Every year, there are names that are rumored to be flying up the board as we get closer to the NBA Draft.
Often, those rumors are smokescreens put out by teams trying to maneuver and take a different player or agents trying to improve the stock of their own draftees. But sometimes, the noise is legitimate. Certain players look better after workouts and deeper dives into their statistical profiles.
One of the players whose stock is up this year is Kobe Bufkin. The guard from Michigan was seen more as a middle- to end-of-the-lottery pick a few weeks ago but has since cemented his status as a player likely to be taken in the top 10 or immediately after it.
While we won’t know for sure where Bufkin is selected until draft night, there are reasons to think his rise is real. And, when you unpack how his skill set translates to the modern NBA, it’s easy to see why teams would find him tantalizing.
Bufkin’s best attribute is his scoring, and he offers a solid floor and ceiling as a scorer.
At first glance, Bufkin’s 35.5% on 3-pointers as a sophomore may not seem impressive. But his free-throw percentage was a sparkling 84.9% (albeit on only 86 attempts), and his 3-point percentage was up from 22.2% as a freshman. He also went from shooting 1.3 3-point attempts per game to 3.7 his sophomore season. So he improved his volume and efficiency significantly and his stellar free-throw shooting indicates he has elite shooting potential.
Put on the tape, and you’ll see a great mix of off-the-bounce, movement, and standstill catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts from Bufkin. He grew more confident and quickened his release as his collegiate career progressed, making the defense pay for any momentary opening.
His shooting is trending in the right direction and could allow him to be a true three-level scorer.
His footwork is impressive as well, and the separation he gathers on step-backs will be a critical tool at the next level.
And the shooting isn’t even the best part of his scoring package.
He is one of the best drivers in the draft class, often making difficult layups look easy.
He’s certainly stronger with his left-hand driving but showed the ability to finish with the right as well. And, as you can see, he combines speed and power when getting to the rim, using a quick first step to get by defenders and strength to finish through contact. As with most quality drivers in college, he’ll likely benefit from the added spacing of the NBA game.
For most players in this draft class, a three-level scoring skill set requires a lot of projection. Bufkin isn’t the athlete the other projected top picks are, but the scoring skillset is much closer to NBA-ready than most of his classmates.
And that gives him a higher floor as a prospect while also giving him a high ceiling if the shooting grows into an elite skill.
With that kind of scoring potential, Bufkin just needs to be capable in other areas to be a productive NBA player. And he’s shown he’s a solid passer and defender, with flashes of much more.
Bufkin’s playmaking certainly isn’t that of a true point guard yet, but, as a secondary playmaker, he’s more than competent. He had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.50 and showed a more nuanced game as the 2022-23 season went along.
This looks like a basic pass on first glance, and it is a simple read. But the pass itself is the key to the play. Bufkin passes off a live dribble at the perfect moment, which is the only reason his teammate has enough time to get a quality look.
The best passers off the dribble are those who can throw passes at any time, and mid-dribble passes often catch the defense off guard before they can rotate in a show-and-recover scheme. Bufkin’s shown great timing on these simple reads. If he can make more advanced reads as he develops, with his passing chops, he could be a very good playmaker down the road.
Defensively, the biggest questions are about his size and lateral movement. He’s between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5 (with a reported wingspan near 6-foot-8) and doesn’t have elite lateral burst in a draft that is full of athletes with that skill.
But Bufkin still got his blocks and steals in college and showed an ability to navigate screens better than most players his age. He fights on defense and isn’t afraid to use his length to bother jump shooters.
This block required screen navigation, timing, length and discipline.
Bufkin may not be a true stopper on defense, but he doesn’t look like a liability, and possesses the tools and smarts to be above average on that end.
With several skills already at passable level, Bufkin’s role will depend on which of those skills steps forward the most in development. If his shooting progresses but his athleticism and playmaking don’t, our model sees similarities to Luke Kennard, a movement shooter with passable playmaking skills and some questions about his defense. Norman Powell is a comp as well if the shooting comes around. And if the offensive skills come along but the defense lags, the model identifies Tyler Herro as a possibility as well.
It’s important to note that these NBA comparisons are meant to be at the time those players were coming out of college, not at the peak of their NBA careers.
The more balanced comps included Josh Richardson, Quentin Grimes and, perhaps the most exciting one that the model produced, Jalen Williams. Williams did a little of everything his rookie season as the runner-up for rookie of the year and looks well on his way to being a foundational piece for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Perhaps the best good-outcome comparison for Bufkin comes from before the model’s time. If you look at the stat line for Bufkin, it looks quite similar to a max-contract player who was just traded: Bradley Beal.
Like Beal coming out of college, Bufkin’s shot looked better than his 3-point percentage, and his free-throw percentage seemed to tell the true story of his shooting talent.
He was also able to create off the dribble, showed secondary playmaking skills, and racked up enough steals and blocks for a guard to quiet concerns about his defense. It should be noted that Beal came out as a very young freshman, which made his stock higher. But Bufkin is young for a sophomore, as he doesn’t turn 20 until Sept. 21.
If everything works out for Bufkin, it’s easy to imagine him as a solid defender whose versatile offensive game allows him to play both on and off the ball, making him an extremely valuable player. That sounds awfully like Beal in his prime.
While prime Beal is a lofty outcome for any prospect not going in the top three, Bufkin has a range of outcomes with a higher floor and a higher ceiling than a lot of other players. And with his offensive fit in the modern NBA, there’s no reason he can’t be one of the most valuable picks in the draft – even if he goes in the top 10.
Data modeling by Matt Scott of Stats Perform. Enjoy this? Follow us on Twitter.