The ultimate goal for every team in the NBA draft is to identify and develop superstar talent. Wizards fans will be intently watching the team’s newest lottery pick Johnny Davis for any signs of the star gene in him throughout his first campaign.
After going through the same process with last year’s pick in Corey Kispert, at least one thing has been made pretty clear: He isn’t solving D.C.’s superstar scarcity problem.
But among Washington’s young players, his skill set does offer the most conventional strengths sought after by winning teams in today’s NBA.
Kispert could very well be Washington’s other guy. Not a secondary star, but an indispensable part of the rotation that fills his role perfectly and ultimately impacts winning much more than casual fans realize.
The type of player that warrants a StatMuse shoutout every once in a while. (He made it once, but wasn’t deemed important enough to get an actual graphic just yet. That, or they were probably terrified to mess up his luscious locks.)
Corey Kispert vs the Warriors:— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 28, 2022
+16 +/- (leads team)
He joins Bradley Beal and Jordan Crawford as the only rookies in Wizards history with 25+ points and 5+ threes in a game.
It’s still early to predict right now, but in his first year in the NBA, Kispert showed encouraging signs of becoming the elite role player most contending teams covet — and it’s not just because of his shooting, either.
Kispert is no Davis Bertans redux
The Wizards signed Davis Bertans to a five-year, $80 million deal back in 2020. In comparison, Kyle Kuzma also signed an extension in 2020 one month after Bertans. Kuz netted exactly half the guaranteed money that Bertans signed for.
Bertans was able to parlay a couple of standout shooting seasons into generational wealth without having much else to offer aside from his jump shot. And before you argue that it was simply a #SoWizards signing, the Heat, a much more savvy franchise when it comes to roster decisions, went through the exact same thing with Duncan Robinson.
That’s how valuable floor spacing has become in the modern game. But while Robinson and Bertans are net negatives when their shots aren’t falling, which was the case for both men in the 2021-22 season, you can’t say the same about Kispert.
Back in March, Bradley Beal spoke out about another astute, yet understandably overlooked ability in Kispert’s offensive arsenal - cutting:
“He just understands (the) timing of when to cut, when not to cut,” Beal told Josh Robbins of The Athletic. “When guys penetrate, (he knows) how to seep into the open gap for shots. He’s always open, and I think his ability and his confidence to take those shots and knock them down as a rookie has been great. He’s just going to continue to get better.”
It’s probably telling that Kispert’s first ever basket in a Wizards summer league uniform wasn’t a three-pointer. Instead, it was off a timely cut with his defender caught flat-footed.
Here is Corey Kispert’s first bucket as a member of the Wizards. Nice cut for the easy two. pic.twitter.com/SxVa3QkOL1— Chase Hughes (@ChaseHughesNBCS) August 11, 2021
Kispert’s shooting made him an attractive prospect coming out of Gonzaga. But playing off his threat to shoot with cuts and movement was just as big a part of his game in college.
The first two points of his NBA career that actually counted showed off exactly that. Three different transition defenders largely played him for his outside shot, which allowed him to gallop into the paint unmolested for his first ever basket:
Corey Kispert: Paint juggernaut in shooter’s clothing
Kispert wasn’t just a good cutter relative to his designation as a shooting specialist. In his rookie season, he already ranked as one of the best cutters in the entire NBA, slotting in the 93rd percentile in the league as a cutter.
Kispert owns an elite Points Per Possession (PPP) average of 1.54 on cuts to the basket. He’s a big reason why Washington was statistically the best cutting team in the NBA (!!!) this past season.
Only Bradley Beal had a better rate on the roster at 1.64 PPP, but that’s with just 40 games played for the year. Beal had never come close to Kispert’s mark in any season prior.
The rookie finished his forays to the rim at a sterling 81.8 field goal percentage. That ranked sixth among the 196 players in the NBA who cut as often as Kispert did with at least 40 games played.
The players who ranked right behind him are basically guys who either competed in the dunk contest or deserve future invites: Gary Payton II (81.6 percent), Ja Morant (81.5 percent), Robert Williams III (81.4 percent), and the New York Knicks frontcourt duo of Obi Toppin (80.3 percent) and Mitchell Robinson (80.2 percent).
