You’ve heard it a million times over the last month and were likely let down by it when Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery results were revealed: Next month’s draft is a two-player class. In reality, it’s a one-player class led by Zion Williamson, while Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett should both gives teams, presumably the Grizzlies and Knicks, frontline starters at some point in their careers.
So while the Bulls aren’t going to find a can’t-miss prospect at No. 7, there’s going to be value when they go on the clock on June 20. Role players are critical. It’s a tough pill to swallow, that drafting at No. 7 might not yield an immediate high-impact player or a future long-term starter, especially when the Bulls seemingly hit on their last two picks in the exact same spot in 2017 and 2018.
It’s where they find themselves heading into this pre-draft process. Though John Paxson has been transparent on the organization’s desire to improve at point guard, going so far as saying they may reach on a player if it fills that need, the Bulls need to get deeper in a hurry.
That’s where Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver comes into play. In a draft class where the first three picks are all but locked into place, Culver’s name has appeared anywhere from the Lakers at No. 4 to the Hawks at No. 8. It’s far too early to peg these players, especially when the talent pool is so even in that range, but for now let’s consider he’s in play for the Bulls at No. 7 – he’ll meet with Bulls brass today in Chicago, he confirmed at Thursday’s NBA Draft Combine.
Culver exploded on to the national scene as a sophomore. He led the Texas Tech Raiders to a program-best 31-win season and spot in the National Championship, where they ultimately lost to top-seeded Virginia in overtime.
Culver’s raw numbers were outstanding. The two-way guard averaged 18.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.6 blocks in 32.5 minutes. His field goal percentage improved from his freshman to sophomore season despite him attempting more than twice as many shots, and while his 3-point numbers were down he projects as a capable outside scorer.
He’s a classic case of a player who isn’t great in any one facet of the game but is rock-solid just about everywhere. He measured taller than expected at the Combine – 6-foot-6.75 with a 6-foot-9.5 wingspan – and has prototypical size (he’s also 194 pounds) for an NBA wing.
“(I’m) a two-way player that can score on all three levels on offense, and then on the defensive side (I) take pride in defense, who plays hard on the defensive side,” Culver answered when asked what an NBA team would get in him. “They’re gonna get a player who plays hard each and every night.”
Texas Tech led the country in defensive efficiency and Culver was a major reason why. Individually, Culver ranked in the 93rd percentile nationally as a defender. That included a 90th percentile ranking on spot-up shots, an 86th percentile ranking on pick-and-roll action and a 90th percentile ranking on jump shots. Whatever he accomplishes on the offensive end, Culver will enter the NBA on Day 1 as a plus defender.
“I take pride in defense,” he said. “That’s something I want to do. Going to the next level, being able to guard guys and some of the great talent in the league, it helped tremendously just because if you can play defense you can probably get on the court. Your offense will come and there’s a lot of talented guys out there that can score the ball so if you’re able to play defense it’s a game changer.”
He’s also got traits on offense that should carry over to the NBA. Though Culver was listed as a shooting guard he was asked to play with the ball in his hands plenty as a sophomore. Culver played 201 pick-and-roll possessions and held his own, ranking in the 63rd percentile nationally with 0.806 points per possession.
“Coach, he put me off the ball and off the ball, so just being able to do both, I feel like it helped me a lot,” Culver said. “Whatever a team needs me to do, play the point guard spot, to come off screens and shoot or anything like that. The adjustment playing both on the ball and off the ball has helped me a lot.”
That could be part of the reason he saw such a dip his 3-point shooting numbers as a sophomore. He began his sophomore season on fire from deep, making better than 45% of his triples in non-conference play. That number plummeted to 25.2% once conference season began, including just 18.9% in the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
“Yeah, in a way (playing on-ball), and teams were guarding me different from freshman year to this year,” Culver said. “So that combination kind of made my percentage go low, but I still have confidence in my shot and I feel like I shoot the ball very well.”
Culver has excellent form and noted that he, like all prospects, has been working on his outside shot in the pre-draft process. It’s a skill that can be taught at the next level, and if Culver can even be an average 3-point shooter he’s going to be worth his top-7 draft selection.
College defenses clearly respected Culver’s outside shot because he was one of the country’s best drivers. He’s strong attacking the rim with some underrated finesse once he gets there, and he’s good at drawing contact (5.5 free throw attempts per game).
“I feel like I can shoot the ball very well and that opens up my offensive game driving downhill,” Culver said. “So when you’re able to shoot the 3-ball and get midrange (looks), they kind of play you tighter and you’re able to get downhill on some guys.”
All these numbers came while playing on a Texas Tech team that didn’t really have a true second scoring option. The gap between Culver and Davide Moretti was seven points per game. Culver took on a major burden as the go-to option at Tech and still put together an impressive scoring season, in addition to his superb defense.
Culver is a jack-of-all-trades who could fit perfectly as a complementary role player. If he’s the pick at No. 7, he’d slot in behind Zach LaVine and Otto Porter and have a chance to start when Porter’s contract is up in 2021. He’s gone from an unranked high school recruit to a role player as a freshman to Big 12 Player of the Year as a sophomore. His arrow is trending up and he seems committed to keeping it that way.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to be better at and it’s always something I can continue to get better at,” Culver said about his love for the game. “It’s something I can improve on each day. I love the game. I don’t see it as a job. I see it as something I love, to go out there and play basketball.”