Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is an example of true NBA upside

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 01: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl #24 of the Villanova Wildcats dives for the ball against the La Salle Explorers in the second half at Finneran Pavilion on December 1, 2019 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the La Salle Explorers 83-72. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 01: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl #24 of the Villanova Wildcats dives for the ball against the La Salle Explorers in the second half at Finneran Pavilion on December 1, 2019 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the La Salle Explorers 83-72. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has good potential to be an impactful NBA player, but how that will happen remains to be seen.

One of the most annoying continual arguments occurring around the NBA Draft over the past few years is determining exactly what qualifies as potential and upside. There is one camp that values what has traditionally been thought of as those terms’ definition — skills are nice, shot-making traits are better, but above all else, length, strength, and athleticism trump all in determining who will become a productive NBA player. After all, the best NBA players are mostly elite athletes with great physical traits.

The other camp, which is the one ascribed to by The Step Back’s draft writers, looks less at the one-in-one thousand star examples, and more at who becomes a productive rotation player for a winning team, and who falls out of the league early, to choose which players to bet on. After all, it’s much more likely that you’re going to draft the next Eric Gordon with your top ten pick than the next Russell Westbrook, and it’s also more likely that you’re going to use that pick on the next Tyreke Evans instead of the next Westbrook if you try to draft purely based on the athletic traits that make Westbrook successful. This approach takes athleticism and physical tools into account, but looks instead for common traits that end up creating more lasting impact — decision-making, instincts, advanced skills, and the building blocks of real growth.

Time and again, the potential label is slapped onto players who are not good in college but possess the physical tools or flashes of skill that could turn him into a good player, in theory, if everything starts to click. Cam Reddish didn’t display much of anything in college suggesting that he would be an impactful NBA player but still was treated as a top prospect because of elite size and flashes of playmaking in high school. Meanwhile, Brandon Clarke, a player with deity-like levels of touch and one of college basketball’s most sound decision-makers, fell into the back half of the first round. So far, Clarke’s been the one playing like one of the best players in the 2019 draft class, and Reddish has an effective field goal percentage under 40 percent.

We’ve focused on what is NOT potential and upside a lot here in fleshing out this central idea. Reddish, Nassir Little, and James Wiseman are representatives of what the traditional camp deems to be an upside, but we haven’t spent much time offering an alternative description of what upside looks like from the “decision-making and advanced skill” perspective. Fortunately, there’s a good avatar for that type of potential in the 2020 NBA Draft class — Jeremiah Robinson-Earl of Villanova.

Robinson-Earl probably doesn’t have the potential to be a star. He’s a good, but not great athlete, and he doesn’t get to create a lot at Villanova. But what he does bring is a collection of skills that is going to make it extremely likely that he sticks as an NBA player and some reasonable development goals that can unlock a higher ceiling outcome for him. It starts on defense, where he is one of the better decision-makers in the class. At 19-years old, Robinson-Earl is already an advanced team defender, with good timing as a help defender:

He also displays good positioning when acting as a help defender on drives, showing good awareness for when to confront the driver and when to back off to cover his original man. This is a requisite skill for defending at the 4 at the NBA level.

Now, Robinson-Earl doesn’t pop in on-ball defense, because he isn’t the best at mirroring, and he also routinely gets tasked with defending college 5s in the post, where his smaller frame limits him in denying positioning. But at the NBA level, the skills Robinson-Earl displays as a team defender are more important, and he also will be benefitted by his ability to use his length when defending on the perimeter.

Offensively, his potential has a similar premise. There isn’t a ton of self-creation in Robinson-Earl’s profile, but he shows a great understanding of positioning and possesses great touch around the rim (77.4 percent this season). He operates as Villanova’s primary pick-and-roll big, and checks most of the boxes needed to do the same at the NBA level — a great screen foundation, good sense of filling space in the lane, good hands, and good touch.

Having that touch around the rim is huge, because he’s more of a ground-bound big, with just nine dunks so far this season. To survive in that capacity, you have to be able to absorb contact and have good touch on your release when traveling away from the hoop, both traits Robinson-Earl possesses.

