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Trayce Jackson-Davis and the Warriors’ shift in draft philosophy

Promising flashes of feel and polish defined his two Summer League games.

2023 NBA Las Vegas Summer League - Golden State Warriors v Toronto Raptors Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

No matter how much Joe Lacob would want everyone to believe that the two-timeline approach wasn’t a thing, there’s no denying that some mistakes were made over the past few seasons.

Drafting James Wiseman second overall in the 2020 NBA Draft has become the poster child for the Golden State Warriors’ prospect mishaps. Perhaps Wiseman just wasn’t a great fit in a system that requires its bigs to have a versatile skill set; maybe the team failed to develop him properly and fell short of providing him the kind of environment that cultivates his talents.

Maybe it was the series of unfortunate events: a short college career that might as well have been nonexistent; a rookie season that was cut short by injury, which then caused him to miss all of his sophomore season; and a return marred by integration and fit problems.

There’s the trade of Jordan Poole to the Washington Wizards after a season of struggles on both ends of the floor. The punch by Draymond Green didn’t help either, and it may have played a part in his on-court troubles. It’s wild to think that the deterioration of Poole’s relationship with the Warriors occurred a mere season after his stratospheric rise that was capped off by a championship and a lucrative contract extension.

But in a team that still has its championship-winning core intact and still has a lot of fuel left in them to win another one, young talents with expensive contracts like Poole — unfairly or not — are often judged under the lens of recency. Failure to maintain a high level of play means there’s no time for handholding and coddling.

(There’s also the financial element at play. Technically, the Warriors are paying Chris Paul more money next season [$30.8 million] than Poole [$28.7 million]. But Paul’s last contract year, which is the season after next [2024-2025], is non-guaranteed, making his contract an expiring one and therefore tradeable [or a buyout candidate] should the Warriors deem it necessary. While they may be paying more in luxury taxes this upcoming season, it will give them flexibility in the long run.)

Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga have seen their fair share of struggles trying to secure consistent rotation spots. Last year’s draftees — Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Ryan Rollins — barely received any playing time and were subsequently shipped off to the nation’s capital along with Poole.

Along with a change in front-office leadership seemingly came a realization: The two-timeline method wasn’t hitting the way ownership wanted it to.

A sudden change in approach was seen during this year’s NBA Draft, where the Warriors had a single first-round pick (19th) and initially had no second-round pick. They chose Brandin Podziemski with the former, a combo guard with shooting potential and — if Summer League is of any indication — playmaking chops that complement the Warriors’ pass-heavy offensive attack.

They then went on to acquire the 57th pick by including Baldwin in the package that sent Poole and Rollins to the Wizards for Paul. They chose Indiana University big man Trayce Jackson-Davis, who was projected to be a snug fit within the Warriors’ offense due to his feel for the game.

“Feel” is the operative term here. The Warriors expect feel out of all their players, no matter what position they play. But bigs with IQ and game sense are at a premium due to how scarce they are around the league.

Jackson-Davis is by no means a blue-chip prospect like Wiseman, nor does he have any outlier traits such as pogo-stick athleticism, speed, and a gift for self-creation. But what he does have is an understanding of how the game is played and what his role is in furthering the success of his team.

Two Summer League games is an extremely small sample size in an environment that does little to replicate what the level of play is going to be during the regular season. But it is enough to peek at Jackson-Davis’ skill set and how it can help him contribute next season.

Setting solid screens is a universally valued skill in basketball, let alone the NBA. But in a system that aims to free up its main offensive weapons and create advantages off of the threat they generate, making sure screens connect isn’t the only thing the Warriors require of their bigs.

Jackson-Davis makes it a habit to catch defenders on picks. But if defenses counter by denying the ball-handler from using them — either by ‘Icing’ the screen to deny middle penetration or shading the ball-handler toward his weak hand (‘Weak’ coverage) — Jackson-Davis is well aware of how to adjust for such counters:

Instead of rolling immediately, Jackson-Davis adjusts the angle so that his screen becomes “flat” — parallel to the baseline — to help Podziemski break free. Jackson-Davis’ defender is then forced to step up against Podziemski, opening up the lane for Jackson-Davis on the roll.

