Words cannot express how badly I want this guy to be in the NO (obvious pun) for life. His energy & love for the game seem hard to find these days. He is truly a great teammate and fitting for the culture that the Pelicans are trying to establish.
Season In Review: Jason Smith
On March 1st of this year, Jason Smith was officially declared out for the remainder of the season. It was a tough season for Smith physically, but despite all the injuries he racked up, it was by far his most productive on the court. Even though he was playign with a partially torn labrum for the majority of the season, Smith posted a career high PER (16.8), increased his block, defensive rebound, and assist percentages, and was frequently referred to by Monty Williams as the team’s best defensive player. On top of all that, he is often cited as the “glue guy” and “team leader,” if such things really do exist. With all that in mind, let’s take a detailed look back at the season that was for the man fans affectionately refer to as ‘J-Smitty’.
Where He Improved
Mid, Mid-Range Jumper
Since the 2010-11 season, Jason Smith has been consistently great at the 17-foot jumper, shooting 46% in the last three years from 16-23 feet. In 2012-13, however, he drastically increased his percentage from 10-15 feet, going from a 29% shooter to a 45% shooter in that range. Monty has added a new wrinkle to the offense this season where he has his big men run the baseline, and if the defense runs out on ball handlers, the big man runs to the rim. If the defense collapses in the paint, however, the big man pops out for a 10-12 foot jumper on the baseline. Smith has mastered this shot, hitting nearly 50% of them on the season. This shot becomes especially important when he is on the floor with Ryan Anderson. When the Hornets run this set with Smith and Anderson, Monty uses Anderson to spread the floor by running him in pick and pops while Smith runs the baseline. If the Hornets can add one more perimeter shooter at the three, Smith should be able to get this shot multiple times per game and knock them down with regularity.
After a fairly significant decline in 2011-12, Jason Smith raised his defensive rebound rate back to where it was in 2010. It still isn’t great, but his defensive rebound rate of 16.8% is good enough for a backup big. Some might choose to believe that Smith improved his technique or that his added bulk contributed to his better rebounding numbers, but the truth is that it is probably a result of playing against inferior competition. In 2011, he started 29 of the 40 games he played in and played 20 or more minutes in 65% of the games he played in. This year, however, he didn’t start a game and played 20 or more minutes in less than 30% of the games in which he was active. Simply put, he was usually playing against backups and wasn’t wearing himself down with heavy minutes so his rebounding numbers got back to the level they were at when he was a reserve two seasons ago.
Okay, I don’t have any fancy numbers for this, no data to overwhelm you with, but they eye test told you that Jason Smith was clearly the team’s best screen setter this season. While Davis and Anderson often slipped too soon, and Lopez was too slow of foot to get in ideal position, Jason Smith set picks that got his guards open and he popped at the right time, to ideal spots on the floor. As our own Michael Pellissier pointed out in a fantastic piece on Eric Gordon, Jason Smith did a terrific job of setting hard screens that help our guards get isolated with bigs, which often results in open shots or free throw attempts.
What Stayed the Same
The Pick and Pop Jumper
The fact that this stayed the same is not a bad thing. AT ALL. Jason Smith is an elite shooter from four of the five mid-range spots on the court. Not elite for a big man, just elite – period. In the left-middle, right-middle, and middle zones, he shoots a blistering 54%. What really makes Monty happy is that he obviously knows where he is effective from, because other than ‘at the rim’, those are the three most frequent areas where Smith fires from. He shoots over 52% coming out of the pick and roll/pop and is actually the 12th most efficient player in the league according to Synergy Sports when coming off of screens, something Monty has drawn up for him more this season. New Orleans called up a play several times this season in which the two guard set a screen on the weakside for Smith on the baseline. The ball was then swung to Smith, who knocked down that shot with regularity. More and more, you are starting to see Monty take advantage of Smith’s elite skill.
The Dependency on Others
As efficient as Smith is offensively, he is limited because he is completely dependant on others creating shots for him. In each of the past three years, over 80% of his field goals were assisted on. This past season, that number was a career high 83.8%. When he tried to create for himself this season, it often resulted in turnovers. So for better or worse, Smith is a fantastic shooter and a solid finisher at the rim, but he is completely dependent on others getting those shots for him.
