EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

EOTS’ 5 at No. 16: Would Suns gamble, wait on Zhaire Smith’s development?

May 31, 2018, 7:26 AM | Updated: Jun 4, 2018, 8:49 am
Texas Tech's Zhaire Smith, top, dunks against Villanova during the second half of an NCAA men's col...

Texas Tech's Zhaire Smith, top, dunks against Villanova during the second half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament regional final, Sunday, March 25, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Empire of the Suns is diving deep on the Phoenix Suns’ other picks besides the first overall selection, Nos. 16 and 31. We will be examining five players we feel are the best fits for the Suns in the mid-first round, then will break down the five positional groups on the Suns’ roster and who they could target in the late-first to early-second round.

It’s not easy to find disagreement in the debate about who the Phoenix Suns should take at No. 1 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Whether you are team Deandre Ayton or team Luka Doncic, though, both sides seem to almost unanimously agree the choice comes down to taking whoever is the best player available.

That’s a sound philosophy to have with the top selection in the draft, but how about when you get further down the line? Do you start to prioritize where you have needs on the roster? What about specific skillsets?

In an extension of that question, the one related  to Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith concerns if the Suns would be willing to take a player that has the rawest offensive skillset of any top-20 prospect and put him in a crowded wing group. Let’s dive in on his outlook as a prospect and then revisit how he would fit in with Phoenix.

Strengths

Smith’s appeal has nothing to do with being able to score or shoot the ball, making him already a fairly unique prospect.

The combination that makes him so tantalizing is his athleticism, work rate and basketball IQ.

At an undersized 6-foot-4 (more on that later) with a nearly 6-foot-10 wingspan, Smith is one of the best leapers we’ve seen in the first-round range of the NBA Draft this decade.

We are talking Gerald Green jumping high enough to blow out a cupcake on the back rim and then dunk the ball-level hops.

Beyond the hops, Smith also moves well laterally and has a strong 199-pound build he can add weight toward.

He has a knack for energy plays, sensing the right times to cut backdoor and make plays at the rim. Smith averaged 2.2 offensive rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game, a ludicrous amount for a guy of his size.

Smith is also a really smart passer. He lacks the ability to make high-level feeds, but he has great floor vision to make the right play.

The 18-year-old was not a high-profile shooter for the Red Raiders. But, when you take all those juicy super role player attributes and add a jumper to it, you get a performance like Smith had in the NCAA Tournament against Florida: 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting, nine rebounds and seven assists.

His all-around potential is definitely lottery worthy.

Weaknesses

Even with what he does well, Smith simply must develop offensively to have true NBA value.

He averaged only 7.5 shots a game and took 65 percent of them at the rim, which according to The Stepien’s shot charts, was in the meteoric 99th percentile among guards. Of those makes at the rim, 43 percent were assisted, another very high number for a guard.

Beyond that mark, only 8 percent of Smith’s field goal attempts were from NBA three-point range, the lowest number you’ll see for a first-round guard prospect nearly any year.

From three-point range, he shot 18-of-40, good for 45 percent. As Suns fans learned with Elfrid Payton, though, a good percentage on limited attempts could make the wrong suggestion.

We saw him hesitate a few times when faced with an open catch-and-shoot look.

The reason there’s optimism around his growth is Smith’s rapid improvement over the past year. He was only a three-star prospect and ranked No. 194 in the country by 247 Sports.

Those who see Smith as a top-10 prospect think his shooting getting better is only the beginning and he will be consistently able to score off the dribble as well. That’s a big ask, though, for a potential pick in the late lottery.

Lastly, Smith’s measurements at the combine were not what you would hope for when it comes to someone you want to value as a versatile defender.

At 6-foot-2.75 without shoes, just 6-foot-4 in them with a 6-foot-9.75 wingspan, a couple more inches in each category, and Smith’s physical profile could have been good enough to play a lot of small forward. The lack of those extra 2 inches do matter.

Now, he’s going to be playing a majority of his time as a potentially limited shooter and offensive threat at shooting guard. Because of that, now you are really betting on him to get even bigger and stronger while being a credible offensive player.

Fit in Phoenix

Focusing on his projected skills and size, Smith’s profile isn’t unprecedented for NBA success. Tony Allen is one of the best perimeter defenders the NBA has had in the past 15 years and he was the same height as Smith while not being much on offense.

The Suns could sure use a defensive ace on the perimeter who makes all the right little plays. The Suns could sure not use another player who can’t shoot.

Playing either behind or with Devin Booker, Smith could provide similar, balanced intangibles like Josh Jackson as a Booker running mate.

Beyond Booker and Jackson in the rotation, though, there’s T.J. Warren and I’m sure the Suns want to see more of last year’s second-round pick Davon Reed. Could the Suns use Smith as a defensive point guard while Booker runs the offense?

With plenty of options in the mid-first round, the Suns might favor filling a traditional need at either point guard, power forward or center, depending on how the top selection unfolds.

Smith, though, like our three previously covered prospects — Robert Williams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox — will very likely be one of if not the best prospect available if he’s there when the Suns are on the clock at No. 16.

What he can already do on the court and that value should make him a priority for the Suns in that range.

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