The NBA draft dialogue is like a weather system: warm and cold fronts roll in and roll out, propelled by atmospheric pressures—overreactions to thrilling glimpses, dismissals of players who seem to have let us down, or intel that came from god-knows-where. Sometimes ultra-talents will hide in plain sight, overshadowed by peers who peaked earlier in skill set or in physicality.
Think about Marvin Bagley III, who was consistently ranked ahead of Jaren Jackson Jr. in 2018 (good lord, did I whiff on that one). Think about Josh Jackson, who was ranked NUMBER ONE in the 2016 high school class over Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac, Bam Adebayo, Miles Bridges, and Jarrett Allen. Think about R.J. Hampton or Nico Mannion being ranked ahead of LaMelo Ball.
We do this every year, this thing where we keep an eye on the player hovering outside the mainstream conversation and ask “… is this dude actually the guy?”
This phenomenon appears to be unfolding again with Jabari Smith Jr. Smith isn’t exactly a dark horse. He’s hung around in the top 10 of his class for the past few years, and yet he’s much less heralded than Chet Holmgren or Paolo Banchero. He’s been impressive, but quietly building his skill set at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia. He’s the son of a player who might pop up in a random bit of NBA trivia, Jabari Smith Sr.—a soft-shooting traditional 5 who starred for LSU for two seasons at the turn of the millennium (next to Stromile Swift, I might add), and then had a few cups of coffee with the Kings, the 76ers, and finally the Nets.
Jabari’s game is a modern version of his dad’s, and his frame puts him in a position to pull that off. He’s heavily perimeter-oriented, and has a leaner body type that is in the process of filling out. He stands 6-foot-10 and has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and by his own words, he’s put on about 20 pounds since arriving at Auburn. I’d say he’s more of an oversize wing than a skinny 4 at this point, projecting as someone who could add size and length to lineups without a true center.
But should he be the no. 1 pick, ahead of other skilled big men like Holmgren and Banchero? Or is Jabari’s surge to the top of many mock drafts a case of recency bias? Let’s take a (much) closer look at the freshman phenom’s game and see whether we can answer those questions.
Stoked About the Stroke
Aside from the fantastic size, the bright, shining bullet point on Jabari’s CV is his shooting ability, although I’d like to parse some important aspects of that.
The basic elements are very good, and that is a major selling point for his future. Smith’s release point is above his head; his load-up to his follow-through motion is very clean—very close to one motion, and I think he’ll likely get there soon. There aren’t any noticeable hitches, aside from one quirk that we’ll touch on shortly.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl is an offensive guy (either interpretation of the phrase applies, depending on who you are), and sometimes I swear he uses the Westworld 3-D printer to churn out scoring lead guards who have the confidence of Dame Lillard. In his offense, players seem to feel empowered to take chances and aggressively hunt perimeter looks. Suffice it to say it’s an ideal scenario for a player of Smith’s talent.
That said, Auburn has a fairly balanced roster that doesn’t depend on Jabari to create shots for others. He’s operating primarily as an off-the-catch player, and through 15 games he’s been very efficient at it. A quarter of his offensive possessions are spot-ups, and he’s getting 1.31 points-per-possession on those looks, most often hitting from 3 on catch-and-shoot attempts or one-dribble pull-ups. Overall, he’s shooting 45.3 percent from 3 on five attempts per game.
I am a big believer in considering how a player’s shot goes in. Maybe other people are too, though I’ve never really noticed anyone else talking about it. The cleanness of a make gives you a clue about how the ball is approaching the rim. To me that’s an indicator of touch. The more a ball is falling toward the rim, the better the arc, and the better the arc, the better the chance it will roll in once it’s made contact with the rim.
Jabari consistently has some beautiful makes.
[Eddie Vedder voice … make me cry.]
Watching Jabari shoot without a dribble, I immediately wondered whether he was a student of Drew Hanlen, who seems to key on no-dribble jab steps in his training curriculum.
