By: Ryan Brock
Winter is coming. The most important decision the Orlando Magic franchise have had to make since the 2004 NBA Draft is less than a week away. Back in 04, the Magic were deciding between the best player in college basketball in Emeka Okafor and high school phenom Dwight Howard. Two players that played the same position and offered similar skill sets, yet at completely different points in their basketball trajectory. There was no shortage of opinions of who the Magic should select with the first overall pick amongst fans that year, and ultimately, Orlando made the right call.
After trading their franchise player in Tracy McGrady, the Magic took a homerun swing and hit it out the park with their selection of Howard, who went on to become arguably the most important player in franchise history and led the Magic to their lone NBA Finals victory to date. Now, the Magic find themselves in a similar position, seemingly down to two players with no real consensus for who should go number one.
As the draft inches closer, the smoke around the league hints that the Magic are deciding between Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, leaving Duke’s Paolo Banchero on the outside looking in. The favorite amongst media and Vegas put the odds in Smith’s favor to go number one, but if you follow the Magic closely, you know the front office is tight lipped and likely aren’t leaking anything to anybody. However, it does seem fairly certain that Magic will indeed select one of those two players with their top overall pick. So who should go number one between Chet and Jabari? Let’s break down the tale of the tape and see who holds the advantage in crucial categories.
Both of these prospects are so highly ranked because of their ability to stretch the floor. Jabari Smith Jr. is a generational shooting prospect at 6’10, shooting 42% from beyond the arc while at Auburn and displaying shot making skills that rival the best shooters in the league. His high release point makes his shot impossible to block, as he’s able to pull up over defenders in transition, off the catch, or using his patented jab step to create open looks. While watching Jabari shoot the ball at Auburn, it’s hard to not think of players like Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Kevin Durant.
Holmgren isn’t far behind and holds many of the same attributes, albeit at a slightly lower level. He hit on 39% of his threes during his freshman campaign as a 7 footer and seems to thrive as a trailer in transition. While Holmgren certainly shows the ability to become a high level shooter from distance in the league, Smith Jr. is one of the best shooting prospects at his size to ever come into the draft. The Magic have desperately needed three-point shooting for years now, and both of these prospects would go a long way in improving that weakness for a young Magic team.
Advantage: Jabari Smith Jr.
Much of what I described for their long range shooting is applicable to their mid-range games as well. Smith Jr. displayed an impressive array of one and two dribble pull ups and tough fadeaways in college, using his 7’1 wingspan to rise up over defenders at will. Smith will be used more off screens and dribble handoffs than he was at Auburn once he’s in the league and can flourish from the mid-post and elbows as he continues to progress. Jabari isn’t flashy, but he understands how to get his shot off and can do it anytime he wants.
Holmgren possesses a lot of the same qualities from the mid-range as Jabari. However, at Gonzaga, I don’t believe he had the opportunity to display his full repertoire of offensive skills. At 7 feet tall, Chet can not only become an elite pick and pop shooter but has the handle to work as a pick and roll ball handler and pull up from the mid-range with ease, reminiscent of how the Cavs used Evan Mobely this past season. Holmgren should look to perfect the Dirk one-legged fade-away, a shot he already likes, and make it a go to move, as his 7’5 wingspan should make it unblockable even against taller, more athletic defenders.
While Chet has the skills to become an excellent mid-range player, much of it is theoretical. Jabari put his skill set on display while playing for the Tigers, and again, has the potential to become elite in that facet of the game.
Advantage: Jabari Smith Jr.
Finishing at the Rim:
This is one the easiest skills to differentiate, as Holmgren is elite around the rim and ended his career at Gonzaga as one of the best finishers in the history of college basketball. He loves to use spin moves to either side to get to the basket, has the ability to finish with both hands, catches dunks off lobs, uses his size and wingspan for easy putbacks, and pushes the ball up the court in transition to attack the paint while his defenders are off balance. He led the nation in two-point field goal percentage and displayed great touch around the rim. His post up game needs work and he will have trouble backing down opponents due to his slight frame, but Holmgren won’t have trouble putting the ball in the basket once he’s deep in the paint.
The same can’t be said for Jabari, as one of his biggest weaknesses coming out of college is his lack of finishing within three feet of the rim. His other biggest weakness, ball handling, comes into play here, as he has trouble putting the ball on the floor for more than two dribbles at a time and getting into the paint without running into traffic. Smith finished 64.7% of his shots at the rim and only 12% of his total shots came close to the basket. Finishing will have to be one of his biggest focuses if he wants to hit his true potential.
