Swarm Spotlight: Kai Jones has a lot of potential but his game needs a lot of work
As a resident of Greensboro, I am fortunate enough to attend a handful of Greensboro Swarm games each year. In this “Swarm Spotlight” series, I’ll share my observations of games I’ve attended in person. Although this is a fairly limited sample, I saw enough of each player highlighted to get a good idea of their strengths and areas of development. The subject of this week’s article is rookie center Kai Jones.
The Charlotte Hornets returned in the first round of the 2021 draft to land Jones at No. 19 as a raw and rising Texas prospect. During his rookie season, Jones played 21 games for the Hornets during the NBA regular season, but only played a total of 63 minutes per year. In those 63 minutes, he scored 22 points on 64.3% shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked two shots.
As a young player in need of development, the G League was a great option for Kai this year and he gained a lot of experience with the Swarm. Here is his profile:
Written: N°19 overall (first round) in 2021
Cut: 6’10”, 221 pounds
Swarm Stats: 32 games, 30.3 minutes, 16.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 2.1 blocks
Filming: 61.4% FG, 31.7% 3PT (2.6 attempts per game), 60.0% FT
Kai had a solid statistical season with the Swarm. He was a consistent scorer with 16.5 points per game on 61.4% shooting, with many of his baskets coming in the form of crushing dunks. He made over 31% of his 3-point shots, which was actually a slightly higher rate than fellow rookie James Bouknight.
Watching Kai in person, it was easy to see the raw ability that attracted the Hornets enough to trade a future first-round pick to grab him in 2021. He’s fluid and springy for a player his size.
Jones’ greatest strength is finding open spots around the basket to set up for a dunk or high percentage shot into the paint. He is a good rim runner on pick-and-rolls and often finds himself in position for an alley-oop or to pull an offensive rebound if the ball carrier keeps the ball and misses the shot.
Kai is pretty good on the boards and is averaging 9.6 rebounds per game. He boxes well but is not dominant on the boards. On the defensive end, he challenges every shot near him and averages two blocks per game. He is most effective at blocking or modifying shots from the weak side as an assist defender and shows good instincts and anticipation.
While Jones’ 3-point shooting isn’t a “strength” on its own, he made 26 of 82 3-point shots (31.7%) and showed will and confidence as he launched into open shots from deep. During his college career, he made 20 of his 58 3-pointers (34.5%) over two seasons, so he hit a decent percentage on relatively weak attempts. If Jones can improve his 3-point shooting in the NBA to closer to 35%, that will really help unlock his game, and he started honing that skill in Greensboro this year.
Despite the positives, Jones is still pretty raw.
On offense, many of his points have come straight to the rim during dunks, throwbacks and rim rolls. Some of those opportunities were a function of his anticipation and ability to find free spots, while many others were the product of shoddy G League defence. These cheap buckets just aren’t available at the NBA level.
He’s not a polished post player who can get an entry pass with a defender on his back and create his own shot. His footwork needs to improve in the post and he doesn’t have a consistent mid-range game. If his teammates can find him open in the post, he’ll dive it home, but he’s not always good at creating his own shot as a product of pure individual offensive skill. He would struggle to score against competent defensive centers in the NBA.
On defense, while Jones is a good shot blocker, he also chases swats like an energetic pup chasing a tennis ball. Sometimes he would be better served locking up his own man and setting up for a defensive rebound than trying to sneak in for a weak side block.
Physically, Kai sometimes looked like a 20-year-old (which he was) getting pushed around in the paint by bigger, stronger, more physically mature opponents. At just 221 pounds, that was to be expected. He’s about 20 pounds lighter than most NBA starting centers – guys like Myles Turner, Jarrett Allen, Robert Williams, Mitchell Robinson, etc. – and there’s no way he can strike with them. Now, Jones is more athletic than most centers in the NBA, but that advantage is tempered by his lack of mid-rage play and his inability to skillfully and consistently create his own shots into the post.
Overall, the Hornets knew Kai Jones would be a developmental draft. Charlotte’s front office was right to have him spend so much time in Greensboro during his rookie season. He needed representatives. He needs to refine his attacking game. He needs to get stronger.
Jones showed a lot of potential with the Swarm, but even then, it looks like he still has at least a year to go to really contribute with the Hornets at the NBA level.
Here are some of Kai’s highlights that I captured with my iPhone. Enjoy rim-shattering dunks!