Jarrett Culver is already a good player. Can he become a great one?

Jarrett Culver has it all — defense, creation, the mental game, and the intangibles. Does he have what it takes to be an NBA star?

Brandon Anderson
Jun 6, 2019 · 15 min read

JARRETT CULVER IS PRETTY GOOD AT BASKETBALL. If you watched any college basketball at all this year, you probably know Jarrett Culver’s name already. Culver burst onto the scene with a huge 25-point December game against Duke and then led Texas Tech to a Big 12 championship and a memorable March Madness run, coming an overtime short of an NCAA championship. Along the way, Jarrett Culver became a star, and now he appears to be a top-six pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Culver is good at basketball. He’s a strong defender. He can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, finishing through contact, or he can use his size and shoot over you. He’s well-liked with outstanding character and leadership intangibles, and he has a star glow about him.

Make no mistake about it. Jarrett Culver is already a very good basketball player. But can he become a great one, worthy of a top-six pick? Let’s take a look at Culver’s scouting profile and what he might look like in the NBA…


Profile, size, and athleticism

Let’s start with Culver’s size and athletic profile. We need to start there because those things will really inform the rest of this conversation. Culver was a young sophomore, recently turning 20. He was more of a catch-and-shoot role player as a freshman before developing into the Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American as the lead handler and playmaker this season.

Culver is a big wing, and plenty of draftniks think he may still be growing. He stands 6'7" with an impressive 6'9.5" wingspan, which makes him really sizable for a 2/3 wing, where I expect he’ll end up. For a body comp, think someone like DeMar DeRozan or Brandon Roy. He has enough size to play the three with ease and will have a significant size advantage against many guards. He could play some four in time, too.

Athletically, Culver is just… fine. He’s certainly not a bad athlete, and he is definitely an NBA athlete, just not an elite one. We throw that word elite around a lot in the draft process, so what does it mean to not be an elite athlete? In Culver’s case, it means a lot.

Culver has a decent first step with the ball in his hands and uses it to get by the defender and create space. However he lacks high-end burst from there, and good defenders are able to catch up to him and close down the space. If Culver does get to the rim, his size and relative physicality are in his favor. But again, he doesn’t have the athletic pop to just go up and yam on guys in the lane. He lacks a real explosiveness in his step and on his jump. Again, he’s not a bad athlete or anything close. But the NBA is filled with some of the most explosive athletes in the world, and Culver is not that. His athleticism seemed relatively average against good college teams, which does not portend great things once he is playing against the obviously better NBA athletes.

In an early high-profile game against Duke, Culver’s lack of athleticism stood out against four future NBA players. His first step wasn’t getting him by defenders, and his drives were more physical than quick. He struggled finishing at the rim against bigger, more athletic guys and seemed to struggle with contact. He ended up with a great stat line but did it mostly hitting open shots against a poorly-rotating defense. His finishing through contact was much better in other games, like in the NCAA tournament against Michigan where he was magnificent, chunneling through a great defense and finishing through contact at the rim. In the title game against Virginia, Culver’s first step helped him get into space but he again struggled to finish, hitting 5-of-16 twos. Some of those were misses at the rim when he wasn’t athletic enough to get up and dunk over the defense, and others were jumpers he settled for when he couldn’t get past his defender.

Culver is being talked about as a likely top-5 pick. You expect a guy like that to pop on film in the biggest games, and Culver just didn’t pop as the games got tough against Gonzaga, Michigan State, and Virginia. Last year, you turned on a Texas Tech game and Zhaire Smith leapt off the screen with his athleticism. That’s not Jarrett Culver. Culver actually reminds me of a 70s or 80s player with his less than fluid movement and lack of lateral or vertical burst. He has an old school game I like, but it comes with an old school athleticism that feels potentially troublesome.

Let’s talk about how that plays out through the lens of his other attributes.


Shooting and finishing a question mark

Shooting doesn’t rely on athleticism, but it’s a skill that becomes more magnified in a player that doesn’t have the elite athleticism to overcome a lack of shooting. That’s where the question comes in Culver’s case.

