SN Draft Lab: What has Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. skyrocketing up Mock Draft boards?

The SN Draft Lab puts the best college, G-League and international players under the microscope as we head into the 2022 NBA Draft. NBA scouts are faced with the daunting task of evaluating the talent not not only based on what the players can do now, but also how they project themselves into the NBA game in the future. Throughout the 2021-22 season, Sporting News will break down the biggest prospects, projects and matchups to bring you the latest information on the names moving up and down the draft boards.

Heading into the 2021-22 college basketball season, the race for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft was seen to be a two-man race between Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. Both prospects were considered head and shoulders above the field with skill sets that are very advanced for players their age and size.

But as the season unfolds, there’s another prospect who has made his way into consideration for the top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft: Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr. has entered the chat.

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The 18-year-old freshman has scouts smitten with his NBA-ready body, silky-smooth shot and two-way potential as a versatile defender.

Listed at 6 ft 10, 220 lbs. With a wingspan of over 7 feet, Smith has all the physical tools to succeed at the next level. Averaging 15.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game thus far, Smith fills out the stat sheet on both ends of the floor every night. When you factor in that he’s shooting 45.7 percent efficient from the field and 43.0 percent (!) from 3, you can begin to imagine why he’s making his way into the No. 1 overall pick discussions.

In fact, according to NBA Draft analyst Chad Ford, Smith has become “a heavy favorite” to hear his name spoken first by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “Among the lottery teams I surveyed, it has become a big favorite among most of them,” Ford reported, while mentioning that Banchero and Holmgren still have support to be number 1 as well.

But what exactly gets Smith up in Mock Drafts?

Let’s start with your shooting touch.

How often could you argue that a 6-foot-10 forward can have the best jumper in his draft class? In recent memory, Kevin Durant is the only example I can think of (and no, this is not a comparison between Smith and one of the best scorers the game has ever seen).

However, Smith’s fluid shooting motion, high throw and soft touch have him on a par with any of his shooting partners.

Give him an inch of perimeter space and he’ll stop and make you pay instantly.

If you have a mismatch on the inside, you will see your patience in taking on your defender, working a jab step, or showing off your coordinated footwork and shooting over the top.

Most of his jump shot attempts have been of the catch-and-shoot variety so far this season, but he does have some shot-creation skills that could be developed if he tightens his control and sets up a few moves. He’s comfortable grabbing a rebound and pushing the pace in transition, but his ballhandling can get away from him at times, preventing him from really being a scoring or playmaking threat in the open field.

He still has a ways to go in those areas, which could limit his ceiling as a potential superstar or the No. 1 option on a team, but that shot-hit at his size makes him a dream in today’s NBA, even if he never becomes a prolific shot-maker.

I also think Smith’s ability as a screen creator in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop scenarios will become an unlocked asset at the NBA level, something he’s not doing. tonne of Auburn right now.

Defensively, he’s mobile on the perimeter and physical on the inside, making him a candidate to defend 3-for-5, but also to comfortably switch shooting guards. Averaging more than one block and one steal per game, Smith has good instincts and quick hands, even if he’s not super stringy or energetic on that end of the floor. His biggest impact as a defender is on the perimeter, where his height and size stifle opponents looking to attack and score.

He’s not the great prototype that will sit in the paint and guard the rim, but his defensive IQ and length position him to challenge shots around the basket. (It’s also worth noting that it’s not his job to anchor Auburn’s defense as a rim protector, with 7-foot Walker Kessler’s 4.2 blocks per game leading the nation among Power 5 schools.)

Smith is a bit of a “tween” and it will be interesting to see if NBA teams view him more as a small forward at wing or a power forward on the inside, even in today’s increasingly positionless game.

Smith has all the tools of an adaptable forward in today’s NBA, giving him very high potential. The biggest question surrounding the Auburn star freshman is what’s his ceiling?

At 18, that certainly isn’t set yet, but it’s hard not to be encouraged by the direction he’s headed as a possible No. 1 pick.