teams later in the lottery that are typically just a few pieces away from actual contention within the conference.