Advantage: Chet Holmgren
Neither player here is an amazing playmaker by any means, as both averaged just two assists per game during their freshman seasons, respectively. Holmgren probably has the bigger upside in terms of becoming a high level passer, as he flashed that skill more in high school than he did at Gonzaga. If either player wants to become a player that the offense runs through, playmaking out of the high post and in transition will undoubtedly have to become a bigger part of their games.
Advantage: Chet Holmgren
Defense is one of the keys as to why both these prospects are so highly regarded, as it’s the combination of their offensive upside and their defensive prowess that have them being talked about in the top two. If you’re watching the NBA playoffs, it’s easy to see why switchable bigs are so crucial to championship basketball. You rarely see players 6’10 and taller that can slide their feet on the perimeter and stay on the floor in crunch time. That’s what both of these players offer, at varying levels.
Jabari Smith Jr. is the first to talk about the importance of defense and has the potential to become an All-Defense type of player. He will likely be able to defend positions 1-5 as he shows good fluidity guarding smaller players. He gets in a low stance and slides his feet well, using his quick hands to consistently knock the ball away from opposing ball handlers. His ability to become a solid rim protector is still in question, as he played next to one of the best at that in the nation in Walker Kessler. Perhaps as a small ball five, Smith Jr. will flash more potential to become an above average shot blocker.
Holmgren may not be at the same level as Smith Jr. on the perimeter, but he has shown the potential to hold his own and not be played off the floor come playoff time. He can make-up the distance on a blow by in an instant with his length and long strides and recover with his elite shot blocking ability. At Gonzaga, he blocked 3.7 shots a game, and it’s a skill that I believe will immediately transfer to the NBA game. His timing is impeccable, can block a shot with either hand, and does a good job of not fouling in the process. Holmgren will have to put on some weight to guard bigger centers, and he’ll likely start out as a weak side rim protector and guarding fours on the perimeter, but his toughness and work ethic will allow him to become a defensive anchor for the Magic for years to come. Put simply, Holmgren has Defensive Player of the Year type upside.
Advantage: Chet Holmgren
Handle is something that's been talked about ad nauseum with Jabari Smith, as it’s the biggest area of concern when people talk about his ability to turn into a superstar. If Jabari had a solid handle, he would be the unquestioned number one prospect in the draft and perhaps one of the best to come out in a long time. Smith Jr. is quite efficient with his dribbles and can get to his shot quickly, but he can’t yet break down a defender in isolation, has trouble creating space, and tends to look awkward when pushing the ball in transition. He dribbles too high and can get out of control when driving to the basket. It seems as though he’s still getting comfortable in his body. If he can improve this part of his game, Smith Jr. will be in the conversation for All-NBA teams for the next decade.
Ever since Chet Holmgren crossed up Steph Curry at Curry’s own basketball camp, people have been salivating at the potential he showcased. Displaying guard-like skills in a 7 footer's body, Chet’s handle is probably his most exciting skill. While he shouldn’t be confused with a primary ball handler, Holmgren has the ball skills to run pick and roll, push the ball in transition, and break down slower defenders off the dribble. While many wonder how Chet is going to guard bigger centers, he presents quite the mismatch himself with his legitimate ability to handle the ball and run the floor.
Advantage: Chet Holmgren
This is probably the toughest category to distinguish between the two players, as both are extremely hard workers and put forth maximum effort on a consistent basis. Each plays with a high motor, runs the floor every single time down the court, tries hard on defense, and plays with a chip on their shoulder. Both players would fit right in with a Magic team who are trying to build the foundation of a hard working, defensive minded team. Adding to players like Franz Wagner, Jalen Suggs, Wendell Carter Jr., and dare I say it, Jonathan Issac, have the Magic primed to be a top ten defensive team for years to come.
Breaking down what Chet and Jabari bring to the modern NBA game shows they have a ton to offer to a Magic team in desperate need of a star. Each brings their own unique skill sets along with specific areas of improvement.
Chet’s improvement mostly comes in terms of frame, as long-term health and the ability to make it through an 82 plus game season is a legitimate question mark. But as far as basketball is concerned, his combination of elite rim protection and all around offensive potential make him an alluring prospect that you’d be petrified to pass on.
Jabari Smith Jr’s biggest need for improvement will be ball handling and finishing. His ability to create shots is vastly underrated, as he’s simply able to shoot over anyone he wants at any time he wants. Being efficient in your dribbles shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, and I’d be shocked if this skill doesn’t translate to the league as soon as his rookie season. If he’s able to improve his finishing at the rim and can even slightly improve his handle, he can turn into the superstar the Magic haven’t had since Dwight left.
Once again, the Magic have another tough decision on their hands. Both players seamlessly fit into what the Magic are building and either will create a formidable, versatile frontcourt with Wendell Carter Jr. and Franz Wagner. If Orlando wants to fight their way into NBA relevancy once again, they need to hit another first overall pick out the park.
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