Season in Review: Jason Smith

Published: May 14, 2014

There were high hopes for Jason Smith following a promising 2012-13 season, despite the injury that left him riding the pine for the final two months of the season. Let’s head way back to the long long ago and see what McNamara had to say about J-Smitty after last 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 playing 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.”

Following surgery to repair the torn labrum in his right shoulder, Jason Smith entered Pelicans training camp as a bit of an uncertainty. He was hoping to be able to participate in contact drills following five months of rehabbing, but doctors had not yet cleared him. As it turned out, the right shoulder wouldn’t be an issue (although lefty made an appearance later in the season) and by the time the last preseason game rolled around Smith had replaced Greg Stiemsma as the starting center alongside Anthony Davis.

Smith would play 24 straight regular season games in that spot, and midway through December he was averaging career highs in minutes (28.8), points (10.4), rebounds (6.3) and blocks (1.2). “I think it’s just been playing a little bit more aggressive,” Smith said just days before his first injury hiatus of the season, “Just kind of letting it come to me, not trying to force stuff. Really trusting the coach. He’s put me in the right positions to succeed every year that I’ve been here.”

A few days later Smith would sit with a knee and then a right shoulder injury, missing seven of the next eight games total. Being the trooper that he is, Smith battled back to play six straight games in early January, but it was clear he wasn’t healthy or particularly productive. In those six games he shot just 37 percent from the field, averaged over eight fouls per 48, and recorded only a single block in 136 minutes. The Pelicans lost every single game he entered, and that would be all she wrote for the season of Smith.

As by far the longest tenured Pelican, it was especially hard to watch Jason struggle to stay healthy and to be forced yet again to ride the pine while closing out a season. This is a competitor who wanted to come back early from a concussion to a team playing for nothing, a person who we know genuinely cares about the franchise and the fans, and a player that I truly like to watch perform every time he takes the floor. All of the injuries hurt this year, but the loss of Smith in the middle meant more Greg Stiemsma, more Withey (who despite all his minor success was still just a rookie second round pick having a decent season), more Ajinca, and more confusion in the paint for the Pelicans.

In summary, Smith suffered a statistical decline just about across the board, but you can partially attribute the decrease to the seven particularly bad games he had following the knee and shoulder injuries. I won’t delve too deeply into his performance from an analytical perspective since the sample size was relatively small and he was injured for such a large chunk of it, but Smith was likely on track for a nice payday before injuring himself yet again.

Among other things I noticed while perusing shot charts and the like is that Smith took substantially more of his shots from the top of the key and the surrounding area than he did last year, and less from inside the paint. In 2012-2013 nearly 34 percent of Smith’s shots were in the paint and only 10 percent from the top of the key. In 2013-2014 those numbers were nearly equal, with 23 percent of his shots coming from the paint, and 22 percent coming from the top of the key. Smith also hit both of those shots at a lower rate this season than last. His true shooting percentage as a whole dropped back below 50 percent for the first time since 2010-2011, despite his usage rate plummeting from 21.5 down to just 16.8. This season we also saw Smith play remarkably less aggressive ball inside. His free throw rate literally dropped in half from what some saw as a breakout 2012-2013, and there was only a single game he attempted more than six free throws. Adding to the trouble, his free throw percentage dipped from 84% to 78%.

On defense the Pelicans were just slightly worse when Smith played as opposed to when he sat the pine. Synergy had him ranked as the 302nd best defender, giving up .92 points per possession. He did well in isolation despite not being a true center, ranking as the 135th best player, and giving up just .82 points per possession. When the opposition posted up against him, Smith struggled. He gave up a full point per possession, ranking 230th overall. Opposing centers tallied a 19.3 PER against him. His block rate dipped by a third.

On the bright side, his rebounding rate remained steady, and the rate in which he fouled opposing players dropped a bit. He also showed he was able to start at center consistently and mostly hold his own. I don’t think any team is heading into next season thinking Jason Smith can be their starting center, but the work he did early on next to Anthony Davis proved that even in a down season coming off an injury he’s capable of filling the center position for an extended period should the need arise. If he can stay healthy, that is…

What’s next?

Smith will enter free agency in 2014 as a bit of a question mark due to the uneven season he had this year. There’s little doubt Monty and the team would like him back, and generally speaking Smith enjoys New Orleans and the franchise so it’s not hard to see him at least giving the Pelicans a leg up in signing him. He played well when healthy the past two years and he’s a locker room favorite, so there’s definitely upside.

“Jason was a solid contributor for us,” Dell Demps said this offseason regarding Smith future contract status. “It hurt when we lost Jason this year. It did. But obviously we want to keep getting better. And I think when you are making that assessment you look and say ‘Hey you like Jason, you like what he brings to the core, you like what he does.’ I think his ability to shoot and his energy and he’s a good guy in the locker room, I think you look at all those things. And then you also look at how can you also improve your roster. So I think we’ll look at that. But I think we can do both.”

If he decides not to retain Smith, Dell will likely be thinking about his inability to stay on the floor over the past three seasons. Jason played just 40/66 games in 2011-2012, 51/82 in 2012-2013, and just 31/82 this season, leaving him with a playing percentage of just 53% over the past three seasons. For those scoring at home, that’s just a hair better than Eric “The Glassman” Gordon (50%). While Smith’s injuries will likely keep other franchises from quickly making an offer that he can’t refuse, it’s not impossible that we’ve danced our last dance with the kid from Colorado. He’s simply not an essential part of the Pelicans future on the court. If someone else is desperate for some depth up front and is convinced his injuries were flukes and not a pattern, he could be a prime candidate to be overpaid. But again, the injuries decrease the likelihood of it.

Season Highlight: Smith scored 22 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a thrilling overtime victory against the Pistons in mid December. To quote Monty Williams, “He was a monster”.


For all of our already published Season In Review pieces, click here.


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