Evaluating the Best Fit for Auburn’s Jabari Smith at the Next Level

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Auburn Freshman Jabari Smith rises up for a shot against Miami in the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. PHOTO COURTESY OF SEC MEDIA

By Wil Crews

sportscrews@
opelikaobserver.com

OPINION —

Ask any Auburn fan and they will tell you who should be the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

Following a season where fans watched freshman Jabari Smith lead the Tigers to a regular-season SEC Championship and 28-6 overall regular season record, it was clear the 19-year-old was ready to make the jump to the pros.

Smith averaged 16.9 points, 7.4 rebound and 1.1 steals in his lone season on The Plains. The 6-foot-10-inch, 220-pound phenom relied on his length and stellar three-point shooting to establish himself as one of the premier players in the NCAA. His weaknesses — if you can call them that —are his slender frame and faint ability to take on other players off the dribble.

Now that the NBA Draft order was established on May 17, Smith is projected as a consensus top-3 pick. Following a strong performance at the NBA Draft Combine last week, Smith will now attend individual workouts with teams to solidify his stock. 

Smith’s main competition for the No. 1 draft spot comes from Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, and Duke’s Paolo Banchero — two standout freshmen from last season in their own right. The slender, 7-foot, 195-pound Holmgren averaged 14.1 points, 9.9 rebound and 3.7 blocks per game last season as he consistently had his Zags in the mix as the nation’s top team. The 6-foot-10-inch, 250-pound Banchero similarly dazzled fans and scouts   as he led Duke to the NCAA Championship game  in March in legendary coach Mike Kryzewski’s final season, averaging 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 assist per game.

The top three teams drafting in this year’s NBA Draft are as follows: No. 1,   Orlando Magic; No. 2,  Oklahoma City Thunder; No. 3, Houston Rockets.

To better understand which team may select Smith at the NBA Draft on Thursday, June 23, below is a breakdown of each of the top-3 teams’ current situations, and which one best fits the play-style and talent of Smith.

NO. 1 — THE ORLANDO MAGIC

Aside from the area’s attractive beach climate and linking up with former Auburn standout Chuma Okeke, the prospect of Smith being drafted by the Orlando Magic is a dreary one.

Excluding perhaps the Sacramento Kings, the Magic have been one of the NBA’s worst franchises over the past two decades. In its 32 seasons as an official member of the NBA, Orlando has made the playoffs in just 16 of its 33 seasons. The franchise has reached the NBA Finals twice — 1995 and 2009 — but never managed to capture the title.

More recently, the Magic have failed to win an NBA Playoff series for the past 12 seasons, failing to even make the playoffs since 2020. This past season, the Magic finished 22-60, the worst record in the league. So, if Smith is going to be the prospect to reverse the fortune of the franchise, how does he fit into the current roster? For starters, despite the poor results of the 2022 season, the Magic’s areas of “strength” include length and defensive versatility. Something the Magic are in dire need of, however, is outside shooting. Smith was one of the most efficient and effective deep-ball shooters in college last season and would instantly increase Orlando’s prospects in that area. The Magic’s current young core includes 2021 top-5 pick, point guard Jalen Suggs, guard Cole Anthony and forwards Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. The presence of Wagner, Carter Jr. and fellow forward Okeke will not likely deter the Magic from drafting Smith — or any of the consensus top-3 prospects for that matter, as all measure above 6-foot-9-inches. The best prospective fit for Orlando is Holmgren, however. The generational 7-foot-tall prospect possesses the size, shooting and defense that a franchise could rally around. He would also slot in nicely as the center in a lineup with Carter Jr. at the power forward position, and Wagner at the small forward. Adding Smith to that rotation would likely stunt the growth of at least one of the aforementioned up-and-comers, and additionally mean the Magic deem the likes of  2017 No. 6 overall pick Jonathan Issac — a 6-foot-10-inch forward himself — and 2018 No. 6 overall pick Mo Bamba, a wash.

Orlando’s potential lineup with Smith: PG – Jalen Suggs; SG – Cole Anthony; SF – Franz Wagner; PF – Jabari Smith; C – Wendell Carter Jr.

NO. 2 — THE OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Compared to Orlando, Oklahoma City is on the opposite end of the “attractive locations to be paid millions to put a ball in a hoop” list. Lacking the glitz and glamor of a beach town, the Thunder make up for those deficiencies with quality front office decisions. Looking at their past, the Thunder have struggled to maintain relevance since the departure of NBA superstar Kevin Durant in 2016. Giving credit where credit is due, since then, the Thunder have made the playoffs four out of the last six seasons — although failing to make it out of the first round each time. In an attempt to digress from the middle-of-the-pack purgatory it was in, Oklahoma City has — in my opinion — successfully completed a fire sale of its best assets the previous two seasons, while gaining promising young talent and draft picks in return. All total, Oklahoma City has a remarkable 38 picks in the next eight seasons — setting it up as the clear best team to be selected by at the top of this, and future drafts.

Furthermore, for Smith, Oklahoma looks to be the best “fit.” Currently, the Thunder’s coveted young stars include point guard Shai Gilgeous Alexander, and 2022 All-Rookie Second Team shooting guard Josh Giddey. Gilgeous-Alexander’s proven ability to run an offense and act as a primary playmaker make him an attractive one-two-punch partner for Smith. Additionally, Giddey’s quality three-point shot and high-energy play style would benefit from Smith, who would predictably garner attention himself as a floor spacer. Combine all this with the front office’s proven track record of developing talent — OKC drafted Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, No. 3, 4 and 5 on the active player career points-scored list, respectively — and the Thunder are the most appealing spot for Smith to land.

Oklahoma City’s potential lineup with Smith: PG – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; SG – Josh Giddey; SF – Luguentz Dort; PF – Jabari Smith; C – Isaiah Roby

NO. 3 — THE HOUSTON ROCKETS

The Rockets would be an interesting landing  spot for Smith. From a playing perspective, Smith could team up with last season’s No. 2 overall pick, point guard Jalen Green, and form a formidable one-two-punch for the next decade plus. Additionally, last season, shooting guard Kevin Porter Jr. and center Christian Wood flashed the potential to be building blocks in the franchise’s rebuild attempt. The Rockets have taken a downward turn the past two years. After reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2017-18 and blowing a 3-2 series lead to the Golden State Warriors, Houston has since departed with superstars James Harden and Chris Paul. The biggest hole on the current roster is at the power forward position, indicating the Rockets would select Smiths or Banchero, whichever was available come their pick. Smith is the better fit here in my opinion, although many do not believe the odds-on-favorite to be No. 1 will fall to Houston. Banchero has the advantage on Smith from a playmaking perspective, with his ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim as one of his biggest strengths. However, the Rockets have two quality, ball-dominant guards already in Green and Porter Jr. Smith’s ability to spot up from three would make him a natural complement to Houston’s young core. There are some serious doubts about the quality of the front office in Houston, however, and the addition of Smith would do little to improve the Rocket’s defensive woes … but who needs defense when you can score 140 points a game?

Houston’s potential lineup with Smith: PG – Jalen Green; SG – Kevin Porter Jr.; SF – Eric Gordon; PF – Jabari Smith; C – Christian Wood.

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