None of this is going to blow someone drafting in the top ten away if they’re looking for star potential. But if you’re redefining your search criteria to look for players with a high likelihood of contributing to your team, Robinson-Earl stacks up much better than many of the other top forwards in the class. As a 4 with the strength to contend with NBA center size on the glass, good pick-and-roll traits, and sound decision-making in a progressive college defensive scheme, it’s pretty easy to project a role for him at the next level. Those are all things that are baseline asks for your NBA power forward, and he should be able to do all of them at a reasonably high level.

But beyond that, Robinson-Earl’s swing skills all sit firmly in the realm of things that will take him from that baseline rotation player to quality rotation piece for a playoff team. Defensively, Robinson-Earl has to improve his technique in on-ball defense and learn to use his strength in a more advantageous way at the rim to provide real rim protection value. Both of those things should be achievable, as he already has comfort defending in an NBA-style system, and has the baseline of his reaction time and positioning to build on. Most positive non-center defensive prospects already have the baseline of on-ball defense and have to progress to good team defense, which is more challenging if you aren’t a quick game processor. Technique questions being the issue are workable, and there’s a good potential that Robinson-Earl becomes an impact defensive player at his peak.

Offensively, Robinson-Earl’s shooting and handle have to be harnessed to take him from offensive competence to offensive value. JRE isn’t asked to create much outside of occasional post-ups and transition looks, but he does have a good handle, and it’s easy to see him turning this type of possession into more of an NBA-style face-up look if his jumper threat comes along.

His jumper has not looked good on the surface this year, as he’s hitting just 30.8 percent from 3 on 26 attempts. He seems to struggle with getting consistent form in rhythm.

Right now the bones of Robinson-Earl’s shooting threat are there, but he has significant mechanical fine-tuning to get there. JRE’s preshot buildup is pretty good, as he relocates well off-ball and does a good job of getting into his jumper as soon as he catches. But the actual steps of his gather and release are rather mechanical, and he doesn’t get as much lift as someone with his lower body strength should.

Robinson-Earl isn’t a finished product. There’s a good possibility that he can’t take every step mentioned above, and tops out as an eighth or ninth man on a good team. But he likely does have a role on a good team as is, and the probable growth he’s going to experience — becoming a more effective perimeter defender, establishing a shooting and ball-handling threat — are things that are likely improvable and will make him more effective in a team context. We don’t really know what Robinson-Earl’s end role is going to be at the NBA level, because it’s largely dependent on development. But we can say with pretty good confidence that he’s going to be the type of player who matters, it’s just a matter of whether he does so as a key bench player or key third or fourth option.

We’ll wrap with a thought exercise — would you rather take Robinson-Earl, or Jaden McDaniels of Washington? Robinson-Earl represents realistic upside, while McDaniels represents the traditional understanding. Naturally, that means McDaniels is the one with more buzz as a draft prospect. But think about where both stand, and what they need to get better. Robinson-Earl’s chief skills are his decision-making and positioning. McDaniels has his length and pull-up shooting. Defensively, Robinson-Earl needs some fine-tuning of his on-ball defense, while McDaniels needs 2-3 zone deprogramming and the strength to switch if needed. Robinson-Earl’s biggest offensive limitation is shooting; McDaniels can’t get to the rim reliably. The role for Robinson-Earl to be effective on a winning team is likely close to what he is now, while McDaniels likely needs to carry a heavy creation load to effectively weaponize his best skill — and it’s a question of whether he’ll be able to warrant that if he doesn’t develop into a useful driving threat.

Simply put, Robinson-Earl needs probably needs less development and has a more achievable growth curve to be an impact player than McDaniels, and he also probably is easier to build a winning team with. McDaniels might have certain gifts that Robinson-Earl doesn’t, but Robinson-Earl has more realistic NBA upside. If the question is who to bet on becoming a key player on a playoff team by the end of their rookie contracts, I’m playing the percentages and picking a guy like Robinson-Earl.

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