2020 NBA Draft: Jalen Smith Primed to Outperform Draft Position

This draft class is heavy on ball-dominant guards and bigs.

Naturally, lead guards will be compared with previous lead guards as teams go through their pre-draft process, and the bigs will be compared with bigs.

Within the post players and rim protectors category, there are a few ways to look at them as prospects. From my vantage point, any big needs to be looked at through the lens of their defense. None of the players in this draft class are foundational back-to-the-basket scorers, nor is the game valuing such a skill anymore.

So if we examine the defensive end, we’re looking at how a big would fit into two categories of pick-and-roll defense that are commonplace in the NBA: switching and drop coverage.

Switching, the preferred scheme of teams like the Golden State Warriors at their apex or Boston Celtics, seeks to negate advantages gained for the ball handler off the pick. To execute the scheme requires athleticism and the ability to defend quick ball handlers one-on-one.

Drop coverage is more about defending the hoop and ceding the mid-range while preserving original matchups. Bigs who can’t move their feet as well on guards but who are elite rim protectors and play angles well thrive in this coverage.

By my count, there are only two prospects in this class with first-round talent that can fit into both categories. One is Onyeka Okongwu, the USC big man with solid athleticism and rim protection instincts. The other is Maryland’s Jalen Smith.

Feb 15, 2020; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans forward Xavier Tillman (23) controls the ball defended by Maryland Terrapins forward Jalen Smith (25) during the second half of a game at the Breslin Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Smith is such an interesting prospect due to his versatility on both ends. Defensively, he’s a long and fluid athlete who moves like a wing but possesses a 7’2″ wingspan and blocks shots at the rim. On offense, he hit over 40 percent from 3-point range the final month of the season and is a ferocious dunker at the rim.

He’s a ball of clay but an incredibly intriguing one.

He has legitimate upside to be highly impactful on both ends and, because of that, he possesses the ability to be one of the few 2020 prospects to outperform their draft slot.

Strengths

Smith’s nickname is “Sticks”, and it’s apparent the first time you lay eyes on him. He’s super skinny but he sure can jump out of the gym.

The athleticism jumps out at you, but a dive into his film reveals a high level of perimeter skill that accompanies it.

At the very least, Smith’s ability to mismatch handle in transition and run the floor with a high motor are easily translatable skills he’s already conquered.

In a more traditional sense, most 5-men operate in three key areas at the game’s highest level: They stand in the short corners and prepare for catch-and-finish opportunities; They roll to the hoop after screens and finish inside of eight feet; They pick-and-pop or trail plays to create offense from the top of the key.

Check, check, check.

Smith is a fantastic dunker out of the short corner, also known as the dunk box. He’s a bit weak through contact right now due to his size, but he does have solid touch and, as we know, has the bunnies to slam it home with a head of steam.

He’s also a tremendous pick-and-pop big that is really effective in the middle third of the floor. He gets his feet set quickly, has a smooth and comfortable stroke, and possesses deep NBA range.

The defensive versatility to switch onto guards and play in a drop pick-and-roll scheme was already on display at Maryland. Coach Mark Turgeon utilized both during Smith’s sophomore year, and the latter executed both well. He has areas he needs to tighten up, but the raw potential of his tantalizing level of versatility should win out.

improvement areas

Listed at 225 pounds, Smith is anything but filled out. When discussing draftable players, we look at strength like a skill, but we likely overvalue it when talking about draft position.

Gaining muscle and strength is a fluid process and likely one of the easiest areas to improve at when on an NBA conditioning plan. Smith will fall in the draft because he’s thin. But while he needs to work on his body, it shouldn’t hold one back from seeing his potential once he gains that strength.

The other areas limit his offensive role. If Smith were a strong playmaker off the bounce and took care of the ball, he’d be a bonafide top-five pick.

But he is turnover-prone when he tries to put it on the floor and loses some of his athleticism in tight spaces. Until that does a large pivot from negative into positive, Smith isn’t more than a floor-stretcher or pick-and-pop dunker. Many of the tantalizing parts of his athleticism become locked as a result.

If he’s just a pick-and-pop big or a short corner finisher, the lack of strength matters more.

overall analysis and draft predictions

Feb 29, 2020; College Park, Maryland, USA; Michigan State Spartans forward Aaron Henry (11) blocks Maryland Terrapins forward Jalen Smith (25) shot attempt during the second half at XFINITY Center. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If you notice on the videos, Smith is listed as an “athlete” for his position. He isn’t just a post because, at the apex of his long-term potential, he has fluid face-up skills, the ability to shoot off screens and can be deployed like a 4-man.

That’s the crazy part of evaluating Sticks’ long-term potential: He has already illustrated in small terms just how impactful he has the potential to be in so many different ways.

But there’s also a predictable career arc with the projections of both skill and strength.

Right now, his body isn’t cut out for the grind of being a 5-man in the NBA. As his body gains strength and catches up with that, his skill will also develop. As the perimeter skill becomes more impactful, he’ll be best-suited for playing the 5 because of what he can do to posts at the other end. There’s a fairly wide gap between where he is now and that point, though.

Because of that gap, Smith is unlikely to crack the lottery.

Feb 29, 2020; College Park, Maryland, USA; Maryland Terrapins forward Jalen Smith (25) shoots a free throw during the second half against the Michigan State Spartans at XFINITY Center. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

He’s too tantalizing a prospect to escape the first round, though. Sticks put up unbelievable numbers in the second half of the season: After January 1st, he averaged 17.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and shot over 40 percent from 3. Those stats just don’t come along frequently, and he was the key reason Maryland went 13-5 during that time.

I see Smith a bit differently than the draft consensus because I’m all-in on his long-term potential.

Sure, he’ll take his licks early because he’s a bit skinny and not physical enough for the transition. But skill wins out, and Smith’s skills are immeasurably valuable. Shooting bigs open up the floor for everyone else. He can catch-and-finish on the interior.

And if the ball handling with his left or ability to pass on the move catch up with his athleticism, he’ll be such a dynamic offensive player.

All this comes within the knowledge that Smith can play in any defensive scheme—a highly versatile trait that most big men don’t have. He provides value in his prototype and has already shown a floor of production that’s worth an investment.

I view Smith as a top-ten talent in this draft even though I admit he’s very unlikely to go that high.

But he’s going to make some team very, very happy.

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