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2022 NBA Draft Analysis: Jabari Smith

Pacers Podcast & More

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round Greenville - Miami vs Auburn Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Feeling lucky on Draft Lottery Eve, Mark and Caitlin are back with another episode of Stock Up, Stock Down in which they bravely dare to turn their attention to the top of the draft.

Breaking down a different prospect each week, the idea is for the hosts to watch a player, identifying reasons to be both bearish and bullish, with frame of reference from a few specific games as well as for the Pacers.

This week, Jabari Smith stars as the subject through the lens of Auburn’s games against Alabama, Texas A&M, and University of Miami.

Stock up

Caitlin’s pick - Defensive discipline

Jabari Smith just turned 19 on Friday, May 13, but he already demonstrates discipline beyond that of a teenager in certain areas on defense. During Auburn’s 81-77 win over Alabama, for instance, he put the clamps on several different guards, repeatedly cutting off angles and keeping his body between the ball and the basket without falling for shot fakes.

In that regard, everything about this possession is perfect. Generally speaking, when guards dribble back toward what can hypothetically be considered as the 4-point line against switches, the purpose is to force the bigger defender to have to chase over a larger distance than if the attack started around the arc. It also means the ball-handler can take a running start, either producing imbalance or generating space to shoot. But, watch Jabari.

Backpedaling in a stance on the initial descent, notice how he exercises restraint in flipping his hips until the ball-handler hits the B button and actually starts to drive.

Then, rather than fouling on the pick-up, he keeps his feet, allowing him to stay on-balance to block the turnaround.

That’s an impressive sequence, even by comparison to Isaiah Jackson, who also moves well on the perimeter but has a tendency to open his stance too soon, getting stood up at poor angles while trying to swat everything. There’s no reason to be this aggressive in shading Jayson Tatum to his left, let alone an actual lefty in James Harden.

Don’t get it twisted. In spite of some wrong steps, Jackson is already bearing fruit in being minded toward havoc, racking up both steals and blocks at first-class rates. This isn’t to be taken as slander, as much as to provide a familiar picture of what the early process can more typically look like for young bigs, particularly with extreme strengths and weaknesses, as they learn to show restraint and master positioning.

After all, it’s easy to imagine Jackson jumping in this same scenario, right?

Instead, Jabari diverts the ball-handler away from the rim in semi-transition and stays down, waiting to block the actual shot just as he previously timed his hip-flip with the actual drive.

It’s that ability to slide his feet without constantly going for home-run plays that could also make for some interesting cross-match opportunities against 5-out offenses, with either Myles Turner terrorizing the rim or Isaiah Jackson roaming baseline. The chalk outline of that type of arrangement was visible against Miami’s stretch-five, Sam Waardenburg, as Walker Kessler, Auburn’s shot-blocking machine, was instead assigned to Jordan Miller, while Jabari switched ball-screens to keep the defense out of rotation against pop actions.

Of course, as was the case with Kessler, even with Turner around the rim there would still be ways for opponents to pick at certain match-ups, be it with a playmaking big or guards going to work and making reads with the middle of the floor cleared out.

Still, for a team that already proved amenable to trying Oshae Brissett against opposing stretch fives so as to enable switching (albeit, with mixed results), there’s a certain allure to the possibility of upgrading that option in a way that might allow everyone to spend less time where they’re least comfortable.

To that point, depending upon the opponent and whichever two of them is on the floor, Turner could patrol the paint (rather than defending in space), Jabari could switch ball screens and cut off perimeter drives (rather than protecting the rim or poking his nose where it doesn’t belong), and Jackson could cover ground away from the action as a disruptive force (rather than racking up fouls). That doesn’t necessarily solve some of the issues against imposing low-post threats, but the rough draft at least offers some flexibility and appears to be more mobile than what has been the case the last few seasons.

All of which is to say that, while Jabari’s ridiculously smooth shooting stroke gets most of the attention, he also has several selling points as a defender, not the least of which is the discipline he’s already exhibiting in flashes, even while being up in the grill of guards and executing menacing closeouts.

Mark’s pick — Point of Attack Defense

As we saw time and time again with the Pacers this season, getting defensive stops was an oft fruitless endeavor. Opposing teams routinely generated paint touches and rim pressure in droves as the Pacers lacked point of attack defense, and specifically sizable wing defense.

Jabari Smith a remarkably talented perimeter defender. 6’10 with a plus wingspan and importantly plays at that size functionally. He slides his feet incredibly well laterally, hounds ball-handlers with his activity, and is capable of stringing together multiple positive plays during single possessions.

This play against Miami was a great showing of what he brings. Isaiah Wong is a legitimate NBA prospect as a two guard and Jabari gives him work throughout this possessions, sliding, flipping his hips to change directions, and making the play on the ball once Wong runs out of counters.

