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Jabari Smith Gives 2022 NBA Draft Another Potential Star

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterNovember 25, 2021

Auburn forward Jabari Smith (10) drives around South Florida forward Sam Hines Jr. (20) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

NBA scouts initially viewed Duke's Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren as the true prizes of the 2022 NBA draft. They're now on the verge of adding Auburn's Jabari Smith to the headliner card.

The early tape includes some staggering highlights for an 18-year-old who's roughly six months younger than Banchero and a year younger than Holmgren.

"I knew he was good, but not this good," has been a common sentiment echoed by scouts.

They hadn't seen much of Smith since the 2019 U16 Americas Championship, when he was 6'9", 190 pounds. Now 6'10", 220 pounds with even more of a jumbo-wing skill set, his evolution and modernized offensive package have scouts wondering how high they should move him up the board.

       

Unique Initiator Potential

Smith's possessions that have generated the most stunned reactions have come in transition. He seemingly can't wait to grab a defensive board and showcase his handle and scoring ability in the open floor. Assuming his 13.3 rebounds per 40 minutes aren't fluky, he should continue to have grab-and-go opportunities to initiate the offense before defenses can set.

At his size, he demonstrates uncommon fluidity navigating through traffic and gathering into a finish on the move.

Not many bigs shoot off the dribble in general, but it's even more unusual to see one pull up in transition. He has already hit two of them with obvious confidence that makes you think it's a skill he's worked on and earned a green light to attempt.

Self-Creation, Shot-making

Shooting has always been a key selling point for Smith, who shot 7-of-19 from three for USA in 2019 and over 38 percent during each of his final two seasons at Sandy Creek. His NBA offensive archetype could mirror Jaren Jackson Jr.'s. The shooting looks real based on his 7-of-15 start from deep and 7.7 attempts per 40 minutes. 

But it's the shot-making versatility that separates him even further from other bigs. We've already seen threes off the dribble, pick-and-pops and contested catch-and-shoots. Another level of upside kicks in if he continues to build on the flashes of self-creation into dribble jumpers.   

Without hesitating after the catch, Smith took two dribbles forward, one crossover backward and rose up for a fallaway 18-footer. Aside from the fact that he hit the shot, it was the decisiveness and sharp execution of self-creation that stood out most.

While he has proved he can initiate offense in the open floor, step-backs like these suggest he offers go-to option scoring potential in the half court. He should have plenty of opportunities this season to continue showing off and experimenting with self-creation around the perimeter, particularly since 245-pound Kessler Walker will be occupying the paint all season for Auburn's offense.

As much as he likes his jumper, he's also shown he can put the ball down and attack in straight lines. Again, the zero-hesitation pops on his moves, as he unleashes a quick first step and coordination finishing off one foot.

Smith's skill set from the 4 should interest projected lottery teams who can use a frontcourt upgrade, such as the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves.

       

Defensive Timing

Though Smith doesn't have the longest wingspan (reportedly in the 6'11" to 7'0" range) or the quickest feet, his timing has translated to defensive playmaking.

Seven steals indicate fast, active hands and anticipation for his man's dribbles. As a shot-blocker, he's shown off his timing by swatting a step-back three-pointer and a fastbreak attempt at the rim while backpedaling. He only has four fouls in 78 minutes.

He may possess enough defensive feel to maximize the effectiveness of his physical tools. Scouts will be eyeing his lateral mobility guarding wings and 4s. Looking competent sliding his feet in space could help eliminate any perceived risk in drafting Smith top two or three.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

      

Areas to Improve 

He can become too ambitious trying to pull off an NBA move, resulting in low-percentage shots. He's rushed some jumpers and forced tough fallaways. He has missed nine of his first 15 two-point attempts, which may create some concern when evaluating a big if he continues to rely on tough looks and struggles to earn easy baskets.

And while his handle looks good in the open floor, it's not as tight when pressured. He's lost the ball a few times trying to make a move in one-on-one situations.

Defensively, he's looked vulnerable on certain possessions attempting to contain quicker ball-handlers. His shot-blocking numbers have never been overwhelming, and coaches are most likely to picture him at the 4 next to a true rim protector. Working on his footwork to match up with forwards figures to be a priority over the next few seasons.

        

Matchups to Watch

After Smith's and Auburn's first test against Connecticut on Wednesday, there are key scouting opportunities coming up during conference play, when the freshman matches up with LSU's Darius Days and Efton Reid, Florida's Colin Castleton and Anthony Duruji, Alabama's guard-heavy rotation, Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe, Keion Brooks and Daimion Collins, and more ranked opponents in Tennessee and Arkansas.

Smith won't match Banchero's production at Duke or come close to putting up the passing or shot-blocking numbers of Holmgren. But he has an edge on both as a shooter, and given his age and body, consistent sequences of initiating offense, half-court creation and defensive playmaking could cause scouts to see equal upside and an enticing trajectory worth betting on.

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