Jabari Smith: Worthy of the First Overall Pick?
For this deep dive lottery prospect piece, Nathan and Alex teamed up to take a look at Jabari Smith's strengths and weaknesses, as well as what his role projects to be in the NBA.
There are few scouts and analysts who don’t believe Jabari Smith has earned the buzz to potentially be drafted first overall to the Orlando Magic.
Does everyone agree he’s the top prospect on a big board and would take him there unanimously? No. But to say he’s not AT LEAST in the conversation would certainly raise an eyebrow or two.
We at No Ceilings feel strongly that the 2022 NBA Draft has plenty of talented contributors waiting to be taken and meshed with the existing players on rosters around the league. I, for one, can speak for Alex and me that we’ve both been impressed by the ascension of Smith throughout the course of the scouting cycle.
The majority of betting outlets are pegging Smith to be off the board to the Magic, but even if he’s graded out as the best player available, what does his role look like in the league? How can he bring value to an Orlando squad that is in desperate need of scoring and defensive versatility?
That’s why we’re taking the time to do the “deep dive” on Smith this time around, so enjoy the conversation we had back and forth about what makes him such a unique prospect to evaluate.
Nathan: Alex, I know you’re likely high on Jabari Smith, as is pretty much everyone else in the draft space. He was one of the players we all looked at preseason and labeled a “dark horse” to potentially be selected first overall out of the 2022 class. I, for one, acknowledged the interesting blend of size, length, and face-up scoring. However, I underestimated how LETHAL of a shooter he proved to be at Auburn. Where were you at on Smith before the year started, and what are some of the things that have really stood out to you about his game after diving back into the tape?
Alex: Yeah, coming into the season, I thought Jabari Smith was clearly the best prospect in the SEC and was a Top 5 guy. That seemed to be true almost immediately as he got off to a hot start at Auburn. His ability at 6’10” to get into his 1-2 dribble pull-up is one of the best skills from a prospect in this class. It seems like he can get it off and knock it down, no matter who is defending him.
What surprised me the most about him was his defense, though. Jabari Smith can really move his feet on the perimeter and stick with defenders, which should translate nicely in the NBA when hedging/blitzing PNRs or switching altogether. Where are you at with his defense?
Nathan: The way he moves his feet in space is what stood out to me the most regarding his defense, so we’re in agreement there. While he’s not incredibly quick, and I’m sure there will be moments quicker, more skilled guards will be able to get their shot off against him in the NBA, he isn’t the type of player you can hunt down and expect to have your way. His anticipation of what opposing offensive players are going to do and his timing and execution will help keep him on the floor in high-leverage playoff situations. That’s what teams are looking to build towards at the end of the day.
Ideally a 4 man in the league, Smith can guard wings and forwards, close out, and recover to an extent. And his rim deterrence is important to hit on as well. Not a traditional shot-blocker to qualify him with the term rim protector, Smith still cuts guys off from the basket, challenges well, and makes ball handlers think twice about driving towards the basket when he has an opportunity to help and rotate. He fits perfectly alongside a more physical big man, which is a massive advantage for the team drafting him as the size and skill that can be on the floor at the same time helps cover the holes left by teammates on the perimeter who might not be the best point-of-attack defenders, yet need to be out there for offensive advantages.
That being said, I would imagine the team who drafts him would be interested in trying him out as a center, depending on the matchup/lineup construction. Do you see a feasible future for him in those spots, especially given how well he can space the floor for everyone around him?
Alex: That’s an interesting question. I think I’d be a little hesitant in having Jabari Smith be my center for long periods of time in a game. You mentioned his rim deterrence, which is a great point, but the strength and vertical pop at the rim to be a primary rim protector is lacking with Smith right now. Having said that, if an opponent does try to go small against the team that drafts Smith, then countering by sliding him down to the 5 is intriguing, given the versatility and shooting, so I see the vision.
It would certainly open up the floor on offense, which gets me to my next question: how concerned are we with the lack of efficient scoring inside the arc? While there were some flashes of nice driving ability (primarily at the end of that UConn game in Atlantis), it was few and far between. Overall he shot just 43.5% on 2pt FGAs, which is extremely low, especially for a player his size. Is that the biggest red flag for you with Jabari Smith? Or do you see it as more of a spacing issue with Auburn that didn’t allow him to fully showcase his ability?