That’s one of my favorite aspects of Smith, as Caitlin points out, he’s very disciplined, something that showed up in his minimal foul rate. He could provide immediate impact to the Pacers as their primary stopper on defense with room to grow as an off-ball defender as he develops. I wouldn’t call him a true “switch everything” defender, but few really are. Jabari is prettttty darn close to is. Considering the prevalence Indy showed down the stretch to play a scheme switching the majority of actions, it’s even easier to see the translation.

Stock down

Caitlin’s pick — Putting opposing defenses in rotation

Jabari shot above 40 percent from three as a freshman, including on attempts from between 25-29 feet (43.6%), which is something only three centers in the NBA did last season on his same volume of attempts per game (2.2). To recap, he’s 6-foot-10, with an absurdly high launching point and can also pull from deep. Good luck bothering his shot, especially given the ease with which he hits contested threes (for those who have read the scouting report) out of a jab step, as well as attacking closeouts with one-dribble pull-ups.

That said, according to Synergy, he took over 65 percent of his shots in the half-court as jump-shots. For frame of reference, Myles Turner has never posted a number that high, neither at Texas (32.4%) nor with the Pacers, instead topping out at 56 percent during the 2017-18 season when he was constantly popping to mid-range in partnership with Darren Collison. Taking things a step further, the only players at or above Jabari’s height in the NBA who took over 65 percent of their shots as jumpers this past season were Davis Bertans (88.8%) Kevin Durant (74.2%), Mika Muscala (72.7%), and Danilo Gallinari (69.1%).

Furthermore, per CBB Analytics, less than 25 percent of his two-point attempts came within four feet of the rim. By comparison, this is the same pitch action the Pacers once used for Sabonis (who isn’t exactly known for his burst) to attack with his strong hand into a shifted defense and Jabari, instead, foregoes taking multiple dribbles (along with the potential screen at the elbow) to hunt the jump-shot.

For now, because he doesn’t have the tightest handle and doesn’t get very low with the ball, that’s probably the right choice, even if also somewhat telling.

This, meanwhile, is a chart of his post-ups, as generated by InStat.

In that regard, with more attempts coming outside the paint than inside, it would be curious to know the difference between the average start distance of his post-ups by comparison to the average ending distance. Does he have a chance to move defenders, even if he doesn’t get to the rim with speed? With that in mind, because he isn’t much of a threat to face-up and get rolling downhill, notice how Miami was able to push his pick-up point beyond that of the lane while choosing to sit on his jumper.

To be fair, relying on him to miss shots, particularly from the right elbow (as the chart shows), isn’t without risk (remember, high release!). Plus, he has a turnaround fadeaway in his bag. Still, those aren’t typically the types of shots that force defenses to rotate, which brings to question whether he will be able to be schemed out a little against switches.

Remember, for example, Kristaps Porzingis during the Mavericks-Clippers series when he was still coached by Rick Carlisle. That’s 6-foot-5 Terrance Mann and LA didn’t send help, which is in part why he ended up spending so much time stashed in the corners.

By comparison, Miami was typically aggressive in trapping ball screens but switched when Jabari was the screener in the middle of the floor in order to avoid sending off-ball stunts that might still give him space to shoot. In response, rather than immediately diving to the ball-side block against the mismatch, notice how he basically just clears out of the way, enabling the Hurricanes to kick-out the smaller defender.

To be fair, Auburn lacked in secondary shooting aside from Jabari (which wouldn’t be the case with the Pacers), so there was incentive for opponents to crowd him, but that’s where he could be somewhat predeterminate with his passing reads to the opposite wing or preoccupied with his handle, particularly when forced to navigate tight spaces.

That said, even if Jabari ends up on the periphery of the action against switches, it’s a safe bet that Tyrese Haliburton would actually facilitate this shot, whereas K.D. Johnson did not.

Accordingly, in taking things full circle, Jabari leaves very little room for doubt as a play finisher. Less certain, however, depending upon where the Pacers select and who else tracks to be in the long-term starting lineup, is by what means he can put defenses in rotation and how much that will matter.

Mark’s pick — Handle and Court Vision/Feel

So we have to start with the positive: Jabari Smith is a NUCLEAR shooter. He’s dynamite off the catch. He’s capable and routinely came off of screens as a shooter. He can self-create out of 1-2 dribble combinations against contests. He’s excellent on trail 3’s and pitchbacks.

When looking at the top four-five of the draft (presumably where the Pacers will be picking) splitting hairs is essential. It’s not meant to be overly critical of a player’s game, rather to be honest about who they are, where they’re at developmentally, and what the team drafting them can/will actually focus on developing or be capable of creating a good environment to develop.

