Tyler Cook has declared for the NBA draft, and barring some unforeseen setback, he will likely be the first Hawkeye since Ricky Davis to willingly leave collegiate eligibility on the table and depart the program for the professional ranks. The Hawkeyes have not had a player selected in the NBA draft since Aaron White in 2015, but Cook’s decision to forgo his final year of Big Ten play certainly shows his confidence that he can buck this trend. NBA draft analysts are more conflicted about Cook’s draft night prospects; while at least one site ranks projects him as a mid-second round pick, many don’t anticipate the high-flying Hawkeye to be drafted at all. Sports Illustrated even went so far as to exclude Cook entirely from their rankings of the top 80 draft prospects released in March. As Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes prepare for life without their star power forward, let’s examine how Tyler Cook’s game might translate to the NBA and whether Hawkeye fans should expect to hear his name called on draft day.
Cook is arguably the best pure athlete to come out of the Iowa program since the Tom Davis era, and certainly has the look of an NBA player. Cook is surprisingly quick for his 6’9 250 lbs. frame, moves well without the ball, and displays impressive strength when attacking the basket. Still, it is Cook’s explosive leaping abilities and his ability to play above the rim that really stand out on film:
Cook’s leaping ability obviously makes him a threat to posterize an opponent on any given play, but he has also shown more versatility in his post moves than he is often given credit for. Cook is a skilled finisher with both hands, has a wide array of post moves at his disposal, and has repeatedly shown he can score through contact. The old school back-to-the-basket game no longer dominates the NBA the way it did a few decades ago, but post offense remains an important skillset, and Cook’s ability to explode to and finish at the rim will not escape the eyes of NBA scouts.
Cook turned down the NBA draft in 2018 with the expressed desire to improve his game and increase his draft stock, and there are certainly areas in which Cook showed real progress over this past season. First, Cook saw his rebounding numbers increase from 6.8 to 7.6 boards per game in 2018-19, an improvement that certainly shows up on film. While Cook’s 19 point, 15 rebound performance against Ethan Happ and Wisconsin is the most obvious example of his rebounding prowess, two less glamorous performances do a better job of illustrating the improvement Cook made on this front. Despite poor shooting performances in Iowa’s win against Michigan and its loss against Nebraska, Cook remained frenetic in attacking the defensive glass in both of these contests and found a way to impact the game even while struggling to produce on the offensive end.
However, it was Cook’s defense which took the biggest step forward last season. Whether Cook became more comfortable in Iowa’s defensive scheme or whether his improvement can simply be attributed to increased effort on the defensive end, Cook saw his defensive rating improve by six points last season (from 110.1 to 104.0). While Cook’s offense understandably served as the point of focus for the majority of his press mentions, Cook actually tied Nicholas Baer for the most defensive win shares on the team last season. Cook’s athleticism allowed him to switch onto smaller, quicker defenders, and his increased tenacity on the defensive end allowed him to become Iowa’s most consistent post defender last season.
Still, there are a number of areas in which Cook’s game remains far from NBA-ready. The most glaring hole in Cook’s game is his lack of a jump shot, an area in which he somehow regressed over the course of his career. The NBA increasingly values players that can stretch the defense by making shots on the perimeter, and Cook’s woeful 14.3% career three-point shooting percentage will hardly leave NBA defenders shaking in their boots. Cook certainly wouldn’t be the first college star to develop a late-in-life three-point shot in the NBA (Brook Lopez, Al Horford, and Kawhi Leonard all come to mind), but the fact that he has yet to progress in this area despite almost assuredly being told by NBA scouts that doing so would improve his draft prospects seems makes this prospect seem unlikely.
While Cook’s ability to drive to the basket did allow him to occasionally ply on the perimeter in college, this is unlikely to work at the NBA level where the players defending him are just as athletic as he is. Cook’s struggles driving to the rim periodically manifested themselves when he matched up against better college defenders who, not respecting his jump shot, were willing to play off of him and dare him to drive into the teeth of a defense that was ready and able to stop him from reaching the rim. This produced a number of turnovers and contested shots and contributed to the late-season drop-off in Cook’s offensive numbers, which failed to match those of the previous year.
Tyler Cook’s Offensive Regression
Cook could certainly be a threat to catch lobs at the next level, and he can still do damage when he gets the ball on the low block. However, in its current form, Cook’s offensive game lacks the versatility to make him a consistent threat at the next levels.
Cook’s defense may be improved, but he still has a long way to go before becoming an NBA-ready defender. Despite his fantastic leaping ability, Cook has never been much of a rim protector, averaging only one block every two games over the course of his college career. Cook often struggled defensively when forced to guard someone who could match his size and strength, as evidenced by his difficulties containing Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy and Tennessee’s Grant Williams. Furthermore, while Cook showed an ability to switch on to college guards last season, it seems unlikely that he could credibly do so at the next level. Cook has the skillset necessary to improve as an NBA defender, but it remains to be seen whether he can take the necessary next steps.
Cook’s best-case scenario may be to develop into a slightly bigger version of Montrezl Harrell, a high-energy power forward/small-ball center for the Los Angeles Clippers. Harrell plays much bigger than his 6’8, 240 lb. frame, and uses his strength, tenacity, and impressive skill as a rim diver in the pick-and-roll to make a major impact on a playoff team. Harrell is a much better defender and more efficient post scorer than Cook, but both players have similar games and function better when they can play as a part of the offense instead of having the entire scheme run through them. Harrell has fully embraced his status as a role-player, bringing a relentless energy off the bench. While Cook was never asked to fill such a roll at Iowa, following in Harrell’s footsteps and embracing the identity of a gritty, yet surprisingly athletic role-player may be his best shot at sticking in the league.
Tyler Cook projects as a borderline late-second round draft pick who may very well hear his name called on draft night but could also find himself trying his luck as an undrafted free agent. Cook may be asked to spend a few years in the G League developing his game before getting a real shot to be an NBA contributor, but he has enough upside that he will likely get the chance to do just that. Cook is unlikely to be the star in the NBA that he was at Iowa, but if he can smooth over some of the rough edges in his game and embrace the strengths that make him a potentially impactful role-player, he may ultimately be able to achieve his dream of suiting up for a team at the next level.