At the start of last season, Chris Smith was the man-child who quite frankly seemed a good candidate to redshirt. As a “guard” at 6’8” tall, Smith had some tools, but seemed raw. Shoot! He entered college a year early and was only 17 when he played his first UCLA game. Chris was buried deep on the depth chart at small forward behind Kris Wilkes and someone named LiAngelo Ball. As you looked at the team before the season, Smith seemed to be the eleventh man in an eight man rotation. He was going to be a garbage time player at best and was a young kid with a seemingly distant future. After the China incident and the departure of the Ball carnival act, that all changed and Smith became the eighth man in the eight man rotation. While he primarily backed up Kris Wilkes at small forward, he occasionally played the four and was listed a guard. Smith was an interesting player that was hard to categorize.
And, now, for the second year in a row, Smith is being asked to step up in an unexpected way. He’s now the backup point guard. This was unthinkable before the year being again as Smith, at best, was the garbage time point with the talented and raw Jaylen Hands and the crafty pass-first true point Tyger Campbell in front of him. I thought he might even be the fourth choice behind freshman David Singleton. But Alford likes Smith’s knowledge of the offense. After Campbell’s injury, Smith will be playing point and three other positions, according to Alford.
But while there are doubts that Jaylen Hands can live up to his potential as a point guard, there are people questioning whether Smith is even a guard. My favorite (not the best, just my man crush) of all Steve Alford UCLA players was 6’9” Kyle Anderson. Anderson was big, slow and a really good point. Of course, Kyle played four on defense. He was nicknamed “Slo-Mo” but Kyle had an off-the-charts basketball IQ and led UCLA in virtually every category his one year under Alford. Anderson was recruited as a point even if Ben Howland never really let him play it.
Now, Smith was either a three- or four-star player in high school, but everyone said he was a forward. However, Chris always thought differently, as he told Rivals.com:
I picked UCLA because I just felt like it was the best place for me overall. I think that I bring a plethora of things to the table. I can handle the ball, shoot, pass, and much more. Also, I just believe I am a great teammate and everybody there will love playing with me.
That sounds like a point guard but, man, he does not look one.
Chris is versatile. He is the first player I can remember in many years that has a legitimate chance to play all five positions. He is a difficult match-up. A strange way to prove that is the fact that Smith was second on the team on free throw attempts per minute played last season. Only Aaron Holiday drew more fouls last season per minute play. He is comfortable with the ball in his hands and seems to be a good teammate. Shooting inside the arc, he was actually a very good 53%. Parts of his offense are underrated. He also may be a really good fit on the top of Steve Alford’s 3-2 or 1-2-2 zone with his size and skills.
Areas to Improve on
Chris was last or next to last of the eight rotation players in virtually ever stat. This shows up the most in shooting. Smith was an awful 18% from three. That brought his overall shooting percentage down as really he was good inside the arc. For a point guard, Smith did not have many assists, assisting about the same per minute rate as starting center Thomas Welsh while turning the ball over much more. As a matter of fact, Smith had the worst assist to turnover percentage of any of the eight regulars.
It was probably the worst game of the year from the watchability perspective. UCLA vs. Stanford in UCLA’s opening game of the Pac-12 tournament was just plain ugly as, at one point, the SPTR refs seemed to be calling a foul every play. However, Steve Alford realized this and a number of times called for Smith just to drive to the hole. It was not that Smith was going to make the shot, but Alford and Smith knew a foul was going to be called. Smith shot 10 free throws and made six of them. He seemingly put most of Stanford’s front court in foul trouble and helped UCLA win an essential game to keep the Bruins in the NCAA tournament when each member of the starting front court had four or five fouls.
Smith is once again being called upon in an unexpected way. Smith seems like a good kid who is willing to do whatever is asked of him. He has shown he can slash to the basket and score inside; however, traditional point guard skills like being able to hit an open three and passing the ball without turning it over seem very much in doubt. Alford likes Smith as a backup point because he knows the offense. Alford gambled on a big man as point before with success in Kyle Anderson. This one seems like a bigger gamble. I wish Smith luck, but this seems to be asking a lot.