8 min read

And the Thunder Select: Jabari Smith, Jr.

And the Thunder Select: Jabari Smith, Jr.

The consensus number one player by mainstream media outlets, Jabari Smith, Jr. quickly came onto the 2022 NBA Draft scene and never looked back. After not really being considered a top three prospect before the season, he has stayed around that range since late November of 2021. And reading the tea leaves from various draft reporting, it seems like the Thunder’s second overall pick will come down to either Smith or Chet Holmgren

But those are just rumors. We’re here to evaluate the player, not the subterfuge sure to persist from the Oklahoma City front office until their actual target’s name is read next week.

  • Born: May 13th, 2003
  • Draft Age: 19.1
  • High School: Sandy Creek High School
  • RSCI: 4
  • College: Auburn
  • Measurements (Projected): 6’10, 220 pounds, 7’1 wingspan
  • Consensus Ranking: 1st
via Basketball-Reference

Shades of: Taller, better perimeter shooting Mikal Bridges, Rashard Lewis

via CBB Analytics

A lot of OKC fans are enamored with Jabari and his skill set. It’s obvious why: he’s a lights-out shooter, possibly the best in this class (AJ Griffin might be slightly better), and is 6’10 to boot. OKC has been a dreadful shooting team for the past two seasons, and he would fit in seamlessly next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey on this Thunder team. One advantage that comes with Jabari is that he is one of the youngest players in the entire draft. He played all last season at 18 years old and will barely be 19 once he enters the NBA; he is almost a year Holmgren’s junior and is a full year younger than Jaden Ivey.

But Smith is my number four prospect in this class,. I think he would be a fine selection at second overall, just not my preferred choice. This isn’t a slight towards Jabari, as I think all four prospects at the top of this draft are great. He’s absolutely a good prospect, but I have my reservations about him returning the value of a top two pick in the upcoming draft.

Perimeter Shooting

Perimeter shooting is easily Smith’s best skill. He shot 42% from three this past season while being assisted on 73.4% of those makes, in addition to making 79.9% from the free throw line. According to Synergy, Jabari also ranked in the 94th percentile in spot up shooting. There were a lot of pull-up jumpers and catch and shoots being taken when he had the ball in his hands. I wish there were more examples of movement shooting and coming off of screens (only 24 attempts) for Smith, but that will be something that has to be implemented more when he gets to the NBA.

Per Bart Torvik, Smith is the only 6’10 or taller college freshman since 2008 to eclipse the following:

  • Three Pointers/100 > 10
  • Free Throws Made > 100

There are similar shooting seasons from players like Lauri Markannen, but none got off the sheer number of threes Smith did at his size. He looked a lot like how Michael Porter, Jr. has in the NBA thus far in terms of shot selection, and Porter very well might be the greatest 6’10+ shooter in NBA history.

Jabari loves to operate from the left and right elbows (preferably the right) and he was absolutely lights out from that area. He can easily get to his one dribble pull-up game there, and he shot an impressive 48.6% from the elbows this past season. Obviously, with his height and wingspan, Smith has an incredibly high release point that allows him to get his shot up over almost anyone at any time. This might be his most valuable asset; he practically won’t need any space at all in order to get his shot off.

It’s reasonable to expect him to teeter around 40% from three on pretty significant volume for a majority of his career. The shot is that special.

The problem is that teams know Smith is jumpshot oriented, and they will know this in the NBA. If you’re just taking these contested jumpers all game, teams will key in on you. Without an effective handle, you can’t tilt NBA defenses or create an advantage when attacking closeouts. Again, this criticism is relative to the value of the number two pick.

Shot Diet, Dribbling, and Physicality

The number one concern I have with Jabari Smith is his shot selection. He is incredibly jump shot oriented, evidenced by the fact that only 14.8% of his shot attempts came at the rim. Jabari had only 63 rim attempts this past season at 6’10! That is an extremely low number compared to the rest of the consensus top four players who all have at least 125 attempts at the rim. On non-dunk attempts at the rim, he shot 27/48, or 56%, per Bart Torvik. In addition to that, he shot just 43.5% overall from two. These are not good numbers.

I’ve seen a few people comment on his .384 free throw rate, which is quite high (and better than Paolo Banchero’s). I hate to be that guy, but…you have to watch the games. He is a damn good grifter on jump shots, and a majority of those free throws come from taking jumpers, not pressuring the rim. That’s definitely a valuable skill, but a little less reliable than drawing fouls closer to the basket. You have to be such an incredible shotmaker to live off of jump shots consistently. Jabari is absolutely an elite shooter, but the margin of error is so much smaller when playing this way.