Nathan: So the percentages inside the arc, and that outlook on his transition to the pros overall, is obviously one of the most interesting dynamics regarding Smith being selected first overall. Rarely would you think an NBA team would be comfortable with a 6’10” forward who only rated out in the 48th percentile at finishing around the basket in the halfcourt. However, there’s some context that does need to be added here.
As you mentioned, there was little spacing for him to have better driving lanes to get to the rim, with Walker Kessler almost always manning the dunker spot or trying to call for a post-up which led to some high-low action between him and Smith. There’s also the fact that Smith isn’t a comfortable ball-handler which is, to me, his biggest red flag which I’m sure we’ll get more into in a second. But coming back to how that affects his 2P game, if he’s not comfortable taking someone off the bounce for more than two dribbles to get all the way to the rim, his shot diet is therefore going to be more perimeter-based which, by the numbers, was just the case.
In the halfcourt, Smith attempted 71 shots around the basket yet took 241 jump shots. If Smith wasn’t the shooter he is, I’d be far more concerned with that split because usually, pull-up jumpers or spot-up looks aren’t what a shot diet should look like EXCLUSIVELY...but Smith isn’t your average shooting prospect. He shot 40.2% on all jumpers in the HC. Smith can shoot over not just one, or two, but THREE defenders at once! It didn’t matter the angle, the spot on the floor, even when he faded out of the post. No matter how difficult the shot looked, Smith could put that ball in the basket.
So while as you mentioned, there are film clips out there where he showed he can hit on nice layups off drives, that wasn’t his game. And I’m not sold that it NEEDS to be his game. Do I think that split should be a tad closer? Absolutely. But I think once you put his numbers inside the arc into context, I’m much less concerned and honestly more intrigued. Do you feel the same way?
Alex: Those are all great points, and I agree with pretty much everything you mentioned. Playing alongside Walker Kessler on offense definitely impacted the spacing and didn’t help Smith’s attempts at driving the lane. However, this might be something he’ll run into in the NBA if he’s playing alongside a pure 5 who isn’t a stretch big.
I am with you on the handle. It currently is an issue for him when trying to get downhill. The one-two dribble pull-up over multiple defenders, as you mention, is an incredible skill to have as a go-to, but I’d really like to see him become a 3-level scorer if I’m taking him #1. Can Smith get there? Of course, the kid was 18 years old the whole season; I’m sure he’ll get better. The fact is that Jabari Smith has a really high floor, given his outlier shooting ability, but the real questions come when trying to project his full potential.
Can he get to that #1 scoring option role on a legit title-contending team, in your opinion? If so, what are the avenues to get there? And if not, does that matter, even if you’re taking him #1 in the draft?
Nathan: I don’t think he’ll ever be a first option on a really good or contending team in the NBA. That doesn’t mean, however, that I wouldn’t say anyone who took him first overall was wrong. To that point, I have Chet Holmgren at the top of my board and would gladly take him that high, yet I don’t project for him to have that level of an offensive ceiling either.
What Smith does provide, though, is shooting from virtually anywhere on the floor and more scoring upside should he continue to improve his dribbling, which could absolutely still happen. He’s incredibly young, as you pointed out, and is further along than I ever anticipated him being at this point in his career offensively. But who he is right now? What NBA team WOULDN’T want him in the locker room and on the court?
The “3-and-D” archetype is one every single franchise values highly, even more so in today’s NBA. The reason being the size and skill at every position is at a point beyond where it was even three to four years ago. Smith’s ability to shoot over the top of, no matter who is guarding him, while holding his own on the defensive side of the ball for the reasons we outlined is more than enough reason to draft him at the top. He’s that good at what we know he can do.
In your opinion, what are some things you can see him making reasonable improvements on to better justify drafting him that high? If all he turns out to be is a bigger version or in the realm of a Klay Thompson (shout out Stephen Gillespie for that comparison), I think if I’m the Orlando Magic, that’s a player I would still love to have. Even so, one thing that maybe you can touch on besides the ball handling is the passing ability out of double teams or when he does have some touches in the post. Maybe not from a live dribble perspective, but keeping the ball moving is something I want to see more from him. Coming off movement, being shot ready, but also recognizing when it’s best to NOT shoot and get the ball to where it needs to go will help him fit into virtually every offense in the league.
Alex: Yeah, I’m with you in not projecting him to be a top option on a contender, but it might not matter. Look, I have all four guys in the same tier at the top (Paolo, Chet, Jabari, Ivey). Out of that group, I think only Paolo and Ivey might have a real shot at being that #1 option, but I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them with the top pick.