Smith has a game that makes one wonder whether Jayson Tatum or Kobe Bryant were heroes growing up.
When this type of shooting is in your wheelhouse (whether you’re good at it or not), there will always be the temptation to settle. I’d postulate that on these closely contested occasions we’re seeing Jabari’s worst misses—when he frequently fails to generate nearly enough power to get the ball to the rim. His arms-centric hiccup has been around for a while now and spans out to the 3-point line. The face-up reliance reminds me a bit of Michael Porter Jr., but he’s not on the same level of elevation or creativity in getting those shots off.
The flip side of this is that he’s at a promising starting point when it comes to accelerating his entire shot motion. He comfortably and efficiently catches high and shoots high, and with the overall breakneck sideline-to-sideline speed of the modern game, this is an insanely valuable skill.
The application of his shooting is wide-ranging. With no movement, purely operating out of spot-ups or popping out of a ball screen, he’s lethal. And then there are the times when he takes it himself in transition and does something like in this next clip—a lightning-quick dribble pull-up in transition traffic.
I mean, do you do anything in your life this effortlessly? A thrilling idea for teams in desperate need of versatile shooting, and a terrifying one for defenses.
He really seems comfortable taking those Khris Middleton–esque one-two-dribble midrange pull-ups, excelling at hopping right into that right elbow area. He’s shooting 50 percent on those looks for the season.
Balancing Both Sides of the Ball
Defense is where Jabari separates himself from the other offensive-minded 4s at the top of this draft. Although he’s not the same type of twitch athlete that Paolo Banchero is, his lower-body flexibility pays dividends in his ability to get in a stance and check a wide array of player types: lead guards, rangy wings, face-up 4s, and the occasional opportunity to pester a true 5. Players with this kind of versatility are annoying as hell for smaller players, because they have dual citizenship in the lands of bigs and smalls. They’re physical shape-shifters.
For a player who’s entering January of his freshman year, at this size and age, Jabari is a very respectable defender, on the ball and as a helper.
When we talk about elite athletes, the first names that come to mind are often the guys who win dunk contests—the Robert Packs or Fred Joneses of the world (I intentionally chose obscure names to be an asshole). But the extreme ends of the spectrum are misleading. It’s the equivalent of seeing Johnny Depp cosplay and do a ridiculous voice and conclude that he’s the best actor on the planet. Being big and/or athletic matters, but nuance and the subtleties make the difference, even if the flashiness isn’t there. Timing, technique, and coordination are the things that separate the truly special from everyone else.
Smith is a mobile, sizable athlete, but he isn’t the type to sprint around to wreak half-court havoc. Because of his frame and the good-but-not-spectacular burst athleticism that we detailed earlier, I don’t think he has the type of eye-popping recovery ability that could allow him to quickly high-point a shot to erase his own mistakes or those of his teammates. He frequently lets opponents shoot over him, when you’d like to see a contest or a block.
There are also the typical lapses of focus or delayed reactivity that you see from an 18-year-old, so these things don’t alarm me. We occasionally see him fail to make that third effort as the ball moves and his assignment changes along with it.
He’s very much a “right place, right time” type of positional team defender. To me, these are the positives: mental motor, activity, and accuracy of hands.
I’d say he’s more of a rim deterrent than a rim protector at this point, but that can go a long way. There are a lot of things going on in this play. The first is anticipation. Because his teammate is in the gap, zoning high between the ball handler and the shooter in the left slot, Jabari is zoning low but frequently eye-balling his teammate’s assignment, always in a stance and never standing still.
Once the handler is forced to change direction and come back to their right hand, the double comes. Jabari likely knows that within the scheme, this is his assignment, but even as the handler turns his shoulders to make this pass, Smith is already sprinting to close out on the shooter.
