Johnathan Motley may be Baylor’s best player ever. But whether his dominance in the college game can translate to the NBA is a giant question.
The NBA constantly evolves. In this era of spacing and 3-point shooting, almost every big man needs to make threes and be quick enough to switch onto smaller players.
This era could end though. Maybe the league gets tired of what seems like an unstoppable Warriors dynasty and decides to change the rules to favor big men and punish Golden State. Maybe enough quality big men return to the NBA that teams cannot survive playing small.
Regardless of where the league goes, Motley has several strengths that could help him have a long NBA career. There are also a few concerns about how his game will translate. We’ll analyze both of those things, then conclude with a projection for his career.
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Motley won the Karl Malone award for the nation’s best power forward. He finished All-Big 12 and was one of the five best players in the country, according to KenPom. He led Baylor to the school’s first No. 1 ranking in school history. He had immense individual and team success.
One of Motley’s best skills is his scoring at the rim. He’s a 6-foot-10-inch man with a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan. That length and finishing ability helped him make 70% of his shots at the rim, according to hoop-math.
He’s good scoring at the rim for three reasons. First, he can put the ball on the floor and beat defenders off the dribble. In the NBA, he should be able to beat just about any center off the dribble:
Second, he’s good finishing at the hoop. He’ll have to finish over big players in the NBA. Luckily, he’s got several moves and a nice feel around the rim:
Third, he does a good job against defenses that try and front the post. If Motley is a small-ball center, then many guys will try to front him. He’s been beating that:
Although the midrange shot has gone out of favor, Motley is efficient enough to make it a valuable weapon. That shot could be the reason his NBA team wins a few more games. He finished 44% on 2-point jumpers, according to hoop-math, and he shot 70% at the free throw line on 178 attempts.
Motley mixes a decent off the dribble shooting game with a few other moves, including a turnaround jumper. He also adds arc when facing taller players. Everything suggests his shooting from inside the arc should translate:
The 6-foot-10-inch man with a headband can also run the floor. He takes long strides and can even bring the ball up the floor. Some people assume that because Motley is excellent under the rim that he can’t run the floor. Those people just need to watch him:
Offensive rebounding is often vital in the NBA. In the era where so many teams play small, the ability to get more shots against efficient teams can overwhelm opponents.
The 2017 Bears survived offensively because Motley was a monster on the offensive glass. The Bears ranked 308th in turnover percentage and only 82nd in effective field goal percentage on KenPom. But the Bears finished 3rd in offensive rebounding, which was a strong enough mark to give Baylor the 23rd best KenPom offense. That wouldn’t have happened without Motley’s 14.9% offensive rebounding percentage, which was 22nd on KenPom.
Motley is a good offensive rebounder for a few reasons. First, he has good timing. He seems to know when he needs to go up and when to come in on the ball. Second, he overwhelms smaller players by using his length effectively and crashing the boards hard in those situations. Video does not lie:
A big man doesn’t have to pass often, but a big man who can pass opens up opportunities. If a big man can pass, teams have to hesitate to double team the post because the big man can fire to open teammates. And if Motley’s 3-point shot never quite develops, he should at least be able to fire passes if teams give him space because they don’t respect his shot. He finished last averaging 2.3 assists per game. His passing improved a ton from his sophomore to junior season:
On the defensive end, Motley can do a few things well. First, he did a good job defending without fouling this season. He played 30 minutes a game this season and cut his foul rate by 1.7 fouls per 40 minutes. Big men will get into foul trouble, but he played as many meaningful minutes as a big man can in a league that seems to always draw the worst officials.
Second, he can defend out to the perimeter. That should give teams hope he can switch pick-and-rolls and survive against some guards. Motley is not going to have a shot to defend some of the best guards in the NBA. But he can defend some guards and wings. He provided excellent defense on some of the best players in the country by providing good contests, staying engaged and going vertical without fouling:
The concerns about Motley begin with his age. He’s four years removed from high school. The NBA has fallen in love with younger players because a 19-year-old is likely to improve a lot more than someone who is 22. But Motley was pretty good at 19, and he’s improved at a strong clip. There are also a few areas he could still improve.
Another big concern about Motley is his 3-point shooting. He hit only 27% of his triples as a junior. But he started shooting threes for the first time as a junior. Hopefully he’ll get better as he practices that skill. There’s also not a huge sample for how well he shoots. He’s reworking his shot a little bit, but if he only shoots 25% from deep at the next level, his NBA ceiling will be drastically lower. He won’t be able to space the floor and his efficiency will be curtailed.
Motley has said he looks up to Paul Millsap and sees him as an NBA comparison. The Atlanta Hawks All-Star did not make a single 3-point shot as a sophomore. And as a junior, he attempted just .4 shots a game from beyond the arc. We should always be careful to assume that because one player made a drastic leap from college to the NBA that another player will make that leap. But Motley was able to knock down open shots this year. There’s hope he can make 3-point shots at a higher rate in the NBA:
Some worry Motley cannot run the pick-and-roll well at the next level. He was one of the worst roll men in the country, per Synergy. Part of that is explained by Baylor not hitting the roll man much against defenses that hard hedge or trap. Baylor’s guards are smaller, and for years the Bears have not built their offense on hitting roll men out of high pick-and-rolls.
Motley did a good job moving and getting open though. He’s not going to be a dominant roll man in the NBA. He should be a capable pick and pop option, especially if he develops a 3-point shot. Regardless, he’s shown he can score out of the pick-and-roll:
The final offensive concern is about Motley’s turnovers. He turned it over on 19.2% of possessions. I think this concern is overhyped. Motley finished 3rd in KenPom’s Player of the Year race and was the focus of the Bear’s offense. Sure, there were a few plays where Motley didn’t make the best decision. But with a high usage rate, and while drawing a ton of attention down low, he was the best player on a top 25 offense. In the NBA, the ball will be in his hands less. He’s not likely to be in many of the spots where he turned it over.
On the defensive end, three things stick out. First, Motley’s steal numbers are not good. A player’s steals often correlate well to NBA potential, and Motley had one of the lowest steal rates in the country. Second, Motley struggled as a weak side shot blocker. With his length, he hasn’t been quite the shot blocker he could be. Finally, Baylor played zone on 50% of possessions, so some question if he’s going to really defend the perimeter well. These are all fair questions:
The NBA is one of the most difficult leagues to predict long-term. Really smart people study the draft, and they get it wrong a lot. We should all be humble about how much we know.
My belief is that Johnathan Motley will have a long NBA career as a center. His skills near the rim and his strong 2-point shooting give me hope that he’ll survive. If he can add a 3-point shot, then he could be a starter for a decade. With his passing ability and good on ball defense, a 3-point shot would make him an excellent talent.
Motley may never develop a 3-point shot, and the league could get too big for him to play center. Maybe his struggles as a help defender get added to that, and he falls out of the league before too long.
I’m betting that Motley will have a long and excellent NBA career. My view is that he should be a first round pick, even though he’s likely to fall into the 35-to-45 range . But I’m biased. I’ve seen every college game Johnathan Motley has played. Those games make me confident millions of people will have years to watch him play in the NBA.