Although the Rockets acquired two exciting prospects in the NBA draft, the most intriguing addition they made may have taken place the following morning when they signed undrafted free agent Trevon Duval to a Summer League deal. At 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-9-inch wingspan, huge hands and a chiseled frame, Duval doesn’t look like your average UDFA. That’s because he isn’t.
Due to his elite physical profile and athleticism (second-highest vertical at the combine), just a year ago scouts were comparing him to a young Russell Westbrook, and for good reason.
This time last year, Duval dominated the high school circuit en route to being the No. 6 high school recruit and was projected as a consensus lottery pick in this years’ draft. However, this past year at Duke the glaring weakness in his game, his jump shot (or lack thereof), became ever more apparent.
It’s stiff. Really stiff. In fact, The Ringer referred to him as a mini-Dwight Howard, and others have called him Kris Dunn without a jump shot. Ouch!
Once opposing teams began designing defensive schemes around his fatal flaw at Duke, the rest of his game began to falter. The extended space he was given, combined with Duke playing a traditional two-big, paint-clogging offense, created an environment where driving lanes were hard to come by. Suddenly, Duval’s elite quickness and burst (he was top 3-5 in about every measure at the combine) had been mitigated. He could no longer blow by defenders and create in the paint in the way that had scouts comparing him to a young John Wall only a year earlier.
Scouts knocked him for this and Duval began falling on mock drafts, before, to many people’s surprise (his mean mock draft ranking was 43rd), going undrafted. One scout told The Athletic’s Seth Davis, “His shot is broken, I don’t know how you play in our league if you can’t make a shot.”
Although his stiff form and poor percentages (29 percent from three) are off-putting, it is far from unheard of for a player to develop a passable jump shot once in the NBA. Seemingly every year a handful of players come back from the summer with tweaked mechanics and see their game hit a new level.
If Duval is able to develop a capable jump shot, the pressure put on defenses would allow the rest of his game to flourish as defenders would no longer have the luxury of laying off or closing out short. Skills don’t exist in a vacuum; they are all interlinked and a product of offensive context — scouts often forget this. Duval’s game is made for a fast-paced, shooters-spaced offense, and yet he has never played on a team with NBA spacing, let alone Rockets spacing. It’s unquestionable that his game translates better to the NBA than college.
The other flaws scouts see in his game — he gambles too much on D, tries to thread the needle too much, plays too fast, etc. — all seem relatively characteristic of a 20-year-old point guard, and yet seem to be held against him to a greater degree. Generally, it is common practice to allow young athletic guards a bit of slack while learning the tricks of the trade.
Duval has been praised throughout his career as an intelligent individual who is eager to learn. He is self-aware. He supposedly watches a lot of film and works to diligently to fortify the holes in his game. In fact, he has already began working to change his infamously poor form. There’s no doubt a year learning the nuance of the game in practice from basketball savants like James Harden and Chris Paul, mixed with high level, and properly spaced, reps in Rio Grande Valley, would do wonders for his patience and feel for the game.
While everyone was scrutinizing his weaknesses at Duke, they seemingly looked past his potential. And it is high. Although his scoring numbers weren’t efficient, when you factored in the points created by Duval’s passing, he was one of the nation’s best as he finished in the 86th percentile for offensive possessions including passes (Per Synergy Sports). Pretty good considering he was a horrendous 25th percentile when passes weren’t considered.
Despite Duke’s poor spacing, Trevon was able to register an impressive 30 percent assist rate, and the lion’s share came in the NBA’s bread and butter: pick and roll. Duval is especially adept at getting downhill by splitting hedges and attacking switches. His elite athleticism and body control allow him to excel at two of basketball’s highest efficiency plays: getting to the line and throwing pin-point lobs (sound familiar Rockets’ fans?).
While he is currently sub-60 percent from the line, if he is able to retool his form he could quickly become a very efficient (and effective) player inside the paint. Additionally, he is a legit grab and go threat on every rebound as he is able to create a 4-on-3 break simply by being the fastest player on the court.
Lastly, Duval caught a lot of heat for gambling far too much in Duke’s zone and often falling asleep. Although both will likely be ironed out with maturity and good coaching, Rockets fans can still find solace in the fact that he was an “excellent” defender, per Synergy Sports defensive tracking data, despite his frequent lapses of awareness. Duval is a fierce competitor and possesses all the tools of a plus defender, so it is difficult to imagine that he wouldn’t accept the challenge when placed in a situation, as all undrafted free agents are, where he has to earn his minutes on the defensive side of the ball.
If the Rockets decide to sign Duval to a two-way deal, they would be buying low on arguably one of the 15 highest-upside players in the draft without having to use a meaningful roster spot or count him against their astronomical payroll.
It will likely be at least a year before Duval is ready to contribute in the league, but if he showcases a smoother release and a knack for thriving off of the NBA spacing afforded at summer league, then it seems inevitable that some other team would finally see the upside and snatch him away with a guaranteed deal. Rockets fans can only hope that scouts continue to show their ignorance to Duval’s seemingly boundless potential.