The SN Draft Lab puts the top college, G League and international players under the microscope as we build towards the 2022 NBA Draft. NBA scouts face the tall task of evaluating talent not only based on what players can do now but how they project in the NBA game moving forward. Throughout the 2021-22 season, Sporting News will break down the biggest prospects, projects and matchups to bring you the latest intel on names rising and falling on draft boards.
Heading into the 2021-22 College Basketball season, the race for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft was seen to be a two-man race between Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. Both prospects were considered head-and-shoulders above the field with skillsets that are far advanced for players of their age at their size.
But as the season has unfolded, there is another prospect who has played his way into consideration for the top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft: Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr. has entered the chat.
The 18-year-old freshman has scouts enamored with his NBA-ready body, silky smooth shooting stroke and two-way potential as a versatile defender.
Listed at 6-foot-10, 220 lbs. with a wingspan over 7-feet, Smith has all the physical tools to succeed at the next level. Averaging 15.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game to this point, Smith is stuffing the stat sheet on both ends of the floor on a nightly basis. When you factor in that he’s shooting an efficient 45.7 percent from the field and 43.0 percent (!) from 3, you can start to imagine why he’s working his way into No. 1 overall pick discussions.
In fact, according to NBA Draft analyst Chad Ford, Smith has become “a pretty big favorite” to hear his name called first by NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “Among the lottery teams I surveyed, he’s become a pretty big favorite among most of them,” Ford reported, while also mentioning that Banchero and Holmgren still have support to go No. 1, too.
But what exactly is it about Smith that has him rising up Mock Drafts?
Let’s start with his shooting touch.
How often could you make the argument that a 6-foot-10 forward may have the best jumper in their draft class? In recent memory, Kevin Durant is the only example I can think of (and no, this is not a comparison between Smith and one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen).
Nevertheless, Smith’s fluid shooting motion, high release and soft touch has him up to par with any of his sharpshooting peers.
Give him an inch of space on the perimeter and he’ll pull up and make you pay instantly.
If he has a mismatch inside, you’ll see his patience to face up to his defender, work a jab step or flash his coordinated footwork and shoot right over the top.
The majority of his jumpshot attempts have been of the catch-and-shoot variety so far this season, but he does have some raw shot creation skills that could develop if he tightens up his handle and establishes a few go-to moves. He’s comfortable grabbing a rebound and pushing the pace in transition, but his ball handling can get away from him at times, which prevents him from really being a scoring or playmaking threat in the open floor.
He still has a ways to go in those areas, which could limit his ceiling as a potential superstar or No. 1 option on a team, but that shooting stroke at his size makes him a dream fit in today’s NBA, even if he never becomes a prolific shot creator.
I also believe Smith’s ability as a screen setter in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop scenarios will become an unlocked asset at the NBA level – something he isn’t doing a ton of at Auburn right now.
Defensively, he’s mobile on the perimeter and physical inside, making him a candidate to defend 3-through-5 but also switch comfortably onto guards. Averaging over a block and a steal per game, Smith has good instincts and quick hands, even if he’s not super wiry or energetic on that end of the floor. His biggest impact as a defender is on the perimeter, where his height and wingspan suffocates opponents looking to attack and score.
He’s not your prototypical big who will sit in the paint and protect the rim, but his defensive IQ and length positions him to challenge shots around the basket. (It’s also worth noting that it’s not his job to anchor Auburn’s defense as a rim protector, with 7-footer Walker Kessler’s 4.2 blocks per game leading the nation among Power 5 schools.)
Smith is a bit of a “tweener” and it will be interesting to see if NBA teams view him as more of a small forward on the wing or power forward inside, even in today’s increasingly positionless game.
Smith has all the tools of an adaptable forward in the current NBA, giving him a very high floor of potential. The biggest question surrounding the Auburn star freshman is what is his ceiling?
At 18 years old, that is certainly still undefined, but it’s hard not to be encouraged by the direction he is headed in as a potential No. 1 pick.
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