The Morning Dunk: How High Can Jabari Smith Climb?
In a week filled with massive debuts of top NBA prospects, no one shined brighter than Auburn's Jabari Smith.
Good Monday morning fellow basketball junkies! What an opening week of college hoops it was.
For anyone who may have missed my coverage on opening night impressions including reactions to the Champions Classic, you can check out the Draft Deeper podcast feed here, along with the rest of our No Ceilings podcasts.
Feel free to catch up on any of that engaging content before diving into today’s column. Without further ado, let’s continue the conversation on big men with the prospect who has won over more supporters than anyone else in his debut week: Jabari Smith Jr.
How High Can Jabari Smith Jr. Climb?
Every year, there’s a prospect or two who breaks through the preseason barriers set by prognosticators and emerges as a legitimate candidate to be in the discussion for first overall pick.
Last year, the conversation wasn’t quite the same because that player turned out to be Jalen Green, who by many was considered the fourth best prospect before the 2021 draft cycle.
Ironically, the player who I’ve seen on most preseason big boards as fourth or fifth is now hearing the most buzz as a contender for the top pick in the draft.
If you’ve listened to insider podcasts like Chad Ford’s NBA Big Board, or have read columns by Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo for example, you’d know that Smith was gaining a tremendous amount of steam from those who had talked to coaches and sources close to the Auburn program.
And honestly, how could he not make quite the first impression. A 6’10” stretch forward who can handle the rock, shoot and possibly protect the rim? The last guy I evaluated who was close to those measurements and had a similar skill set was Jaren Jackson Jr., and while slightly taller, held the same potential as Smith.
It took JJJ some time to properly rocket up draft boards because he didn’t come out of the gates putting anyone on notice offensively. His defensive role for Michigan State stood out, as he did immediately show flashes of the versatile rim protector and switchable big he could end up being in the league.
Smith has already started to put the defensive end together except with more tantalizing results offensively.
Let’s start though with the defense. In just TWO GAMES, Smith already has three blocks and SEVEN steals. It’s not just his threat to vertically contest at the rim, he’s showcasing his playmaking ability on defense all over the floor.
Double teaming up top, guarding perimeter players on switches, and closing out to contest shots from the corner are all things he’s not only just done in two games, but excelled at. The thing that captivated me most about the 2021 draft class was the number of forwards who could theoretically guard 1-5 in the right NBA context. Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Usman Garuba all stood out for that reason, and it’s absurd to even name ONE player in a draft class who could have that bullet point on their resume.
Having that level of mental understanding, coordination and fluidity defensively is a rare collection of traits to say the least. Smith seems to be next in line, and when you couple that with what we’ve already seen on the other end of the floor, it’s easy to understand why he’s gaining steam fast after only two games of tape.
Forwards Smith’s size who can pop off screens, hit transition bombs and ferociously attack the rim used to have the “unicorn” title before Kristaps Porzingis came along, and then we reserved that for those with the size of traditional big men.
But Smith may have that moniker locked up for me because he seems to only be scratching the surface of what he’s capable of. He’s made 5-8 from three and 6-8 from the free throw line to start the year. He’s scored in isolation on the wing, shown the same elbow pull-up ability that’s made Banchero a hot commodity within his first week and has made correct reads off the bounce to keep the ball moving and create for his teammates.
Banchero’s power game along with his outside shooting ability and glimpses of rim protection have had scouts’ interest piqued since the preseason. Holmgren’s shot blocking prowess and guard-like mobility have also been famously talked about for years. However, very few saw Smith’s tantalizing potential and threw him in the same bucket as those two. Even Patrick Baldwin Jr. got more buzz along with Jaden Hardy as two guys who could possibly knock one or both of those big men out of the race for first overall.
Smith’s game will only continue to mature as the season goes on. It’s almost as if he’s a mix of Banchero, Holmgren and Baldwin in different ways.
Either way, the star power is oozing out of him and I can’t wait to monitor his growth moving forward. He’s absolutely crashed the party up top, and it looks as though he’s here to stay.
Just How Good is Bryce McGowens?