Screening ingenuity such as the one above will be valued by the Warriors’ main on-court decision makers such as Paul and Stephen Curry. Paul, in particular, may have fun with Jackson-Davis as his partner in the pick-and-roll.

Jackson-Davis has shown a penchant for solid screening fundamentals, which will help someone like Paul to “snake” his way toward his preferred spots — the right elbow, for example — against drop coverage:

Curry thrives alongside a partner that knows how to operate in two-man-game situations. Green has made a killing over his linkage with Curry in handoff/re-screen actions; Jackson-Davis has yet to prove that he can replicate Green’s ability to make rapid-fire decisions as a roller, but his handoff ability coupled with roll-man gravity could make him a capable substitute:

Screening ingenuity doesn’t just involve setting fundamental screens — it involves knowing when to slip screens at the right moment to create advantages and force defenses into tough spots.

When the Warriors run “Miami” action (a wing DHO flowing into a ballscreen), Jackson-Davis’ early slip forces help from the weak-side low man. Jackson-Davis subsequently makes the read to the open corner teammate:

Another thing that stands out about Jackson-Davis is his positioning. Being a big with little spacing value means that Jackson-Davis must find ways to not get in the way of driving lanes while also making himself a threat near the rim.

Bigs often position themselves at the “dunker” spot to take advantage of rotating help defenders leaving them alone to help on dribble penetration. But it is often a delicate balance between proper positioning and clogging a teammate’s drive.

Jackson-Davis solves that problem by opting to park himself in the short corner instead of the dunker spot. This gives him space to cut along the baseline, which makes it difficult for his defender to recover toward him and for help-the-helper schemes to sink in and cut off dump passes toward him.

More importantly, it prevents the paint from being packed, allowing his teammate to drive with space:

Defensively, Jackson-Davis flashed some rim-protection potential. Totaling three blocks in his two Summer League games, Jackson-Davis rarely gets out of position and is generally timely on his help rotations.

Despite a few possessions where he was late to recognize cuts and drives, Jackson-Davis shouldn’t be an easy target. Points of improvement do include making sure to balance keeping tabs on his man and being aware of where the ball is at all times.

Case in point:

Jackson-Davis recovers on time and rejects the shot, but almost misses the window by not having eyes on the ball. Making sure to keep his head on a swivel would go a long way toward improving his skills as a help defender.

A more subtle but important indicator of his maturity as a defender was on this possession. Watch Jackson-Davis in drop coverage as he tries to navigate the precarious middle ground between his own man and the ballhandler:

Once Jackson-Davis recognizes that his partner in pick-and-roll defense is able to stick to his man over the screen, he promptly recovers toward his own man to cut off a potential pass. Being able to recognize when to step up and when to safely retreat in drop coverage isn’t an eye-catching skill, but it’s arguably one of the most important traits to have as a big trying to survive in the NBA.

Despite all of the promising flashes above, Jackson-Davis may find it tough to crack the rotation and secure consistent minutes. He will be buried behind a depth chart that prioritizes Kevon Looney as the starting center and Dario Šarić as the first big off the bench. Jackson-Davis’ lack of spacing value and limited switchability means he’ll most likely be penciled in as a five. Steve Kerr may opt to choose tenured players over him in lineups that feature two non-spacers.

If Kerr opts for one-big lineups, Jackson-Davis has potential for being chosen due to his feel and polish. But again, the options above him — Looney, Šarić, and Green in small-ball lineups — are the proverbial mountain Jackson-Davis may not be able to overcome this season, if at all.

Nevertheless, should Kerr require an emergency big to absorb minutes should someone higher up in the rotation find themselves sidelined, Jackson-Davis is option who may be ready to contribute right away, without the need for extensive guidance and handholding and whose polish minimizes growing pains.

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