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The Friday Screener: Jabari Smith's Defensive Footwork
Jabari Smith had one of the most exciting debuts this season, and his defense was a significant reason why. The base of everything Smith does defensively is his footwork.
Welcome to The Friday Screener, where we’ll be diving into a specific prospect’s film. When it comes to numbers, there can be excellent indicators of how a prospect might develop, and I am in complete favor of using them. However, they don’t tell the whole story, and I always lean more towards what the film shows. Focusing on the process over results, especially with young prospects, is a terrific way to formulate opinions and predictions on a prospect’s development, and it is a strategy that has helped me this far. Unlike most film breakdowns, though, we’ll be focusing on a prospect’s specific skill instead of their entire repertoire. By doing this, we’ll be able to dissect these brilliant prospects on a granular level and use these building blocks to form a fuller picture of who they are as a player. We’ll cover the good, the bad, and the in-between. This week, we’re focusing on Auburn’s top prospect, Jabari Smith’s defensive footwork.
Few, if any, prospects have had a more celebrated debut than Auburn freshman Jabari Smith. Smith entered the season as a likely one-and-done and nearly consensus lottery pick, but after his hot start, Smith is rocketing up draft boards and even topping some. Smith has been a two-way weapon who is knocking down shots, making smart passes, and playing incredible defense.
Those of you who have read me before know my appreciation of elite defensive footwork. It is a necessity to be a great defender. Without out it, players have no balance, can’t keep up, and can’t recover. Thankfully for Jabari Smith, his defensive footwork has been incredibly impressive.
At 6’10 220 pounds, Smith will likely play most of his NBA career as a power forward. However, with the ever-expanding range of NBA offenses, he will be dragged to the perimeter consistently. Teams will initially view this as a mismatch, but they’ll quickly realize how wrong they were.
What immediately stands out with Smith’s defense is his stance. We frequently see guards who are defensive savants get low in their stance on the perimeter, but it is much rarer for forwards. Most forwards tend to bend at the waist in an attempt to simulate a proper defensive stance when, in reality, they are putting themselves in a worse position. Smith, however, has a wide, stable stance and bends his knees so much and so frequently that you’d think he just does wall sits all day.
When forwards venture out to the logo to defend, it typically ends poorly for them. Here, Smith is defending a smaller opponent who theoretically should be able to blow past Smith. Being the defensive savant that he is, though, Smith gets low in his stance and prepares to stalk his prey. As the ball-handler makes his move, Smith stays with him step for step, never crosses his feet, and stays in that low stance to keep his balance.
As the point guard circles to the top of the arc, Smith utilizes the same pristine footwork we saw above. Again, Smith gladly switches on the smaller guard without hesitation or an ounce of worry. This ball-handler is slightly quicker, though, so to compensate, Smith makes a quarter-turn of his hips to ensure he will stay with the ball-handler. This subtle move allows Smith to not cross his feet (jeopardize his balance) or entirely flip his hips and chase (making him susceptible to a step back). Smith continues to slide his feet and use his strength to utterly discourage the ball-handler from even thinking about getting to the rim.
Smith’s stellar footwork also makes him a highly effective off-ball defender. The focus almost always resides on weak side rim protection and off-ball rotations when it comes to off-ball defense. Those aspects are obviously important, but a defender’s ability to close out is often slept on despite being a crucial skill.
Smith’s excellent footwork allows him to thrive as an off-ball defender because he can use his size to tag rollers and cutters in the lane and then recover to the perimeter without surrendering an open shot, as we can see below. As Smith closes out, he has both hands high, chops his feet, and sinks low in his stance. Smith is under control, rattles his opponent, and pokes the ball loose to force the turnover.
Unfortunately, Smith’s perimeter footwork isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There aren’t glaring issues that will render him obsolete, but there is a significant area that he needs to improve going forward. Thankfully, it is an improvable skill, which is his foot speed.
I cannot emphasize enough that I’m well aware I am nitpicking. However, to truly build the complete picture of these prospects and dive as deep as possible into their skillsets, it is a necessary evil.
Despite having nearly flawless fundamentals with his stance and footwork, Smith can be slow to react to an initial move and is susceptible to getting beat initially. This isn’t an insurmountable flaw, but it will limit Smith’s defensive versatility in the NBA if not improved.
Here, we see Smith get blown past by someone we saw him previously stifle because his slow foot speed cannot compensate for his momentary lapse in his typical idyllic commitment to fundamentals. Instead of the controlled, disruptive close-out we previously saw, Smith closes out with a two-footed hop and lands in a square stance. This gives the ball-handler an easy opening to attack, leaving Smith in a disadvantageous position. Smith is bailed out by his elite rim protector teammate Walker Kessler, which deters the ball-handler from getting an easy layup. Since Smith treats his opponents as prey in the jungle, he continues his pursuit, reimplements his brilliant footwork, and forces the pass out of the lane.
This time, Smith is closer to his man on the close-out, which allows him to use his strength to disrupt his man and not fall victim to the hop close-out. As Smith closes out, he quickly reacts to the potential drive and keeps his balance because of his strong base. Unfortunately, Smith bites enough on the cross-over by taking the extra step with his right foot, which opens a lane for the ball-handler. Smith is now out of position and doesn’t have the foot speed to recover and cut off the drive. However, Smith continues his impressive defensive work rate to recover and disrupt the shot while also getting at-rim help from Kessler.
When I first saw the below possession, my jaw dropped at Smith’s defensive absurdity. He was brilliant for 90 percent of the play. Initially, Smith artfully dodges the screen in the dribble-handoff, slides his fee, and cuts off the ball-handler’s drive at the elbow. Smith continues the intense pressure and even pokes the ball loose. This is where things take a turn, though. Overhyped on his defensive oppression, Smith continues to press the ball-handler despite being at the logo with five seconds left on the shot clock. I love the intensity and desire to completely neuter his opponents, but Smith has to be more aware. Instead of forcing a 30-foot heave, Smith’s pressing exposes his slower footspeed and allows his man to turn the corner. Luckily for Smith, he is backed by a premier rim protector, or else an inspiring individual effort would have become a youthful blunder.
Even though Smith is occasionally slow to react on a first move, he rarely surrenders a play. His tenacious motor and commitment to fundamentals, combined with his superior physical gifts, allow him to recover on nearly every play.
Here, Smith is in a perfect defensive stance with a high hand, wide stance, and bent knees. Switched on to the opposing point guard, though, isn’t ideal for most power forwards. The ball-handler utilizes a quick rip through and attacks Smith’s high foot. Smith is slow to flip his hips and should, in essence, be beaten. However, once Smith flips his hips, he tracks the ball-handler and gets a strong contest on the mid-range pull-up.
The defensive footwork concerns with Smith aren’t overwhelming by any means. They arise from diving into the minutia and figuring out where he can improve to reach the absolute apex of his abilities. Most power forwards can’t hold a candle to Smith’s defensive footwork and his perimeter defensive upside. They are either too small to deter drives and hold their own in the paint or too slow to switch everything.
Jabari Smith has the potential to be one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA. His commitment and execution of fundamentals puts him in rarified air for prospects his age and build. If Smith continues to improve his foot speed and hip mobility to combine with his near-perfect footwork and defensive stance, he could turn into one of the best defenders in the league.