Orlando Magic Draft Preview: Debunking the myths about Jabari Smith, Jr.

Jabari Smith Jr. is a gifted shooter but questions about his ability to create persist. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Jabari Smith Jr. is a gifted shooter but questions about his ability to create persist. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are facing a choice that is unlike any that has been seen in recent NBA Drafts.

There is no clear-cut player at the top of everyone’s boards. There is no certainty with who the team should pick with the No. 1 pick.

This is not quite the vaunted 2013 Draft which had no player who was apparently the top pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers stunned everyone by taking Anthony Bennett. There are legitimately strong players in this draft.

The reporting and the sentiment around the league still has Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Jr., as the betting favorite to be the top pick. A lot of Magic fans seem to be landing in that camp too.

But as far as we know, he nor the other two top prospects have made their expected trip to Orlando for an interview and a tour of the city and facility. That will remain a big part of the Magic’s decision-making process. Orlando has not come anywhere near a final decision if their history has anything to say about it.

So the debate rages on. And there are good arguments for all three prospects.

Jabari Smith Jr. is the favorite to be the top pick. The criticism for the Auburn forward though is his individual scoring. A criticism based in fact, but still in need of added context.

Inevitably when there is a decision that feels this close, it is easy to focus more on what a player cannot do rather than what they can do. Because the team is splitting hairs and trying to make a decision, there is a focus on the drawbacks.

This makes sense, especially when it comes to the favorite in Smith.

Smith averaged 16.9 points per game and shot 42.0-percent from beyond the arc last year at Auburn. Nearly half of his field goal attempts were 3-pointers — 5.5 3-point attempts per game out of 12.6 total field goal attempts per game. He shot 43.5-percent on his 2-point field goals.

His combination of shooting and defensive length and versatility appear to be the dream for a team like the Orlando Magic. Indeed those skills are things the Magic have sought out and have made clear they value both in public comments and in their previous draft choices.

Proponents for Smith speak about this baseline most of all. He might be the safest player among the top three because, at minimum, it feels like he will be a valuable 3-and-D wing.

Smith should be able to jump into the lineup and quickly contribute as a role player as his other skills increase.

But the question for him appears to be whether he can truly become a primary scoring option.

With the first pick in the Draft, everyone believes the team should be getting a player who can be the team’s primary scorer and centerpiece player. And that is something Smith did not show a lot at Auburn.

Is that criticism fair? It does come from somewhere and there are still questions and concerns about Smith becoming an elite wing player. There are parts of his game that are missing. But it is also clear there are hints he can overcome them and joining a new team will help with that.

The big knock on Smith is that he did not show at Auburn the ability to create off the dribble or be that primary scorer.

I have taken to comparing him to Rashard Lewis — both the Seattle Supersonics and Orlando Magic version combined. Lewis was a great player and a two-time All-Star, but not exactly the guy you build your offense around.

Smith though has shown he can continue to develop and break out of this box and that is what the Magic would be betting on if they make him the first pick.

A big area that suggests Smith still has more to offer is a myth about his usage. Here context from Auburn is really important.

The big complaint at Auburn was that the team’s guards kept the ball from Smith. That is only partly true — they may have been the initiators for the offense and creators, but Smith got plenty of opportunities.

According to Sports-Reference, Smith posted a 27.6-percent usage rate — that usage rate was the same in SEC play. That certainly suggests he was plenty involved in the offense. But a lot of that is from catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.

There is no doubt finding a better scoring balance is the next step for Smith. In my conversation with Zac Blackerby of Locked on Auburn on a recent episode of Locked on Magic, Blackerby said the Tigers tried to give Smith the room to attack on occasion but found that he sometimes struggled to get to the rim or create his own shot.

A look at all of Smith’s big games see him taking a lot of 3-pointers. He made seven 3-pointers in scoring 31 points against Vanderbilt, he made 4 of 5 3-pointers in a 28-point effort at Florida. The 3-point shot is a big part of his game.

But there is still the evidence he can add mid-range jumpers or other shots in the paint to his game.

He made 6 of 12 2-point shots in a 27-point effort against Tennessee, 6 of 8 inside the arc in a 27-point game against Mississippi State, and 4-for-9 shooting in a 23-point effort against Oklahoma. These are not small opponents and there are plenty of other games where Smith put in big scoring games thanks not only to his 3-point shot but also his ability to put smaller players in the post and create some shots in the mid-range.

To be sure, this criticism of Smith’s game is valid. But it is also clear that this is an area he can grow and improve. Despite playing alongside veteran guards like Wendell Green and K.D. Johnson, Jabari Smith still led the Tigers in scoring and field goal attempts per game.

Late in games, as Blackerby puts it, Auburn turned to their freshman forward to lead the way and make big baskets. That is the biggest trust any team can give. And it goes against some of the narratives about Smith.

Sure, in the loss to Miami in the NCAA Tournament (an 18-point loss), Smith scored only 10 points and shot an icy 1 for 8 from beyond the arc (he still led the team in field goal attempts).

But in close games Auburn played, like a late-season overtime win against Mississippi State, Smith stepped up.  In that game, Smith scored 27 points and made 9 of 13 shots. In the final five minutes and overtime of that game, with Auburn trailing by five points, Smith scored 10 points including the game-tying basket with about 50 seconds to play.

In a mid-February loss to Florida, Smith took five field-goal attempts in the final 10 minutes (his making only one of those field goals likely cost Auburn the game). He made three of four shots in the final 6.5 minutes and overtime of a loss to Arkansas, including making back-to-back 3-pointers late in overtime that brought Auburn back within one score.

There is something to say the Tigers did not go to Smith enough late in these games. Auburn got him the ball plenty as an outlet, but it is also clear there were opportunities to give him the ball.

That part was always a point for the team to improve.

This individual scoring aspect is the biggest area Smith can improve. Especially considering the NBA floor will afford him more space since he will not be playing with a paint-bound center like Walker Kessler and playing with a stretch-5 like Wendell Carter.

If there is something Smith will have to work on and improve from scratch, it is his passing and playmaking. The other tools he needs to be that primary scorer are all there.

Whether he can unlock that is one of the biggest questions facing him as a prospect.

The biggest thing to realize is that these are all extremely young players — all 19 years old — and they will all continue to get better. If they are not determined to do that, the Magic would not even be considering them for the top pick and part of the interview process is perhaps to suss that emotional intelligence out.

The college game and these players’ roles in college are so different than what they might see and experience in the NBA, that some of these supposed drawbacks can be debunked at least a little.

Part of the process and decision-making process for the Magic is very much trying to understand the context of these players and trying to project what more they can do that they were not able to show, answering many of these questions.

Next. Draft Preview: Patrick Baldwin Jr.'s promise and disappointment. dark

Smith certainly has plenty more to show with the way Auburn used him and plenty of areas for his game to grow.