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, in this edition, we examine UCLA forward Chris Smith.
UCLA is a classic blue blood program in college basketball, producing among the most NBA players of any school. When you have this impressive collection of talent year in and year out, some of the less heralded players either fade into the background or mold their games to become important cogs as role players. Chris Smith took the latter route as a late bloomer looking to bounce to the NBA this fall.
Smith is a 6’9”, 215-pound forward who just finished his third season as a Bruin. Smith made a big leap between his sophomore and junior season, which has put him solidly on the NBA radar. He has a long, slender build and uses his length extremely well on the defensive end to harass the space for opposing offenses. There is not an officially recorded wingspan available for the UCLA forward, but I would imagine it is in excess of 7’ with how often he is bothering shots and passing lanes.
His most recent season as a 20-year-old, Smith put up averages of 16.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Smith became a very good shooter as a junior, with a triple slash of 50.7/34.1/84.0 shooting from two-point range, three-point range and the free throw line, respectively.
Smith is a selfless and blue collar player who comes from a program that sees a lot of hyped 4 and 5-star talent come through the doors. In his third year, he finally settled in as a reliable complementary player on the floor and projects as a 3-and-D wing or stretch forward at the next level.
The following sequence demonstrates his commitment to the team in way that doesn’t appear on any stat sheet. Smith sets and resets his pick until a lane opens up for the ball handler, navigating the space between two defenders until the bigger player is switched onto the point.
Smith is an active and aware help defender, and his hustle and motor never stop on that end. He is smart to recognize when he can sag off his defender and provide a tag to a teammate getting beat off the dribble.
He intelligently comes off screens and can veer either left or right with the ball and pull up with ease. Here, we see two Bruins come off down screens in the post and flare out toward the perimeter. Smith knows how to use the separation created from the screen and fade out toward the baseline for a rhythm jumper.
He can be used as a trail player in transition, with enough shooting to make teams scramble to pick him up in semi-transition. Despite poor shooting numbers from outside the arc in his first two seasons, Smith shot a respectable 34.1% from long range on 2.8 attempts per game. He possesses a smooth and effortless stroke and demonstrated that prowess much more as the season progressed.
Even though he didn’t block many shots in college — just 0.5 blocks per 36 minutes over his career — Smith definitely has the length and quick leaping ability to affect shots around the rim.
Smith is extremely switchable and rangy on defense, and he willingly jumped out on smaller players and routinely locked them down. He stays in his defensive stance well with his arms spread to make himself bigger, and it tends to intimate ball handlers.
In total, Smith profiles as an above average on ball or point of attack defender and all around asset as a perimeter defender. He can also step into the lane and protect the rim against guards and forwards should the paint protector be absent. His shooting trended up across his college career and has a fluid jump shot that projects well.
Although a junior, he won’t turn 21 until December of this year, putting him at a younger age than one-and-done players Precious Achiuwa and Cassius Stanley.
Chris Smith was a three-star recruit in 2017 and took a long adjustment period to match the speed of the college game. Smith started just 38 of 97 possible games in college but played in all of them. His performance over his freshman and sophomore seasons saw him average just 10.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per 36 minutes on an ugly 45.6 eFG%. Is this breakout season in 2019-20 representative of what’s to come?
He can be passive and indecisive on offense despite his physical tools.
Below, Smith begins to drive and realizes the lane is cut off. Instead of waiting for his teammate to show, he tosses up a wild flip shot with his right.
Smith clearly prefers his right hand to his left, but also prefers dribbling left to free himself of the defense. At times, he’ll settle for lazy jumpers when a few dribbles could get him to the lane.
Smith almost never tried to take over a game and tended to stick to off-the-dribble jumpers and catch-and-shoot attempts over slashing to the lane. Even when he did, his lack of bulk made it tough for him to finish through contact.
Below, Smith tries some sort of turnaround fadeaway to avoid the contact from the defender, Nico Mannion, who is six inches shorter than Smith. The shot ends up ever so slightly short.
Smith will need to bulk up some to counter the physicality of bigger forwards. Here, Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji backs him down with ease in the post as Smith offers little resistance.
His lack of strength is also on display when fighting for rebound. Here he is getting thrown out of the paint by Ohio State’s Kyle Young and resorting to a panic foul to give away an and-1.
Smith offered small hints at a post game but his tall center of gravity sees him get pushed away from the basket too easily. He didn’t show much of a face up game, choosing turnaround jumpers when possible regardless of the size of the opponent defender. He’ll have to add some different shot types to counter what he would see from an NBA-level defender or else he’ll pretty much be relegated to spotting up in the corner and above the break for threes as a low usage player.
Similarly, Smith’s defense may never be elite without gaining strength and he may only be useful as a gadget defender against smaller forwards.
Possible fit with the Hawks
The Hawks have invested significant draft capital in acquiring wings in the last two drafts between Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. Certainly, any team who aims to space the floor for 48 minutes a game can never have enough low usage wings to spot up or swing the ball on offense.
Still, Smith just didn’t put up noteworthy numbers or have a huge impact in his three years in college. Smith has some of the tools NBA scouts look for and at best is a high upside wing going forward. Sam Vecenie of The Athletic has Smith ranked at 43rd on his big board, but I would personally peg him lower and at significant risk of going undrafted. A pre-draft combine may have elevated his standing, as he looks to be a tall and explosive leaper and sprinter, but in this strange offseason, Smith was robbed of that chance.
Smith’s level of competition is never in question as a big conference player for three years, but his sudden breakout over the last 31 games in a pandemic-shortened season leave me wondering if it was fool’s gold.