(First posted at RealGM)
Zhaire Smith was only the 194th-ranked prospect in the 2017 high school class and had no other meaningful experience prior to his time in college basketball but his one year at Texas Tech was enough for him to stand out.
In his 1,051 NCAA minutes, the 19-year-old averaged 15.9 minutes per 40 minutes on 61.8% true shooting and compiled a 21.3 PER, as a key cog on the team that made it to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual champion Villanova.
Smith is an unorthodox prospect. His role on offense was as a combo forward. He spaced out to the three-point line some but not a lot, as most of his work was done screening and leveraging his athleticism as a threat near the basket on cuts, rolls, roaming around the baseline at the dunker spot and crashing the offensive glass.
On the other end, Smith also impressed the most as an interior defender, not only leveraging his explosiveness as a rim protector but also showing terrific awareness making an impact in the hidden areas of the game.
The problem, if you choose to see it as one, is that Smith was measured at six-foot-four, 198 pounds at the 2018 NBA Combine – a frame rarely associated with players suited to do things more commonly done by big men. As a result, he might spend a chunk of his career being miscast as a pure perimeter player, which he doesn’t figure to be as good at in the immediate future due to his lack of handle and the low volume of three-point shots he took in college.
Teams like Golden State, Brooklyn and Houston have reaped the benefits of playing guys like Draymond Green, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and PJ Tucker at center for portions of the game but we are yet to see other teams be as brave in terms of discounting height as an arbitrary need to view someone as a big man.
However, those players cited above are generally taller, longer and thicker than Smith, who would represent a longer leap of faith for a coach to feel comfortable having him log most of his minutes as an interior player, especially on defense.
Smith’s primary role was as an off-ball defender, at times as a weak-side helper in taller lineups and at others defending closer to the basket when Texas Tech went smaller.
He showed to be attentive to his responsibilities rotating all the way in from the opposite end to make a tangible impact at the rim, as he is able to explode off the ground off two feet to effectively challenge shots via verticality and pick up some impressive blocks from time to time – as he averaged 1.6 of them per 40 minutes.
Smith also impressed with his attention on short rotations to prevent the simple pass to the roll man – key plays that don’t get credited in the boxscore but show his ability to execute the scheme and are tremendously impactful in team defense.
He put his six-foot-10 wingspan to good use, showing a knack for using his length to get into passing lanes for deflections that disrupted the offense and creating turnovers – as he averaged 1.6 steals per 40 minutes.
When he had to handle the responsibilities of a big man, Smith looked like a natural stepping up to the front of the rim to protect it against dribble drivers attacking downhill, using the baseline as help to prevent the ball handler from getting to the basket in the first place on actions on the side of the floor and stringing parallel very fluidly to cut off penetration in pick-and-roll defense.
Smith’s individual defense was less impressive.
He was hit-and-miss in isolation. Smith hunches down rather than bends his knees to get low in a stance but has more than a few slides in him to stay in front of similarly sized wings. He doesn’t chest up to contain dribble penetration through contact but puts in the effort to use his eight-foot-four standing reach to try contesting pull-ups and has proven he is able to block shots defending on the ball.
Against smaller guards, Smith didn’t show particularly great lateral quickness to stay in front but can direct the ball towards the help and hustles in pursuit to try blocking or contesting shots from behind. He doesn’t seem suited to cross-match onto these types of players for entire possessions, though, due to his inability to get skinny over screens at the point of attack, at times dying on these picks.
That struggle negotiating screens was also seen when Smith was matched up on pure shooters who got their looks off movement, as he didn’t do well when forced disentangle himself from traffic and closeout in a hurry.
He was a mixed bag on closeouts to spot-up shooters as well, able to contest shots fairly well but not running shooters off their shots as often as someone with his athleticism was expected to.
Smith excelled in individual defense when he picked up bigger players on switches, as he proved to be tenacious enough to front the post and prevent easy entry passes. He collected just 11.1% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor but aided the rebounding effort by boxing out diligently, proving to be tough enough to boxout bulkier types like Udoka Azubuike, who is 75 pounds heavier than him.
Smith had a small role on offense – logging just 18.2% usage rate and being assisted on 68.1% of his field goals.
His best work was done near the basket on catch-and-finishes, as 62.5% of his shots were at the rim. He can play in a different stratosphere as a target for lobs going up off two feet and finish through contact in transition, cutting across the lane and going up without needing to load up, roaming around the baseline at the dunker spot, sneaking behind the defense or going up in traffic diving out of the pick-and-roll and as a tip dunk threat crashing the offensive glass – converting his 168 shots at the basket at a 64.9% clip.
Smith didn’t produce in particularly special volume out of offensive rebounds – collecting just 9.5% of Texas Tech’s misses when he was on the floor and converting just 57.1% of his 37 second chance attempts into immediate putbacks. But his thundering dunks tended to be huge energizing plays and his average of 4.8 foul shots per 40 minutes reflect in part his constant participation in these scrums.
Smith didn’t space out to the three-point line a whole lot, as he averaged just 1.5 three-point attempts per 40 minutes. Though he took a few shots coming off pindown screens, he proved to be only a capable open shot shooter at this point of his development.
His release looks like a catapult release at times but Smith launches the ball from a high point, pulls the trigger fluidly, if not necessarily all that impressively quickly, and has decent, if not necessarily great, touch.
He nailed 45% of his 40 three-point shots last season and hit 71.7% of his 127 foul shots, which creates some expectation that he will be at least a capable open shot shooter in the pros as well.
Smith brought the ball up the court to trigger the offense every once in a while but mostly only created his own shot in the half-court in emergency situations late in the shot clock.
He flashed some between the legs shake, a hesitation move, a pound dribble and a well coordinated spin to get dribble penetration in isolation but for the most part Smith was limited by his rudimentary handle, his lack of a quick first step and general lack of speed with the ball. He also didn’t leverage his strength to maintain his momentum forward through contact often. As a result, just 24 of his makes at the rim were unassisted and not created via putbacks.
Those makes came through glimpses of a potentially versatile finishing package. Smith hasn’t yet developed dexterity finishing with his left hand and isn’t as explosive a leaper off one foot in a crowd but flashed the ability to adjust his body in the air, euro-step to weave his way through traffic into a finger-roll finish and leverage his length to complete reverses or up-and-under’s around rim protectors.
Aside from executing basic drop-offs and kick-outs when he managed to collapse the defense, Smith also showed some vision bringing the ball up the court in transition to deliver some nifty bounce passes and facing the defense when he got the ball in the extended elbow area – assisting on 12.3% of Texas Tech’s scores when he was on the floor. He was also the play Chris Bear liked to have in the middle of an opponent’s zone.
When forced to stop his drives his short, Smith didn’t much of anything in terms of efficient shot making and running floaters or floaters off a jump-stop to finish over length from the in-between area but can unleash an awesome looking step-back pull-up off a hop step from time-to-time.
 DOB: 6/4/1999
EDITOR’S NOTE: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara