Razorback fans tuning into the NBA Finals this week will get an annoyingly stark reminder of just how badly the Kentucky basketball program has out-recruited the rest of the SEC. Former Wildcats Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo will play pivotal roles for the No. 1 seed Los Angeles Lakers, who are heavy favorites in NBA finals odds. On the other side of the court, with the upstart No. 5 Miami Heat, will be Kentucky products Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
I’m sure the Big Blue Nation marketing machine will have a field day churning out the #BBN #NBAFinals schlock.
Yet amid all this purple and gold and hot pink and teal is a silver lining for Hog fans.
Herro’s stunning recent rise as a rookie, culminating in a conference finals in which he averaged 19.2 points (on 52.3 percent shooting), 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists, should lead to a higher draft position for former Hogs star Isaiah Joe.
After seeing Herro’s pro game flourishing due to a great team fit and the NBA rule changes of recent years, it’s much easier to see Joe’s game doing the same on the next level. In NBA Draft circles, their paths are already tracking along a similar path.
Early in his lone season at Kentucky, some NBA draft scouts considered Herro to be a late second round pick. But he shot up mock draft boards ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft to eventually land at No. 13. In fact, Miami had graded him as high as No. 7, CBS writer Brad Botkin recently reported. Botkin chatted with four NBA scouts about the circumstances of Herro’s drafting, and they will sound eerily similar to those who follow Isaiah Joe as he prepares for the 2020 NBA Draft.
Let’s start with the weight. The 6’5” Herro came out of high school weighing 160 pounds, while the 6’5” Joe came out of high school at about 165 pounds. This lack of strength held both Herro and Joe back from achieving greater stardom on the college level.
While both players are elite shooters with outstanding range who can side step and step back with the best of them, their thin frames hurt them early on. The NBA scouts who initially studied Herro’s game during his lone season at Kentucky rated him in the second round to back part of the first round.
But the scouts also saw Herro could gain muscle — he weighed over 190 pounds by the time the 2019 NBA Draft rolled around — and felt he could thrive on a team where he could be a third or fourth option.
His lack of explosiveness, strength and speed were not the negatives they once would have been, an Eastern Conference scout told Botkin. “With the rules the way they are, you can’t touch these guys [with the ball.] So how much does it matter if a guy is maybe a little physically immature?”
“If the rules were to change tomorrow and we went back to the 1990s and the New York Knicks knocking everyone around, I would change my way of thinking back to that,” the scout continued.
“But it’s a skill game now. Skill equals athleticism in today’s league. Especially if you’re a shooter. Because all the sudden, if you can shoot it, guys have to guard you close without touching you, which makes it easy for you to go by them, especially on closeouts. You don’t have to be super quick to go by a defender that’s up on you tight but can’t touch you. You just have to have the skill to put the ball on the floor. Attack the angles. And Herro was always a really skilled player.”
This should all be music to the ears of the highly skilled Isaiah Joe. No doubt, this kind of thinking on behalf of NBA personnel played a role in his decision to stay in the 2020 NBA Draft in the first place.
Joe, who now weighs around 180 pounds, is still relatively light. This is one big reason most NBA draft analysts have pegged him as a mid to late second round pick.
But of course, just like Herro, he’ll put on muscle as well. Like Herro, too, Joe’s stock has been trending upward as the 2020 NBA Draft (on November 18) nears.
In the most recent SI draft, for instance, Joe moved up from No. 54 to No. 33. Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith is often cited as a middle first rounder, but analyst Adam Spinella made a strong case for why Joe’s NBA value could actually be higher than Nesmith’s. “Due to concerns around his strength, Joe rarely flirts with first-round status,” Spinella writes, but “don’t be shocked to see Joe become a riser late in this process.”
In this playoffs run, Herro has proven he’s a complete player to a degree few anticipated. He goes to the basket much harder and more effectively than he ever did in college. Joe’s task is to convince NBA teams he can make a similar evolution. Fortunately, he’s off to a good start, showing great defensive instincts when taking charges and flashing a promising floater game as a Hog.
Analysts studying his tape will notice that Joe actually has a longer wingspan than Herro (estimated as 6’7” to Herro’s 6’3”), something that he displayed in spades when drilling jumpshots over Herro in the first half of a February 2019 game at Kentucky:
Although Herro caught fire in the second half of that game, few would have expected that just 19 months later he would be setting all-time NBA Playoff records. Like in Game 4 of the Boston-Miami series, when Herro scored 37 points to lead Miami to a huge win. That was the most points any rookie has ever scored in a conference finals.
It’s one of the reasons why the story of Herro’s 2019 NBA Draft is no longer about how he rose to go to No. 13, but how he fell to there. If that draft happened again today, it’s possible he’d go No. 3 behind only Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.
The same teams who whiffed on taking Herro last year will remember their lesson the next time they have the chance to pick up an elite shooter with an expanding game who could thrive as a complementary scoring option.
And that, actually, is great news for Isaiah Joe.