Early in the season, Culver’s shot looked great, and it’s the reason he got so much buzz in November and December. He looked good shooting off the dribble and showed off a comfortable pull-up jumper. In that marquee Duke matchup, Culver hit a career-high four threes. At that point, he was shooting 45% on 3.5 threes a game, and everyone decided he was a good shooter. The problem was sample size. If Culver misses those four Duke threes instead, suddenly he’s only hitting 35% over the same span — that’s how big a swing a few shots can make at that stage.

As the season went on, we saw a huge drop in Culver’s shooting. From the Duke game forward, he made only 26% of his threes. He made zero or one three-pointer in 20 of his remaining 27 games, including going 0-for his first four conference games. But the conference split wasn’t just threes. In non-conference play, Culver put up 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists a game and made 61% of his twos and 45% of his threes. In conference, those numbers dropped to 16/7/3 on 53% twos and 26% threes. The only thing he stayed consistent at was rebounding and free-throw percentage.

In two years at Texas Tech, Culver made 104-of-305 threes at 34%. He shot 38% as a freshman and had that early-season leap but slumped to a 30% finish on a similar number of attempts this year. Free-throw percentage can be a better indicator of future shooting prowess. Culver made 217-of-316 free throws, just 69%, improving from 65 to 71% this year. Overall, it’s a pretty average shooting profile. Culver does a nice job getting to the line, but we’re focusing on shooting ability and the shooting is a significant question mark.

The two-point percentage is a concern, too. This is where Culver’s lack of elite athleticism hurts him. There were games where Culver looked great finishing through contact, but other times he shied away from it or saw his shooting numbers plummet. When the stage got bigger and the opponent got tougher and more physical, Culver’s finishing suffered. In five NCAA tournament games against Buffalo, Michigan, Gonzaga, Michigan State, and Virginia, Culver attempted 12.6 twos per game and made just 38% of them, an awful rate. Add in 15% on 5.2 threes a game and you’re left with an abysmal 40% true shooting in a troubling tournament run. This is more than just bad timing and shot variance. It’s playing really good, physical defenses, the kind Culver will face in the NBA, and just not being good enough.

Again, let’s be clear. Culver is not a bad shooter. He’s not a bad finisher. He could even be great at those things at some point. But right now, he’s just fine, and the average shooting and finishing ability combined with his lack of elite athleticism really limit his offensive upside for now.


Playmaking and dribble creation

One area Culver made a clear leap this year was his playmaking. Remember, Culver was mostly a 3-and-D wing type last year, a role player really. This year Tech put the ball in Culver’s hands and asked him to create and make decisions — and he excelled and showed huge growth.

Culver is really comfortable dribbling for a wing. Watching his offensive game constantly reminded me of a player like Khris Middleton or Jimmy Butler. Think of a big wing dribbling, patiently surveying the defense as the play develops, waiting to pounce. It’s not an elite handle and he over dribbles at times, but he’s certainly comfortable with the ball in his hands. He also showed some intermediate driving abilities, especially in space in transition, flashing on occasional Euro step or other dribbling techniques that help compensate for his lack of elite athleticism.

Culver was basically playing point this year, a role he’d never done before, and he ran the offense for the first non-Kansas Big 12 champion in like a century, so that sort of speaks for itself. Culver’s size helps him see over defenders and he can really surprise you with strong passing and playmaking. There’s some drive-and-kick ability, and he’s comfortable reading the defense and finding the right play.

In a big conference game against Kansas, Culver really impressed with his patience and ability to read the D and make plays, letting the game come to him. He had some real wow passes too, with just the right zip or touch. Culver’s best tournament offense was creation. Against Michigan, he made consistently impressive pick-and-roll reads and passes. In the following game against Gonzaga, he was again at his best with the ball in his hands in the pick-and-roll. In the title game, while the shots were not falling, Culver was again at his best coming off a screen and making quick reads and showing a nice array of pocket passes and drive-and-dish ability.

