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Lonnie Walker and Zhaire Smith Are the Most Known Unknowns of the Draft

The two star freshmen had uneven seasons in unfavorable situations that nonetheless showcased their remarkable potential. But their college situations didn’t exactly offer clarity as to who they can be as NBA players.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are known unknowns in every NBA draft. The longer a player stays in school, the easier it is to evaluate them, which is why the league created the one-and-done rule. Even then, one year of college basketball isn’t much information to go on, especially since the biggest leap NCAA players tend to make happens between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Guys who were superstars as soon as they stepped on campus, like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, have no reason to go back to school. Freshmen who had good but not spectacular seasons, on the other hand, are tougher to evaluate. Two of the most interesting players who fit that profile this year are Lonnie Walker IV (Miami FL) and Zhaire Smith (Texas Tech). They could wind up being stars, or bust out of the league entirely.

Walker and Smith are near-locks to be taken in the top 20, though they took different paths to get there. Walker was a McDonald’s All American widely projected to be a one-and-done player, but he was held back by an offseason meniscus injury and a mismatched roster at Miami. Smith came out of nowhere, a borderline top-200 recruit who helped Texas Tech reach the Elite Eight. They were both role players on NCAA tournament teams as freshmen; had they both stayed in school, they would have been primary options as sophomores, giving scouts a lot more information to evaluate their actual skill set. Instead, they took the guaranteed money and went pro, leaving NBA teams to guess who Smith and Walker are as players, as well as how good they really are.

To give an idea of how difficult that task is, imagine if Donovan Mitchell had gone pro after his freshman season at Louisville, when he averaged 7.4 points a game on 44.2 percent shooting. Who could have predicted the success he’d have today at that point? To be sure, it’s hard to compare any prospect to Mitchell, who has experienced a meteoric rise through the last two seasons. The more realistic outcomes for Walker and Smith, in terms of ceiling and floor, might be two shooting guards for the Nuggets: Gary Harris and Malik Beasley. Harris, the no. 19 overall pick in the 2014 draft, is one of the best young guards in the NBA, while Beasley, the no. 19 overall pick in the 2016 draft, has spent his first two seasons in the league sitting behind Harris on the Denver bench.

Harris, like Mitchell, spent two seasons in college, which made projecting him to the NBA a little easier. However, if he had gone pro after his freshman season, like Beasley did, he would probably have slipped even further in the draft. Beasley was a better scorer than Harris, Smith, or Walker in their respective freshman seasons, which shows how difficult the draft process can be:

Freshman Year Averages for Walker and Smith (and Their Comps)

Player School Season Points FG% Rebounds Assists
Player School Season Points FG% Rebounds Assists
Malik Beasley Florida State 2015-2016 15.6 47.10% 5.3 1.5
Gary Harris Michigan State 2012-2013 12.9 45.60% 2.5 1.4
Lonnie Walker IV Miami (FL) 2017-2018 11.5 41.50% 2.6 1.9
Zhaire Smith Texas Tech 2017-2018 11.3 55.60% 5 1.8

Per-game numbers after one season of college basketball tell us only so much. Context is everything, and each player’s developmental path is different. Mitchell was behind all four as a freshman, and now it seems inconceivable than any of them will be able to catch him. Walker and Smith have an incredibly wide range of outcomes. Even a close examination of their freshman seasons doesn’t give us many answers about their NBA futures.

A look at Lonnie Walker IV

Walker looks the part of an NBA shooting guard. He’s an elite athlete with prototypical size (6-foot-4 and 196 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) for the position, and a projectable outside shot (34.6 percent from 3 on 5.1 attempts per game). Walker competed on both ends of the floor as a freshman, and he more than held his own in individual matchups against fellow NBA prospects in the ACC like Jerome Robinson (Boston College) and Devon Hall (Virginia). He doesn’t back down from anyone, and he’s not afraid to take the last-second shot:

The problem is that confidence, when paired with a shaky handle, can get him into trouble. Walker’s subpar true shooting percentage (52.7 percent) came directly from poor shot selection. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he was in the 97th percentile of players nationwide on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers, in the 22nd percentile on guarded jumpers, and in the 29th percentile when shooting off the dribble. He couldn’t always get where he wanted on the floor, but that didn’t stop him from shooting. He played like a 19-year-old at times, most notably in a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Loyola-Chicago, when he had a crucial turnover in the final 30 seconds before later missing a free throw that would have iced the game:

Walker’s low efficiency numbers are why many draft models dislike him. ESPN’s model rates him as the no. 33 player in this year’s draft. There are extenuating circumstances, though. The first is that he wasn’t close to healthy at the start of the season. He started in two of Miami’s first 15 games while recovering from a torn meniscus over the summer, and he averaged only 8.1 points per game in that stretch. As a result, Walker is the rare NCAA player to average significantly better numbers in conference play than out of conference, when Power 5 schools usually fatten up on less talented competition. He looked more explosive and more confident in his knee as the season went along.

The second extenuating circumstance was the composition of his team. Miami was overloaded with perimeter scorers, and they didn’t have a natural point guard. Sophomore combo guard Bruce Brown, the no. 39 overall prospect on The Ringer’s NBA Draft Board, was their best passer this season, and he went down with a broken foot in late January. Without Brown to distribute the ball, Miami alternated between two scoring guards (senior Ja’Quan Newton and freshman Chris Lykes) at the point, who combined to average 4.9 assists on 3.7 turnovers a game. The Hurricanes really struggled to move the ball: They were no. 215 in the country in assists (13.5 per game) and no. 38 in turnovers (11.5).

