Updated: Jun 15
Jabari Smith had a phenomenal freshman season that propelled him to the top of draft projections, and his defensive upside presents much of that appeal. This is the second of five mini articles that will focus on the top big men in the 2022 NBA Draft and their ability to defend, notably with unique tracking data geared toward exactly how they accrued their blocked shots during this past season and what we can learn from them.
In the latest edition of ‘P.I. Pulse’, Pro Insight contributor Bjorn Zetterberg continues ‘Data Tracking,’ a new series that explores some of the nitty-gritty nuances surrounding different groups of 2022 NBA Draft prospects. Up next: Auburn’s Jabari Smith.
Jabari Smith is the everything you’d want in a top prospect: size, length, athleticism, shooting, feel, defense, elite analytic indicators, and a high ceiling. He has perhaps the most ironclad case for being at the top of the draft this year in the mold of the ideal modern combo forward. Smith has shown us flashes of brilliance, with some of the most jaw dropping plays in college basketball this past season. He has a fiery demeanor that pumps up himself and teammates, yet has a fairly poised and mature style of play that is uncanny for a prospect who just turned 19 years old. Smith has NBA DNA that should propel him into being a defensive force, so let's get into how by checking out tracking data from his blocked shots.
Smith was equally productive as an on-ball shot blocker as he was coming from help defense, as it was nearly a 50-50 split on his 33 blocks as freshman. He’s a fearless rim protector coming from the weak side, showing a willingness to step up into the lane and challenge anything, even if it means being posterized. Interestingly, he had by far the highest rate of vertical contest share on blocks at the rim tracked in this study among the top big men in the 2022 Draft. He shows a maturity and NBA readiness already at the rim with defensive instincts, quick reflexes, and good technique. He handled contact in mid-air collisions and effectively used length to respond, not shying away from contact, at all.
Nearly one-third of his total blocks came in the paint with mid-air contact, the highest rate of the bunch (among Paolo Banchero, Mark Williams, Chet Holmgren, and Jalen Duren). While he only held his aerial real estate half the time on those contest collisions, Smith’s length showed prominence on those plays to get a hand on the ball and was a fantastic counter when he was physically moved mid-air.
Of the bigs tracked for this study, Smith had the highest rates of blocks (33%) coming from behind the shooter’s line of sight and an extra 12% from off to the side of them. Based on this, he has margin for error with his leaping and length, and he doesn’t foul much, either. Jabari is very good at getting back in transition defense for a big, as he’s a long strider who gets down the floor effortlessly.
Of his 33 blocked shots, 27% (nine total) came in transition, and another handful could be added from semi-transition defense. Smith assertively gets back on defense after missed shots, as he rovers like a safety in the front court, allowing him to position and time his defensive efforts instead of scrambling. The tradeoff to this kind of effort for Smith is one of the lowest offensive rebounding percentages for bigs in the draft class, and Auburn was a very good offensive rebounding team this past season. Some of that offensive rebounding at the next level will hinge on scheme and team role in the NBA, but transition defense might be a better service of his talents than crashing the offensive glass.
Smith is among the most switchable defenders in this draft class and has all the tools to be a force in the NBA guarding both the interior and perimeter. His film showed capable promptness on rotations, speed to the perimeter on sprint outs, adaptable showing on different pick-and-roll coverages, and effort challenging shots. While he doesn’t always have a hand up closing out to the perimeter and gets lost ball-watching off the ball on occasion, it’s really impressive when he puts it all on display. His defensive awareness, proficiency and versatility are all high level for a young player. At a minimum, the defensive end will give him every opportunity to see the floor as a rookie and make him one of the safer bets in this draft, almost regardless of development. Looking at Smith’s future in the NBA, in the words of MJ, the ceiling is the roof,
In case you missed it, make sure to read the first installment of Data Tracking: Paolo's Presence
Bjorn has worked in the NBA for about a decade as an associate analyst with the Orlando Magic, Video Analyst Manager for the Portland Trail Blazers and Advance Scout for the Idaho Stampede. You can follow him on twitter @bjornzetterberg and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.