Zhaire Smith
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The rise of Zhaire Smith is a great story. The New York Knicks would be an attractive fit for the high flyer and his intriguing potential.

Zhaire Smith came out of nowhere. He didn’t announce his college decision on ESPN like Marvin Bagley and DeAndre Ayton. The Texas native was a three-star recruit coming out of high school without offers from any of the major programs before continuing his career at the next level with Texas Tech.

The 18-year-old cracked the starting lineup in January and didn’t look back as he helped lead the Red Raiders to their first Elite 8 in school history. Smith posted averages of 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks in 28.4 minutes per game on a slash line of .556/.450/.717.

In addition to stuffing the stat sheet, Smith was named to the Big 12 All-Defensive Team. That’s no small feat as a freshman. The young swingman decided to test the draft waters without hiring an agent initially, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that he was lottery-bound. He signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports soon after that.

Smith worked out with the Knicks on Saturday (via ESPN’s Ian Begley), so we know there’s interest. The idea of going with such a wildcard is more than just a little farfetched. With New York’s draft history, selecting a project like Smith would raise some serious eyebrows.

If he’s their guy, they’ll be able to trade down and get him. Most mock drafts have Smith being taken in the late lottery or out of the lottery altogether.

Strengths

Every time the Red Raiders played this season, it was the Zhaire Smith show. His unforgettable 360 alley-oop dunk in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament against Stephen F. Austin put him on the national radar. In case you forgot–or somehow missed it altogether–here’s another look.

Smith’s elite athleticism allowed him to dominate in the fast break and defend multiple positions aggressively well. Those are two of the most important skills for any wing in the NBA today. He finished in the 90th percentile of efficiency on transition possessions, per Synergy Sports, and posted 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per 40 minutes.

Texas Tech was fourth in adjusted defense (via kenpom.com) and 11th in opponent’s field goal percentage due in large part to the efforts of Smith. You add in a promising three-point shot, albeit on a very small sample size, and you get the makings of a modern NBA wing.

In case you needed official proof of what he was capable of, Smith showed off his skills at the NBA Draft combine when he posted the second-highest vertical leap (41.5 inches) and the second-fastest three quarter sprint time (3.05 seconds). It was hard to be better around the rim as a guard than Smith was last season.

The young swingman took 62.5 percent of his shots at the rim and converted at a 64.9 percent clip (via Hoop-Math). He was great moving without the ball, and not surprisingly was typically moving toward the basket when he cut. According to Synergy Sports, 65.1 percent of his cuts were basket cuts, and he finished in the 76 percentile of efficiency on those possessions.

New York Knicks

Smith had a whopping 37 putback baskets. 37! Per Hoop-Math, 20.8 percent of his shots at the rim came via putback. To put it simply, this dude was a beast on the offensive glass. He averaged 2.2 offensive rebounds per game as a 6-foot-4 wing and led the Red Raiders in rebounding with 5 per game. That may say more about Tech’s bigs than Smith, but it’s still an impressive feat.

Maybe what’s most remarkable is that Smith was able to do all the damage he did without needing the ball. He was second on the team in scoring but sixth in usage percentage.

This is a classic case of upside. Smith’s potential as a 3-and-D candidate has teams talking. The question is whether the Knicks are in a position as a franchise to roll the dice on a prospect like him when Villanova’s Mikal Bridges–also likely to be available for New York–is much more of a sure thing. He’s also three years older and more mature.

Weaknesses

With all of Smith’s athleticism and explosiveness comes his limitations. The youngster is far from a playmaker yet. He doesn’t create shots well for himself or others. A staggering 48 percent of his two-point jumpers were assisted along with 94 percent of his threes, per hoop-math. Smith let those duties fall to someone else with Tech. According to Synergy, there were only 13 Texas Tech possessions all season long in which Smith was the ball handler on a pick and roll.

Smith’s offensive game is unsurprisingly raw. He was involved with 377 offensive possessions this season and had 277 FGA in 37 games. Smith logged 1,050 minutes of action during the season. For context, fellow Michigan State’s Miles Bridges–another Knicks target–was involved with 575 possessions and had 457 FGA in 34 games and 1,067 minutes.

Then there’s the one weakness he can’t control: his size. Smith was listed at 6-foot-5 while at Texas Tech but measured in at 6-foot-4 and 6’2.75″ with and without shoes on at the draft combine. He could struggle to guard bigger wings at the NBA level.

Some of Smith’s defensive success will depend on his instincts with those long arms. He doesn’t have the size of a small forward, but he also doesn’t have the jumper of a typical shooting guard.

Fit in New York

A 3-and-D wing is the greatest need that New York has in the 2018 NBA Draft. The Knicks were 23rd in defensive rating and 29th in threes made and attempted. Expect the defense to get better anyway under new head coach David Fizdale.

While Villanova’s Mikal Bridges is the favorite among fans–he looks able to contribute right away–Smith could end up doing the same things at a higher level sometime down the road. He’s armed with more upside than the 21-year-old Bridges, so it all depends on how big a risk Scott Perry and Steve Mills want to take in their first draft together.

Then there are his skills in the fast break and as an offensive rebounder. New York was 29th in fastbreak points last season but third in offensive rebounds. They were led by Enes Kanter, a potential free agent, on the offensive glass so Smith’s addition would only help strengthen that area.

New York hasn’t drafted a prospect with Smith’s kind of athleticism since Wilson Chandler in 2007. They could use some highlight reel dunks at the Garden in the absence of Porzingis. Or anything exciting at all really. Next season promises to be another depressing one in New York.

– All statistics are courtesy of Sports Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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