Weight: 194 lbs.
Projected NBA Role: Two-Way Wing
Birthday/Age: 2/20/99 (20 years old)
Hometown: Lubbock, Texas
School: Texas Tech Red Raiders
Strengths: Defense, Offensive Potential, Frame
Weaknesses: Ball Control, Inconsistent Shooting
Thoughts and Comparisons
The narrative of a three-player draft featuring Zion, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett ignores the collegiate dominance of Brandon Clarke and the immense two-way upside of Jarrett Culver, among other standout prospects. That NBA decision makers are struggling to envision what role a 6-8 big man with a 6-8 wingspan like Clarke will play isn’t exactly shocking. However, in a league where employing a star wing has basically become a prerequisite to winning a championship, it’s pretty surprising that Culver could potentially fall outside of the top five selections on Thursday night.
The two biggest reasons Culver isn’t widely viewed as an elite-level wing are his inconsistent shooting stroke and lack of elite athleticism. This, coupled with Culver’s penchant for turning the ball over, led to The Stepien’s Ben Rubin comparing Culver to former collegiate star Evan Turner. Rubin walked that back a bit in one of his more recent pieces, in which he argues that Culver is a better play on draft day than R.J. Barrett. Those who religiously follow the draft don’t need to be told that Rubin’s work is always must-read, but for those who tune in to the draft this late in the game and are looking to binge, allow me to advocate for going down the Rubin rabbit hole. As stated by Rubin, Culver likely won’t flounder to the same extent as Turner thanks primarily to his defensive prowess. Turner is a decent defender, but Culver has the potential to become a regular on the All-Defensive squads.
Part of Turner receiving so much negative publicity has to do with the fact that he was the second overall pick in 2012 and cashed in on a massive contract that has hampered the Portland Trail Blazers in their quest to become true title contenders. Turner showed some promise in Philadelphia in his early years and transitioned to being a solid sixth man with Boston before becoming the butt of many jokes during his tenure in Oregon. He did come up big in Portland’s Game 7 victory over the Nuggets this postseason, but overall he has had a disappointing career considering his draft slot and current big-money contract. A poor perimeter shooter with a fairly low release point, Turner is usually leaning forward during his shooting motion, all of which makes it easier for defenders to affect his attempts.
At 6-7 with a 6-8 wingspan and subpar athleticism for an NBA wing, his inability to evolve into a threat from three has limited his effectiveness at the highest level. Being able to get your shot off is half the battle, and Turner typically thrives in similar areas as undersized guards of older generations (i.e. the foul-line extended). E.T. has lasted this long in the league thanks to his ability to be a playmaker coming off the pine who mostly sticks to his strengths. I do wonder whether he would’ve had a better chance to succeed if he were coming into the league today, as his development would’ve been tailored more to fit the needs of the modern era. Being under the tutelage of Doug Collins in Philadelphia during his early years undoubtedly helped him progress in some ways but probably stunted his growth to a large extent since Collins probably told Turner the same thing he told Andre Iguodala — that he shouldn’t shoot threes.
Culver’s status as a point forward type with somewhat suspect shooting is what enables the Turner comparison to endure. Still, I expect Culver will be a considerably better shooter (not a high bar to clear, I know), thus enabling him the ability to play both on and off the ball, the latter of which Turner can’t do at the highest level. But perhaps the biggest difference in their shot profiles is their form — specifically their release points and body positioning. Culver has a high release point and he normally looks like he’s leaning back rather than hunched over and leaning forward (like Turner). This permits Culver to take and make tough shots that Turner struggles to even get off. The ability to take and make difficult shots allows Culver to showcase shades of All-Star wings and unrestricted free agents Khris Middleton and Jimmy Butler, as well as Gordon Hayward (but with a better defensive profile).
Let’s start with Middleton, the former Texas A&M Aggie who was the 39th pick back in 2012. Middleton doesn’t have a great first step but he’s a very good scorer, shooter, passer, ball-handler and defender. At 6-8, 234 lbs. with a 6-11 wingspan, he was listed at 216 lbs. coming out of college as a junior, so while Middleton does have an advantage in the wingspan and weight departments, he was an older and less accomplished player than Culver when he was coming into the league. Despite lacking elite athleticism, Middleton defended Kawhi Leonard as well as anyone in these playoffs. He’s a tough shot maker with vision and versatility on both ends and is clearly the second-best player on a title-contending Bucks team. Now 27 and coming off his first All-Star appearance as he readies for what will be his biggest NBA payday, slow and steady improvement was the name of the game for Khris following an uninspiring rookie campaign in Detroit. Here are his college and pro stats:
And here he is draining an incredibly difficult turnaround fadeaway, which Culver replicates, albeit from a shorter distance, in the second clip. Middleton is longer than Butler (and Culver) and shoots a very natural fade that’s perhaps even tougher to block despite Butler’s advantage in athleticism.
