Scouting Report: Chris Smith
Junior guard Chris Smith declared for the 2020 NBA Draft on April 7. Smith was named the Pac-12 Most Improved Player after leading UCLA men’s basketball with 13.1 points per game this season. (Liz Ketcham/Photo editor)
By Dylan Dsouza
April 14, 2020 5:51 p.m.
Chris Smith is hoping to take his talents to the NBA.
The 6-foot-9, 215-pound junior wing is coming off a breakout season in which he notched career-highs in every major traditional box-score statistic, including 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.4 blocks per game. His shooting percentages were also all career-highs as he shot 45.8% from the field, 34.1% from 3 and 84.0% from the charity stripe.
His development under coach Mick Cronin earned Smith the Pac-12 Most Improved Player award and a first-team All-Pac-12 selection.
If and when the Chicago native should expect to hear his name called on draft night is a point of debate. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie has him as the No. 99 prospect on his big board, ESPN has him ranked No. 72 in its Top 100 and nbadraft.net has him projected to get picked No. 39 overall.
Smith’s greatest draws as a prospect are his functional athleticism, projectable jump shot and defensive versatility.
Smith is the archetype of a prototypical, versatile, switchable wing that is in vogue in the modern NBA.
Similar to Los Angeles Laker forward Anthony Davis, Smith went through a major growth spurt in high school, growing nine inches between his freshman and sophomore year. As a result of the spurt, similar to Davis, Smith has the fundamentals and mechanics of a guard in a forward’s frame. Simply put, Smith’s potential mainly emanates from the fact that very few players can handle the ball, shoot the ball and move as well as Smith does at 6-foot-9 or taller.
Smith projects as a wing at the next level, offering spacing, secondary playmaking and a threat in transition on offense.
At his size and skillset, virtually every opponent guarding him is a mismatch. Most players his size are too slow to keep up with him on the perimeter, while he can take advantage of smaller players in the post by rising over them to shoot. He has the scoring repertoire in isolation that an NBA team could eventually count on to diversify its offense.
Smith has a lithe frame that he has added muscle to in his college years, but he still requires additional bulking to match up against some of the bruising power forwards in the NBA. He has already learned to use his length to impact the game on both ends of the court.
Watch how Smith uses his wingspan to snatch the ball away from Colorado’s Tyler Bey, the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year, and then use his length to elevate, draw contact and finish at the rim.
Cronin brought his half-court oriented style of play to UCLA from Cincinnati, changing the Bruins from the 19th fastest team in the country in terms of pace to the 306th in 2019-20. The lowered pace didn’t give Smith as many opportunities to flaunt his physical gifts in transition and makes his per game statistics this season seem more ordinary than they are.
A large reason Smith has progressed from a bench player his freshman year in Westwood to potential draft pick is his marked improvement shooting the ball.
His free throw percentage has appreciably improved each season – going from 58.5% to 71.9% to 84.0% in over his three years. He attributed his efficiency from the line to making 25 consecutive free throws daily, starting this past summer. His 3-point shooting mirrored the improvement from the line, increasing from 17.9% to 28.1% to 34.1%.
His shooting mechanics are sound and he has a high release point, which, combined with his height, means that he is rarely bothered by contests.
Smith utilizes his tight handle to put the defender on his heels and elevates for the 3. He has precise footwork and a simple, one-motion form with little wasted movement. A good portion of his 3-point attempts this season came off the dribble over closing out defenders.
Smith leans on his spin move to create separation in the mid-range. With UCLA down two with under two minutes to go against Arizona on Feb. 29, Cronin isolates Smith at the right elbow against 6-foot guard Max Hazzard. Smith sizes up the defender and uses his go-to move to create separation for the jumper.
Despite carrying the biggest offensive load of his collegiate career with a 25.3% usage rate, Smith posted his most efficient season with a 56.8% true shooting percentage. For comparison, projected top-five pick Anthony Edwards had a 30.4% usage rate combined with a 52.0% true shooting percentage.
Smith’s offensive success came despite a lack of outside shooting around him. Outside of Smith, UCLA shot 32.0% from behind the arc, which would rank second-last in the Pac-12.
NBA teams will be pleased with the defense-first mentality Cronin has used to mold Smith. Early in the season, Cronin demanded more intensity from Smith and characterized the junior’s personality as “laid back.” Smith was prone to bouts of lapses in focus on the defensive end earlier in the season, but shored up some of those issues as the year moved along. At times this season, Smith was the tallest Bruin on the floor and switched competently defensively onto every position 1 through 5.
Smith showcases his foot speed and discipline by keeping up with the guard on the perimeter and not reaching. The guard does little to lose Smith and attempts a layup that Smith is able to easily swat off the backboard due to his positioning.
Player comparisons: Pascal Siakam, Cam Reddish
Smith’s wiry frame resembles Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam’s. The 6-foot-9 Siakam, who was drafted 27th overall in 2016, improved his 3-point shooting from 14.3% his rookie season to 36.9% in his third year, comparable to Smith’s shooting development.
Siakam plays a perimeter-oriented game, using his handle, length and quickness to his advantage and finish over opponents at the rim. He has gotten more confident in his 3-ball and less hesitant to pull the trigger from deep off the dribble. Siakam also has developed his post game which he uses to attack mismatches.
While Smith’s ceiling may not approach Siakam’s All-Star stat line of 23.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, their similar playstyles and versatility are enough to warrant comparison.
Atlanta Hawks forward Cam Reddish – who is just two months older than Smith – plays a role that Smith could fill at the start of his NBA career as well, albeit with more minutes than the Bruin will likely earn in his rookie year. Reddish primarily spaces the floor on offense and is asked to guard multiple positions on the defensive end.
Reddish quite rarely creates offense for himself and is more of a play finisher, as 86.7% of his 3-point goals were assisted. Smith has shown the ability to spot-up, play effectively off the ball and defend guards and wings just like the former Blue Devil.
Usually NBA teams only gamble on upperclassmen in the draft when the production is just too much to ignore. This isn’t the case with Smith, but he makes up for it with theoretical untapped potential and his young age for a junior due to skipping the second grade.
Having just turned 20 in December, Smith is younger than freshman Memphis forward Precious Achiuwa, a projected borderline lottery pick.
The junior guard also proved to be durable playing in every game in his collegiate career.
Smith’s unique blend of athleticism and potential make him an intriguing case study and show that there is pro potential there, but his lack of a completely filled out frame hints that there is more room to grow.
Smith certainly seems NBA-bound, but another year of seasoning under Cronin’s tutelage could prove more beneficial than a year that would most likely involve lengthy stints, if not a season-long stay, in the G-League.