A clear top tier has emerged ahead of Thursday's NBA Draft, comprised of Auburn wing Jabari Smith, Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren and Duke forward Paolo Banchero.
The Orlando Magic hold the keys to the draft with the first overall pick, and ever since they won the lottery the buzz has been about their affinity for the six-foot-10, smooth-shooting Smith.
Smith, who only turned 19 in May, is one of the youngest prospects in the draft and seems to tick a number of high-value boxes that are usually required to become a star in the NBA.
His premier skill is his shooting, boasting arguably the prettiest jump shot in the whole class, and he converted a scorching 42 per cent of his three-pointers while getting up a healthy 5.5 attempts per game.
Playing at Auburn with a cast of guards, who at times appeared to have no idea they were playing with an NBA player, meant Smith was primarily used in an off-ball role, getting shots up quickly off the catch or at the end of plays, as opposed to getting an opportunity to create with the ball in his hands.
This role and his ability to stylishly rise up and hit long jumpers at his size with hands in his face have caused many to compare him to former Magic power forward and two-time All-Star Rashard Lewis.
Lewis appears to be Smith's 'floor' – which would be a pretty handy worst possible outcome if it is the case – but his athleticism, seven-foot-one wingspan with defensive upside, and well-reported elite work ethic as a son of a former NBA player puts him on a similar trajectory to Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum, who also had questions raised about his playmaking and ball-handling coming out of Duke.
Slow-motion look at Jabari Smith’s shooting mechanics. Could make the argument that Smith is the best shooter in the draft at 6-10. Packed gym full of high-ranking execs here to evaluate the potential No. 1 pick. pic.twitter.com/ES13HLPSfE— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) March 11, 2022
The Magic will be selecting between Smith and Holmgren, with the Gonzaga big-man clearly the most unique prospect in the class.
Holmgren has been on NBA radars since his high school days when he was carrying the United States to junior gold medals – winning Tournament MVP at the 2021 FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup.
As the number-one recruit in the country coming into the 2021-22 college basketball season, Holmgren chose to shun traditional 'one-and-done' schools to go play for respected coach Mark Few at Gonzaga, where he would buy into a pro-style team system instead of playing for a program that would allow him to average 20 points per game.
Out of more than 3000 Division One college players, Holmgren was fourth in blocks per game (3.7) and eighth in block percentage, blocking 12.6 per cent of opponent shots while he was on the court.
He was also number one in two-point field goal percentage, converting almost 74 per cent of his chances as he routinely finished off lobs and alley-oops both in the half-court and in transition, and his seven-foot-six wingspan made it impossible to block his shot when he was allowed to catch with two feet in the paint.
Add to the equation that he shot a terrific 39 per cent from long range on 3.3 attempts per game, and that he has displayed for more ball-handling and open-court playmaking in the international game than he was allowed to in college, and he is a near-flawless prospect.
As such a unique prospect, there are very few comparisons that can be made. Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis seems the only obvious choice, but Holmgren plays a less ball-dominant style, like a bigger Andrei Kirilenko.
His one major flaw scouts point to is his body – he is seven feet tall and weighs less than 200lbs – and does not appear to have a frame that will allow him to blow up physically the way Giannis Antetokounmpo and other skinny rookies have.
But how many players in the NBA right now are actually too skinny? It is hard to think of a single player who is truly unplayable because of not being physically stout enough.
Oklahoma City Thunder wing Aleksej Pokusevski is a similar build, but he does not play center, and does not show close to the defensive chops Holmgren does.
Admittedly, against hulking behemoths like Joel Embiid – who are exceedingly rare – he may need to play next to a true, bruising center, to take the pressure off; but those match-ups are few and far between.
Watching Chet Holmgren turn defense into offense has been a joy to watch this year. Has shown the ability to grab and go, throw hit ahead passes, and also trail plays to knock down 3s at the top of the key pic.twitter.com/e5TTmEjxVa— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) January 2, 2022
The third player in the top tier is Banchero, and although the Magic are reportedly not considering him with the top pick, some respected draft analysts rate him as this year's best prospect.
It is easy to see why, especially given the modern NBA.
Banchero projects as the most likely of the top trio to become a lead initiator early in his career, flashing terrific feel for the game with ball in hand, and an ability to attack the rim and create off the dribble.
In his one season, he had 24 games with at least three assists, while Smith had 11 games with at least three assists, and Holmgren had six.
The ability to create shots for yourself and others is thought of as the most valuable skill-set in basketball, with LeBron James clearly the standard-bearer, but with less explosive athleticism Banchero more closely mimics Jimmy Butler on the offensive end, without the Heat star's unrelenting defensive motor.
While everyone knows Paolo Banchero is a talented shotmaker, it's important to look for what other areas he can possibly have an impact on the game, just in case his shot isn't falling— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) January 1, 2022
Here's a video I put together showing some of Paolo's passing so far this year pic.twitter.com/y2alB3I8Br
To be clear, Banchero is significantly bigger than both James and Butler, reportedly measuring in at over six-foot-10 without shoes, with a grown man's body at 250lbs. Given his size, his lack of true first-step explosion – or 'wiggle' off the bounce – should not greatly hinder his ability as a match-up nightmare from day one.
Banchero is too big for traditional wing defenders who will have a speed advantage on him, and he will be too quick for guys his own size.
He has shown he can run pick-and-roll and operate in a pass-first role, and jumbo playmakers like Luka Doncic and Cade Cunningham are showing that elite quickness is not mandatory at that size if you are savvy enough and understand how to use power instead of speed.
The Houston Rockets are the overwhelming favourites to select Banchero with the third selection, pairing him with one of the best athletes in the entire league in last year's number-two pick, Jalen Green.