At first when I was going through games possible for me to scout in person this year, I wasn’t going to circle Nebraska as a team that I just had to see. Then I started reading up on Bryce McGowens, a 6’7” guard with length and shooting ability for days.
When you see him for the first time, he doesn’t immediately stand out physically other than his wingspan. He’s listed at 179 pounds and even that seems like a little bit of a stretch.
But don’t let his weight and build fool you. McGowens has a silky jumper off the bounce, and doesn’t look to force the shot either.
Matter of fact, he’s actually more comfortable than I’d expect slithering his way to the basket to drop in a crafty deuce. Whether a lot of his shot making inside the arc will initially translate in the league remains to be seen, but he’s not intimidated by any big men patrolling the paint. He can finish over or around defenders, and may end up being the most overlooked part of his game when evaluating how he fits on an NBA floor.
I know what everyone came here to hear my thoughts on though with McGowens: the shooting stroke.
First off, speaking of fearlessness, the kid has taken 21 free throws in TWO GAMES. That to me is the main reason why he’s averaging 27 PPG early on. If he can get to the line 8-10 times a game, the sky’s the limit for his scoring average.
The foul line is the first place to really understand how good of a natural shooter someone is though. What do the mechanics look like at the charity stripe? I’m here to report that they’re clean. No wasted motion, consistent follow through, good arc on the release.
And when he steps out to take a jumper off the bounce, his form above the waist is the same as far as his release point and follow through are concerned. Sets his feet shoulder width apart on the catch and jumps into his shot without kicking his legs out or shifting part of his body forward.
McGowens has clean form scoring the ball from all three levels. I haven’t heard a peep about him on social media from a draft perspective, but let me sound off loudly in this column that he’s without a doubt in my mind a first-round talent.
It wouldn’t shock me if McGowens thrusts himself into the lottery conversation after another week or two of performances similar to what he’s done to kick off his year for the Cornhuskers.
Caleb Houstan: NBA Draft Darling
And lo and behold, Houstan didn’t disappoint.
While the stat line of 11 points, six rebounds and two assists doesn’t scream “star wing”, the way he conducted himself on the film does.
Simply put, Houstan did everything you’d want a modern day wing to do on the floor. He hit open shots when called upon, competed inside, spaced the floor and hustled on defense. Houstan’s positional understanding of where to be at all times was what stood out to me the most. He’s always aware of what’s going on around him, and while he had a few rotational lapses on defense he generally followed those up with a positive result somewhere else to make up for it.
I loved seeing him run offense out of pick-and-roll, creating for others while also flashing some of his ability to get to his spots and hit looks off the bounce.
And when he has an inch of space from outside the arc, forget about it. His form is as pure as they come, and he’s not rattled by defenders eating into that space either on a closeout.
Houstan’s second game wasn’t as pristine, with zero assists to four turnovers, but he once again showed his scoring versatility and capability to defend multiple positions. Not to mention he had a blazing finish in transition and proved once again he’s one of the most up-and-down ready players to come into the NBA because of his timing on leak outs and understanding of when to fill the lane or sprint to the corner. He bends defenses on the run, and that part of his game shouldn’t be overlooked.
If he can figure out how to better get two feet in the paint and get to the free throw line, there’s no doubt in my mind his stock could soar even faster than what it is now. Already he looks every part of the smart shooting wing with size that teams nowadays highly covet.
But there’s more to his game to unlock, and I’m very curious to see if he can keep adding more layers even during his time at Michigan.
Hardy has control on a top-five draft selection at the moment, and Baldwin has impressed in his Milwaukee debut, but don’t be shocked if Houstan garners attention in a big way and supplants one of them in that range.
Stock Watch: The Moore’s Are Cooking, Plus Jaime Jaquez and Drew Timme
Corey Taluba isn’t the only one who will be doing stock watches this year for No Ceilings!
Wendell Moore and Justin Moore (no they aren’t related, although that would’ve been awesome) have both put up impressive stat lines through the first week of action. Wendell put up a triple-double against Army with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists with only one turnover committed in a Duke win. On the year so far, he has a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is incredibly efficient for a creative wing looking to carve out his own space in the first round of the 2022 draft. While he hasn’t gotten it going yet from deep, shooting 4-14 from three, he’s looked much more comfortable putting pressure on defenses and getting downhill to score at the rim or kick the ball out for an open look elsewhere. As long as he’s aggressive and doesn’t settle too often for jumpers outside the arc, he’ll continue to gain traction in draft circles and make a case during his junior season.
