The Buzzer Beater: What's Going on with Chris Smith?
The preseason All-American has not lived up to the hype early in the season. So what's going on?
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UCLA’s non-conference slate has ended and the Bruins head into Pac-12 play with a 5-2 record. That’s not the worst thing in the world, especially considering UCLA’s two losses came against top 25 teams on the road, but it does represent the fact that these Bruins still have some ways to go before they achieve our lofty expectations.
Before I continue, I do want to point out that I called UCLA going 6-1 in the non-conference in my season preview, with the loss being to San Diego State. In my defense, I think that would have come completely true had the Bruins actually played Kentucky, but COVID-19 has been a consistent thorn for UCLA since its arrival.
Going through the game threads and post-game conversations from the last few games, a lot of the current angst with this UCLA team seems to surround senior forward Chris Smith, with good reason. Smith entered the season as UCLA’s presumptive best player, a do-everything forward who was UCLA’s best bet at creating his own shot in crunch time. Last season, Smith came into his own, emerging from the shadows of the Steve Alford era to be a great bridge to the Mick Cronin era, and his decision to return to school was seen as a big coup for UCLA heading into this season.
So why are the pitchforks being broken out?
The simple answer is that Smith has not lived up to his preseason hype so far. After averaging 13.1 PPG last season, he’s only broken that mark twice this year and has scored in the single digits in three of the seven games he’s played. Worse, he’s shooting at a worse clip than he was last year at near the same volume. He’s taking about 0.6 shots less a game but shooting 6.7% worse overall. His poor offensive play has led to a decrease in minutes as a result. If you take away the abnormal 51 minutes Smith played in the triple overtime win over Pepperdine, he’s averaging 25.2 MPG on the season, three less than he did last year. Take all that, add in the general quality of opponent UCLA has played in the non-conference slate, and you can see where the frustration comes from.
Before we break down Chris Smith’s offensive woes and do some diagnosis, I do think it bears mentioning that Smith has still provided value to the Bruins on the court, as he’s been one of UCLA’s best defenders this season. My guess is that he heard from NBA scouts that one of the biggest areas he needed to improve was on defense, and he’s responded in kind. His defensive rating per 100 possessions of 94.2 is by far the best mark he’s posted in his UCLA career and has kept him playable despite poor shooting nights. It hasn’t been able to completely keep him off the bench, especially as Coach Mick Cronin has experimented with shifting Jaime Jaquez to the four and running Tyger Campbell/Johnny Juzang/Jules Bernard up top, but it is something to note as we move forward.
Looking over Smith’s offensive numbers, there are a few things that jump out. The biggest to me is his two-point shooting percentage, as that number is way down from previous seasons. I’m not exaggerating. Smith went from a 50.7% two-point shooter in 2019-2020 to shooting an abysmal 37% this year. You can’t explain this away with an increase in free throw attempts, as he’s only averaging one extra FT a game so far. The problem lies in Smith’s shot selection. Too often, he starts heading towards the basket, only to get muscled away and forced into taking a tough shot at a bad angle. Go back and watch the Ohio State game and notice how many times the Buckeye defenders would simply move Smith away from the basket on his drives, forcing him into low-percentage shots.
One other thing I will point out: Smith really isn’t taking his normal amount of shots this year. Sure, he’s averaging only 0.6 shots less than last year, but that number is again inflated by the Pepperdine game, where he shot 17 times. Outside of that game, he’s only shot more than eight times once—in the win over UC Berkeley. Coincidentally, those two games are also the only ones where Smith scored over 20 points.
What can we make of this? Well, a few things and, since this is a subscriber-only post I will be brutally honest. The biggest takeaway: Chris Smith is not a natural shot-creator. This is perfectly fine except for the fact that UCLA clearly believes that he is and the coaching staff keeps putting him in situations that lead to failure. Smith has shown he has a good shot. He’s shooting 79.4% on free throws this year and his three-point shooting percentage has gone up on fewer attempts per game, but instead of working the offense to get him open looks or even one-dribble pull-ups, Smith is too often given the ball on the wing and asked to create something. Unfortunately, Smith lacks the physicality to bully his way to the basket and lacks the ball skills necessary to effectively drive past slower defenders.
More optimistically, there are some changes Smith can make to fix things on the offensive end. First, he needs to be more selective with his shots. If an opponent is moving him away from the basket, he should pull back and get the ball to someone else rather than put up an off-balance shot. Even if this leads to a decrease in shot attempts, it would create a huge improvement for Smith’s underlying numbers.
Second, he needs to make more dirty points. No, I don’t mean actually play dirty or anything like that, but it’s a concept I’ve taken from hockey. In hockey, a dirty goal is a term referring to one that is scored off a rebound or off a scramble in the crease. They’re not the prettiest goals in the world, but they get the job done. Similarly, Chris Smith has shown a penchant for rebounding and has even increased his per-game rates for both offensive and defensive rebounding this season. Grabbing offensive rebounds and converting them into easy looks close to the basket needs to become more of a priority for Smith, especially as doing so would open him up to getting fouled more often and he’s an excellent free throw shooter who could rack up some serious points from the line.
Third and, maybe, most importantly, Chris Smith needs to relax. To use a bit of armchair psychology, the biggest thing I’ve noticed about Smith this year is how much he seems to be pressing when he’s on the court and it’s completely understandable. Smith has consistently struck me as a player who always gives 100%, always wants to do the best that he can, and never wants to let others down. The problem is he’s never been in a position where he was the clear leader of the team. Sure, you could argue that became the case last season, but at least last season he had seniors in Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski that he could rely on to be strong locker-room voices. This year, he is that senior and the preseason accolades are only driving the point harder that he is supposed to be great at all times.
But I don’t know that UCLA necessarily needs him to be that player. The Bruins have players who do various aspects of what is asked of Smith better. Jaime Jaquez, in particular, has shown he has the physical tools to get to the basket with regularity on his drives. If Smith can play more to his strengths, UCLA can unlock a new level in their offense, which, I should mention, has already been extremely efficient this season despite Smith’s struggles.
Chris Smith has been a problem for UCLA to this point, but the good news is the problem appears fixable. If Coach Cronin can implement that fix, it would go a long way towards solidifying UCLA’s place atop the conference.
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Two thoughts: First, it's a small sample size skewed by two truly terrible games (the last two). He looked fine for the first 5 games, even if not great. I'm not overly concerned by a senior having back to back bad games. Check back with me if it's 3 in a row. Second, he had some spotty games like this last year. Some dreadful shooting performances or just a few games where he was a non factor. But he was pretty solid in conference, and the low scoring games were the result of not taking shots as opposed to going 2-8 like he did against OSU or 0-8 like he did against Marquette. Hopefully he heats up here pretty quick and finishes the season strong.
By the way, not that he would come back. But does the extra year of covid eligibility apply to basketball? In other words, could he come back if he wanted to?
I've been puzzled by Smith's slow start, but I'm still confident he'll get things sorted and return to his previous form. He's a senior and has a lot of tools so there are multiple things that can help him get back in his groove. He doesn't need to be the top alpha dog on this team because there are so many other reliable parts out there to pick up the slack. Smith just needs to relax, let the game come to him, and be himself.
We're a kind of disappointing 5-2 with his poor/inconsistent start, but I'm really optimistic about how we'll be when he finds his game and confidence.