There’s something to be said about the 2022 draft class itself, that the No. 1 pick has never been widely viewed as a foregone conclusion. Over the past year, four players have filed legal cases and caused debate and controversy in the NBA front offices: Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, Paolo Bankero and Jayden Ivey.
While you can debate the merits of each potential #1 pick in past draft classes, as the saying goes, teams can only pick what they have. And, in the end, the fact that there are four good options indicates a palpable depth at the top of the draft. No wonder any of this quartet will have the best career in the class. The discussion was healthy. But tomorrow night someone will be chosen first. It must be Smith.
It probably didn’t emphasize enough just how difficult it was to achieve what Smith did as a true freshman: He finished the season averaging 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 42.9% from the field, 42% from three and 79 .9% from the game. dirty line. He threw himself on the ground and Auburn went 28–6 to win the SEC regular season title.
Smith played his entire season at 18, making him six months younger than Banchero, a full year younger than Holmgren, and 15 months younger than Ivey. He was one of the most influential players in college basketball, playing against tough opponents and in a team context that didn’t exactly favor him. And in some ways his rise is still somewhat underestimated, at least by the standards of typical prospects.
When the season began, Smith’s candidacy for No. 1 was not immediately clear, and that discussion centered on Banchero (SI’s pre-season No. 1 pick) and Holmgren, who met memorably head-to-head in Las Vegas just after Thanksgiving. But days earlier, Smith had begun setting his flag, scoring 22 points in Auburn’s double loss to Connecticut. He didn’t even shoot that well in that game, but it was the competitive fire and maturity he showed, digging himself out of a disappointing first half – as an 18-year-old who had played the most important game of his season to that point. — it struck my imagination. The oil jumper and protective tools required no quibbling. It was obvious that Smith had a special combination of skills and approach. The following week, the dialogue began to change, and rave reviews began to pour in from NBA executives who had already visited him.
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Primarily because of the pandemic, I never got a chance to watch Smith before this season. This need had clearly become urgent, so I scheduled a trip to Atlanta to see him on December 11th. Watching him shoot at close range for the first time was compelling in itself: the mechanics were exceptionally fast and clean, and while his footwork needed some cleaning up, he looked comfortable stepping into it after dribbling. On defense, he was a threat. The game itself was poor, but Smith scored 21 points, five rebounds and four assists in just 22 minutes on Nebraska’s 31-point shot. He could shoot people, he could unbalance them, he could shoot competitions, and he didn’t have to do anything that hard to take over the game.
At that point, Banchero still felt like the popular No. 1 candidate after his strong performance against Holmgren, but the discourse was changing. “Jabari shoots better, he defends better, and these things will probably always be true,” one of the general managers present remarked to me that day in Atlanta. It was a relatively simple argument. Shortly thereafter, Smith took first place on my draft board.
“He seems to have a flawless NBA-level shot, and besides, we’re talking about a 6-foot-10 guy,” says a Western Conference scout. “There is a lot of talk about lack of creation, and I would argue that it is at least partly, and most likely due to a lack of lower body strength. It will continue to develop. So this is a young freshman who was super productive and had elite skills at 6’10 and was so plastic. And on top of that, when you do intel, backstory, and interviews, it’s super high. So that’s the type of kid you can bet on.”
In essence, modern NBA basketball is a constant battle for space that breeds open shots. Offenses are designed to create and manipulate it, while remedies work to destroy it. Many of the best players in the league break conventions and break down defenses with speed, strength, skill, or all of the above. But most players still have to operate within the space given to them, and the best of them find ways to get the ball into the basket when there are a lot of people there.
Of the projected top three picks in the draft—at least in my opinion—Smith’s ability to score the most gives him the best chance of completing all of these tasks at a high level. Because of the high likelihood of this, as with Cade Cunningham last year, this makes him the most flexible potential center when it comes to building a team. He goes near anyone.
While Smith will never have a ridiculous dribbling set, he should actually be able to manipulate, root out and generally dictate spacing on both sides better than any of the draft’s best prospects. It can’t be stressed enough that the threat of his shot is a huge divider: after all, we’re talking about someone who was the 91st percentile of three-point shooters nationally, according to analytics company Boost, while (again, for accent), played his entire freshman year at age 18 and achieved a 91st percentile usage rate (27.4%). He’s already an NBA-level bouncy shooter and the defense can never help him, making him the perfect player to pair with a creative guard. Even when Smith isn’t the focus of the game – which he certainly can be – his presence will open up room for teammates to act and give his team a safety valve if the ball is spinning.
Thanks to our friends at Boost, here’s Smith’s shot distribution this season:
Smith’s charting isn’t perfect, of course—mid-range attempts are hard, and his edge attempts are relatively rare—but his variety of location shots really stand out. The Tigers dropped out of the NCAA Conference and Tournament early, largely due to inconsistent defensive play. Smith was quite often out of mid range and against paint fouling, and Auburn almost always used one of Walker Kessler and Dylan Cardwell in the center. Most of these shots were not accompanied. No other Auburn perimeter player was as effective a scorer and Bruce Pearl intended to push Smith to the limit and give him room to grow, so Auburn lived with those shots. Their offense was designed so that he would be an end point – even a safety valve – and not a conduit for a prank. And he found ways to score from all over the court despite his limitations.
While it’s perfectly fair to nitpick Smith’s grip, which is functional but not dynamic, we also have to consider that – at least in terms of empirical experience – he’s one of the most natural 6-foot-10 jumpers to ever enter the NBA. at 19 years old. We shouldn’t expect him to turn into a Jason Tatum-level custom dribbler, but it’s clear from his natural balance and comfort level when throwing difficult shots that a heavy 2 would be better for Smith than a heavy 2. for most players. He’s the rare jump shooter who can turn a bad shot into a good shot from a situational standpoint because he’s so mechanically consistent and his throw is so high that most defenders can’t change it. constantly training. Sometimes the concept of “making a shot” is inextricably linked to effective control, but when you shoot, like Smith does in his height, one or two dribbles can give you more than enough space. He’s not going to toss the ball up the court, but it’s almo disingenuous to think he won’t improve. Playing creative offense with defenders who pass first would also help him a lot.
It’s also important not to confuse Smith’s 43% 2-point shooting rate with the idea that he’s a poor finisher: according to Boost, he hit a decent 61% from the rim, but only made 54 of those shots. The bigger issue here is the frequency of the rims, but to be fair, Auburn’s situation has probably exacerbated his short diet. The Tigers didn’t have solid defensive play and at times they struggled to make Smith look great. He was still their best late-time option, but as a result, many of his shots were self-created from the spot against established defenses. He’s not programmed to hit them all the time, but they were often the best shots for his team. Smith will also clearly become stronger, especially in the lower body and core, and should become more explosive and efficient on the way down. He has shown latent explosive power when he has room to bounce to the rim and you can bet he will start finishing through bodies as he gets older. So there is certainly a way to interpret his diet as half a full glass.
“If I told you, as a floor player, that you were going to pick a 6-foot-10 guy who can move and shoot more than 40% of three, you would say I’m all in,” says a Western Conference scout. “And I just think that there is a lot of evidence that he will do that, plus a lot of other things that will affect the game in other ways. Unicorn he gets dropped too often, but he’s just a damn good candidate.”
Hidden throughout all of the dialogue about Smith’s attacking play is the fact that his defensive intensity has been a constant positive throughout…