The hope for whatever team drafts him is that Culver eventually provides the same well-rounded skillset that has made Middleton one of the league’s best and most versatile two-way wings despite his lack of elite-level athleticism. And Culver has already showcased an impressive skillset as a scorer, playmaker (creator for himself and others) and defender.
Next up on the comparison dock, one of the most physically imposing and hard-nosed wings in the league, Jimmy Butler. Fellow Texas native Jimmy Butler (from Tomball) was the 30th pick in 2011 via the Chicago Bulls. The primary reason for this comparison — beyond that both are Texans who get after it on the defensive end — is the fact that Butler leans way back on his jumper while sporting a high release that makes it difficult to contest or block his shot. Like Middleton, Butler is a difficult shot-maker who’s also an extremely tough and versatile defender. At 6-8 with a 6-8 wingspan, Butler was 222 lbs. coming out of college. Listed at 232 lbs. now, Butler was a rookie at age 22 and didn’t begin to blossom into the player he is today until he was 24-25. Culver has an ideal frame that should allow him to fill out so that eventually his build may look more like Butler’s than Middleton’s, which may very well result in improvements in his explosiveness. Like Middleton, Butler put up ho-hum numbers in three collegiate campaigns, and as such slipped farther than he should’ve on draft night. Here’s Butler’s stat profile, followed by a few shooting clips from both him and Culver:
Notice the lean-back motion from Butler, which may or may not have convinced me to throw some Fat Joe on while writing this.
Here’s a pull-up three from NBA range by Culver which showcases the similarity in their shooting mechanics:
This provides one of the best views of Culver leaning back on his jumper:
Like Middleton and Butler, Culver wasn’t a highly-rated high school prospect. Still, he’s already turned himself into a pretty good do-it-all guy offensively with unselfish tendencies who could merely be scratching the surface of his potential. Defensively, Culver seems like he enters hunter-and-gatherer mode defensively, seated in a stance and stalking the situation out with forceful, yet fleet-footed movements, effectively treating the court as a trampoline which he uses to spring himself across the court. He’s very good at anticipating and mirroring the offense and even better at putting himself in position to help. However, his tendency to over-help (which will almost certainly be ironed out at the next level) facilitated Hunter forcing overtime in the title game versus Virginia:
I do wonder how much higher Culver’s draft stock would be if Hunter had missed that shot and/or if the Red Raiders had held on to beat the Duke Blue Devils at Madison Square Garden back in December. Culver was swallowed up by Hunter in that championship game (15 points on five-of-22 from the field), which raises some legitimate questions about his ability to create for himself and others against bigger and stronger wings at the NBA level. Nevertheless, an improved shot (0-6 from three in the final) would go a long way toward protecting himself from those same struggles at the next level.
I’m not saying Culver is likely to reach the level of Middleton or Butler in the NBA, but I do think he’s a good bet to end up closer to those two late bloomers than Turner by the time he’s a finished product (still years down the road hopefully). The fact that there are more than a couple similarities among the three leaves me confused as to why Culver is not receiving more attention as a potential top two or three player from this class. To be fair, there are plenty of draft analysts that have him second on their big boards, including Jackson Frank, but I’m mostly referring to the big wigs who cover the draft for mainstream outlets like ESPN. If there’s even a 20 or 30 percent chance that Culver ends up in the same echelon as Middleton and Butler, which in my opinion there absolutely is, it’s hard to believe he’s not really in the conversation at 2 or 3 for teams like Memphis and New York. Morant is a flashier prospect, but would the Grizzlies be better off doubling down on defense and two-way versatility next to Jaren Jackson Jr.? Assuming Ja is gone, I get the intrigue of New York drafting someone who wants so badly to be the go-to-guy (Barrett), but I have my doubts as to whether either of them will be as impactful as Culver when all is said and done.