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2023 NBA Draft: Jarace Walker could bring the defense and off-ball threat the Detroit Pistons need

An overview of one of the best prospects in college basketball while looking at how the Houston forward fits on the Pistons

Houston v Temple Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

I simulated the draft order on Tankathon precisely four times (in honor of Detroit’s 2004 championship) to pretty mixed results. First, the Detroit Pistons landed at No. 6, the furthest they can mathematically fall based on current standings. On second roll, they landed No. 1 and, presumably, Victor Wembanyama. Third time, Detroit got the second pick, where Braden Shackelford and I would take Scoot Henderson without hesitating.

On the fourth and final simulation, general manager Troy Weaver and the Pistons ended up with No. 3 where they would likely have their pick of the litter with NCAA prospects or a player like Overtime Elite wing creator Amen Thompson. If I’m Weaver and I’m picking third, I just have to consider a talent like Houston’s Jarace Walker.

After playing with fellow projected lottery pick Keyonte George (Baylor) at powerhouse prep program IMG Academy, Walker stars for the Houston Cougars, a team that’s hovered around and within the top 5 in the country all season. By the numbers, here’s how Walker has adjusted to the college game:

(all numbers rounded to nearest tenth)

Walker explained in an interview earlier in the season that the toughest adjustment so far was the overall speed of the game. That’s most clearly illustrated by his on-ball usage and success — or lack thereof, relative to his IMG days. Walker excelled at IMG with pull-up jumpers and shots at the rim. On pull-ups, he scored 1.13 points per possession (PPP), which ranked in the 91st percentile among his peers. At the rim, he scored 1.55 PPP, ranking in the 95th percentile.

In his one season at Houston, he’s struggled to find his footing on pullups, scoring just 0.69 PPP (32nd percentile) but is still having relative success at the rim, scoring 1.33 PPP (83rd). You can credit the rim success at least partially to his ready-made NBA body.

Where Walker does thrive in a Cougars uniform, it’s most often away from the ball. According to Synergy, he’s in the bottom quarter in on-ball categories like postup (24th) and isolation (24th) but excels in categories like transition (93rd), pick-and-roll roller (70th), and cutter (76th).

His off-ball allure is especially important when considering his fit with the Pistons, who have high-usage ball handlers under contract long-term like Cade Cunningham (29.9% usage this season), Jaden Ivey (24.4%), and even Bojan Bogdanovic (25.8%).

Given Walker’s ability to positionally stretch the floor and move without the ball, he can thrive off their creation. Here’s a 42-second taste of what his off-ball game looks like:

Synergy’s defensive tracking loves Walker, and I won’t pretend that it has nothing to do with head coach Kelvin Sampson’s elite Houston program that has a defensive reputation. Regardless, Walker yields just 0.73 PPP overall, which breaks down as holding opponents to 37-131 (28.2%) shooting. He’s especially magnificent when guarding off-the-dribble shooting, allowing opponents to shoot 2-24 (8.3%) from the field.

Walker does, however, leave a bit to be desired at this stage when defending ball screens, especially as a decision-maker. He certainly has the tools — like quick feet, solid length and strength — to execute whatever scheme a coach wants to though he’s prone to a mistake here and there.

In this example, I highly doubt Sampson’s first choice for Walker would’ve been switching when there’s such a big size difference going both ways, especially when he can see teammate Jamal Shead fighting over the screen in front of him.

According to Synergy, Walker ranks slightly above average defending ball screens. He gives up 0.769 PPP on rolls (63rd percentile). When defending the ball itself in those situations, he’s slightly worse, surrendering 0.733 PPP (56th). Cleaning up these sorts of mistakes could vault him into a top tier of defender.

Walker’s still an extremely intriguing defensive prospect, given his combination of quick feet and the body of a Greek god. Next to a center like Jalen Duren or James Wiseman – if either one comes near their potential – the Pistons would be set with incredibly effective and mobile rim protection.

Don’t just take it from me, though. Here’s what draft expert Adam Spinella (@TheBoxAndOne_) had to say about Walker on a recent episode of the Pistons Pulse podcast:

“He looks like a defensive end out there with the way that he moves. Thick frame, smart player with a high IQ, can create for others out of the high post and fits into team concepts well. But for me, it’s the defensive upside that he brings to the table. He’s really a power 4 who can play the small ball 5 in a pinch. I think of him as being a perimeter-skilled version of what Isaiah Stewart is hypothetically supposed to be right now.”

Walker currently sits at No. 4 overall on my own big board (which, if all goes according to plan, will be made public before March Madness gets underway) behind Wembanyama, Henderson, and Amen Thompson. Walker gets the nod over Thompson in this instance since the shooting is so much further ahead and could make more of an immediate impact. Plus, Detroit just doesn’t have the creation reps available for an initiator like Thompson.

Walker, instead, projects as my favorite non-primary option and my favorite overall fit for Detroit, barring a top 2 lottery draw, of course.