I don’t think Jayden Epps is being talked about enough for just how good he is. As a freshman in the Big Ten, he averaged 9.5PPG. He’s someone I’m expecting to take a huge jump and am really, really high on. Here’s why:
Epps is one of the best slashers I’ve seen. Aside from the NBA player he had on the wing next to him (Terrence Shannon), I don’t know if there were many better guards at getting to the bucket. Epps would get to the lane with ease at times, and finish strong. He had so many different moves, and if he wasn’t finishing, he was drawing a foul. Especially for a freshman, this skill is particularly impressive.
I was very impressed with his ability to get downhill, especially so early in his college career. He was fearless and showed that he can finish against some of the nation's best shot-blockers. He’s quick, strong and crafty; I expect this skill to translate directly to the Big East.
As a passer, he’s good. Nothing special. He’s much more comfortable as a scorer than as a pure passer, but he’s able to set up his teammates well. His Illinois team ranked 201 in assists per game, 231 in turnovers and 227 in assist-to-turnover ratio (.960), and I put a lot of that on the Illinois offense, but there will be much more on that later. Epps showed he can be a good distributor, but still has room to grow here, and a better system could really help him with that.
Two plays, in particular, I loved from Epps (that I didn't highlight in that video) are both below. In the first clip, Epps is very patient in transition, stops at the free-throw line, and rewards Dainja for running in transition with an easy bucket.
In the second one, Epps is aggressive in driving the lane, gets downhill causing the defense to rotate, and makes the right pass, which leads to Terrence Shannon putting this game on ice and giving Illinois their biggest win of the season.
The numbers on him as a shooter in the below video are pretty rough, but I think this area of his game will improve, because I really think it does. Past the obvious fact that he was a freshman and will develop more, of course.
Only ONE GUY shot above 33.3% from three on this team, and he played only ten games. Matthew Mayer was a guy who shot 39.5% at his peak at Baylor, 33% at Illinois last season. In his last two seasons at Texas Tech, Terrence Shannon shot 35.7% and 38.4% from three. At Illinois last season? 32.1%. RJ Melendez shot 60%(!!!!) from three a season before (ok, he was only 9/15, but still), so with a larger role in his sophomore season, you’d expect him to hit a ton of shots. Nope, 26.4%.
I’m sorry, but I think some of this is on the coach. One guy can be a player thing, but multiple guys all shooting worse from three? The team ranking in the bottom thirty in three-point percentage? That’s coaching. Nobody who played more than 15 games for this Illinois team shot better than 33.0% from three. That's coaching.
Next, Jayden Epps was a legit three-level scorer in high school. His jumper was something you had to respect. He’s someone who is capable of shooting the ball well, just had one really rough slump midway through Big Ten play. As I said in the video, you take that out and he’s shooting at 36.5%. That’s pretty solid. Of eligible Big East players, that would rank 16, just behind Ryan Nembhard and Jordan Hawkins, and ahead of names like Dylan Addae-Wusu, Caleb Daniels, Kam Jones, Baylor Scheierman and Justin Moore. He’s not shooting the volume that most of those guys were, but he’s a capable shooter who had a rough stretch.
Defensively, there were times when he wasn’t active, but when he’s engaged he’s a very capable defender. He’s someone who’s quick and strong enough to guard the 1-3 spot (maybe a tad undersized against some SF’s, but usually he’s fine) and contests shots really well. He was run off of a ton of screens and was able to stick with some excellent shooters. Illinois switched everything defensively, and say for a couple of bad mismatches, Epps held his own. He’s a switchable defender who’s capable of staying in front of some of the best guards in CBB.
Shot selection is one thing I am a tad worried about with Epps. He took some really poor shots at times and forced shots late in games that put Illinois in a really bad spot. I think this is something he can iron out, and of course, if he’s on fire you ride the hot hand, but you have to know when to attack and when to give it up. He’s capable of hitting some really difficult shots, but that doesn’t mean you need to take them every time down.
Here's some praise he got from commentators during the games I watched, if that's something you'd want to see:
I like Stephen Bardo. I think that’s the main reason I put it here, I think he does a very good job on broadcasts. I also don't fully get the Epps to Frank Mason comp Fran made, but Mason was the best guard in college basketball his senior season, so that's a win. I don’t really think they play all that similarly, but that’s beside the point. I enjoyed it and hope someone else did.
More on his Time at Illinois
Epps was completely misused at Illinois. Terrence Shannon and Jayden Epps were backcourt mates for most of his playing time, and both are slash-first guards. Both guards are score-first guys who are best with the ball in their hands and love getting to the rim. Coleman Hawkins and Dain Dainja were two bigs on the floor with them, Hawkins was a 28% three-point shooter last season and Dain Dainja low post big man. He took two slashers who are ok-to-good three-point shooters and surrounded them with non-shooters. Of course that's going to make them worse offensively!
And he tried to make Epps a pass-first PG at times, which is just not who he is as a player. He's a scorer. He scored over 2,000 points in high school in a competitive league, he's a scorer. He was not put in a position to be the best version of himself, and his transfer makes tons of sense. Underwood's system is pretty tough for guards who he doesn't give complete freedom to, and that's just where Epps was. Someone like Brandin Podziemski had the exact same fate at Illinois, transferred and absolutely thrived en route to being a Top-20 draft pick. I don't expect Epps to be an NBA draft pick, but I think he'll be much better than he was at Illinois.
Epps is someone I'm incredibly high on. I think he's one of the most underrated transfers coming to the Big East. I think he has a massive role on this team, and will be someone opposing fans should take note of.