For the first time in his life Jabari Smith looks awkward shooting jumpers. As the Atlanta sun beats down, Smith attempts to shoot with a baseball glove on one hand and an oven mitt on the other.
Smith, Kentucky’s TyTy Washington and Alabama’s JD Davison take turns attempting to shoot the basketball with less than ideal items on their hands as part of a contest. It is the calm before the storm on an early June morning just weeks before the NBA draft as the three prospects take part in an Overtime docuseries.
When the baseball glove is off, Smith is arguably the best shooter in the draft. Smith’s stroke is lemon pepper wet to be exact, fitting for an Atlanta native. The big man shot 42% from long range at Auburn nailing 2.3 threes per contest during his freshman season. Players hate comparisons to other athletes, but Smith labels Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis as inspirational for his own game.
“I would say guys like KD, Anthony Davis, people who can do a lot,” Smith explained. “Shoot, defend, dribble, a lot of those guys who are just versatile and do a lot, really.”
The big man’s stroke combined with his defensive versatility is a major reason why Smith emerged as the favorite to be the No. 1 pick, but weeks before the draft, Smith admitted during our interview he had not spoken with the Magic. Smith noted that he felt he deserved the No. 1 pick but labeled the Magic’s decision a “coin toss.”
Days later, this would all change as Smith worked out for Orlando and Oklahoma City before shutting down his appointment-only tour. It is an impeccable strategy for a player who will hear his name called before the first commercial break hits during the NBA draft.
Washington: ‘The Game of Basketball Can Always Bring Friendship Longer Than You Play’
The road to greatness is lonely and a reason why the three future NBA players formed an immediate bond while hanging out at the Overtime draft house. Washington believes the trio will be “connected for life” after their experience with Overtime.
“It was real cool just bonding with two other good athletes as well off the court,” Washington said of his friendship with Smith and Davison. “I feel like the game of basketball can always bring friendship longer than you play. I’m pretty sure us three are going to be connected for life. I mean, I’m one call away, but like if I ever need anything I can call either of them. So, it’s just really cool to bond with them off the court.”
Few know the toll that being constantly evaluated takes on a person, and the process begins much sooner than the pre-draft interviews. Most NBA players previously competed on different high school travel circuits where they first gain notoriety which leads to offers, plenty of them in the cases of Washington, Smith and Davison. In addition to college, there are now professional options as well with programs like Overtime Elite and the G-League helping prepare players who are aiming to eventually make it to The Association.
Once the top players begin their post-high school career, the scrutiny intensifies as NBA general managers observe everything ranging from a prospect’s defensive intensity during a random Wednesday night blowout to a player’s Instagram posts. The pre-draft evaluation process is constant and includes potentially awkward interviews with NBA executives asking whether they would prefer to be a lion or tiger. It is an extremely intense process but understandable given the stakes. Enough botched lottery picks can get front office personnel fired, so if the pre-draft process seems like paranoia that’s because it is.
Players fly into different cities wondering if this could be their forever home following draft night. Smith and Washington admit they see the mock drafts, even if they do not seek them out. The prospects reveal that fans tag them whenever a new one is released informing the stars that they are heading to Houston, Philadelphia, Portland or another buzzworthy NBA city that particular day.
“I mean, it’s hard to really get away from it, you know what I’m sayin’?” Smith revealed. “You see it everywhere, so I look at it, but it really don’t mean too much to me.”
Smith’s Father Played for the Kings, 76ers & Nets
Jabari Smith Sr. was a grinder, carving out a professional basketball career after being selected by the Kings with the No. 45 overall pick in the second round of the 2000 NBA draft. Following brief stints with Sacramento and Philadelphia, Smith Sr. played in Spain before coming back to the States and once again signing with the Kings. Smith Sr. finished his NBA career with the Nets, capping off five NBA seasons.
The big man played another season in Turkey before calling it a career. Basketball took him all over the world but his determination created a hoops career despite the long odds.
The reality is the majority of NBA careers will be closer to Smith Sr. than Smith Jr., players fighting for a roster spot pushing for another pro season. While select superstars have the power to demand trades, the majority of players are scrapping for a G-League opportunity, a 10-day contract or a two-way deal. This would be the environment you would want a top prospect to experience growing up if you were creating a player on NBA 2K.
Smith Aiming to Stay ‘Forever Humble’
Smith Sr. had the opposite path to the NBA as his son. Being a first-round pick comes with a guaranteed contract, while the majority of second-round selections will not make the final roster. Smith’s “Forever Humble” tattoo on the right side of his chest makes so much sense when you know his father’s backstory as a journeyman basketball player.
The future NBA big man is also familiar with the pressure that comes with being the No. 1 pick as he is the cousin of former top selection Kwame Brown. The forward was hand selected by Michael Jordan in the 2001 NBA draft straight out of high school but was unable to land a second contract with the Wizards. Instead, Brown played 12 NBA seasons with his additional stops including the Lakers, Pistons, Hornets, Sixers, Grizzlies and Warriors.
The benefits of being an NBA player are numerous, but the grind to keep earning those benefits is endless. Smith experienced both ends of the spectrum and will enter the league with lofty expectations.
“Versatility, I can do a lot on the floor,” Smith explained. “Pass, defend, rebound, anything the team needs me to do, I feel like I can do it, so. That’s what I bring to a team, just a winning mindset and versatility.”
Don’t let the humility fool you as NBA opponents will be hoping Smith is still shooting with a baseball glove when the season begins this fall.