Before this season began, nobody was really tracking Zhaire Smith on their radars as a possible one-and-done prospect. However, that all changed once the bouncy wing stepped foot on the basketball court.
Not only does Smith possess insane athletic ability, but his advanced metrics from this past season put him in rather elite company.
For players who accumulated offensive and defensive box plus minuses above five (5 OBPM + 6 DBPM), only seven including Smith have pulled that off since 2010. Those names alongside Smith are Anthony Davis, Marcus Smart, Karl-Anthony Towns, Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter Jr., and Jaren Jackson Jr.
As you can tell, Smith had a similar defensive profile to Smart but he also relates in terms of being ultra-versatile on the perimeter. Even though his measurements were disappointing at the combine — 6’4” with a 6’9.75” wingspan — it helps paint more clearly where Smith profiles. With Smart-like measurements, his future may be trying to shut down 1s and 2s compared to more bulkier wings.
This past season at Texas Tech, Smith averaged 14.3 points, 6.3 rebounds (2.9 ORB), 2.3 assists (1.64 AST/TO), 1.4 steals, and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes on 55.6/45.0/71.7 shooting splits.
As I’ll dive into with Smith’s unique blend of strengths, you are buying in on his offensive upside creeping up into the same stratosphere as his defense eventually. Being one of the younger prospects in this class, Smith is following an eerily similar trajectory to how Bridges began at Villanova. Smith still has plenty of distance to cover, but I wouldn’t bet against him being a better version of Bridges when he reaches age 21 or 22.
Smith doesn’t have many tools that are fully refined yet, but the palate he has to offer is tantalizing enough to me where he’s graded as a top 10 prospect. Landing in win-now situations could lead towards mini Donovan Mitchell-like outbursts from Smith. He’s going to look way better around NBA talent, especially when he’s able to utilize his gifts on the regular.
The draft not only is about college production, but also weighing the possibilities of said player down the line. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some teams felt similarly with Smith, but his stock after the NBA Draft Combine has cooled off.
When diving into more film recently on Smith, I had forgotten just how entertaining of a prospect he actually is to watch. Pulling off alley-oops like this isn’t a normal occurrence.
Smith can jump out of the gym, but where his quick-twitch athleticism pays off is in rebounding opportunities. He attacks the glass ferociously and ends up jamming a putback down usually once or twice each game. The former Texas Tech Red Raider provided plenty of wow moments, and his knack for snatching back boards at big-like rates was an immediate indicator to me of how he could translate well into the NBA.
If he’s not in the vicinity, Smith still sprints full speed towards the rim and tries to push the pace if it lands next to him. His instincts aren’t as high right now on offense but he showed plenty against Florida in the Sweet 16 where he was able to read off defenders to allow cutters easy finishes when playmaking.
Speaking further on Smith’s raw abilities right now, Texas Tech barely utilized him in spot-up chances but that’s an area where that will grow tenfold on the next level. According to Synergy, less than 20% of Smith’s offense was generated off spot-ups but he made up for being effective off cuts from the baseline or corners.
All throughout high school, Smith was actually used at center due to his freakish bounce. His ability to read lanes as a PnR diver was super impressive to me. His touch around the rim usually resulted in contact or a posterization off thunderous dunks. That could actually be an interesting role to see Zhaire at from time to time, because he could absolutely terrifying in transition in front of slower-footed defenders.
Now, lets dive into where Smith really separates himself on the defensive end. In my opinion, Smith’s bread and butter will be made off defending primary initiators early and often. His length and ability to no-step vert into contests will be valuable when contending drive attempts.
Case in point here against Trae Young where he was able to stick with him and force this bad shot by him up against the rim.
Versatility will play a big role in Smith’s defensive profile wherever he lands, but as he adds more muscle mass I expect him to be able to comfortably guard primary ball handlers while also switching in a pinch onto bigger 3s and 4s.
We have seen it plenty of times in the playoffs, but Smart has shown the value of instinctual defenders who can be ultra switchy. The same case can be made for Smith once we are able to see him in those situations eventually.
Against PnR handlers, Smith showed his worth on plenty of occasions by simply overwhelming them with his hand speed and length. Per Synergy, Smith only allowed 0.66 points per possession, which graded him up into the 72nd percentile of draft eligible prospects.
Smith has the plus rebounding, passing, defense and athleticism that many teams value today. If the shot is able to develop at similar rates while filling up holes, he has all the makings of someone who goes even higher in future re-drafts.
The bounce Smith has in his arsenal is something that not only pays off him for time after time, but his elite trait will pop on film for scouts often.
As I have mentioned before, Smith will need to really pack on the pounds immediately to handle his expected defensive rigor. At the moment, Smith only profiles as a two-position defender but that will grow once he’s able to add 20 or so pounds onto his light frame of 199.
Being undersized on the wing could present problems for Smith, so, as mentioned, it’s likely best for him to focus on defending point guards the first year or two of his career. Smith’s athletic abilities graced him with the foot speed to keep up with them.
Outside of his physical profile that hampered him in front of executives in Chicago slightly, refinement on plenty of offensive skillsets will be needed once he arrives into his new home. Not only does the shot need some development on its form but also re-working some of his handle, which on occasion went sloppy.
Since his college career ended, Smith seems to have taken strides in the shot department but he still needs to tweak a few of his motions. For instance, Smith will need to speed up his release in spot-up chances by not bringing the ball down to his knees. The shot is a little wonky right now, but it still went in at an above-average clip on 40 attempts.
One of the draft's most explosive athletes, Zhaire Smith, showing off his shooting touch here in Chicago. The 18-year-old shot 45% from 3 as a freshman but on only 40 attempts in 37 games. Shot the ball really well today. pic.twitter.com/CBL5T29DI8— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 17, 2018
You won’t find many others who are higher on Smith around the draft community, so his negatives are not really a heavy concern of mine as they all relate to how his new coaching staff handles his development.
Wherever Smith lands on draft night, he will need to develop on similar curves to other successful late lottery selections in year’s past. If he hits, it’s going to a huge boon for whoever has him.
Fit in Phoenix
Whether they go Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic at No. 1, Smith fits in seamlessly in whatever direction they end up going. In both scenarios, Smith will jump into the role of point guard disruptor alongside Shaquille Harrison. Also, the versatility he has allows him to play 1-4, depending on how small head coach Igor Kokoskov wants to go.
When watching the tape, Smith’s two-way upside is hard to ignore and Kokoskov’s player development acumen could allow him to bloom beautifully.
Imagining Smith and Josh Jackson as the defenders out on the perimeter, especially when they reach their career peaks, could cause immense havoc for opposing teams to score on. Alongside Jackson, I imagine they would grow Smith into that similar role creating ideal situations to avoid mismatches.
Smith grades ahead of other talented wing prospects like Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox because his array of tools at his age shows plenty of promising possibilities in the near future.
If the Suns were to draft Smith at No. 16, he continues to help fulfill the optimum versatility vision general manager Ryan McDonough wants to reach in Phoenix.
Whether Smith is on the board remains to be seen, but, if he is, the Suns better run that card up to the podium with the great value they would receive.
Big Board: No. 8; No. 2 wing
Comparison: Ceiling - Poor man’s Victor Oladipo / Floor - Andre Roberson with less versatility