Justin on the other hand burst onto the scene opening night with 27 points and 7 assists against Mount St. Mary’s and followed that up with a 14 point performance against UCLA in a loss. Despite being in foul trouble through the first half, Moore made his presence felt in the second half offensively and looked every part of the tough-nosed defensive guard throughout.
If you study his game, he plays like a smaller Saddiq Bey. Reliable floor spacer, crafty scorer around the basket and a post-up threat from his position. The problem is, he’s not as tall and lengthy as Bey, and his first step is noticeably worse.
Moore is efficient when he gets a driving lane off a screen or an open shot from distance, but he won’t have the creator label in the NBA. I like that he’s a good decision maker with the ball, low turnover player with a good shooting stroke and mindset to defend. But I won’t paint him as a star prospect by any means. That being said, he’s gotten some first-round buzz himself and late first/early second round is completely on the table for him should he continue to stand out as one of Villanova’s best players.
Jaime Jaquez was also in that same Villanova game, just on the other side for the Bruins. Jaquez had 21 points and 13 rebounds (!!) doing what he does best: fighting on the glass doing the dirty work while hunting for open jump shots on the other end. I know Professor Corey also loves when he gets downhill and goes to his nifty floater in the lane as well. A 6’6” wing, Jaquez just consistently makes the right play offensively, and while he isn’t a lockdown defender he displays willingness to take tough matchups and battle down low to seal the deal for his team’s victory.
NBA teams love drafting competitive wings with experience and shooting ability, and to Corey’s point should be a name to watch for this year’s “Chris Duarte” stock rise in the draft.
Finally, Drew Timme had himself a NIGHT against Texas, pouring in 37 points and 7 rebounds on a Longhorns squad we already knew had a depleted front line coming in. Timme was aggressive from start to finish, and displayed everything he showed last year inside the paint: clutch footwork, spin moves, floaters and the occasional touch from 10 feet out. Whether he deserves to be drafted higher than Luka Garza was in 2021 is a question I don’t have an answer for yet, but to Rafael Barlowe’s point on Twitter, he does have games where he makes you think he’s a 10-year NBA vet waiting in the wings.
5 Games To Watch This Week
11/16, 8pm EST: Houston vs. Virginia. While this may be more of a fun college game to watch than necessarily keep an eye on from a draft perspective, Jayden Gardner has put up some impressive numbers in two games, averaging 18.5 PPG and 8.5 REB. Expect him to battle against the Cougars and potential draft pick Marcus Sasser, who’s averaging 25.5 PPG himself.
11/16, 10pm EST: BYU vs. Oregon. Will Richardson and the Ducks are off to a tremendous start this year, with the sharpshooting wing already solidifying himself as a top 20 prospect on many draft boards across the country. Him and Quincy Guerrier are more than enough reason for fans and scouts to tune in Tuesday night.
11/18, 6pm EST: Florida vs. Milwaukee. One of Baldwin’s toughest tests comes Thursday night against a Florida team who’s always a tough out at home. Baldwin will have to exceed expectations against Colin Castleton and the rest of the Gators if he wants to maintain his upward trend as a potential top five pick in 2022.
11/20, 1pm EST: Tennessee vs. Villanova. Moore, Collin Gillespie and the crew will have their hands full against a Volunteers squad ready for a test. Led by freshman standout Kennedy Chandler, this Tennessee team won’t be a pushover. Matter of fact, if I were a betting man I may take Chandler to lead the upset charge against the Wildcats.
11/20, 4pm EST: Purdue vs. North Carolina. If Caleb Love is going to firmly plant himself back in first-round consideration come 2022, it would behoove of him to have a big performance against Jaden Ivey and Purdue. Ivey didn’t have a signature game in his season debut, but followed that up with a 27 point performance in the Boilermakers’ win over Indiana State. Both guards should have this game circled on their calendars.