One of the main reasons I think he struggles getting to the rim is that he really cannot dribble right now, and he’s not physically dominant enough to overcome that limitation. His handle is incredibly loose and he’s had the ball poked away countless times when trying to make a move on the perimeter. Sometimes, it even looks like he would rather take a contested jump shot over a drive to the paint. He struggles to change direction with his handle and create space for himself.

Ball handling is not the easiest thing to improve upon in the NBA, and it only gets more difficult the taller and more inflexible (which Jabari is) you are.

Another thing that gives me pause is that he was pushed off his spot at Auburn pretty frequently. He is just not very strong for a 6’10 player, and while of course we can assume he will put on weight and strength, it’s not like he’d be going from average to good physicality. His team would hope he’d progress from below average to average strength for his size. Tennessee’s Kennedy Chandler (6’0, 172 lbs.) stood his ground while Jabari was trying to gain position in the post. This isn’t a huge concern, since he profiles as a wing offensively in the NBA despite his height.

My evaluation really comes down to my stance on drafting and basketball philosophy. Why are you, as the consensus first overall player, living off contested jumpers in college? Surviving off of jump shots is insanely hard to consistently do at the NBA level, especially if all your self-created jumpers are contested like Jabari’s are. It’s really tough for me to put a player like that in the top two of this year’s draft. On the other hand, if he ever learns how to effectively dribble and create separation from defenders or attack closeouts, he could be a pretty unstoppable force on offense.

Defensive Prowess

Smith’s defense might not be too far off from his offense. He is an excellent defender and profiles as a wing stopper at the next level. His size on the perimeter is excellent and he is really good at the point of attack, applying pressure on the ball handler and crowding them with his length. His instincts are really impressive for a 6’10 guy on the perimeter; he is constantly making good rotations when on the outside or to protect the rim. He had a 3.8% block rate and a 2.1% steal rate this past season at Auburn, but I question whether he is both big enough and a good enough athlete to be a full time rim protector. His 7’1 wingspan is good, but not quite elite. It’s much more likely that he becomes a plus weakside and recovery shot blocker as a forward than becoming a center.

I am a big fan of Jabari’s defense but, like everyone, he is occasionally sleeping off the ball and loses his man. One of the clips included that I found hilarious shows him being physically pushed by a teammate towards his man to help contest an open layup.

Despite all the praise, I’m concerned that he will struggle against more physical players, and I’m not just talking about behemoths like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. He struggled against Alabama’s Juwan Gary (6’6, 200 lbs.) at times. He’s just not very strong or vertical as a shot-blocker, so I question whether or not he can be a consistent small ball five. My answer right now is probably no. You would definitely want a rim protector to play behind him, just like how Auburn had Walker Kessler protecting the paint beside Smith in 2021.

Smith looks like a wing stopper to me. Put him on Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, or Paul George and similar players that seem like his preferred matchup. I saw him switch out on a lot of guards at Auburn, something that should be explored at the NBA level. I’m dubious as to whether he can do it consistently against quicker pro players, but he was really impressive at switching in college. I foresee a prime where he can guard some twos, threes, and most fours in the NBA pretty effectively.

Meh Passing

Jabari Smith is a totally mediocre passer for a player his size. He isn’t in the same stratosphere as Banchero in this regard, but he isn’t necessarily a black hole either. His height and length allow him a little extra wiggle room as he can see out of double teams and generally see over the top of defenses in order to hit the open man. His assist rate of 13.8 is workable at best. Jabari has a fair share of missed reads on tape, particularly when he seems locked in on taking a jumper when he gets the bal. But more often than not, he is hits the open man when he can read the floor.

This is where the question about his handling and attacking closeouts comes back into play. I trust in his passing enough to hit the open guy, but if a defender is always stuck to him, how much more difficult does that make getting the advantageous pass off?

Lock it In?

I’m really fascinated by whether Jabari goes number one or not, and I can’t wait to see what happens on draft day. Most of the smoke has him headed to Orlando at first overall. If Smith falls to OKC at two, he wouldn’t be my first choice but I could understand the vision behind such a selection. Jabari could take on a lot of the wings that Giddey cannot defend, and provide excellent floor spacing for a team that greatly lacks it. He won’t have to create that much offense for himself on a team with Shai and Giddey feeding him open looks to knock down.

If the handle never improves, Jabari seems likely to be headed towards being a 3&D player. Granted, he might be the greatest 3&D player of all time by the time his career is over. But when I use that term, I mean a player who primarily only shoots threes on offense like Robert Covington, not someone like Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. I am very wary about that player type being worth spending the number two pick, where you are hoping to acquire a true star in the NBA. At #2, teams want a franchise changing talent, not a star role player.

But if GM Sam Presti thinks Smith’s handle will improve, then that ceiling raises much higher. We won’t know what Presti really thinks of Smith in comparison to the rest of the top four players in this year’s class until the pick is in, but don’t be surprised if Smith hears his name called by OKC next Thursday.