Taylor Hendricks jumps right off the screen.
When I first started looking at prospects in this year’s draft, I have to admit I didn’t know Hendricks very well. After all, he was just a four-star prospect coming out of high school and staying near his home to attend the University of Central Florida. UCF finished with just a 19-15 record, well out of the national spotlight.
But watch his game film and you can immediately see why Hendricks was considered a top-10 NBA prospect. He seems so much bigger than his American Athletic Conference competition and absolutely overwhelms them with length and speed. He glides around the court like some of the best athletes in the NBA. And unlike so many collegiate basketball students who are athletes first and players second, his skill level impressed me as well.
As a result, he was my favorite prospect in the realistic Jazz lineup — I would have drafted him No. 5, let alone No. 9. Let me show you why.
God, Taylor Hendricks can play some defense. Just take a look at his blocks from last season.
Hendricks is 6 feet 8.5 inches tall without shoes on and boasts a 7 feet 0.5 inch wingspan, and you can see that in play in his collection of blocks.
But that’s not the most impressive aspect to me: It’s his timing. When offenses drive the paint off the pick and roll, Hendricks knows the exact moment to get to the rim to meet the driver. When offenses attack in transition, even in two-on-ones, he sizes them up and finds the right time to intervene above the basket. As his teammates get beaten baseline, Hendricks senses the exact moment the offensive player has fouled and sneaks over to help. it is wildly impressive.
The NBA player it reminds me of the most is this year’s Defensive Player of the Year winner, Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. Now JJJ played at a better collegiate program, Michigan State; UCF competes in the AAC. But even against top-level competition like No. 1 seed Houston, Hendricks shined on the defensive end.
It’s not just the highlights. Hendricks also does his work early. When he needs to, he switches over to the right spot in the help defense. And on the ball, he slides his feet so well – I think he can guard pretty much every position in the NBA, except for maybe five or 10 of the fastest guards in the league.
I don’t know that I see many weaknesses here on the defensive end – that’s exactly what you want the modern NBA four to do. Maybe you want a little more aggressiveness and toughness down? I’m fooling around. Hendricks isn’t a brilliant rebounder, and that’s a real problem, but he’s not anemic there either. Before the shot goes up, he’s probably my favorite defender in the entire draft — and I think he’ll be one of my favorites in the entire NBA.
The frontcourt of Hendricks, Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler will absolutely devour people with their length. Markkanen proved to be a solid defender this year, albeit a bit prone to getting blown. But with either Kessler or Hendricks ready to rotate, those blowbys become less dangerous. And Hendricks opens up the Jazz to play a variety of schemes as well: I think Kessler needs to play drop defense to be most effective, but Hendricks can switch or high-hedge in the NBA. Jazz coach Will Hardy has some defensive weapons to play 48 minutes next season.
Hendricks is much more raw on the offensive end than the defensive end — but he has clear skills that mean he’s ready to hit the floor from day one, then he can learn the rest as he goes. In particular, I think he’s actually pretty good off-ball stuff for a 19-year-old, but will need significant improvement to be a threat off the dribble and create his own shot.
The most important off-ball skill is 3-point shooting, and fortunately, Hendricks is something fantastic at this. He shot 39.4% from deep on a high volume: eight shots per game. 100 possessions. The number of players who shot at least that many threes and shot at least 39% in the NBA is quite small: Lauri Markkanen, Trey Murphy III, Al Horford, Michael Porter Jr., Keegan Murray, Cam Johnson, Sam Hauser and Nicolas Batum are the players who did so while playing big minutes last year. Those are some of the best role players in the league, plus Markkanen, an All-Star starter. And critically, none of those players defend quite like Hendricks does.
Hendricks fires over hard finishes. He has quick movement with a high release point that can finish over most closeouts — this isn’t a Jarred Vanderbilt situation where he needs a fortnight to get the shot off. He’s really dangerous and teams will regret bailing on him.
His display is interesting. Right now, he’s not a good “set the screen, draw contact, get his guard open” screener in the traditional way that a Karl Malone or a Rudy Gobert was. The Jazz will have to develop him on it. But he has the footwork on the drop screen, the pick and pop, and just a fake pass screen down — and those are some of Will Hardy’s favorite plays.
Last year, Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk and Lauri Markkanen had a three-man play down where Olynyk and Markkanen would come together as screeners for the Jazz’s point guard and then split – and Conley could read what was happening through the chaos created for the defense. I think Hendricks has some of the same potential as Olynyk and Markkanen where they are dangerous going away from the rim for threes or going to the rim to roll to the rim.
As a passer in those short-term situations, or really any situation … he’s well-intentioned, but not very good. He’ll try to connect on big-to-big passes that are probably just bad, and maybe predetermine his reads a bit when he catches the ball. The well-intentioned part is big for me – he’s not a ball hog and wants to get better. But he is at his best when he can catch the ball and shoot or dunk immediately.
Hendricks also doesn’t really have the ability to create with the ball in his hands. He ran a few pick and rolls and tried running in isolation last season. At times his length was overwhelming for his AAC competition and it worked well. However, when the length wasn’t enough to get the easy dunk or layup, he struggled. If Jazz coaches want him to be a creator, they will have to work with him significantly; I just think it’s going to take a few years at least.
But you know what? I’m much more ok with these weaknesses given the heliocentric modern NBA. Can Hendricks create good shots for himself or others? Not really. But can he be the best defender on the field while exploiting the abilities of others to score points? Almost certainly. Admittedly, the Jazz don’t have the heliocentric guard who is a genius creator yet, but all indications are that the guard is a top priority — and there wasn’t that guard available at No. 9 for the taking anyway.
What his abilities give him is an obvious path to development. Coaches are never short of players with excellent defensive skills and 3-point shooting, and so Hendricks can use that time on the court to develop the rest of his game to some degree. That experience will also improve his feel for the NBA speed of things.
And compared to the competition available at No. 9, or even those drafted a little earlier, I just feel so comfortable with Hendricks as a prospect. He’s a great athlete that gives him high upside, but has a high floor thanks to his NBA-ready skills. Whether he turns out to be a complementary starter or a max-money guy remains to be seen, but I’m sure NBA teams will want him to some degree for years to come – after all, all 30 teams could use a guy like this right now.
For these reasons, when Hendricks slipped to Utah, Jazz fans should have been thrilled. The Jazz got a guy who fits their program well, with a high ceiling and low chance of failure. What’s not to like?
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