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2018 NBA Draft - Potential Milwaukee Bucks Prospects: Zhaire Smith

He's 19, he's a defensive force, and he's a swing for the fences; should he be a Buck?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Villanova vs Texas Tech Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the prospects we’ll discuss that could be available in the Bucks’s range in the upcoming draft, Zhaire Smith is surely one of the most intriguing of the bunch.

Smith, a 19 year-old who spent his sole college season at Texas Tech could be a lot of things in the NBA. At such a young age, it is tough to nail down any useful prediction on where his floor lies, or where his ceiling may be, though that sheer uncertainty of outcome is exactly what makes him a fringe lottery prospect; it may also be exactly what the Bucks are looking for with the 17th pick.

You see, Bucks GM Jon Horst seems, for all intents and purposes, to follow his predecessor’s drafting strategy. While we only have the 2017 Draft to go off of, the selections of DJ Wilson and Sterling Brown seem to fit the John Hammond rulebook to a T. Wilson, the lanky Michigan forward whose length, if you squinted really hard, supposedly had the “Bucks DNA” to fit the archetype of a “swing-for-the-fences-and-pray” pick Hammond routinely tried to make with first-round selections. Zhaire Smith represents the latest iteration of an all-or-nothing prospect that may have shown enough during his year in Lubbock, Texas to earn a first-round selection by the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Highlights

Of course, this wouldn’t be a prospect preview if we didn’t have a compendium of highlight videos for you to watch in order to convince you that this player here has no flaws, nu uh, not here sir!

And, to top it off, hear from the man himself:

The Numbers

First, let's start with the raw stats:

Next, the physical measurements (from the NBA Combine):

  • Height (without shoes) - 6’2.75”
  • Height (with shoes) - 6’4”
  • Weight - 198.6 pounds
  • Wingspan - 6’9.75”
  • Vertical leap - 41.5”
  • Lane agility – 11.02 seconds

The Good

Defense, defense, defense. It is on that end of the floor that Zhaire made a name for himself at Texas Tech, and it is on that end of the floor that he has the best chance of being an impact player from day one in the NBA.

You can start with his wingspan which clocks in at 6’9.75”. For a guy standing 6’5” in shoes, that’s not half bad and stacks up comparatively with Giannis’s 7’3” and Thon Maker’s 7’3.25”. Those dimensions allowed him to mix it up defensively in either the front or backcourt and are a promising canvas upon which increased strength and maturity can be built. Alongside that arm length is an energetic motor and impressive athleticism which made him a pest in the college game and should translate to the professional level. He’s opportunistic with steals and blocks, averaging 1.1 of each his freshman season, and he has the quickness to both handle speedy guards laterally and get moving in transition to attack the basket with a straight-line bull rush or as an off-ball outlet. That kind of established ability bodes well if he’s put into a system that demands its players switch and defend opponents both big and small. With the NBA hedging further and further towards switch-heavy defensive schemes, Zhaire may be coming along at just the right time for a team like the Bucks.

Statistically, his profile is the image of a guard who could at least hang with competition in the Big 12 at age 18. Nothing boldly jumps out upon first glance, but his per 40 numbers at 15.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.6 blocks showcase an impressive range of contributions for a freshman guard.

It is important to highlight that he did a lot of his work while not being the go-to option for Texas Tech. With a reasonable 18.3% usage rate he was able to make the right plays at the right times to put himself in prime positions. For a Milwaukee team replete with guys who eat up usage, a guard who is able to do a lot of helpful work off-ball could be a godsend. Combine that with a solid 61.8 True Shooting percentage, 45% mark from three (on a paltry 1.1 attempts a game, it must be said), 71.7% from the free-throw line, and 55.6% overall, and there may be the semblance of a scorer who, while not excellent, could be workable in an NBA system that doesn’t demand too much of him.

Overall, there’s a lot to like from Smith in both his current form, and in whatever direction he further develops. At age 19 there is a lot of room for growth, a point which should be highlighted when thinking about taking a chance on Zhaire at the 17th pick. If things break the right way, including a developed jump-shot and enhancements to his on-ball capabilities as a creator, the possibilities are almost endless for a guy with as much upside as Smith.