The creation game is still developing. Culver’s dribble can be loose at times, and he tends to over dribble, partly due to having such a big offensive role. The deeper into the tournament, the more hero ball Culver got, pounding the ball into oblivion as he tried to take the game into his own hands and make a play. When Culver plays within the flow of the game, he impresses. When he forces things, it got ugly at times, with lots of turnovers and bricked shots.

Still, this is really the most intriguing part of Culver’s game. His per-possession numbers were at their very best on pick-and-roll, coming off screens, or in isolation. Those are NBA skills. Those abilities are what separates stars from role players at the next level, and they’re what give him star potential as a pro.

Culver will never be an elite athlete, and it’s doubtful he’ll ever be an elite shooter. If Culver is going to become a great NBA player, this is the area of his game that will get him there.


Defensive value

Culver is a really good defender — he’s good at so many things. But like so many things, he’s probably not great at defense either — just good.

Culver’s size and physicality are a huge asset on defense. He’ll be able to guard two-to-four against most teams, a switchable defender that’s good on the ball and in team defense. His size could even allow him to play the four in small-ball lineups down the line as his game develops.

Texas Tech had a filthy defense that carried them to the brink of a national title, and Culver was their best non-center defender (shouts Tariq Owens and Norense Odiasse!). He communicates well on D and is an excellent team defender, and he rotates well and is usually in the right place. Against Gonzaga, Culver spent much of the game defending super athletic big man Brandon Clarke and held him in check, forcing a number of turnovers. Against Virginia, he was tasked with guarding Kyle Guy, a diminutive shooter who spends all game running off screens looking for his shot. Again Culver held his own. That he was the player asked to be the primary defender on both Clarke and Guy shows Culver’s defensive ability — and his versatility.

There’s no question that Culver will be a good team defender in the NBA. But teams expecting him to be a lock down defender may be disappointed. Again, it comes down to the athleticism. Culver is big and physical enough to bully guys on defense, but the quickness is not always there against smaller, quicker players. Culver lacks lateral quickness on D, which hurts him on the perimeter and sometimes leads to him ceding the first step, and he lacks the necessary burst to catch up once those guys get past him. Culver can’t chase you down from behind, and he can’t just jump and swat your shot. He’s a high-end system defender, and even there he can make the wrong read — like in the closing seconds of the title game when he rotated off De’Andre Hunter into no man’s land, leaving Hunter wide open for the game-tying three that sent the game to overtime where Tech ultimately lost. That poor rotation may have cost his team a championship.

I’m confident Jarrett Culver will be a plus defender at the next level. But I’m also fairly confident he won’t be a lock down All-NBA guy. Still, that wing defense really raises Culver’s floor as a prospect. Even if the offense never comes around, he’s still a value add to most teams. And with the good wing defense, he doesn’t need as much offense to become a star.


Team role and NBA fit

So what exactly does Jarrett Culver look like at the next level?

Culver is a high-character guy with a renowned work ethic. He was the local Lubbock kid who wasn’t a big recruit, but he stayed home and worked on his game and became Texas Tech’s biggest star. He’s impressive in interviews and seems to understand his game and his role well. As I watched Culver this season, I saw a player that was good at a lot of things. Time and again, I noted that he’s a building block guy, a plug-and-play that could fit onto any team. He was #2 on my board most of the year.

As we’ve added some distance from the season, I’ve begun to cool a bit on Culver. Where before he seemed like a building block that fit any team, I’m now wondering exactly what his role will be. It all comes down to the lack of high-end shooting or athleticism. I want to believe Culver has some Khris Middleton or Jimmy Butler equity as a handler and scorer, and he’s ahead of those guys offensively as a playmaker but trails them greatly in shooting (remember, focus on the FT%). If he can’t shoot, he’s more like Evan Turner, who dominated physically in college but whose lack of shooting means he doesn’t have the ball in his hands enough in the NBA to use his playmaking. The lack of shooting also prevents Culver from being a 3-and-D guy, for now.

