When Maryland’s Jalen Smith was growing up, he wanted to be like Kevin Garnett. He wanted to dominate NBA games like the former Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics legend, pick-and-popping, nailing mid-range shots, and playing with the kind of intensity Garnett was known for throughout his career.
For years Garnett was one of the kings of the midrange, a big who could stretch the floor — at least for that time — pulling his defender away from the hoop with his jumper.
“I always model my game or try to model my game after Kevin Garnett,” Smith said Monday during a pre-draft Zoom media availability. “I felt as though he was considered one of the small bigs in the league, but he always had that impact.”
Since Garnett’s retirement in 2016, the NBA has almost completely reshaped the big position. Being a floor stretcher doesn’t mean nailing midrange shots anymore, it means taking a few steps back and nailing 3-pointers.
That skill specifically is part of the reason the Toronto Raptors were so deadly at times last season. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka shot 38.5% from 3-point range during the 2019-20 regular season, on nearly 3.5 attempts per game each. That meant every single player in the Raptors’ top seven were 3-point threats who opposing teams couldn’t afford to leave open very often.
Now, with the Toronto’s two bigs heading into free agency this offseason, the Raptors might be wise to look at a floor-spacing big in the upcoming NBA draft, someone like the Terrapins 6-foot-10, 225-pound, Smith, who has gone from wanting to be like Garnett, to being more like Memphis Grizzlies floor-spacing star Jaren Jackson Jr.
“I look up to Jaren Jackson,” Smith said. “Just being a big and being able to come off screens, shoot 3s, being able to attack defenders who are slower than him, and just being able to be that new, modern NBA big.”
In Smith's two seasons at Maryland, he became one of the Big Ten’s most dominant bigs. He averaged 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this past season and saw his 3-point shooting jump from 26.8% in 2018-19 to 36.8% this past year.
“Coach Turgeon wouldn’t really let me leave the gym until I made around 500 3s after every practice,” Smith said. “That just helped with the confidence boost of him putting in place for me to get 3s.”
Since leaving Maryland and signing with an agent this offseason, Smith has continued working on his range. He said he spends three or four days a week in the gym, trying to get stronger and improve his shooting while refining his game.
“I’ve been shooting a lot more consistently and just being able to get it up a lot quicker,” he said.
That 3-point shooting is a skill much desired around the NBA these days, especially from a big like Smith. But there are concerns with Smith’s game that might cause him to fall to the back half of the upcoming November 18, 2020 NBA Draft.
“He’s a good stretch center that needs to work on his post moves at the next level, but adding strength should translate to a stronger all-around game,” said Sports Illustrated’s Maryland reporter Ahmed Ghafir.
Jeremy Woo, Sports Illustrated’s NBA draft expert, ranks Smith as the 31st prospects on his NBA Draft big board and someone who will need to be selected by the right team to succeed.
“Optimistically, he fits a useful archetype as a center who can shoot threes and block shots,” Woo wrote. “But his limited mobility and balance may be problematic and hamper his ability to play in traffic. Maryland played a slower pace that insulated Smith in the half-court defensively, but he’ll be asked to defend more in space moving forward, and he doesn’t read and recover all that well when pulled away from the basket. Given his lack of lift in tight spaces and rudimentary finishing skills, Smith will have to improve his shooting enough to make it work as a pick-and-pop five. If it clicks, he has a pathway to utility as a rotational big.”
The Raptors could be a good fit for the former Maryland big and Toronto’s front office has spoken to Smith during the draft process, he said.
Smith said his goal next season is to come into the NBA and make an impact while learning from his older teammates and taking everything in. He’s going to continue to work on improving his dribble as the draft approaches and eventually, he’s going to buy his draft day suit, a big purchase he’s been holding off on with so much uncertainty prior draft.