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2022 NBA Draft Analysis: Tari Eason

Pacers podcast and more

Tennessee v LSU Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

With an eye toward defense, Mark and Caitlin are back with a fresh episode of “Stock up, Stock down.” Breaking down a different prospect each week, the idea is for the hosts to watch a player, identifying reasons to be both bearish and bullish, with frame of reference from a few specific games as well as for the Pacers.

This week, Prez from Draft Stickland joins to talk Tari Eason through the lens of LSU’s games against Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, and Missouri.

Stock Up

Caitlin’s pick — on-ball switch-ability

Defending everything, everywhere, all at once, Tari Eason is pervasive, both in his event creation, transforming calculated gambles into timely scores, as well as with his potential to guard against multiple actions across multiple positions. For example, consider the range displayed on this single possession against Auburn. When the play begins, he’s defending at the five and switches out to the ball on the first screen, leading Wendell Green Jr. to back-up to the hypothetical 4-point line and signal for the next action.

To reignite the offense, Green dribbles in front of and pitches the ball back for Jabari Smith to step into his two-dribble pull-up with his strong hand. Except, watch Eason. He doesn’t just bother Smith’s shot; he prevents it from even happening — a (literally) tall order.

For point of reference, here’s what normally occurs when Smith gets the ball moving to his right out of that action against a switch.

First and foremost, the main difference between those two possessions is size. Because Eason was able to switch out to Green on the first screen, Smith then has to dribble around and shoot over a mobile athlete with massive hands and absurd standing reach on the subsequent switch as a opposed to a smaller guard. By comparison, though, Eason not only disrupts Smith’s rhythm, cutting off his angle before he can get to his second dribble, but also invades his space on the step-back, crowding the lanky shooter’s preference for hunting jump-shots over rolling downhill.

Per 100 possessions, Eason averaged 4.5 steals, 2.5 blocks, and shot 36 percent from three on 5.5 attempts per game. To put those markers into context, Isaiah Jackson, who made a total of five threes in 36 games as a rookie, also averaged 7.0 stocks (steals plus blocks) per 100 possessions this season for the Pacers, which placed him above the 90th percentile in both steal rate and block percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass.

That said, the aggressiveness that Eason plays with as a take-and-go big doesn’t always come tax free, as he can lack in schematic discipline, recklessly hunting passing lanes, jumping out of control or getting off balance on hard closeouts, and missing rotations with surrounding pressure as camouflage.

Plus, ball security contributes to defense, and Eason committed 5.1 turnovers per 100 possessions — more than any player who finished last season with the Pacers. Meanwhile, following the trade deadline, Indiana already coughed up the ball on 14.5 percent of their possessions, good for 27th in the league, while also surrendering the league’s most points per 100 transition plays (144.4). To be fair, not all of Eason’s turnovers were live-ball, as he has a tendency to either travel on the catch or commit offensive fouls forcing to his right, and he likely wouldn’t have the ball as much as he did in his high-usage, do-everything and catch-grenades bench role at LSU, but there’s a scenario where what he adds as a live-wire becomes all the more critical, especially while minimizing fouls, to mitigate those giveaways by creating takeaways.

Still, for a team that shifted increasingly toward switching as the season progressed — ranking dead-last in overall defensive rating and conspicuously struggling to contain on the perimeter without wing-sized wings — the good of his movement skills and physical attributes (which can’t be taught) might be worth taking a chance on the bad of his over-eager extremes (which, perhaps, can).

Stock Down

Caitlin’s pick — The left side of the floor

Strong and explosive with flashes of hesitation and burst in what was generally a cramped offense at LSU, Eason plays with kinetic energy in the open floor and has mismatch potential on the perimeter versus slower-footed players, but his handle, particularly when forced left, can waver between aimless and chaotic. This, for example, as he ambles his way into a trap along the baseline after attempting to navigate through tight space out of the paint, borders on avoidance behavior.

Likewise, the struggle to gather without losing the ball was real when Jabari turned him away from his right, resulting in a turnover.

Plus, when he does get all the way to the rim with his left, this has a tendency to happen.

With that in mind, here’s some numbers to consider:

  • Despite shooting 43 percent from three over his final 17 games at LSU, Eason shot 29 percent on guarded catch-and-shoots for the season, per Synergy
  • According to CBB Analytics, he shot 24 percent from the left corner and left wing compared to 36 percent from those same spots on the right side of the floor
  • Meanwhile, according to InStat, he converted 31 percent of his shots after driving to (though not necessarily finishing with) his left compared to 44 percent after driving right
  • He attempted a total of eight dribble jumpers out of ball-screens or isolations

Taken altogether, there’s clear incentive for opponents to take away his right and give ground, forcing him to hit a pull-up shot as opposed to pressing up and facilitating his skill for drawing contact. And, here’s the thing: Although he proved capable of knocking down open shots off the catch, he often loads the ball in line with his right shoulder, like so.

