If the San Antonio Spurs decide to move back in the 2020 NBA Draft, Maryland sophomore Jalen Smith could fill a lot of gaps for them moving forward.
One possibility that the San Antonio Spurs could pursue in the 2020 NBA Draft is to move back and create more depth for the coaching staff to toy with. The team took three players last season: Luka Samanic, who was a swing for the fences, Keldon Johnson, who was a safe pick and Quinndary Weatherspoon, who’s a work in progress with high upside. Opting to use this method again this year by trading back might be worth a look and Maryland big man Jalen Smith is a sure-fire pick in the backside of the first-round.
Last year, Smith played second-fiddle to Bruno Fernando, who went 34th overall to the Atlanta Hawks in 2019. With Fernando gone and a massive gap remaining, Smith stepped into a larger role for his team and proved that he’s worthy of NBA Draft hype himself. The 20-year-old stands at 6-foot-10, 225 lbs with the ability to switch between the four and the five with ease.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 19, 2020
Having a player like Smith who has not just the size, but the athleticism to play both big man positions is helpful in the modern game and allows for roster flexibility.
That upside as a versatile player who fits the NBA in its current state is what makes him most appealing. Whether it be as a floor-spacing center or a face-up power forward, Smith is going to assert himself however which way his team deploys him.
He’s not perfect, but no draft prospect is, and all signs indicate that Smith can translate to the NBA relatively well given his surfeit of skills combined with an athletic frame and sound instincts.
Next: Assessing Smith's game
Smith is likely to be better than his expected NBA Draft position and the San Antonio Spurs should capitalize on that.
A Baltimore-native like the Spurs’ own Rudy Gay, Smith stayed relatively close to home when choosing to attend the University of Maryland. He received offers from top programs around the country including Arizona, Villanova, Virginia and USC, but opted to stay with his home state.
His freshman campaign left some NBA intrigue, averaging 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on mediocre shooting splits. However, that extra season in college did wonders for Smith, giving him time to mature into his frame and an elevated role for the best team in the Big Ten this year.
Smith’s stat line jumped to 15.5 points, 10.5 boards and 2.4 blocks per game on 53.8 percent shooting from the field and 32-of-87 3-point shooting at 36.8 percent. You can read between the lines on that and his 75 percent free throw percentage to note that he has a legitimate shooting touch. Those numbers are indicative of substantial shooting ability at the next level.
Aside from the appeal of his jumper, Smith can insert himself into most situations and make an impact. Whether he’s spacing the floor, setting a screen, or posting up for a score himself, Smith can make his presence felt in a variety of ways. He’s a high-IQ athlete with good timing on the fastbreak and in open-court situations. When he’s not under the basket preparing for a defensive rebound, you can find Smith leaking out to terrorize opponents in fastbreak transitions.
This is the kind of modern intuition that I alluded to earlier. Smith fulfills his role as a primary rebounder and interior presence for his team, but isn’t afraid of doing things that a guard or small forward would traditionally do like getting out in transition or picking up a ball-handler on the perimeter. Though he’s not built to keep up with shifty guards, he’s adept at positioning himself to close out on jumpers or block shots and when a ball handler drives to the rim. Smith knows how to time his movements to reject layups, or at the very least, interrupt them.
It’s not often that a college big man averages as many blocks as fouls, which is a testament to his underrated IQ. His ability to keep up with assignments at multiple positions is a trait that the Spurs are in dire need of these days. Smith is the kind of player who could legitimately be a successor to LaMarcus Aldridge for the silver and black.
Next: Fitting Smith into the Spurs' timeline
Smith makes sense for the San Antonio Spurs’ young core.
Adding someone like Smith makes for an ideal pairing with Croatian forward Luka Samanic. While most of Samanic’s upside comes on offense, Smith maintains the defensive IQ and adaptability that could cater to their previous first-round selection.
Even more so than that, Smith could fulfill a lot of what the Spurs seek from Aldridge, who enters the final year of his contract in San Antonio next season. There’ve been consistent talks about him returning to Portland, where he spent the majority of his career, and Smith has the tools to take over that role once it becomes vacant.
Smith’s mid-range game isn’t nearly what LaMarcus’ is, but he’s still an excellent face-up big who can play either position down low and has layered rim protection skills. Though it’s more likely for Jakob Poeltl to assume the brunt of Aldridge’s minutes at first, Smith projects to be a smart enough player to effectively slot in off the bench to share the floor with any combination of Poeltl, Samanic or even Trey Lyles early in his career.
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Think of the Spurs’ best young players right now: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker. All three of these individuals have a unique combination of athleticism, talent and fundamental skill that makes them enticing for the long term outlook of this team. Smith fits that mold with a plethora of abilities and great fundamental footwork which would enable him to carve out a role in the River City.
The trickiest part about picking Smith is his anticipate draft range since he’s expected to go in the back-half of the first-round. San Antonio’s pick is projected at 11, which might be too high for them to take him. With that in mind, there’s not much of a consensus in this year’s draft. It seems like everyone’s draft board is looking different from each other’s this year and Smith is one of the better players in his class, so it wouldn’t be totally surprising to see GM Brian Wright snatch him in the late-lottery and have him pan-out quickly.
However, the Spurs should be flexible in their expectations for this draft. Operating under the assumption that they don’t jump into the top-four and remain between 11-13, San Antonio could opt to either move back or trade for another pick later in the first round.
One team to consider is the Boston Celtics, who have two first-round picks this year projected at 26 and 30. They don’t necessarily need both of those with a team ready to compete right now. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Danny Ainge is dangling those picks in trade conversations.
Figuring out where to pick Smith is the hardest part of this process, but he’s sure worth a long look for any team with a fragile frontcourt rotation.