The Not-So-Good

Not everything is sunshine and unicorns, however. His 45% stroke from three is impressive, but given the limited number of attempts, it just isn’t clear if he’s hesitant to use the deep-ball, doesn’t really have the ability at the moment, or if it is just a case of a guy playing within a restricted role who could be unlocked by the right coaching staff. For a team bereft of reliable outside shooting and in a league where offenses are schemed ever further on the basis of going four- or even five-out, that type of hole on the perimeter might be a mood-killer. Per Jonathan Tjarks at The Ringer, Smith:

“…had the offensive profile of a center, not a guard. Smith got his offense from cuts (22 percent of his possessions), spot-ups (18.3 percent), transition (17.2 percent), and offensive rebounds (15.6 percent).”

Those numbers could either be a big red-flag or a godsend, depending on your view of Milwaukee’s offensive needs. Either way, it appears Smith is currently a relatively limited player on offense, even if he’s really really good within those limits.

Additionally, Smith’s on-ball playmaking left a lot to be desired. It isn’t like his assist:turnover ratio is horrible (1.8 to 1.1), but the size of both numbers are so small as to make extrapolating his ability to helm an offense (a trait that may or may not be a big deal depending on whether you think the Bucks need that). He made up for this deficiency by doing a ton of cutting and slashing in the paint, but fans might not be impressed if Smith turns out to be a shorter, jumpier version of Tony Snell.

Finally, it should be harped on one more time just how much of a relative unknown Smith is heading into the draft. Before his standout freshman season there wasn’t a ton of buzz about Zhaire, and one impressive year a sure-fire NBA player does not make. He had the right mix in college to hold his ground defensively and be a plus on offense, but there could be question marks as to how much more he can physically grow and whether what he has now will be enough against bigger, stronger, and faster competition. At the same time, if a consistent jump shot doesn’t materialize (a chance that can’t be discounted) Smith could fizzle out in terms of usefulness, especially if defenders are able to simply leave him to his lonesome on the perimeter or he’s stuck clogging up precious space in the paint that should be utilized by Giannis.

The Fit

After weighing the balance of Zhaire’s capabilities, it becomes necessary to evaluate how he’d fit with the Bucks both in the short- and long-term. Expecting Smith to come in and carve out a meaningful role in Milwaukee’s guard rotation is probably unrealistic, though he would potentially be aided by the clean slate of expectations with the hiring of Mike Budenholzer and day-one defensive capabilities. If he can provide spot minutes when the corps needs an assist on D and shows any sort of promise or range on the offensive end, I’d label that a wild success.

His presence could become more important two or three seasons from now. The Bucks have painted themselves into a corner with big dollar deals for the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Tony Snell and are equally hamstrung by upcoming contract decisions on Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, and Khris Middleton. Having Sterling Brown on a rookie deal gives Milwaukee options when deciding how to address their backcourt rotation, and getting to a place where Smith can be equally relied upon as a fallback would be a coup for a team as stuck in cap hell as the Bucks. That kind of timeline should work well with a guy as young as Smith who could develop into a solid partner as Giannis continues on to his prime playing years.

Finally, there are real worries about whether Milwaukee really needs another guy on the roster who doesn’t create for himself. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton can do a lot of heavy lifting on their own, but someone is going to need to step up and help with the bench unit, and Smith may never be that guy. The upside is tantalizing, but the Bucks may end up being better served trying to find a proven play-maker who can act as a pressure release valve throughout the course of a long NBA season.

At the end of the day, the success or failure of a Zhaire Smith selection will come down to whether he develops any further on the offensive end. Having a stellar defender in your back pocket has a value all its own, but if Zhaire is unable to stretch his presence beyond the paint… well, things could get pretty ugly pretty quickly.

Do the Bucks think they’ve got the training staff on hand to make sure Smith makes the leap from athletic defensive dynamo to an effective player on both ends of the court? If Budenholzer’s “Hawks University” finds a second life in Milwaukee, it may be worth the risk for the team to gamble on yet another boom-or-bust player in the first-round.