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Jabari Smith’s Dominance Has Been Quiet. Does Auburn Need It To Be Louder?

The potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft isn’t typically deployed as a decoy with the game on the line. However, that’s precisely what happened when Auburn and Florida lined up for the final possession of a conference matchup in mid-February. Jabari Smith, the 6-foot-10 freshman who has skyrocketed up draft boards, idled in the corner as guard Wendell Green Jr. tried to create a shot in the final seconds. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said afterward that his team had “relied too much” on Smith, who didn’t so much as touch the ball on the Tigers’ most critical possession.

Smith scored a game-high 28 points in the loss, but it was the possession he wasn’t involved in — and the shot he didn’t take — that encapsulated some of the intrigue surrounding his candidacy for June’s top selection. With a clinical jump shot, savvy ball handling abilities and positional versatility at both ends of the floor, Smith’s skill set is tantalizing — and coveted. As one NBA scout put it in an interview with The Athletic, “Everyone has a huge, huge crush on him.” But if Smith goes No. 1 overall, he will do so after hunting considerably fewer shots than many of the players who heard their name called first on draft night.

Smith averages a team-high 12.3 field goal attempts and 16.6 points per game, but both marks rank just sixth in the SEC.1 If Smith’s name is called first in June, he’ll boast the lowest per-game shot attempts of any top pick since Ben Simmons.2 Add Smith’s free throw attempts per game (4.5) to the total and he would have the fewest combined shot attempts averaged by a No. 1 pick since Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015. Towns recently won the NBA 3-point Contest, but he was effectively banned from the perimeter in his lone season at Kentucky, where he played in a platoon system that limited him to 21.1 minutes per game.

Since 1990, 27 players who participated in college basketball have been taken with the No. 1 overall pick. Only five — Towns, Anthony Bennett, Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose and Greg Oden3 — put up fewer combined shots per game than Smith on average in the season preceding the draft. The primary difference between Smith and those five players: the depth of talent surrounding him. For example, Towns played alongside eight other McDonald’s All-Americans, eight future NBA players and two frontcourt starters who were lottery picks. In that type of setup, even elite prospects must defer to their teammates. And since 2011, the earliest year 247Sports has recruiting rankings for, there have been three No. 1 picks who averaged fewer shots than Smith in college; each was a part of a recruiting class that ranked in the top six in the nation.

But Auburn’s 2021 recruiting class featured just one recruit (Smith) and thus ranked 72nd, which is largely why the team was picked to finish fifth in the SEC’s preseason media poll.4 There is no Kentucky-style logjam of talent at Auburn, and Smith has allegedly had “the green light” since his recruitment. “As coaches we like to think we’re great, we know a bunch, and we’ll run this set or this action,” Auburn assistant coach Ira Bowman told Sports Illustrated. “But at the end of the day, you throw [Smith] the ball.”

That hasn’t played out on the court so far. Whether by design or by an 18-year-old’s trepidation, Smith’s scoring prowess — and the efficiency with which he shoots the ball from most areas on the floor — has been frequently tabled as a freshman. Of course, it’s not as though he isn’t getting his number called — Smith ranks in the 95th percentile nationally in usage rate, according to CBB Analytics. But perhaps he isn’t being asked enough to do what he does best. There was a 1-point road win over Missouri in which Smith didn’t take a shot in the final three minutes, and a 4-point road victory over Saint Louis where he shot just twice in the final six minutes. In a win over Kentucky, Smith attempted a single shot in the final six minutes, and he took two shots in the final 15 minutes in a win over Alabama.

Smith says he doesn’t want to take bad shots. “It’s gotta be a shot [in] the flow of the offense or the rhythm of the game,” he recently explained to Sports Illustrated. And in an encouraging sign for Auburn fans, it seems the team has realized in recent weeks that any shot from one of the best players in the country can’t be too bad. Smith has scored at least 27 points in three of his last four games, with four of his five biggest shooting outputs this season coming in the past four weeks. His high-water mark in attempts came in his most recent outing, a loss to Tennessee, where he nearly exceeded his per-game average in field goal attempts in the second half alone. “[Jabari] will have to continue to do a little more for us,” Pearl said recently. “He’ll have to force the issue a little bit more.” 

The flow of the offense should probably revolve more around Smith’s deep marksmanship, as he shoots 41.9 percent from 3-point range, good for 90th percentile according to CBB Analytics, for an Auburn team that ranks in the bottom quartile beyond the arc. As Pearl told The Athletic, Smith is “the best jump-shooting big in college basketball, and I’m not sure it’s close.”

Smith’s quiet dominance also extends to the defensive side of the ball, where he can seamlessly guard all five positions. With the lateral quickness to stay in front of guards and the frame to at least pester bruising centers, Smith projects to be at least a plus defender at the next level. 

Auburn is No. 8 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and Smith is a big reason why. He affects the game defensively without getting into foul trouble, ranking in the 94th percentile in personal foul efficiency according to CBB Analytics, which measures a player’s ratio of steals and blocks to the numbers of fouls they commit. Yet teammate Walker Kessler has gotten all the attention on that side of the ball. Kessler leads the nation in blocks per game (4.7) and block percentage (20.1) and was named to the Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year watch list.

That may be another way in which Smith defers to the team concept. “Our versatility, our unselfishness and our ability to play on both ends,” Smith said. “Not too many people have that at the four and the five.” 

Former No. 1 overall picks who didn’t hunt the typical high volume of shots nearly always fell back on their status as elite defenders. Bennett ranked second in the Mountain West in blocked shots during his lone season at UNLV; Davis was named Defensive Player of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. While Smith isn’t likely to earn any postseason defensive accolades, he is an essential element of the nation’s top shot-blocking outfit and the best defense Pearl has ever produced as a coach.

To be sure, Smith is leaving his fingerprints all over this Auburn team and its historic season. In late January, the Tigers reached No. 1 in the AP Poll for the first time in program history. Even after two losses in the last three games, Auburn projects to be a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.  And Smith’s relatively modest box-score impact shouldn’t be confused with lackluster performance, given the immediate boost he’s given to Auburn’s national title chances. But it’s also clear that Smith is just not as much of a stat-stuffer as recent top selections, for better or for worse.

Footnotes

  1. Through games of Feb. 27.

  2. A player infamous for his at-times unwillingness to shoot, to say nothing of the shots he passes up due to the hand with which he shoots.

  3. Kyrie Irving was excluded from the sample because he played in less than half his team’s games in 2010-11 due to injury.

  4. The Tigers were active in the transfer portal, which accounts for three of the team’s starting five, including former five-star recruit Walker Kessler.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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