The Klay comparison is interesting, and Smith would need to truly lock into that off-ball movement aspect of the game to get there. It will be an area that I focus on for him and see how he’s utilized. Does the team drafting him fully try to develop the on-ball game, or do they plug him into an off-ball role and build around that. It’ll be an interesting development story for Smith, but at the VERY LEAST, you’re getting a big shooter who’s comfortable making jumpers from anywhere, against any defense.
You mentioned the passing, which is another area that Smith will need to improve on. As you stated, I don’t think he needs to be a live dribble magician; but becoming more of a ball-mover will do wonders for his game.
Is there anything significant about Jabari Smith’s game that you think we haven’t covered yet? Do you think the Magic is the best fit for him at the top of this draft? Or would OKC or Houston be a better fit strictly for his development?
Nathan: I don’t think there are any significant holes we have missed with Smith in covering him. His game isn’t incredibly complex, but I don’t think it has to be in order to justify taking him at the top or lumping him in with the guys you listed and more.
The Orlando Magic would benefit from any of the forwards available to them in Smith, Chet Holmgren, or Paolo Banchero. Orlando needs guys who can put the ball in the bucket at a high rate, and even though it’s not the sexiest sometimes to put so much emphasis on a spot-up shooter, few guys in the league have done what Smith did at the college level before he even set foot on an NBA floor. How many shooters have we evaluated with the same promise at his size and age? I truly can’t think of any off the top of my head.
In talking about team fit, though, this comes back to the last question I wanted to ask you, AKA the reason why you and I decided to team up on a piece regarding Smith.
You and I both acknowledge that Banchero has an easier path to envision in terms of him becoming a team’s top option on offense. He can dribble and pass far better than Smith, even if the shooting leans in Jabari’s favor. But as an overall scorer, Banchero creates so many advantages once he gets downhill because of how he can power through opponents, counter, change directions, and also score over the top of the defense. You’re firmly in the Paolo camp as far as who you would take. First, I think more so than asking a question, it would be valuable for the audience (Magic personnel included) if you took the time to juxtapose both prospects on that end of the floor. Because I would actually agree with you, the Banchero fit for the Magic honestly seems like a better pairing to me, even if Smith’s “floor” is better to have in a league craving spacing with as much size as possible.
Alex: Yes, I am in the Paolo Banchero over Jabari Smith camp at #1, especially for the Magic. To me, their biggest need is for that true #1 scoring option. I actually really like some of their guards, but I don’t know if I trust any to truly be that guy. Cole Anthony made great strides last season, and Jalen Suggs still has potential on that end, but I don’t see a work where either is efficient enough to do it on a good team.
For all the reasons you mentioned above, is why I’m so high on Paolo Banchero. He has similar size to Jabari Smith but is flat out just a better overall scorer and facilitator. The latter being probably the most underrated aspect of Paolo’s offensive package. Help defenders always have to be aware when Paolo has the ball because of his playmaking and scoring combination. He draws so much attention from defenses because of his ability to beat defenders and make great reads as defenses shit coverages. That’s the biggest offensive differential between him and Jabari Smith. As you mentioned, Smith’s game isn’t as complex. Sure, it’s incredibly difficult to guard Jabari Smith given his size and shooting ability, but right now, it’s really only one-dimensional (him shooting) and at two levels (3pt and mid-range). While Smith clearly has Paolo in the shooting category, I also think Paolo is a better shooter than the numbers showed at Duke. His issue seemed to be more confidence taking them rather than anything fundamentally wrong with his touch or mechanics. To me, Paolo just has a clearer path to being that real difference-making scoring anchor at all three levels vs. Jabari Smith and is the reason I’d ultimately prefer Paolo at #1. But I repeat, these guys are both in that top tier for me and are tremendous prospects, so we’re really just splitting hairs at this point.
Nathan: I would agree; I think any of the options between Holmgren, Banchero, or Smith would be excellent fits with what the Magic are currently building, and landing near the top of the lottery to get one of those three guys is a major plus for Orlando as well as Oklahoma City and Houston.
For Smith, he’s going to provide shooting and defensive versatility for years to come in the league. Players at his size that are as efficient as him shooting from deep rarely ever come around, so from that point alone, I don’t blame the Magic one bit for taking him should they settle on him.
Smith is an incredible talent who has a real chance to become a star in the league. But even if he doesn’t, Alex and I are in full agreement he’s going to have a home as a two-way threat for a long time in the NBA.