Texas Tech had a fantastic season, reaching the Elite Eight in part thanks to the success of their young wing. What kind of potential lies within Zhaire Smith?
I have always been a fan of cool names for athletes. Like superheroes, professional wrestlers, and musicians, I would associate cooler names to superior talent. It’s the reason I gravitated towards Kobe and Shaq in my formative fandom years. Their success only strengthened my belief in the name makes the player. My plan felt foolproof as all of my favorite players growing up (Mike Vick, Randy Moss, LaDainian Tomlinson, LeBron, Carmelo, Sammy Sosa) all happened to be savages in their respective sport.
I’ve smartened up since then. I now know the player makes the name, evidenced by the Tim Duncans of the world. That does not mean I am still not a sucker for a cool name. This odd fascination has come in handy with draft prospects. When I initially check a mock draft in August or July, I immediately scan for the names that sound like stars. It’s the reason I even looked into Kristaps Porzingis back in 2015 and was the source of my obsession with Malik Monk last season.
That brings me to Zhaire Smith. Zhaire is a phenomenal name. Despite the uniqueness of his name—which is surprisingly does not have a biblical origins as I first assumed—he has largely been left out of the lottery prospect discussion. His name has floated towards the lower end of the lottery, but mostly he has been projected as a late first-rounder throughout the pre-draft process. Recently, his name has started to gain traction thanks to a strong showing at the combine.
There always seems to be a prospect that starts to garner rightful buzz following the combine. Last season, that prospect was Donovan Mitchell. Following an impressive display at the gathering, Mitchell started to gain attention from organizations in the top ten, including the Knicks, who worked him out the night before the draft. That does not mean Zhaire is destined to have a fraction of the rookie campaign Mitchell had in Utah. But there is definitely something special with Zhaire. He could very well be this draft’s sleeper. Let’s take a look at why the Knicks should not hit the snooze button.
Before we take on the micro, let’s cover the macro. Every positive in Smith’s game and his potential trajectory stems from his supernatural athleticism. Once you start to watch film on him, you understand why.
When he jumps—scratch that, when he levitates through the air—I am never sure he will come down. It’s as if gravity is temporarily suspended once he takes off. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to choose one prospect who will win a dunk contest, I’m taking Zhaire without thinking twice.
Just look at the degree of difficulty and hang time on this alley from the tourney:
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) March 15, 2018
We have been spoiled with some quantum leapers in recent years, but Zhaire gives 2015 Zach LaVine and 2016 Aaron Gordon a run for their money. Aside from the entertainment value, this freakish leaping ability makes him a constant threat to cut to the hoop.
It also makes him a nightmare on the offensive glass, where put back dunks like the one below have become his calling card:
If you are wondering if there is any secret to his put back prowess, there isn’t. According to Zhaire, it comes natural to him: “I’ve been doing it since I was little, and I just jump, find the ball and put it in the rim.”
Smith’s dunks aren’t the only thing that comes natural to him:
“Ever since I played basketball that’s all I really did, just run up and down the floor and block shots. So that was just natural to me, blocking shots and stealing, just knowing where the ball is at all times.”
Smith led Texas Tech in steals and blocks this season despite being a freshman. His ability to find the ball contributed to a sterling Defensive Rating of 95.1 and served as a catalyst for his game.
During Coach Fizdale’s introductory media run, he mentioned the philosophy he hoped to bring to New York. Fizdale preached versatility on the defensive end, something Smith’s frame and aforementioned athleticism can handle. At 6’4” (with a 6’10” wingspan), he could be trusted to corral both guard positions and hold his own on against smaller wings.
In the event he is matched up with bigger defenders, his relentless energy on ball denial will come in clutch. Trying to get him off you is like trying to wash tree sap off your hands.
See for yourself:
Watch Zhaire Smith (number two) on defense here. He doesn’t allow his guy to go anywhere on-ball here, and stays with him consistently throughout the play. He also rises up to get the block, again, with his athleticism. pic.twitter.com/qGTDwhAv7Y
— Dylan Jackson ⚡️ (@JaxonNBA) May 17, 2018
Now imagine slotting Zhaire alongside Frank Ntilikina with Porzingis stalking near the rim. Frank is already a handful to get around. Porzingis is already an elite rim protector. Adding someone like Zhaire in your face on the wing? That’s enough to drive a sane man berzerk.
