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Smith, a 6-foot-11 forward, played one season at Auburn and head coach Bruce Pearl knows exactly the kind of player the Magic are getting if they take him with the first pick.
“What makes him No. 1? For his size, he’s the best jump shooter I’ve seen in college in over 20 years,” Pearl told Yahoo Sports. “He’s about as ready, as far as a one-and-done, than I’ve ever seen and he is going to make Orlando win.”
Smith has been touted as the best shooting big in this draft with an impressive 42% mark from deep at Auburn. Orlando desperately needs help from beyond the perimeter, connecting on just 33% of their 3-point attempts last season.
“His approach to the game and his mentality is like nothing I’ve seen before,” Pearl told Yahoo Sports. “You can’t be that good of a jump shooter without the mental toughness to want the shot, to take the shot and believe it’s going in every time it leaves your hand. It’s the same ball flight, it’s the same rotation every single time. And that’s what the great ones have.”
Smith didn’t enter the season with the same NBA hype as Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero, but he was on scouts’ radar. Pearl knew Smith was talented and knew he had a great player, but it was after a double-overtime loss to UConn at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament when Pearl knew Smith could go No. 1 in the draft. Smith finished with 22 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“That UConn game changed everything,” Pearl told Yahoo Sports, shaking his head. “That’s when I knew and really had to tell myself, ‘OK, this one is different.’ All he did was build on it from there. Throughout the entire season, I had the best player on the court every single night in Jabari Smith.”
If Smith does hear his name called first, he will be the first player to be the No. 1 pick in Auburn program history.
“Auburn was home for me and still is home so it would be a big deal to write my name in history forever,” Smith told Yahoo Sports.
“When you walk into our locker room, one of the first things you see on the wall is a sign that says, ‘Make history,'” Pearl told Yahoo Sports. “We put that up years ago because there has been great history tradition of Auburn basketball and I wanted guys to come to Auburn to try to add to that history. Making the Final Four in 2019, being the best team in the country this past season for a month. Those things are historical. Jabari, possibly being the first No. 1 pick in school history … man, it’s just what we’re here to do. We’re here to win championships and we’re here to get the guys from here to there [the NBA].”
Pearl will be at the Barclays Center and will shine like the proud coach he is. Auburn center Walker Kessler is also projected to go in the first round, so it’s a big night for Auburn basketball.
In years past, it’s been a different SEC program and head coach who take the spotlight in the green room with multiple first-round picks and the potential No. 1 overall pick. John Calipari and Kentucky have had three No. 1 picks in the last 12 years. It’ll be a quieter year with just one potential lottery pick in Shaedon Sharpe (who didn’t play a single minute at Kentucky) and combo guard TyTy Washington, who’s a projected late first-round pick.
Pearl is never one to shy away from the cameras, but insists he’s taking a step back and letting Smith’s family enjoy the moment.
“I’m going to stay as far away from the camera as possible,” Pearl told Yahoo Sports, while laughing. “For me, it’s always about seeing grandma and seeing mom and dad. His high school and AAU coach, you know? I really want to watch them enjoy it and honestly it’s about them, it’s about their family.”
If Smith is selected by the Magic, he would be joining another Auburn player, Chuma Okeke, something Pearl is very excited about.
“I should be able to get a pretty good seat,” Pearl told Yahoo Sports, laughing. “I guess I’ll call [general manager] John Hammond and say, ‘What do you think, John? Can you help a brother out?’ “
On Wednesday, Smith appeared very calm and relaxed. Something rare for a player about to be drafted to the NBA in less than 24 hours. “I’m ready and I’m excited,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “I feel good about wherever I go and I’m ready to get to work.”
Smith followed up with Yahoo Sports senior NBA insider Chris Haynes, saying he’d be surprised if he didn’t go No. 1. “It’s just my competitive nature mixed with my unselfishness and my ability to just shoot the ball, defend multiple positions and care about winning,” Smith said. vI don’t care about stats. I feel I can help any team right away. But I feel I’m the No. 1 pick.”
All signs point to the Magic taking Smith, and Pearl is confident he’ll have a long, successful career in Orlando.
“Jabari is humble, he’s hungry and he’s an incredibly hard worker. He’s going to be an NBA All-Star,” Pearl told Yahoo Sports. “It’s the combination of confidence, preparation and toughness and desire to win that separates him from everyone else. And I mean everyone else. There’s no one better in this class.”