I used the Basketball Reference database to search for players with a statistical profile similar to what I expect as a reasonable outcome for Jarrett Culver. I searched for players with a Defensive Box Plus-Minus over 1, an Offensive Box Plus-Minus under 3, at least 14 points and 2.5 assists a game, and 37% or worse on threes. Basically I’m searching for a plus wing defender that has the ball in his hands a lot on offense despite being an average or worse shooter, and I’m capping the offensive upside at good not great. That offensive cap knocked Butler out of the picture, and the shooting cap eliminated Middleton. Instead I found names like Nic Batum, Eddie Jones, Philly Andre Iguodala, Victor Oladipo, and Ben Simmons. Those names make sense, but they are lofty comparisons. That would be a nice Culver outcome but I’m not sure he quite matches those players defensively, where their value is strongest.

Drop the defensive parameter a bit and you add in names like Bonzi Wells, current Jimmy Butler, or Eric Bledsoe, and you get five different Iggy seasons, by far the most common comp I found, though Iggy is a far better defender and a generational understander of the game. Drop the usage and per-game numbers a bit to see what a role-player version of Culver might look like and names like Doug Christie, Josh Richardson, Portland Scottie Pippen, Lance Stephenson, and Kent Bazemore come into play. These names start to make a lot of sense as a baseline for Culver. Good not great defense and physicality, not much on offense if he can’t shoot and doesn’t get to have the ball in his hands much. It’s not that exciting but a pretty solid floor to build on.

Culver isn’t Jimmy Butler because he can’t match his athleticism or on-ball defense. He’s not DeMar DeRozan with defensive instincts, because DDR is a much better athlete. At times, Culver looks like a star, both on and off the court. His game against Michigan was a masterpiece and one of the performances of the tournament. But there’s one other unfortunate thing about the comparisons to Butler, Middleton, and DeRozan — none of them were drafted as high as Culver will be. They didn’t come with the expectations he’ll have, star expectations. Culver has a path to stardom, but he’s not an NBA star-caliber guy right now. I fear fans or teams could be disappointed with what they’re getting if he doesn’t develop further.


Final verdict

I end up somewhere between superstar and bust, which is about right for this draft. I don’t think Culver is either of those things. I think the player Culver is right now is not ultimately a super valuable NBA player yet, not one you should spend a top-five pick on. I think he’s much closer right now to a high-end Bazemore or Stephenson, and no one is rushing to draft that player.

But I also believe in Culver’s character and work ethic and in those flashes. I’m betting on his shot improving to at least average in time, and I’m betting on his defensive value giving him a high floor to build off of. And though Culver will never be an explosive athlete, I’m especially intrigued by his continued progression as a handler and decision maker. In just one year on the ball, Culver became one of the nation’s top players in pick-and-roll reads and scoring off screens. That’s the area I most see Jimmy Butler in him, in his ability to read a defense and choose the right play, and that mental side of the game is the area he can most improve and round out his game.

That’s the Jarrett Culver I’d bet on in this draft — not as a top-3 pick ahead of guys like Ja Morant or Brandon Clarke that are fuller, readier packages right now — but as a definite NBA player with upside for more and the work ethic and character to get there.

In some ways, I worry about Culver becoming something like Otto Porter, a terrific player that defends and shoots well and helps almost any NBA team, but who has always felt like a bust because he was a former #3 draft pick. Porter is genuinely good, but he’s probably never going to be great, and the expectations that come with a top-5 draft pick can be an albatross that hang around the neck of an NBA prospect. If Porter had been drafted 10th or 15th, we’d think of him as a great value and awesome pick. Instead, many fans wrongfully call him a bust. I’d love Culver as an end-of-the-lottery pick or even near the bottom of the top-10 with one of the Atlanta picks. But in a top-light draft, I fear he will go top-5 and get burdened with that weight of becoming a star.

Only time will tell which version of Jarrett Culver we get. There’s a star in there somewhere. It’ll take the right team and situation, a little patience, and a lot of character and work ethic to get there.

Jarrett Culver is already a good player. We’ll see if he becomes a great one. ■


Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, television, humor, and culture. Visit the rest of Brandon’s writing archives here.

Original reporting and curated sports data journalism.

Brandon Anderson

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Sports, TV, NBA, NFL, culture. Words at SI's Cauldron, Grandstand Central, others @wheatonbrando ✞

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