By the time the spot-up player catches the ball, Jabari is on the scene, closing out like a maniac while denying the kick to the corner. He then funnels the driver toward his help and gets vertical to challenge the shot at the dunker spot. Smith is the rare teenager who is quick to point out his appetite to improve as a defender, and plays like this one demonstrate that.
This kind of efficient volume 3-point shooting, when combined with two-way impact, is unusual for players of this size. Players who are 6-foot-9 or taller and attempt 3s at a high volume (we’ll say at least five 3PA per 100 possessions) and hit at an exceptionally efficient clip while also shooting over 80 percent from the line are not entirely uncommon; 74 players have done that dating back to the 2007-08 season. When you mix in the two-way impact—in this case we’re going to use a defensive box plus/minus of plus-3—that list shrinks to six players. (Thanks to Bart Torvik’s site for its helpful season-finder tool for that one.)
That opens the door for sequences like this one, where Jabari makes an impressive out-of-area play by tracking the ball without fouling, and then nailing a 3 as the trailer.
Is he a “plus-plus,” exceptionally exceptional shutdown defender who torments superstars? I’m iffy on that, slightly leaning skeptical. But at this stage I’m nearly ready to predict that Jabari Smith Jr. will be an above-average NBA defender, which would be a big deal if true.
Crossing the Moat
A 6-foot-10 player who projects as having a combination of substantially efficient shooting versatility and above-average defensive production already stands to be a decent NBA player. That’s a high floor. The skills that unfold and develop from there will dictate just how far beyond decent we’ll go.
This is a difficult chasm to cross. Jabari is very skilled and very coordinated for his size, but the number of players who have that overlap of lower-body elasticity and strong enough ballhandling wiggle to dependably facilitate or put pressure on the rim in the NBA without being vulnerable turnover machines—it’s very few; it’s not normal. There might be 10 or so in the whole world. I’m talking about players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Paul George, or even Pascal Siakam. This is often the line between creating for yourself and creating for others.
When I say “line,” I’m being figurative, but I’m also being literal. There’s a moat between the 3-point line and the lane, and crossing it causes the defense to react. Post scorers can circumvent this by skipping the driving part and just catching on the other side of the line, but we haven’t seen much of that from Smith. Even in the midrange, that 5-to-15-foot space in front of the rim is an awkward area for him as a scorer. He’s shooting 76 percent within 4 feet of the rim, but 33.3 percent in the rest of the lane.
(I spent hours on this graphic.)
We’re being picky here, but improvement in his handle will go a long way in this sense. As a younger teenager this issue popped up semi-frequently when Jabari was facing pressure off the bounce. You can see the defender easily get in his space because of the height and shakiness of his dribble. This is from the summer of 2019:
And this is from two weeks ago:
What we’re talking about is the ability to really accelerate in the open court or in a clear-out to beat people. On more than a few occasions, I’ve seen him beat his man with a bang-bang left-to-right dribble move and pull up—he can set himself up. What I’d like to see more of is some indication that he has spatial awareness beyond that.
The comps are tricky. Jonathan Bender was bouncier than Jabari, but I bring him up because I always want to honor the memory of his tantalizing “what-if” career. (There’s a Disney+ show I would watch.) The scoring profile and the defensive presence push me in the direction of players like Danny Granger, Rashard Lewis, or even a Tobias Harris. Terrific shot-creators, capable but not exemplary passers, without that exceptional “bend” to get their shoulders and shin angles low to make them big-time driving finishers.
Siakam is an example. Watch him accelerate and lower himself to get past Jae Crowder, who’s 3 inches shorter than he is.
Paul George was a decidedly terrible dribble shooter operating in ball screens in college, but even then you could see how effortless he was with the ball in his hands. Handle is critical for the high-outcome version of a player growing into this primary role.
As a finisher, some of this is going to be alleviated by adding strength. Smith might not rise up and over people for aggressive rack-attack finishes, but it’ll help him avoid getting nudged off his path and thwarted by smaller or lesser athletes. There’s also the question of midair ball control, which allows players to readjust and take fully extended, elusive angles. But over the course of his freshman season he’s shown some ability to take contact and still finish with touch.