He isn’t doing this off a small sample size, either, with 32.5 percent of his total shot attempts coming within the paint. An even bigger chunk of them were right at the restricted area, where he finished as well as anybody, bar none.
The Wizards rookie’s 75.5 percent clip from within the restricted area ranks 20th among the 238 players who took at least 100 attempts right at the rim. Nearly everyone ahead of him was an above-the-rim big man. The few wing exceptions like Jeff Green and Miles Bridges were all below-average threats from beyond the arc. Kispert was basically in a category of his own. A role player unicorn, if you will.
“He set some rookie records here. I think he’s got a great future,” said Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard of Kispert at the end of the season. “He’s more than just a shooter and a floor-spacer and that’s our challenge to him is to come back better.”
During a February contest against Miami, Kispert was ice-cold from distance. He missed his first four three-point attempts, finishing just 1-for-6 from deep.
But he somehow managed to tie his then-career high that night with 20 points. After the game, Kispert explained his mentality when his outside shot isn’t falling.
“My shooting performance was unacceptable on my standards. I can shoot the ball way better than I did tonight,” said Kispert after the February loss against the Heat. “Just finding other ways to have an impact. Whether that’s offensive rebounding or cutting or sprinting the floor.”
Kispert scored eight of his nine made field goals in the paint, mixing in a bevy of floaters, cuts, and offensive putbacks that made each basket unique from the rest.
It was after this display that coach Wes Unseld Jr. decided to re-insert him into the starting lineup for good, finishing the final 29 games in that role.
Starter vs. Reserve
Kispert had his season split about even between playing as a starter and as a reserve.
He averaged 5.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 0.8 assists across 16.3 minutes per contest in 41 games coming off the bench.
Kispert’s numbers went up to 11.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists across 31.4 minutes per contest in 36 games in the starting five.
While the raw numbers don’t exactly reflect a huge bump in production beyond a simple increase in minutes, he did show a considerable leap in efficiency in a starter role.
Field goal shooting (40.8 to 48.3 percent), three-point shooting (27.4 to 38.8 percent), free throw shooting (83.9 to 90.3 percent), and with that TS% (51.6 to 62.8 percent) all rose significantly when he was a starter.
Some of that is Kispert getting more comfortable late into the season, given that most of the starts came post All-Star break. But the fact that his usage rate stayed exactly the same at 14.7 percent in either role alongside the rise in efficiency is definitely encouraging.
Kispert’s success still hinges on shooting
Kispert exhibited an innate ability to leverage his reputation as a shooter in order to make dynamic reads on offense. And as that reputation grows, so too will his ability to make defenders pay for overplaying him.
But of course, that only works if he actually makes his shots. Kispert finished the season with a mediocre 35.0 percent mark from three. However, it’s impressive he even got there given that he started the season off so poorly from distance.
In his first 25 games in the NBA, he shot a miserable 27.5% from three, averaging just a shade over two attempts per game.
“I didn’t think my shooting percentages at the beginning of the season were indicative of the player I am. Water always finds its level,” Kispert told Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington back in January after finally breaking out of his cold spell.
As he began getting comfortable in his role, Kispert gradually started to find his shot. The difference between his first 25 games and the last 25 was night and day for CK. His three-point proficiency shot up to nearly 40 percent as he settled in as a full-time starter, even with his attempts nearly tripling from 2.0 to 5.8 3PA.
There are still several facets of the game that Kispert needs to improve on. The obvious one is his defense. While he lacks the athleticism and lateral quickness to ever become a true lockdown defender, his cerebral awareness and high effort on the court bode well for him improving on that end going forward. Kispert has also shown a knack for grabbing timely offensive rebounds, but his board work as a small forward still leaves much to be desired.
Overall, Kispert has developed nicely throughout his rookie season in the areas that matter and exceeded expectations in a few others.
“I’m proud to say that I made some huge strides this year that I’m really proud of,” Kispert said of his rookie season. “Not everything went my way this year, but I overcame struggles and pushed myself. I’m super happy with the year I put together and I can’t wait to capitalize on it and make it better next year.”
Kispert doesn’t project to be a perennial All-Star, but if he plays to his strengths he’ll likely turn into an effective player for years to come.