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Zhaire Smith’s athleticism sets a high bar

Zhaire Smith is one of the best athlete’s in the draft, and that makes him an enticing player for the Clippers to consider.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Texas Tech vs. Stephen F. Austin Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

We’re thrilled to be getting some draft prep assistance from our sister site’s resident draft expert, Trevor Magnotti. Zhaire Smith is the first of five prospects who Trevor will profile for us in the coming weeks. —Lucas Hann

When my colleague Robert Flom ranked his favorite wing prospects for the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2018 NBA Draft, he listed Zhaire Smith as his third-favorite wing overall and the best option should the Clippers trade down a few spots in the draft. This is a very justifiable ranking. In a deep wing class, Smith may be the best bet to develop into an All-Star level player outside of Miles and Mikal Bridges.

Smith’s production may not have indicated that type of ceiling. He was not the primary weapon for what was perhaps the best Texas Tech team ever, instead playing a complimentary role to high-volume chucker Keenan Evans and guard Jarrett Culver. Smith’s numbers look pretty pedestrian compared to some of his peers, as he averaged 11.3 points on just 7.5 field goal attempts per game, along with 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. However, Smith asserted himself as an NBA-level player early in the year, and his film and measurements suggest a real capability for the freshman to develop much further.

To start, Smith’s athleticism sets a pretty high bar, both for his raw tools and his ability to use them functionally. At 6-4 with a nearly 6-10 wingspan, he has a good frame for wing. More importantly, he is also far and away the best leaper in the class.

Smith didn’t have the best vertical leap in the class (his 41.5 inches was a half-inch lower than Josh Okogie and Donte DiVincenzo), but the thing that makes Smith’s vertical more impressive is just how effortless it seems. Smith has maybe the quickest load-up to jump of any player in this class, and once in the air, he changes direction and hangs through the air with a fluidity that is bested only by players like Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon. Simply put, the man floats when he jumps, and his body control and coordination in the air are rare attributes.

This body control helps him be an elite finisher for a player his size. He shot 64.9 percent at the rim this season, which rates him in the 83rd percentile of guards, per Will Schreefer shot chart data. A majority of those baskets came assisted on cuts and in transition, but this hints at the second-biggest strength for him - his feel for the game. Smith is a fantastic cutter, and he has an innate understanding of spacing that is going to give him plenty of opportunities to put that athleticism to use at the NBA level.

Smith also has a strong defensive profile, but much of that hinges on his athleticism at this point. He showed great flashes of team defense last season, and there aren’t many 6-4 guards who can block shots like Smith does.

In addition to his vertical pop, Smith’s lateral agility is also pretty strong. Here he is sticking with Trae Young, first cutting off the lane with his length, and then recovering to contest after Young’s first step gives him an edge.

Defensively, this gives Smith very good value. He was key in instituting what was a pretty rigid scheme at Texas Tech, and and his switchability is promising thanks to his tools. The trope of a wing who can “defend multiple positions” is overused, but Zhaire’s a pretty good bet to at least be able to deal defend most wings on-ball, and confidently handle a switch onto a big man when put into the pick-and-roll. Add in his potential for havoc plays with his quick hands and shot-blocking potential, and you have a player who can be a top-tier wing defender in the NBA.

Smith presents an interesting case for projection to the NBA because his role at Texas Tech was so unique. Smith was used primarily as what could be perceived as the world’s smallest small-ball four, as he lurked on the baseline and off the elbow and used many possessions cutting, rebounding, and setting screens. However, his skills hint at the ability to be much more. In addition to his skill attacking the basket, he shows exciting potential as a passer, hitting cutters and dump-offs to bigs in his rare on-ball possessions. With that package on offense, the hope is that he’ll be able to grow into more of a perimeter-oriented role as his handle and shooting develop. With his athleticism, taking this leap would turn his projection from quality role player to potential star. That’s what sets him apart from similar guards who demonstrate big man skill sets offensively, like Marcus Smart or Jae Crowder.

The counterpoint, though, is something J.Z. Mazlish of the Stepien did a great job of reviewing earlier this week - that Zhaire’s pretty far behind the curve on some crucial skills for that projection to top-three scorer. For one, Smith’s shooting is very much a project, despite his 45 percent shooting from outside. He attempted just 36 threes this year, and all but four of those shots were assisted. He lacks confidence in his jumper off the dribble, and he can be slow to get into his shot, really only shooting off the catch when wide open. It’s tough to project him as a shooter, then, despite his success. He also doesn’t really have an ideal handle for someone who is going to be creating off the dribble as much as NBA teams will probably want him to.

His defense also lacks in some key areas. While he’s shown the ability to make impact through havoc plays like steals and blocks, he’s not the best at navigating the pick-and-roll at this juncture, and it’s tough to confidently project him to be able to defend up a position, because he doesn’t have the frame of a Smart or Crowder that will help him get leverage against NBA big men.

This combination of upside and limited progression to date will likely keep him away from the top 10, behind players like Mikal Bridges and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who have similar skills to what Zhaire projects, but show better progression to this point. However, this also makes the Clippers a very strong landing spot for him. Regardless of where on the outcome spectrum Smith ends up, the Clippers should be able to make use of his talents from the jump. The team lacks a breadth of primary initiators, and will be able to budget possessions and development time to him to help him build on those skills that could make him truly special.

There’s also plenty of reason to be optimistic about Doc Rivers getting good use out of Smith, and the combination of Zhaire and Sindarius Thornwell on the perimeter would give the Clippers a nice backbone of perimeter defense to rebuild what was the league’s 20th-ranked unit last season.

And even if Zhaire doesn’t flesh out his creation potential, the Clippers are a good place to set him up for success in a role similar to what he did at Texas Tech. While they might run into problems with spacing by placing him next to DeAndre Jordan or Montrezl Harrell right away, he can provide a lot of value as a slasher, where the idea of him throwing down dazzling Milos Teodosic passes is very exciting. The above defensive value is also still there, as well. At the very least, the Clippers should be able to find an easy path to a rotation spot for Smith. And if his athleticism unlocks more down the road, the team is in a perfect position to make use of it.