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The Gonzaga Bulldogs were fortunate to only lose two rotation players from last year’s No. 1 ranked squad, although trying to replace Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard is far from an easy task.
While multiple players will take on various elements of the role(s) filled by those two, now that they are off to the NBA, a lot of Nembhard’s responsibilities will fall on Chattanooga transfer guard Malachi Smith.
Smith was an elite scorer while with the Mocs, averaging 19.9 points on astonishingly efficient shooting: 49.3% from the field, 40.7% from deep, and 82.7% from the charity stripe.
That alone is enough to understand why a team like Gonzaga – or any team really – would be interested in his services, but a look under the hood gives an even better understanding of just exactly what Mark Few and the rest of the staff saw in Smith, and how they might utilize him this upcoming season.
Smith’s offensive profile is basically an exact replica of how Gonzaga looks to get their shots off. Roughly 70% of his shot attempts were either three pointers or at the rim, where he shot 40.7% and 60%, respectively.
He also scored 80% of his threes off assists, which lines up well with Gonzaga’s pass-heavy offensive flow where 83% of their made threes last year were assisted.
Plays like this one, where Smith sees his defender paying attention to the ball on the block and moves toward the corner for an open three, are going to be a big part of the two-man game with Drew Timme next season:
We know teams will send double-teams at Timme all season long – we know what happens if they don’t – and if the Zags can get into situations where the double-team is coming from the strong side like this it should be easy money for the wing player to move into position to get an open look, like Smith did here.
Smith won’t just be relied upon to knock them down from beyond the arc. His ability to attack closeouts, get to the rim, and finish with either hand will be critical for the Zags as well, and all of that is on display here:
Smith realizes he has his defender on skates, attacks to the middle of the court (which gives him more passing opportunities if needed) and then he drops an absolutely beautiful pump fake to get the big man in the air. From there a simple transition to his left hand and a floater up and in is all it takes to put two more points up on the board.
Gonzaga’s offense is going to funnel through Timme again this season – and for good reason – so the guards will need to take advantage on kick-outs and situations where the ball gets swung quickly around to the weakside. Sometimes that results in an open three (which Smith can knock down with ease) but more often than not it’s a situation where a defender comes flying in on a closeout, and seeing Smith effortlessly put the ball on the deck, get to the middle of the floor, and finish with his off-hand is absolute perfection. That will be available to him plenty of times this year, and he looks fully ready to take advantage.
Smith isn’t just a weapon for the Zags in the half court, but he proved he can be plenty successful out in the open court as well. With Smith and Rasir Bolton out in transition, the Zags are going to challenge for 90+ points per game once again in 22-23.
Smith is 6’4 and 205 pounds, so he can use his physicality to bully smaller guards at the point of attack, and can finish through contact like we see in this clip here:
I like that we can see Smith look for his teammate on the fast break, but once he realizes he has room to atack he quickly puts his head down and goes straight to the rim. You’d like to see him take that up with the left hand, but he drew the contact and got the bucket to fall so it’s hard to get too nitpicky.
Finally, the big question: will Smith be asked to handle PnR duties as Gonzaga’s primary ball-handler? There wasn’t a better pick and roll point guard in college hoops than Nembhard last year, but Smith showed plenty of promise in that area last season, although the sample size is relatively small thanks to limited reps at Chattanooga.
Still, Smith’s 0.92 PPP (points per possession) ranked in the 70th percentile among guards last year, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll have that number up over 1.0 with better teammates around him in Spokane.
If anyone out there misses watching Nembhard expertly navigate a pick and roll, this clip ought to help. Smith takes the screen, gets his defender on his back, gets into the lane and tosses up a floater that falls through the iron – a move Nembhard executed hundreds of times during his two years in Spokane.
While Nolan Hickman and Smith will probably each handle a lot of pick and roll duties, it is nice to see Smith showcase moves like this one.
He also took a lot of opportunities to go left, away from the screen, and attack the rim. It’s another move we saw a lot of from Nembhard in the past two seasons:
Smith’s ability to recognize the defense and take what is given to him is excellent, and the fact that he can finish easily with his left hand – and through contact – will serve him well at Gonzaga.
Some have concerns about Smith’s competition level with the Mocs, and his lack of experience in the pick and roll, but these clips show a player who uses his size and strength extremely well, has excellent vision, can finish with both hands, is a deadeye outside shooter, and who moves well without the ball in his hands.
Considering Gonzaga’s affinity for two-point guard lineups, Smith should see plenty of action as both the primary ball-handler and as an off-ball guard – and his skill-set and experience make him a near perfect fit for what Mark Few and the staff will want from him this season in Spokane.
(Thanks to M&G Analytics on Twitter for the video clips)
Andy hosts the Locked on Zags and Locked on College Basketball podcasts, and serves Locked On in a marketing/digital content creator role as well. He lives just outside Portland with his wife Jenna and dog, Tillie.