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What should we expect of Zhaire Smith?

Taking a look at Zhaire Smith’s college numbers, and finding out what they might say about his chances of success in the NBA.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Texas Tech vs. Florida Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In my last post I showed some evidence from baseball that players who are effective when young have vastly better careers than players who are just as good but at an older age. I don’t have equivalent research for the NBA, but I did a small study and the results were interesting. I used BPM as my measure of player quality because, first, it’s available for college players (unlike the adjusted plus-minus stats that I prefer), and of the all-around metrics that were available it is by far my favorite, as it is one step away from being an on-off stat. Zhaire Smith put up a BPM of 12.0 in his one college season. What does that tell us?

Well, here is the list of players who had a BPM between 11 and 13 as sophomores over the period for which we have data (since 2010-11):

  • Very Promising players: Donovan Mitchell
  • Solid Players: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Cody Zeller, Gorgui Dieng, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jakob Poeltl
  • Players who will have careers and who might be solid or better: Kris Dunn, Josh Hart, Trey Burke, Derrick Williams
  • Players whom I’ve never heard of or who appear to have little NBA future — if one of these guys is a budding star for Memphis or something, my apologies!: Jordan Adams, Jared Sullinger (playing in China now), Aaron Craft, P.J. Hairston, Gary Clark, Nigel Hayes, Nicholas Baer

So, not so impressive. 17 players and only one who looks like he’s going to be a star, that being Donovan. The expected number of players who are stars from this group is probably just a bit over 1, the chance of Hart or Zeller or KCP becoming a star being almost offset by the chance that Mitchell disappoints.

Is that scary for Zhaire? It would be if that were how he’d played as a sophomore! But Zhaire put up his 12 BPM as a freshman. Let’s look at the others who’ve done that recently.

  • Excellent players: Ben Simmons, Otto Porter
  • Players who could end up as nothing special but who may well end up being stars: D’Angelo Russell, Lonzo Ball
  • Solid players: Marcus Smart, Tristan Thompson, Cody Zeller

And, um, that’s it! Not a single bust in the group. I should mention that Basketball Reference found a few others, but they aren’t in the study because they haven’t played in the NBA yet; they are new draftees: Mikal Bridges, Mo Bamba, Trey Young and of course Zhaire Smith

The presence of Mikal on the list is interesting; most fans see him as a player who massively improved in his three years at Villanova, but per-minute stats like BPM don’t see it that way; his junior-year BPM was only around 13, not much higher than what he posted as a freshman. So as far as BPM can see, he was a very promising prospect after his freshman year, and now he looks OK but not nearly as good. The more I research this, the more I love that trade!

One other quick note: it’s very strange that there were 7 players this good in 7 years, and then 4 in a single draft, the draft that just happened. And by the way Ayton and Bagley were both just a hair below 11. I guess this really was a strong draft!

Anyway, back to Zhaire: wow, that list is really exciting! Since the second category consists of a Laker and an ex-Laker, it’s tempting for me to say that both members, Lonzo and D’Angelo, are going to be terrible. But honesty compels me to admit that in expectation it’s likely one of these two will be a really good player worthy of star status. And it’s still not impossible that Marcus Smart will learn to shoot and be a star. Anyone who’s read my views on Cov will not be surprised to learn that I see Otto Porter as a hidden star like Cov, a player who would make the All-Star team if such teams weighed offense and defense properly. So if my guess about a 1-for-2 hit rate on the Laker draftees is right, then the players who had Zhaire-level BPMs will have three stars and four good players among its seven members. That is a spectacular set of outcomes for a comp group, especially given how little Zhaire cost us (essentially a swap of #10 this year for the unprotected 2021 Miami pick that is almost as valuable).

I checked to see if perhaps the great performance of the 11-to-13-as-frosh group was a fluke in the sense that players with BPM ABOVE 13 were actually not as good. Didn’t happen. This year’s draft contained an above-13 player, Wendell Carter Jr., who was just over 13. And the seven previous seasons contained only two, both far above 13, those being the aforementioned Anthony Davis and the almost-as-high-college-BPM Karl-Anthony Towns. Of course Davis is a megastar and Towns appears headed to that level, so, yeah, freshman-year BPM is looking good as a quick forecast of pro performance.

Note there are two points implied by this study.

1) We should be really, really happy to have Zhaire Smith on our team.

2) There is an absolutely enormous difference between playing at a particular level as a freshman, and doing the same as a sophomore. It’s the difference between a group that has plenty of washouts and only 5% stars, and a group that’ll be perhaps half stars and 0% failures. Incredible.

My previous post on this subject emphasized age rather than years in school. Basketball reference’s college page doesn’t let me sort on age (or at least, I couldn’t figure out how to do it despite the yeoman work of my friend/colleague Andy). But now that we’re down to just seven guys, plus Zhaire, I can look them up by hand. Here’s the list again, with their age listed in the following format: a player who upon starting college was 3 months older than Zhaire Smith was at the same point in his career is listed as +3; 4 months younger would be -4.

  • Ben Simmons: +10
  • Otto Porter: +0
  • Lonzo Ball: +8
  • D’Angelo Russell: +3
  • Marcus Smart: +3
  • Tristan Thompson: +15
  • Cody Zeller: +8

Wow again! This group averages 7 months older than Zhaire at the same point in their careers. As we can see from the freshman-sophomore comparisons, an extra year is absolutely enormous at this age. Zhaire played as well (according to BPM) as this exceptional comp group, despite being so much younger. Note also that the two players on the list who are clearly non-stars average almost a full year older than Smith at the same career point, whereas the ones with star potential were only 5 months older than Zhaire upon matriculating. Age does matter!

Obviously there’s a lot more work to be done here, both for evaluating the effects of age on expected performance and in forecasting Zhaire as an individual. But I will say this: Only one player previously this decade has put up a BPM in the same range as Zhaire Smith while being as young as Zhaire — a remarkable tribute to Zhaire, and one it’s surprising wasn’t more discussed during the pre-draft conversation. A whole lot of guys play college hoops, but only one matched him in that way, and that was Otto Porter, who is a truly excellent NBA player. Zhaire is going to be good.

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