If there was one unexpected arrival into the top 20 of the 2018 NBA Draft class, it certainly was Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith. After showing supreme athleticism alongside budding two-way skills, Smith became the first ever one-and-done prospect for head coach Chris Beard’s program in Lubbock. All of the sudden, Smith went from unknown to likely lottery selection in 12 months time.
The only first round prospects to come close to Smith’s eye-popping defensive advanced stats via above-average steal (2.3%) and block percentages (4.8%) are Maurice Harkless and Derrick White. Smith’s archetype is rare, and it’s helped by his insane athleticism.
During Phoenix’s final pre-draft workout, Smith was joined by the following: Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech), Bonzie Colson Jr. (Notre Dame), Bryant Crawford (Wake Forest), Drew Eubanks (Oregon State), and Markus Loncar (Bosnia). Outside of Smith and possibly Okogie, no others are projected to go in the first round, but likely heading toward testing the Summer League waters even further as an undrafted free agent.
At first glance, Assistant General Manager Pat Connelly echoed a similar sentiment. Also, he noted Smith played a massive role in helping flip the culture for Beard’s Red Raider squad this season.
“Very, very athletic. Athletic. Good defender. Has a good feel for the game. Has a tendency to be in the right place at the right time,” Connelly said. “So, he’s kind of a guy that came on the scene last year. He didn’t play for USA or did things before, but had a heckuva year with Texas Tech, who had a great season overall. He was a big part of that culture: defending, playing hard, making shots, making plays around the rim. Super athlete.”
Even Smith couldn’t even think of anyone who comes close to his ability of bouncing off the floor like his legs are pogo sticks.
“Athlete that’s better than me? I wouldn’t say nobody better than me but I played against some great athletes,” Smith said.
Outside of his pure physical gifts, Smith profiles immediately as someone who can be a multi-positional defender on the next level. In today’s league, placing players in the 1-5 lineup bracket is going extinct. It’s about who you can defend, and if you are bigger or smaller than usual it doesn’t matter if you are fully capable of performing the tasks required.
Taking a glance over at Boston’s roster, which is filled to the brim with wings who can play 3-4 positions at once, Smith fits in that roster construction direction. And those teams alongside Boston in the Conference Finals, mainly Golden State and Houston, are the trailblazers of going full throttle on the NBA’s current pace-and-space trend.
Smith checks the boxes on defense and overall versatility on both ends, but his shooting is the major question in his development. Even though he converted 45% of his 3s, Smith only attempted 40 total in 37 games. On top of that, less than 15% of Smith’s total shots were from beyond the arc which is kind of alarming from that viewpoint.
Connelly let the media know that Smith mentioned to him about working on his shot by honing in on the release and follow through itself. We were able to watch some shooting of Smith and his form is unconventional. On catch-and-shoot opportunities, Smith brings the ball down to his knees with shot delivery that borders on being too slow to get off against most capable NBA defenders.
Smith has said before he didn’t shoot much from the perimeter at all during his basketball career due to his athletic advantage on literally every matchup, but to survive on the next level it’s critical for him to survive long term. The 6’4”, 199 pound wing hailing from Garland, Texas believes his shot is coming along fine from the outside with a few mechanical tweaks still being hammered out.
Zhaire Smith going through shooting drills. It still takes awhile for him to get it off, which needs to be corrected in his development. pic.twitter.com/nvczOv5M7n— Evan Sidery (@esidery) June 16, 2018
Early on, though, Smith won’t be asked to shoot much from the outside — maybe just on spot-up chances from the corners where Smith shot 8/10 in one portion I tracked — but more so focus on what will bring him immediate minutes and that’s being a pest on the perimeter defensively.
Smith profiles as someone who can guard three positions but also play those roles on offense, too. The jack of all trades moniker may not be just for Josh Jackson, if Smith is on the board for Phoenix at No. 16.
“Yeah, I think he can defend multiple positions. As they always say, your position is who you can defend, so it’s a little bit different,” Connelly said of Smith’s defensive versatility. “It used to be 1-5 was kind of hard, 1 was this guy, 3 was this guy. He’s interchangeable, so I think he can guard 1s. He’s long enough, strong enough and athletic enough to guard bigger 3s. He can guard up in size and guard down in size. So, I think it’s probably an appropriate take you could see him being a jack of all trades defensively, especially obviously in those backcourt and wing positions.”
From the Suns’ point of view, how would Smith slide into their current roster makeup? Well, the No. 8 prospect on my big board, highest ranked one to visit Phoenix in front of USC’s De’Anthony Melton, actually would fit well into the modern direction the Suns seem to be heading down.
While at Texas Tech, Smith was placed into a role where he was making quick reads from within the arc but also had moments bringing the ball up the court and finishing through contact. Compared to all other prospects in my first round, Smith is by far the most unique to scout.
Pair Smith’s jump out of the gym ability within his constant motion role for Beard’s offensive attack, his offensive profile turned out to be one where he was relied upon to a major degree.
Even though it wasn’t often, Smith’s playmaking ability has foundational value on it. For example, the near triple-double Smith pulled off in the Sweet 16 against Florida was a showcase to all NBA scouts how he would transition into more wide-open systems in the pros.
“Yeah, put him in a position where he’s working off another guy, a creator at least initially,” Connelly said of Smith’s offensive role. “I think he has a lot more off the dribble developing. Just kind of being the guy that’s moving — cutting, having people find him, spotting-up off guys that can create — but I think he has a really good sense of knowing when to move. With his athleticism has an ability to finish at, usually above, the rim.”
At the conclusion of seeing 59 prospects in-person, UCLA’s Aaron Holiday was the only one we know of to work out twice in Phoenix, how does the front office factor that final look in-person up against hours of tape? Well, Connelly had an interesting answer on that.
“Again, our scouting staff has been out seeing the guys a lot in-person, so it’s great,” Connelly said. “In film, you can sense the athleticism when a guy has a great dunk, or makes a great play, or has a great first step, but in-person when you can kind of really sense it and feel it and kind of see it. It resonates more with what you get in film. Everybody says why don’t you just do all of your scouting off film, because you kind of lose the nuance. Whether it’s the personal interaction or in terms of the explosiveness or how they get off the floor. It’s easier to gauge in-person than off film.”
With many mock drafts and various reports pointing towards prospects like Kevin Knox (Kentucky), Lonnie Walker IV (Miami) and Jerome Robinson (Boston College) have all been reportedly having strong workouts, which has helped vaulted them way higher in rankings within the last month. The same could be said for Holiday, which could have led Phoenix to inviting him back 10 days later to go one-on-one against Jalen Brunson.
Each year, it seems like pre-draft workouts and how prospects perform in them continues to be raised every year. However, just purely on film, executives are unable to see how someone interacts with others or even putting prospects in exact situations you want to test them on to see if they pass with flying colors.
After plenty of workouts and up-close encounters with prospects that pique the Suns’ interest, it’s finally time to sit back and find out what happens on June 21.
Interested in reading further on Smith? Check out Bright Side of the Sun’s draft profile on the über athletic wing from Texas Tech here.