Lesley Varner II is one of the better 3-and-D prospects from a non-power conference. The 22-year-old senior steadily increased his minutes and productivity during his four years at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), which competes in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). After three non-descript seasons, Varner emerged as one of the WAC’s stars this past season. He earned a first-team All-WAC selection, averaging 15.6 points, 6.0 boards, 1.7 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, with shooting splits of .435/.406/.871. He finished the season in the top 10 of the conference for scoring, rebound percentage (12.8), steal percentage (3.1), player efficiency rating (PER of 25.8), win shares (4.2), and plus-minus rating (BPM of 3.7). Also, among those with at least 100 attempts from deep, he finished second in conference for 3-point percentage.
Varner is a slender wing with good height (6-foot-7) and length (6-foot-11, estimated) and above-average athleticism. The Dallas, Texas native is very much a jump shooter — 40 percent of his possessions this season came from spot-up plays, and 73 percent of his half-court attempts were jumpers. In both areas, he was very effective in terms of points per possession (PPP), ranking at the 81st percentile on spot-ups and at the 73rd percentile on half-court jumpers. Also, his speed and size are assets in transition (78th percentile for PPP), which accounted for another 18 percent of his possessions.
Not only does Varner take a lot of jump shots, but he also attempts a high number off the bounce (134 this season). As a senior, he ranked at the 69th percentile for PPP on jumpers off the dribble in the half court. His game features a pretty midrange fade-away off spin moves, and he also has effective step-back, side-step, and jab-step moves, while making liberal use of head, shoulder, and pump fakes. His shooting form is smooth; he shoots all in one motion, with great elevation and a quick, high release. Even on the move, his shoulders are square to the rim, and his weight is balanced.
Varner is not a prolific shooter from deep (3.4 attempts per game this season); in fact, he took more jumpers (152) inside the 3-point line than outside (101), preferring to take a few dribbles, make a move, and then shoot. He ranked sixth in all of Division I with 84 half-court jumper attempts between 17 feet and the 3-point line, making 46 percent and ranking at the 86th percentile for PPP.
While Varner is highly effective as a shooter off the bounce, his ball handling and playmaking skills are not elite. In tight spaces, he can struggle to control the ball for more than a couple of dribbles, and he has tendency to look down. As a result, he is not adept at attacking the rim, and is not prolific in terms of finding teammates for easy scores. In the half-court this season, he had only 33 attempts within seven feet via drives, and made a poor percentage (42%) with those shots. At the same time, he had an assist percentage of just 13.3 and a mediocre assist-turnover ratio of 1.11. On the positive side, he can generally go right or left with equal effectiveness, and he doesn’t force the action too much, averaging only 1.5 turnovers per game. It also should be noted that Varner told me in a recent interview that he has been specifically focusing on tightening his handle and finishing at the rim since the college season ended.
Defensively, Varner generally plays with good energy, effectively denying, helping, rotating, and maintaining good spacing. He has occasional letdowns, however, not always running the court to defend in transition, and getting caught ball watching at times. He’s not the fastest laterally, but his long strides allow him to recover quickly. He also defends without fouling (1.8 per game), though he can be lackadaisical about challenging shots at times. Statistically, the 22-year-old ranked at the 77th percentile for PPP allowed this season, and had the 12th best standard defensive rating (97.1) in the WAC. He also ranked fourth in the conference for steal percentage (3.1) and fifth for defensive rebounding percentage (20.9), an impressive number for a wing.
One other factor to consider when evaluating Varner is UTRGV’s schedule, which ranked 225th in Division I this season, according to the Sagarin Ratings. The Vaqueros’ toughest opponents were North Dakota State, Creighton, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and New Mexico State (twice). In those six games, Varner had just two good outings (at OU and at NM State), and overall, he averaged only 11.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 0.8 steals, with zero blocks and shooting splits of .414/.318/.667. All of those numbers were significantly below his averages for the season, though it is worth noting that five of those six games were on the road.
In sum, Varner is promising 3-and-D prospect, but it’s unlikely that he will be drafted, mainly because he is a senior, who had just one stellar college season, and struggled against the stiffest competition in that season. He displays very good potential as a shooter and defender, and if he can add strength and improve as a driver and a playmaker at the G-League or international level, he may find a spot on an NBA roster.
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- Great shooting mechanics, and very effective from deep (41 percent) and midrange (46 percent) this season
- Very capable of making jumpers off the bounce (69th percentile for PPP) and off the catch (94th percentile on guarded off-the-catch shots)
- Good speed and size, and strong in transition (78th percentile for PPP)
- Excellent ball security; turnover percentage of 9.5 percent this season
- Solid defender, ranking at 77th percentile for PPP allowed, and finishing fourth in WAC with a steal percentage of 3.1
- Strong rebounding wing, averaging better than six boards per game
- Made steady progress throughout his career, and a relatively young senior (22.3 years old)
- Highly dependent on jump shooting for offense, and takes more mid-range attempts than 3s
- Not a proficient playmaker; averaged just 1.7 assists per game, and ranked at the 44th percentile for PPP as a pick-and-roll handler, including passes
- Loose handle, and rarely scores at the rim in the half court
- Poor shot blocker, especially for his size, averaging just 0.3 blocks per game
- Needs to add muscle to be more effective around the rim and to defend at the next level
- Had just one outstanding college season, faced relatively weak competition, and struggled against better opponents
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports come from Synergy Sports Technology, RealGM.com, and Sports-Reference.com. Other outside sources are noted with links to the source. Special thanks to Lesley for giving Lee Branscome, T.J. Brown, and I the opportunity to interview him on August 18. Click here to see the full interview and his highlights.