His common comparison has been André Roberson, which is quite the compliment considering defense is his calling card. I see some Roberson in him, but I believe that to be his floor. Unlike Roberson, there could be something for Zhaire on the offensive side of the floor.
Room for Improvement
Citing age as a strength can sometimes come across hypocritical. With that being said, I will be a hypocrite, because in Smith’s case his age (18) and experience playing his position (one year) leave room for some serious growth.
Smith’s transition from high school to college is a bizarro Anthony Davis path. Davis was a 6’2” guard until a massive growth spurt shifted him all the way up to the five. Smith, on the other hand, was the tallest player on his high school team and spent a majority of the time at the five.
That is a major reason why he is more adept at cleaning the glass and blocking shots compared to his subpar handle. If developed properly, Smith can grow into a combo guard that can be deployed in any scenario.
One of the main things coaches mentioned about him is that his work ethic is his greatest asset. Yes, I know coaches praise their player’s work ethic the same way everyone praises their wife as the best cook, but think on this: Smith was unheralded coming out of high school and was projected to be a minimal contributor last season. Instead, he was the best player for a Texas Tech squad that made a surprising run to the Elite Eight. That alone impresses me more than any of his highlight dunks.
One Trick (Offensive) Pony
When thumbing through his offensive numbers, there are a few that stick out. He had an effective field-goal percentage of 58.8. He shot 45 percent from three. His Offensive Rating was an impressive 128.7. Take a closer look, and you begin to see the mirage.
He attempted about seven shots per game last season. He shot 40 three-pointers for the season. His highlight tapes back this up as a majority of it are dunks with an occasional jumper sprinkled in. Right now, his offensive arsenal is as well versed as an NBA Jam character.
The chief concern with Smith’s offense is that he relies on his teammates to set him up. If he is not hovering above the rim for a putback or dicing through the lane, chances are he is not doing much scoring. The good news is as much as his jumper has been labeled as a weakness, it will not hamper his game in the same manner that it has for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Roberson.
One of the draft's most explosive athletes, Zhaire Smith, showing off his shooting touch here in Chicago. The 18-year-old shot 45% from 3 as a freshman but on only 40 attempts in 37 games. Shot the ball really well today. pic.twitter.com/CBL5T29DI8
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 17, 2018
I am not a shot guru, but that does not look like a broken jumper. When you factor in that he took his first three-pointer his senior year of high school, it actually puts his jumper in good light. Sure, his release looks a little low and slow. His follow through is a little quirky too, but if the ball goes in, who the hell cares? He will never be asked to be a marksman. As long as he can merely stretch the defense out to the three-point line and occasionally knock down an open three, he has done his job.
A Positionless Fit
Depending on what teams are looking for on draft night, not having a defined position could be a negative. A team that is close to making the leap (Sixers, Nuggets) or sustain their status (Cavs) may want a guy they know where to play. If a franchise is simply looking to add talent, this trait could be a major plus on Smith’s game.
His size and skill set have yet to meet in the middle. His body is combo guard material with some undersized wing play a strong possibility in the future. His skill set resembles that of a wing that can play the stretch four. His ball handling is one of his greatest weaknesses at the moment, and is a skill he must sharpen if he plans to see the floor for extended time. You put Zhaire in with the current Knick core and I cannot really tell you what position I see him at in three years.
The greatest thing going for the Knicks at the moment is time. We know next season might be a throwaway. The team’s contention timeline should start around 2020 when bad contracts are off the books and Fizdale has had enough time to put his imprint on the organization.
During this time, someone like Smith would have time to fail. He can have nights where he turns the ball over ten times or goes 0-for-12 from three. Similar to Frank last season, at the bare minimum Smith will immediately contribute on defense.
Every indication from the Knicks front office has been that wing is the top priority in the draft. Scott Perry has also said that they will take the best player available. For weeks, Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges, Kevin Knox, and recently Lonnie Walker IV have been tied to the Knicks. I feel confident in saying Smith can hold his own against any of those guys. When the Knicks are on the clock, they should give some serious thought to the man with the name destined for success.