The flashes of expansive playmaking craft haven’t been abundant, so we’re looking for the indicators. He’s typically passing within the flow of the offense: hitting Walker Kessler, Auburn’s gigantic shot-blocking center, with entry passes over the top or simply making the simple pass at the correct time. Past that, it’s hard to nitpick placement, velocity, angle, and technique because we’re just not seeing a ton of it. We’re not seeing much in the way of single-handed skips (he’s a very two-hand-dominant passer in general) or instances when he draws an additional defender and finds an open teammate. Kessler bobbles the pass here, but this absolutely should be an assist for Smith:
It might make more sense for us to hold Jabari to the developmental expectations of a jumbo-sized two-way wing (resisting the urge to say “3-and-D”). Someone who hits shots at a high clip, spaces for your primary modes of scoring, and keeps the help honest with cutting, and then any kind of passing out of isolation or pick-and-roll is a bonus. To me, this might be a better scenario than having a stubbornly ball-dominant player who needs to learn to be efficient: His team won’t get pulverized by inefficiency while they wait for those other skills to come around.
Tiers for His Peers
An interesting wrinkle of the 2022 draft is the bundle of skilled 4s that could go in the top 10—some names you might know, others you’ll inevitably learn about in the coming months.
Patrick Baldwin Jr. is a 6-foot-9 stretch 4 who’s stirred up debate over just how much he’s damaged his slick-shooting reputation by playing inferior competition and choosing an unorthodox route in playing for his dad at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Iowa has a 6-foot-8 scoring machine in Keegan Murray, who has exploded in year two, roughly tripling his offensive production while also upping his efficiencies.
While those players are interesting and worth keeping an eye on, Banchero is the headline name until recently, considered by many to be one of the shimmering gems of the draft. He’s a twitchy, rock-solid 6-foot-10 and 250-pound iso-scoring machine who’s starring at Duke and has made enormous splashes on two of the biggest college basketball stages of the season thus far—against Kentucky in the Champions Classic and then again against Gonzaga in Las Vegas. When it comes down to it, he’s likely also the measuring stick that Jabari will be compared against.
Smith has answered the bell in every big matchup that Auburn has faced thus far, and there are plenty of matchups ahead that will make for valuable game tape as we approach the 2022 draft. Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky each have versatile 4s who can step out to challenge Smith, and that doesn’t include whatever tournament throwdowns the basketball gods bless us with.
Truly great players are like effective elevator pitches: The impact is simply explained and complex to refute.
Giannis is huge, he’s athletic, he’s an elite handler for his size, and you can’t keep him away from the rim. Stephen Curry is tireless, and he can and will hit 3s in every conceivable way. Nikola Jokic is a giant and he has a playmaking supercomputer basketball brain. These are players who are not going to fail to do their thing. You have to stop them, but even then, they’ll find a way to respond.
Those simple ideas are hard to find. It’s what NBA teams picking at the tippy-top of the lottery are looking for when faced with this choice every year—and if the answer isn’t obvious, do you chase those superstar qualities like superhuman physical gifts crossed with dominant offensive or defensive ability that may or may not pan out, or side with the proven commodity with the higher floor? The former is often too alluring and too hard to pass up. We’ve seen that over and over and over.
The elevator pitch for Jabari’s game is easy to get behind. I’m confident about his future as a jumbo-sized shot maker, both spacing and creating for himself. I’m confident about him as a versatile team defender. But crossing the threshold into superstardom is difficult, and that transition will challenge some of his key developmental areas in the coming months and years. Are those skills actually there and we just haven’t seen them? Maybe. Possibly. I’m anxious to see whether there will be more of these glimpses as we finish out the college season, because if they do come, the discussion of Smith at no. 1 will be entirely justified.