Now, while remembering the aforementioned splits on left vs. right-side threes, imagine what type of trouble he might run into dribbling left from the top of the key into short mid-range. With his shooting motion, he’s at risk of bringing the ball into the trailing defender.

Still, from the ferocity he shows in barreling to the rim to the subtle hints of functional intuitiveness he responds with while dealing from the high-post and occasionally on the move (with his left, even!), Eason is and has potential to be more than a high-motor athlete (particularly in a more spacious offense with a scaled down role), but unlocking the full-breadth of what he can be will likely depend on how successful he is at unlocking both sides of the floor.

Mark’s pick — Gray Area

I decided to cheat, as I’m apt to do with this series, and put together one section based on chaos and the gray area of development/potential. This is something we really dove into and centralized on pod, but want to hit on it again, because it’s so prescient with Tari both on tape and in talking to scouts.

Some team scouts and consultants see Tari as a top half of the lottery talent. Others that I’ve talked to see him as a mid-20’s level talent. Why the disparity? The rollercoaster of his play is so difficult to parse through at times. He’s erratic and often out of control, but it’s wild because at times, it’s a large reason for why he’s so successful and why he has opportunities to make things happen.

His ground coverage is amongst the best in this class, a sizable plus, especially considering the way defense continues to evolve; size and mobility is paramount. Yet, some of his best plays in ground coverage present a double-edged sword of consequence. Sometimes it’s a steal or deflection, other times he’s burnt terribly due to a gamble. Caitlin put it best on the pod in that at times, it feels he is overestimating his ability to gamble.

That’s not at all to downplay his skills and instincts, rather to point out that part of what makes Tari so intriguing is that chaotic ability. Is a coaching staff going to be willing to allow him to play to his strengths while also finding a balance to reign in some? Playing in a tightened up scheme predicated on discipline and one on one coverage doesn’t feel like something Tari will be best utilized by, particularly early in the league. That adds another substantial question: what WILL the Pacers even look to do defensively next year? Again, it’s not a knock on either party, rather a worthwhile point to hit.

Admittedly, I think I’m higher on Tari in general due to the audacity of his game. I love how willing he is to try things. Is that overtly glass half full? You bet!

But, here’s part of where I’m coming from; there’s utility in willingness. The sheer disposition to throw crap at the wall without second thought is again, a double edged sword, but it’s one I’m willing to get cut by when evaluating prospects. It’s not a one-size fits all approach, but a player who shows initiative to make things happen isn’t something you can teach. It makes me wonder more about what his ceiling could be if he is able to iron out and sharpen some of his offensive skills.

As Caitlin mentioned, his left is certainly a question, and arguably the greatest swing skill is what he can summon with that hand.

One of his go to moves when pushing up the floor or evading an obstacle is a behind the back from right to left.

The behind the back is smooth, the next move... not so much.

He often has to gather, loses control of the ball, or goes back immediately to his right, but that’s while also accounting for his tendency to glance down at his left. Kennedy Chandler (very fun prospect) picked up on this and gave him headaches helping from the nail.

But, then you see glimpses of him pulling off his dribble moves, gaining an advantage, and exacerbating it with his strength like this.

Tari measured in at 6’8 215 lbs at the combine, and it’s jarring because of how much larger he plays at times. His strength and ability to body an off-balance opponent is undeniable.

He pulls off some really solid passes on the move and from the perimeter, making quality timely reads. He’ll routinely loft kickaheads in transition and find the corners after crafting a paint touch. He’s even shown some proficiency as a lob passer.

So much will depend on the shot developing to allow him to work on pacing and slowing down a bit in the halfcourt. As Caitlin hit on, it’s difficult to parse through what his shot is right now.

Tari has some really impressive moments of touch, shooting 44% (11/25) on floaters this season according to InStat scouting. There’s also some moments that make you scratch your head in confusion questioning what touch actually means!

In fairness, late clock, rushed possession, but still. I don’t mean it as a knock, but it’s another example of that unsurety in parsing out the kind of player Tari can be.

I don’t have some star projection for Tari. He’s not going to have close to the usage he did at LSU. But, there’s something about that audacity and chaotic nature that I feel the right team could really tap into and Tari could flourish developmentally. Conversely, the wrong development structure could really hinder his growth. The range of outcomes for him feels expansive. Tari’s such a fun prospect and definitely one of the bellwether’s in the class for how one views development, projection, and context. I’m amped to see how he grows.

Other topics:

  • Role projection
  • Shooting and handling as swing skills
  • Contextualizing his environment and role at LSU against recording 73 turnovers to 33 assists (i.e. There were no regular rotation players in the NBA last season who posted a usage rate above 30 percent and finished with more turnovers than assists)
  • Scalability as a potential positive
  • Controlled chaos and overall gray area
  • More

Enjoy the pod and continue looking forward to more of these episodes as the draft approaches. Also, if you haven’t already, please be sure to Rate and Review the Indy Cornrows Podcast on Apple Podcasts and subscribe anywhere else you can listen.