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Breaking Down How Chris Smith Translates to the NBA

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Smith steadily progressed into a dangerous wing prospect before an ACL tear robbed him of most of his senior season

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Smith had a somewhat tumultuous career at UCLA. He started slowly as a freshman, playing limited minutes and mostly relied on for energy and defensive intensity. He flashed some decent feel as a sophomore while coming off the bench, but he really blew up during his junior season. He looked the part of a potential first-rounder but decided to return to school for his senior year. He had a bit of a rocky start to the 2020-21 season and then disaster struck as he tore his ACL only eight games into the season. Still, his steady rise in both skill and profile makes him an interesting prospect for the Pistons to take a bet on in undrafted free agency and as a two-way player.

Stats

12.6 PPG, 2 APG, 6.4 RPG, 56.6% TS, 25.5% USG, 14.3% AST%

Immediate Skills

Smith brings immediate benefit simply by playing the most important position in basketball. Bets on wings and forwards are usually smart bets as late second-round picks or undrafted free agents for a few reasons. For one, wings are inherently more versatile, often getting minutes anywhere from the two to the five depending on the rotation. Wings are also the most valuable depth position in basketball, and there is no greater example than the dichotomy of teams like the Portland Trailblazers and the Atlanta Hawks. Wings are valuable not only as stars but as the depth that make championship-caliber teams. Smith will get opportunities to prove he is an NBA-caliber wing because of this positional versatility and the available minutes for wings.

Slasher

The major strength Smith hangs his hat on is slashing. He’s a really good athlete and has very solid ball skills for someone his size (6-foot-8). He can get to his spots when attacking closeouts or when he gets a touch in an advantage situation. From there, he’s a good bet to make the right decision. Smith isn’t an elite, manipulative passer, but he does make the right reads and knows how to leverage his scoring threat to create simple passes that keep an advantage alive. Like any good slasher, Smith is also a very good rim finisher who can throw it down on some unsuspecting bigs. His athleticism pairs nicely with some craft that allows him to take advantage within five feet of the rim.

Free Safety on Defense

The next skill Smith brings to the table immediately is solid roaming on defense. He moves well and has great feel for what offenses want to do. He can shoot passing lanes, tag rollers, execute digs on drivers, and even make the occasional help-side play at the rim. He has to continue developing his body to get to be an on-ball stopper, but his overall defensive game is solid, and he leverages athleticism and feel nicely on that end.

Smith’s immediate role, should he get NBA minutes, will be as an energy wing — once he is healthy. He can slash and defend solidly and that gives him a solid floor to be deserving of NBA minutes. A lot will rely on Smith being healthy, but ACL tears are generally recoverable injuries, and most players with ACL tears regain their athletic form. Smith could earn early minutes filling in for any injured wings, or just by looking good in camp, and he can fill an immediate role. Wings always help grease the wheels of development for young players, especially athletic wings who make good decisions. Smith could be a value contract on a two-way.

Potential Skills

Smith’s ceiling, and likely NBA role, are somewhat dependent on the development of two skills. He has the requisite athleticism and feel to be a high-level wing if everything goes right for him. Wings have so much inherent value, and skilled, athletic wings have obvious paths to a starting role if things go right.

Shooting

The first major swing skill for Smith is the shooting. He has flashed shooting on and off throughout his career at UCLA. He was much more comfortable in the mid-range, but he did shoot solid percentages from three during his last two seasons at UCLA. He was never a high-volume guy (averaging a little less than three 3-pointers a game) but he hit the shots he took with solid efficiency. He didn’t get a lot of open opportunities at UCLA because he was often tasked with being the advantage creator. He generally capitalized on the open looks he got and even flashed potential as a pull-up threat. His free throw shooting has also been consistently good, shooting 84% and 79% in his junior and senior seasons, respectively.

Despite the positive indicators, the track record is not there, and there have been plenty of players with similar shooting profiles who could not draw defensive attention at the NBA level. What gives me optimism about Smith’s jumper developing is the improvement curve he has been on. He was a non-shooter his freshman season, a bad but improving shooter his sophomore season, a solid shooter his junior season, and looked like a near-elite shooter prior to his ACL tear this year. That trajectory leaves plenty of room for solid projection of Smith as a shooter.

On-Ball Defense

The other major swing skill for Smith will be his on-ball defense. Smith is far from sleight, weighing in at 215 pounds, but he has struggled to guard the stronger wings and forwards at the NCAA level. He has good tools, specifically his lateral mobility and footwork, but he has never quite put it all together as an on-ball defender. He struggles with screen navigation and can fold when someone puts a shoulder into his chest. On-ball defense can be overrated when it is an elite skill, but one has to be passable to survive at the wing in the playoffs. The physical tools and feel for off-ball defense give some room for optimism with Smith, but he will need to develop to handle defending wings in the NBA.

If everything goes right for Smith, he could be a starting wing/forward in the NBA. His consistent growth, feel, and athleticism could all combine to make one of the best undrafted signings in this class. Wings win rings and Smith is exactly the type of player to which that adage refers. He might never be a star, but he can contribute on great teams if he develops. Connecting wings who can shoot, dribble, pass, and defend are a very uncommon commodity and Smith has a chance to be just that. To get that without even using a pick or a full roster spot would be something very special.

Taking It In

With the conclusion of this series, it is important to reflect on the class as a whole. This is a very solid overall group of rookies for the Bad Boys. They got the obvious prize at No. 1, the type of player who could succeed in many different ways and truly elevate this team to championship status during his career. The picks later were less immediately inspiring but far from bad. Livers was solid value where he was selected and he could be a great fit with this roster. It would have been nice to see the Pistons take a bigger swing in the late second rather than drafting two bigs with iffy translatability in Luka Garza and Balsa Kaprovicia, but they made up for it with the savvy signing of Chris Smith.

This class has the upside to produce four starting-caliber players if everyone hits their ceilings, but even if they don’t, they likely drafted or signed at least two legitimate rotation players here. The Pistons have dramatically changed their future fortune with the drafting of Cade Cunningham and the mission from here will be building the ideal roster to maximize the next decade of Cade. This class is a solid start to that mission.