Does a team feel they have a program with their player development and athletic training staff to unlock added (any) flexibility in Smith’s lower body?

That’s my biggest hangup with Jabari right now and what his outlook is as a prospect. Particularly in the game Caitlin and I picked against Texas A&M, it’s so apparent that the scout was out on him. A&M shaded his right hand the entire game, gave him driving lanes to his left, and were comfortable contesting the heck out of him. Why?

Walker Kessler sets the down screen for Jabari as he comes up to the top of the key to receive the ball. Kessler screens his man quite well, creating some separation. Jabari first looks for the high-low to the rolling Kessler, but Kessler gets tagged up and Jabari dribbles left. His man who was initially screened out of the picture gets back in front in 1.5 dribbles. The advantage that was created by the ball screen is quickly taken away by the defense.

While Jabari gets the foul, (and to be fair, he got very good at drawing fouls!) this play is rough process for someone you’re theoretically viewing as an advantage creator. On that fade to his back shoulder, KD Johnson lifted and is wide open in the slot, but Jabari either doesn’t see him or is already predetermined to take that shot.

This brings up another interesting talking point. Hitting tough shots is ESSENTIAL. This team needs that. Jabari’s release point is near unblockable, but I struggle a bit with some of the ‘mismatch’ talk. Jabari can take advantage during sole possessions without a doubt, but the issue comes into what Caitlin mentioned; what is the actual impact on a defense? She laid that out extremely well above so I won’t rehash, but it’s a tough dichotomy. Tough shotmaking is so important in the NBA, but it’s very difficult to make it your main thing and thrive in a modern and efficient offense.

Here’s another example of his handle, this time an opportunity where he is able to go right against A&M.

Credit to his defender for getting up into him, but also, that’s part of what stands out. A&M was comfortable putting a guard on Jabari and even with a decently spaced out isolation, he’s picking up after one dribble. The make is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but again, it comes down to process and what this means for defensive impact.

It’s noticeable how stiff/uncomfortable Jabari looks driving in general, almost hunched over. I actually don’t think the actual combinations he shows from a standstill are bad, but not being able to put them together getting downhill is a significant hindrance to higher outcomes as an offensive prospect. Shin angle is something that often gets brought up in discussing power generation in drivers, notice the angles Jabari makes on drives. That’s part of the stiffness I’m bringing up. He’s not the most bendable driver.

Flexing into the Miami game as well, his passing vision and feel are a bit underwhelming right now. Again I want to point out, these are things that can improve. He’s made significant strides as a prospect in recent years, but these are things that can’t necessarily just be repped out in a gym. This is a really great and eye-opening article breaking down and understanding feel and development:

This play is a really focused in look on his feel and vision.

Jabari had just made a stellar play at the basket to prevent a layup from Cam McGusty, grabs the rebound, scans the floor, takes a dribble right, and then flips a pass to Zep Jasper...except it’s right to McGusty who takes it to the rack.

I don’t mean this in a slanderous “he’s going to do this all the time” type of way, rather that it stands out that he doesn’t seem to see McGusty coming to the ball. It wasn’t always to this exacerbated degree, but Jabari’s zonal vision was apparent routinely. The majority of his decisions came across as quite premeditated, much like that pass.

He can struggle with doubles, particularly on late help, which Miami selectively sent to Jabari, oft letting him hang out against single coverage.

Against A&M, he’s open in the corner, is closed out to and smothered, and in spite of Wendell Green right underneath the basket, that’s a shot all the way.

Jabari Smith is a really good and intriguing prospect, but when it comes to what the Pacers need out of a top half of the lottery pick, a consistent advantage creator continues to be something the team lacks. Smith would without a doubt bring positives to the team and roster. His floor is significant and I’d argue his ceiling is as well, but can he grow into those other area that the Pacers really need?

Those are hard things to just “develop.” It’s not often that a player comes along and becomes an advantage creator out of nowhere. Who he can be as a versatile shooter and defender is undeniable. If Tyrese Haliburton takes some of the steps Caitlin and I have talked about, perhaps this pick could make much more sense.

Other topics:

  • Surrounding Tyrese Haliburton with spot-up shooters and mainly spot-up shooters
  • Envisioning a Smith-Turner frontcourt executing various types of coverages and against various types of coverages
  • How Isaiah Jackson would fit in
  • Auburn’s spacing and playmaking and what would change for Smith with the Pacers
  • More

Enjoy the pod and continue looking forward to more of these episodes as the draft approaches. Also, if you haven’t already, please be sure to Rate and Review the Indy Cornrows Podcast on Apple Podcasts and subscribe anywhere else you can listen!