Weight: 200 lbs.
Birthday/Age: 6/4/99 (19 years old)
Projected NBA Role: Guard/Wing
Hometown: Garland, Texas
School: Texas Tech
Strengths: Athleticism, Instincts, Defensive Potential, Motor
Weaknesses: Ball Handling, Shooting
Thoughts and Comparisons
There have been a bunch of exceptional pieces written on Zhaire Smith this year, so I’ll first give a nod to JZ Mazlish and Jackson Hoy of thestepien.com, both of whom wrote better and more detailed accounts of the freshman Red Raider than I intend to here. When I bought a ticket to Madison Square Garden for a double-header featuring Seton Hall versus then-22nd-ranked Texas Tech and Temple versus South Carolina, I had no idea who number two in red was when he first stepped foot on the floor. That would quickly change. Smith checked into the contest coming out of the first TV timeout, and his first possession that night provides reason to trust first impressions. Within 15 seconds, he caught my eye, setting a solid screen on burly, 6-6, 220-lb. senior wing Desi Rodriguez, a decent deep sleeper in this draft class. Almost immediately thereafter, Smith set a back screen on Desi, then crashed the glass, grabbing the rim to steady himself since the ball had already entered through the hoop. There was nothing spectacular about anything Zhaire did in those first 20 seconds, but his unselfish instincts and athleticism were evident right away. On his first defensive possession, he sunk into the paint, low stance, head on a swivel, with his man, Myles Powell, spotting up from beyond the arc on the other side of the court. Smith finished the contest with 11 points (3-5 FG, 0-1 3Pt, 5-5 FT), two rebounds, two blocks, one steal, and one assist to two turnovers in 31 minutes, but the Pirates prevailed. This was Smith’s first opportunity to play heavy minutes, even after posting an impressive 14 points (5-6 FG, 1-2 3Pt, 3-4 FT), five boards, three assists, and two blocks in 21 minutes during his NCAA debut against South Alabama. Smith would go on to start 21 games and average 28.4 minutes, nearly dropping a triple-double en route to a win over the Florida Gators in the Round of 32 of the big dance.
The list of players that Smith shows shades of is, to quote TLM’s draft expert, Ilia Shatashvili, “alllll over the place.” It still fits that assessment, but I’ve done my best to whittle it down to five guys with very different skill sets. Smith uses his dribble wisely, and he was clearly schooled in the art of faking a move to make a move. Even if you back off of him, he can still put the ball on the floor and find his way to the rim in just a couple dribbles. Smith has been lauded for his “big man” skills, and it’s his unique blend of skills that makes him such an attractive prospect in my eyes. At the NBA Draft Combine, Smith mentioned the fact that he played center in high school, which in hindsight is hardly surprising. Zhaire’s mastery of the mid-range and interior, explosive leaping ability, defensive potential, put-back prowess, and penchant for making the subtle but winning plays remind me somewhat of watching Kawhi Leonard when he was at San Diego State. Leonard averaged just 0.6 made threes on 25 percent during his two years in college, and he shot just 74.4 percent from the charity stripe. He was an absolute terror from the free-throw line extended though, almost machine-like with his footwork, fakes and ability to read the situation and make an instinctual play, whether off a curl or following a post catch. Smith does not boast Leonard’s elite size or unreal wingspan, and his mitts aren’t as massive either. But just like Leonard did, Smith will have to reinvent his shooting stroke to thrive in the NBA. Usually I start with the low-end comparisons, and reaching the MVP-caliber level of Leonard is barely within the realm of possibility. Still, Smith’s potential is pretty much off the charts if he improves his shot.
The other three I see shades of in Smith are Hall of Famer Hal Greer, Malcolm Brogdon, and Spud Webb. I’ll begin with Webb, who at 5-7 is the shortest player in NBA history to win the dunk contest. Like Zhaire, Spud looked like he was being shot out of a cannon when finishing at the rim. Webb wasn’t much of a perimeter threat (0.4 threes on 31.4 percent) during his 12-year career. What did he do besides win a dunk contest? He made sound decisions, averaging 5.3 assists to 2.0 turnovers and scoring 9.9 points on 7.9 field-goal attempts per night. He had good instincts on defense (1.1 steals per game), and he was lightning quick. During his best individual season (1991-92), these were Webb’s statistics.
Webb did most of his work in the mid-range on offense, which is impressive considering his height alone. Then add the fact that defenses probably packed the paint more during those days than they do now, and it’s even more mind-boggling. Here’s Spud saucing the Los Angeles Lakers back in 1994.
His ability to anticipate defensively allowed him to snatch steals and even record the occasional swat (5:00). Webb’s two-footed plant jumper (2:05, 3:40, 4:05, 4:26) is reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen from Smith. Sadly, Webb’s rigid form (4:15) on his jumper is also similar to Smith’s. Spud’s smarts are on full display in several instances of the video, where he waits until the absolute last second, once the defense has assumed he is taking a shot, to instead find an open teammate with a better look. Zhaire likes to lull defenders to sleep, too. If you watched the entire video, you’ll note that Spud did most of his damage without the use of much intricate, overly-complicated ball-handling. The takeaway for me is that functional handling is more important than flair. If Smith improves his outside shot, he could be a point guard who serves as a secondary playmaker on a team that already features a star point forward, a-la the Sixers or Bucks. Your true position is ultimately defined by which position you cover, and Smith could become a terrifying head of the snake. This is where Brogdon comes in, as it’s worth wondering how much smarter Smith will be (than he already is now) five years down the road. (Brogdon was 24 when he won Rookie of the Year.) Smith boasts Brogdon’s combination of size and strength, defensive ability, unselfishness and two-way court vision. Malcolm doesn’t have Zhaire’s athleticism, but he’s not nearly as bland or ground-bound as some make him out to be.
It’s safe to say Brogdon was not as good as Smith as a freshman in college. But it is safe to assume that both have bright futures in basketball, especially if Smith is able to round out his game like Malcolm has over the years. Here’s Brogdon’s stat line from his time in Virginia.
I threw in the Hal Greer comparison just for good measure, as the late great was well-known for being arguably the best off-ball screener in hoops history. That’s every bit as lofty (if not more lofty) a comp as Kawhi, with the point being that Zhaire oozes potential.
This is a comp I wish I had come up with, so kudos to you, sir:
Ideal Landing Spots
Given that franchises should be thinking long and hard about how many of these highly-rated big men will boom or bust in the modern league, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Smith sneak into the top 10 of the draft. There are so many big names that it’s hard to envision Zhaire rising much higher than that, though I for one think the juice could be worth the squeeze, even as a top-five pick. Any team or coach that prefers defense over offense from their big men (Hi, Dallas) and would rather shoot for a high-upside player should seriously consider Smith. Regardless, whoever selects Smith should have a plan for developing his game. Leonard spent years as one of the last offensive options before breaking out and becoming the top dog in town. Expecting an immediate rise to stardom a-la Donovan Mitchell is not wise.