Smith’s shooting percentage went down a bit this year, but his true shooting percentage and points per shot actually increased slightly because his free throw rate increased nearly 250% and he raised his free throw percentage from 70% to 84%. He was really able to get to the line when receiving passes off of pick and rolls and on baseline cuts. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t get there very often after an offensive rebound, primarily because it seems like he needs to get a running start to really attack the basket with an explosive burst. Often times when he just had to go up while flat footed he would get blocked, but if Smith got a running start, he was either going to score or get fouled. The adding spacing that Ryan Anderson provided, combined with Smith attacking more this season led to a very efficient season for J-Smitty.
Areas of Decline
Scoring At the Rim
Jason Smith’s field goal percentage around the bucket plummeted, and a large reason for that is because he got his shot blocked far more often than he did in season’s past near the bucket. In the prior two seasons, only 6% of Smith’s shots were blocked, but in 2012 that jumped to 8.5%. Most of those blocks came at or near the rim, where Smith’s field goal percentage fell from 79.5% to 64.2%. While his new found aggressiveness got him to the free throw line more often, it also resulted in blocked shots, missed shots, and turnovers. You might be able to attribute this to him being forced to play with Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts at guard for the majority of minutes that he was on the court. Last season, Jack and Vasquez got him much better looks, often hitting him right at the bucket. This year, Vasquez was on the floor with him only 20% of his minutes, the rest of the time he had to try and play with Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts (prior to his late season development).
Again, this was a result of Smith having to do more. The most common lineup that Jason Smith found himself in was the five-man unit of Lance Thomas-Austin Rivers- Brian Roberts- Smith- Ryan Anderson. Yuck. The second most common lineup featured those same guys, but with Roger Mason in the place of Lance Thomas. Basically, there weren’t any playmakers so Smith had to step outside of his standard role. On the plus side, Smith’s assist percentage rose, but so did his turnover percentage. Monty tried to run some high-low sets with Smith and Anderson to take some of the pressure of our inexperienced guards, but that led to disaster far too often. Hopefully Rivers and Roberts continue to evolve next season so Smith won’t be asked to do something he is clearly not capable of.
Smith played 77 games in 2010, 40 in 2011, and then just 51 this year. Injuries are part of the game, and Smith is a warrior who can play through pain, which is a positive sign. But his style of play lends itself to injuries and it is something that both he and Monty need to remain cognisant of going forward.
When he was on the court Jason Smith was as good as ever, as he combined his lethal mid-range jumper with an increased aggressiveness when attacking the basket. Playing against second units, his rebounding rate increased as well, as did his effectiveness running the baseline. He also assumed the role of leader on this young team, and continued to do all the little things that you don’t see in the box score, but that coaches come to love, as evidenced by the fact that Monty called him the ‘heart and soul’ of the team several times.
What is somewhat concerning, however, is the myriad of injuries that Smith has experienced over the past two season. His aggressive and sometimes reckless style is endearing to fans and inspiring to his teammates, but it has also forced him to miss 57 games over the past two seasons. As winning becomes the primary objective of this franchise, it will become more necessary to have you ‘heart and soul’ on the court. But if Smith takes the intensity down a notch, he loses one of the things that makes him such a vital player. To play at 80% intensity or not to play at all. If the injuries continue, that might be the question.
Jason Smith has one more year (non-guaranteed) at $2.5 million before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2014. Barring something unforeseeable, the New Orleans Pelicans will pick up that final year of the contract and might even look to extend him this summer if the both sides see value in doing so. While it is unlikely that we see the Pelicans trade Smith, you can see several scenarios in which next year is Smith’s last in New Orleans. Imagine a scenario in which the Pelicans take Nerlens Noel or Cody Zeller and Smith gets a significant offer on the free agent market. Would the Pelicans match it if they need to give 90+ minutes to Davis, Anderson, and another young big? Or what if the Pelicans go after somebody like Nikola Pekovic this summer and commit big money and significant minutes to him? At that point, paying anything more than the minimum for a 4th big would seem foolish.
But if the Pelicans don’t go big in the draft or free agency this summer, then it would be reasonable to expect Smith to be back for the long haul, as a veteran presence will be needed in locker room that is so young. In fact, his role could be increased as early as next year if Dell Demps decides to move Robin Lopez for some perimeter help. Ideally, Ryan Anderson would get the bulk of the minutes at the 4 and 5 once Davis bulks up, and Smith has shown he can play with either of those guys effectively. As the numbers show, Smith is his most effective when he gets between 15 and 20 minutes, meaning a long term roll as a 3rd or 4th big at a reasonable price works out best for both he and the Pelicans.
For all the Season in Review pieces we have done so far, click here.