In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, today, we examine Maryland big man Jalen Smith.
Jalen Smith is one of the more versatile bigs in the 2020 NBA Draft. After two years at Maryland, the big man is widely projected as a late first round pick. Smith was one of the better bigs in the Big Ten, averaing 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds for the Terrapins in 2019-20. He was one of the consensus top-20 recruits coming out of high school in 2018.
The 6’10 center shot 54% from the floor and 37% from three on 2.8 three-point attempts per game. His shooting potential is one of the reasons he probably won’t last until the second round. Smith currently ranks No. 19 on ESPN’s best available, and No. 27 on Sam Vecenie’s big board over on The Athletic.
In 64 games at Maryland, the 6’10 center averaged 5.1 three-point attempts per 100 possessions, which is solid volume for a player with his size and defensive prospects. Nearly half of his usage was as a roll man or in post-ups, however.
Smith was not the best roll man, converting only 42% of his looks in these spots (34-for-81) which ranked him just the 49th percentile among bigs. Playing with a premier NBA playmaker could bring these numbers up, but you’d like to see a little more output to be sure. Smith was better in the post, ranking in the 60th percentile there but he only had 67 field goal attempts from the post in 31 games in 2019-20.
His most efficient areas, as you can see by examining the Synergy Sports table above, were transition, offensive rebounds and cuts. He was elite in transition and on put backs, ranking in the 99th and 94th percentiles respectively. Things like running the floor and offensive rebounding will be important for an off-ball player like Smith at the next level, as someone at his size likely will not garner a ton of post-up looks vs. opposing centers.
On spot-up jumpers, Smith shot 39% (12-for-31) last season, an encouraging number despite the low volume. Smith’s shot being somewhat projectable is a big part of why he is likely to be a first round pick come draft night.
If Smith can make a fair amount of his catch-and-shoot opportunities, and pour in some extra points in transition and on the offensive glass, he could be more than an adequate modern NBA big offensively. Shooting could be a swing skill for Smith, who actually has pretty fluid form for his size. If he’s able to become a legitimate threat from three, and can keep increasing his volume, he could go to another level offensively.
As a center, defense is where Smith has a chance to make his money at the next level. He probably plays a bit bigger than his listed height of 6’10, he possesses great verticality in the paint. Rim protection may be the single most important thing for a center, and he excelled in this area at Maryland.
Smith posted a block rate of 8.2 percent last season, and averaged 2.4 blocks per game. He is probably someone best deployed in drop coverage, as his biggest weakness defensively at this stage is still extending his mobility out towards the perimeter.
The big man showed some ability to defend wings and guards on switches, but in other instances some better players were able to get by him in space for easy scores. There is obviously more spacing in the NBA compared to NCAA, so this could be a concern and relegate Smith as mostly a drop coverage option defensively. This is probably ideal anyways given his shot-blocking skills, but obviously more versatility is always better.
Smith has the potential to be a plus on defense if he can improve on some of these things. In order to be effective in drop, he obviously should not have to do a ton of work on the perimeter. If he pans out, he should be good enough defensively to protect the rim off the bench for a few minutes at a time.
Smith should come off of the board before the end of the first round come draft night. Atlanta is not the best fit from a roster construction perspective, and also does not have a pick in the late first or early second currently. Smith is someone who started 64 games in major college basketball, so he may be able to contribute when he gets to the league. At the center position, however, mistakes can be magnified, especially defensively.
He will also need time to iron out his shot. Despite his college experience, Smith still feels like someone who could greatly benefit from a few games in the G League. He needs time to transition to a full-time ‘pick-and-pop’ type player, as last season nearly a quarter of his usage was on post-ups.
Down the road, Smith has a path to becoming a decent or better two-way starting center, but mostly likely he winds up a solid rotation piece if he pans out. He does not have a single elite skill that jumps off of the film, but he does enough things well, and is a good enough athlete, that he should evolve into a respectable NBA big man. Again, the shooting could be one of a few swing skills. If he’s able to really stroke it, he could become a starting center. On the other side, if he’s able to become more versatile defensively, that could also take his game to another level.
With the Atlanta Hawks trading for two centers before last season’s trade deadline, it is unlikely Travis Schlenk and the front office addresses the position again with this type of draft capital. In addition, the Hawks do not currently have a pick in the back half of the first round, but if they did move into this range, it may be safe to assume it would not be to draft a center.