Taylor Hendricks absolutely pops off the screen.
When I first started watching 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 stayed near his home to attend the University of Central Florida. UCF finished with just a 19-15 record, well outside of the national spotlight.
But look at his game film and you 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 quickness. He glides around the court like some of the best athletes in the NBA do. And unlike so many collegiate basketball freshmen who are athletes first and players second, his skill level impressed me, too.
As a result, he was my favorite prospect in the realistic Jazz range — I would have drafted him at No. 5, let alone No. 9. Let me show you why.
Goodness gracious, 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 wingspan of 7 feet and .5 inches, and you can see that at play in his collection of blocks.
But that isn’t the most impressive aspect to me: It’s his timing. When offenses drive the paint off the pick and roll, Hendricks knows the exact time 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. When his teammates get beaten baseline, Hendricks senses the right time when the offensive player has committed and sneaks over and helps. It is wildly impressive.
The NBA player it reminds me most of 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 highlight plays. Hendricks does his work early, too. When he needs to, he shifts over to the right spot in help defense. And on the ball, he slides his feet so well — I think he can guard essentially every position in the NBA, maybe except for five or 10 of the quickest guards in the league.
I don’t know that I see a lot of weaknesses here on the defensive end — this is exactly what you want the modern NBA four to do. Maybe you’d want a little more aggressiveness and toughness down low? I’m nitpicking. Hendricks isn’t a brilliant rebounder, and that’s a real issue, 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 will be one of my favorites in the whole NBA.
The frontcourt of Hendricks, Lauri Markkanen, and Walker Kessler is going to absolutely swallow people with their length. Markkanen proved to be a solid defender this year, albeit a little prone to blowbys. But with either Kessler or Hendricks ready to rotate over, those blowbys become less dangerous. And Hendricks opens the Jazz to playing a variety of schemes, too: 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 for 48 minutes next season.
Hendricks is much more raw on the offensive end than on the defensive end — but he has definite skills that mean he’s ready to get on the floor from day one, then can learn the rest as he goes. In particular, I think he’s actually quite good with off-ball stuff for a 19-year-old, but will need significant improvement to be a threat to dribble and create his own shot.
The most important off-ball skill is 3-point shooting, and luckily, Hendricks is kind of awesome at this. He shot 39.4% from deep on high volume: eight shots per 100 possessions. The number of players who shot at least that many threes and hit at least 39% in the NBA is rather 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 that while playing large 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 shoots over tough closeouts. He’s got a quick motion with a high release point that can finish over most closeouts — this isn’t a Jarred Vanderbilt situation where he’ll need a fortnight to get the shot off. He’s legit dangerous, and teams will regret helping off of him.
His screening is interesting. He’s not, right now, a good “set the screen, draw contact, get his guard open” screener in the traditional way, like a Karl Malone or a Rudy Gobert was. The Jazz will need to develop him on that. But he’s got the footwork on the slip screen, the pick and pop, and just even a fake run-through screen down — and those are some of Will Hardy’s favorite plays.
Last year, Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk, and Lauri Markkanen had three-man plays down, where Olynyk and Markkanen would bunch as screeners for the Jazz’s point guard, then split — and Conley could read what was happening through the chaos created for the defense. I think Hendricks has some of that same potential as Olynyk and Markkanen, where they’re dangerous going away from the rim for threes or going toward the rim for rolls toward the rim.
As a passer in those short-roll situations, or really any situation ... he’s well intentioned, but not very good. He’ll try to connect big-to-big passes that are probably just ill-advised, and maybe pre-decide his reads a little when he catches the ball. The well-intentioned part is big to me — he’s not a ball hog, and wants to get better. But he’s at his best when he can catch the ball and fire or dunk right away.
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 driving in isolation last season. Sometimes, his length was overwhelming his AAC competition, and it worked out well. When the length wasn’t enough to get the easy dunk or layup, though, 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 be a few years at minimum.
But you know what? I’m much more OK with those 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 court while taking advantage of others’ skills to get points? Almost certainly. To be sure, the Jazz don’t have that heliocentric guard that is a brilliant creator yet, but all indications say that guard is of the highest priority — and there wasn’t that guard available at No. 9 to take anyway.
What his skills do give him is an obvious path for development. Coaches never lack for need for players with excellent defensive skills and 3-point shooting, and then Hendricks can use that court time to develop the rest of his game to some extent. That experience will also improve his feel for the NBA speed of things.
And when compared to the competition available at No. 9, or even those drafted slightly before, I just feel so comfortable with Hendricks as a prospect. He’s a terrific athlete, giving him high upside, but has a high floor thanks to his ready-made NBA skills. Whether he turns out to be a complementary starter or a max-money guy is still to be determined, but I feel certain that 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 those 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 a low chance of failure. What’s not to like?
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.