Charlotte Hornets

Barely 19, Zhaire Smith has 'surprised' in NBA workouts. Could Hornets take a gamble?

NBA draft prospect Zhaire Smith, a guard from Texas Tech, worked out for the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center.
NBA draft prospect Zhaire Smith, a guard from Texas Tech, worked out for the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center. AP

Zhaire Smith? Not your average one-and-done NBA prospect.

Sure, he's young (having just turned 19 this month), like many of the other one-and-done prospects in this class — including Alabama guard Collin Sexton, who also worked out for the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday — but that's about where the similarities end.

Unlike Sexton and other top prospects, the 6-foot-5, 195-pound Smith didn't have a high profile coming out of high school. No national hype, no early appearances on mock drafts. Definitely no premonitions of leaving Texas Tech after only one college season.

And then the games happened, and everything changed.

Now, Smith wasn't Texas Tech's lone playmaker — he had a bounty of others helping lead the Red Raiders to their first Elite 8 appearance in school history. But he was certainly one of its catalysts. His 11.3 points and five rebounds per game may not jump off the stat sheet, but that's because neither of those are Smith's greatest attributes.

That would instead be ... his defense? And his athleticism?

Not the normal traits NBA teams expect of one-and-done prospects.

"I know anybody can score," Smith said with a grin after his Thursday workout with the Hornets, "but if you defend and do the little things, that's what coaches are looking for."

NBA coaches 'surprised' at everything

ESPN's Jay Bilas told the Observer this week that Smith's athleticism is 'tantalizingly good,' something the Garland, Texas, native proved in May at the NBA draft combine in Chicago.

Both his standing vertical leap (33 inches) and max vertical (41 1/2 inches) were in the top 5 for all participants, and his countless put-back dunks during the season were proof of how those physical skills translate on the court.

But more than just on dunks and drives to the basket, Smith's athleticism carries over to his defense. It allows him to shift and guard multiple positions, a valued asset in today's switch-happy NBA that emphasizes positional versatility. Smith was the embodiment of that on defense at Texas Tech, and said Thursday it's something he hopes will translate to the NBA.

"It's gonna be great, since I hopefully can switch (on the defense) the one (point guard) through the four (power forward)," Smith said. "Right now in my mind I believe I can switch the one through the three (small forward), and I'm trying to expand that."

And since Smith's athleticism and defense are already known commodities, he's used the past few weeks of team workouts to highlight the rest of his game. Although he shot 45 percent from 3 in his lone college season, that came on just 40 overall attempts, or 1.1 per game — now Smith has to show those numbers weren't a fluke, and that they will carry over in a more competitive league.

"(Coaches) are surprised," Smith said. "They're like, 'Man, I didn't know you could shoot it. I didn't know you could handle the ball like that.'

"But I'm trying to continue to showcase that."

A second straight first-round gamble?

As Smith was wrapping up his workout at the Spectrum Center, the Hornets' most recent first-round pick, Malik Monk, briefly entered the gym to speak with team personnel. He wasn't working out with Smith, but his presence was a reminder of how unpredictable the NBA draft can be — and how a young, raw player like Smith could end up with Charlotte, who holds the No. 11 pick for the second straight year.

Last season, Monk was seen by many experts and analysts as a sure-fire top-10 pick, with his latest possible landing spot expected to come at No. 9 overall and the New York Knicks. But on draft night, Monk kept slipping down the board, even bypassing the Knicks (who instead opted for French point guard Frank Ntilikina). Monk eventually fell to the Hornets at pick No. 11.

Smith and Monk are near-perfect contrasts for one another — Monk the offensively-gifted scorer, Smith the tenacious defensive stopper. But their similarities (youth, potential, room for growth) are obvious.

The question is whether the Hornets are willing to gamble on another raw, developmental prospect this early in the draft.

Smith's presence in the Hornets' backcourt would hide some of Monk's defensive shortcomings, but his unpolished offense might stagnate the fast-paced offense new coach James Borrego is hoping to implement. Smith did shoot 45 percent from 3-point range in his only collegiate season, but he did so on only 40 attempts and struggled from NBA 3-point distance during his workout Thursday.

"I'm trying to showcase my ability to shoot the ball, the 3, and my ball-handling," Smith said.

Again, at the NBA draft in a week, all these questions will be resolved. Smith is projected as a late-lottery selection, but could also last to the 20's depending on how things fall. He might not be a Hornet, especially with perimeter offense and deep shooting as two of the team's largest needs, but as Monk's example shows, anything can happen on draft night.

"I'm very anxious right now," Smith said, "but I'm just taking it day-by-day."

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889; @brendanrmarks

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