Walker had to put the offense on his back at times after Brown went down, and was clearly hurt by the lack of structure. He’s not a primary ball handler at this stage in his career, and he didn’t have anyone who could create open shots for him. He was actually a fairly good passer this season, and averaged more assists (1.9) than turnovers (1.2), a good sign for an aggressive young shooting guard. He has a good feel for the game, and he might thrive in an offense where he gets more open looks than he did at Miami. Combine that with the potential to defend either backcourt position at a high level, and he fits the profile of a player who could be better in the NBA than college.

A look at Zhaire Smith

Smith is an even tougher player to evaluate, given the unorthodoxy of his game. There aren’t many players in the NBA like him. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he has the size of a shooting guard at the next level, but he played power forward and even some small-ball center at Texas Tech. Most guys in that mold wouldn’t be considered NBA prospects. To see why Smith is different, just take a look at his jaw-dropping highlight reel:

Smith isn’t just an athlete, either. He’s a smart player who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time on both sides of the ball. The Red Raiders used him as their defensive stopper against players at all five positions, and he got the initial assignment on the opposing team’s star point guard in their second-round win in the NCAA tournament against Florida (senior Chris Chiozza) and their Elite Eight loss to Villanova (senior Jalen Brunson). Smith was considered a long-term prospect before the tourney, but his strong two-way play pushed him into the 2018 draft, particularly the game against Florida, when he had 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting, nine rebounds, and seven assists.

It’s hard to know what to make of Smith, though, because of his role in the Tech offense. Head coach Chris Beard is a disciple of Bobby Knight, and he runs an equal-opportunity motion offense straight out of the 1970s, which emphasizes cutting, screening, and shots at the rim. Smith was an excellent passer out of the high post, but he rarely handled the ball or took shots from the perimeter. While he shot 45 percent from 3, he took only 1.1 attempts per game. He had the offensive profile of a center, not a guard. Smith got his offense from cuts (22 percent of his possessions), spot-ups (18.3 percent), transition (17.2 percent), and offensive rebounds (15.6 percent). He wasn’t particularly effective in the rare situations when he was asked to create shots off the dribble, and was in the 19th percentile of players nationwide when scoring out of isolations.

We would have known more about Smith if he had returned for his sophomore season. Senior point guard Keenan Evans was Tech’s leading scorer (17.7 points per game) and passer (3.2 assists), and they had four other seniors (Niem Stevenson, Tommy Hamilton, Justin Gray, and Zach Smith) with big roles in their offense. The Red Raiders would have built their offense around Smith and fellow freshman Jarrett Culver next season, which would have allowed him to showcase his offensive game. Of course, the downside is that Smith’s offensive limitations might have been exposed in that situation. His growth between his senior season of high school and his freshman season of college indicates that he’s a hard worker, but he still has a long way to go.

Where they are drafted will be crucial for both players

So much of what happens to Walker and Smith will be out of their hands. The career paths of Harris and Beasley in Denver are a perfect example. After barely playing as a rookie in 2014-15, Harris took advantage of a rebuilding effort that saw Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo shipped away, and started 76 games in his second season and established himself as Denver’s starting shooting guard. As a result, there was no room for Beasley when he joined the Nuggets in 2016-17. He was behind Harris, Will Barton, and two other lottery picks (Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray) in the backcourt. He’s played only 748 minutes in two seasons in the NBA. He may get more consistent playing time next season if Barton leaves in free agency, but there’s no guarantee that the Nuggets, who missed the playoffs by one game last season, won’t bring another veteran in ahead of him.

Walker and Smith will be up-and-down as rookies, no matter where they wind up. They never had the opportunity to be featured players at the college level, and they both have significant work to do on their shooting, ballhandling, and decision-making. The team that drafts them has to have a long-term plan for how to make them better. That team will need to create a spot in the rotation for them to receive playing time, and these players will need a coach who can take a big-picture view and deal with their growing pains. It doesn’t really matter how high either player gets drafted. It’s more important they land in the right spot.

The best situation for Walker, like most of the shooting specialists in the draft, would probably be Philadelphia at no. 10 overall. He could play off Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on offense, and then cross-switch with Simmons on defense, using his size to swarm opposing point guards without needing to be a primary playmaker. It’s hard to find many plug-and-play options for Smith, given his questionable shooting and ballhandling chops, but he would be a fascinating complement to Nikola Jokic in Denver’s unorthodox offense, if it ends up keeping the no. 14 overall pick. He could cover for some of Jokic’s weaknesses on defense, while his instinctive cutting and incredible finishing ability would be lethal next to a brilliant passer like Jokic.

Walker and Smith could end up outperforming their draft position: Harris wouldn’t slip out of the top seven in a redraft of 2014. The problem for teams in the top seven in this year’s draft is there’s also no guarantee they develop into even starting-caliber players. Walker and Smith could have been top-10 picks in the 2019 draft with strong sophomore seasons, but they didn’t want to risk ending up like Malik Pope, who went from potential lottery pick to afterthought in four seasons at San Diego State. What Walker and Smith have to hope is that getting into the right situation in the NBA will be more beneficial for them than another season of college.