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Auburn basketball: Why Jabari Smith, Auburn’s newest 5-star, is the ‘full package’

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Auburn basketball.

There are a lot of different ways to describe Jabari Smith.

He’s a 6-foot-10 power forward from Tyrone, Ga. He’s a five-star recruit ranked as the No. 4 player in the country. He’s the highest-rated signee in Auburn basketball history (.9988), edging Sharife Cooper (.9920) and Mustapha Heron (.9911). He’s a projected top-10 pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.

But those things represent only what Smith is; not who he is.

“He’s a kid,” Jon-Michael Nickerson, Smith’s coach at Sandy Creek High, told the Advertiser. “What’s crazy — and I have to remind myself and I talk to my wife about all the time — is that everybody wants to talk about how he has this huge future and he’s going to be a 10-year NBA vet and all this stuff, has All-Star potential, but the thing is, he’s a baby.

“He could easily be a junior because he’s a May baby. He’s really young still. So he still just wants to have fun with kids his age and talk about music and video games and who’s getting on 2K tonight. He’s just a kid, man. It’s still cool to see.”

It makes Smith something of a throwback. In an era when more and more of the top recruits each year are playing for prep schools and basketball academies and choosing professional routes over playing in college, Smith arrived at Auburn on Monday after four years at his local public high school.

Nickerson said Smith loves watching college basketball. His father played at LSU before heading briefly to the NBA and a professional career overseas, so playing Division I has always been a dream of his, along with earning McDonald’s All-American honors, being named Mr. Basketball and winning a championship.

Smith has crossed two of those things off his list. He’ll achieve a third approximately five months from now when Auburn opens the 2021-22 season. The only thing Smith hasn’t done is win a championship — Sandy Creek reached the state semifinals three times during his career, but it never hoisted the trophy.

The Patriots came close last season, though. Smith was a big reason why. He was dominant in a semifinal win over Hart County, posting 30 points, 15 rebounds, six blocks, four steals and three assists. He totaled 19 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks in the state title game against Cross Creek, too — it just wasn’t quite enough in an eight-point loss.

Those losses will likely be on Smith’s mind as he gets set to begin his college career — Nickerson said Smith’s primary thought as he sifted through the schools recruiting him was “which one of my offers put me in the best position to win a national championship?”

He “100 percent” saw it at Auburn.

“The style of play, it’s close to home, his parents will be able to see every game, the student section is obviously incredible,” Nickerson said. “Just what Bruce (Pearl) has done everywhere he’s been — you can’t not see it.”

Make no mistake, though — Smith didn’t just hitch his wagon to an ascending program; he’s part of why it’s ascending. Returning players such as Allen Flanigan and Jaylin Williams and transfers such as Walker Kessler and K.D. Johnson make Auburn a preseason Top 25 team, but it’s signing Smith that gives the Tigers potential to go far in the NCAA Tournament.

Smith averaged 23.4 points on 56 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.5 blocks and 1.6 steals as a senior. He’s as comfortable using his 6-10 frame to attack the basket as he is pulling up for a 3-pointer in transition. He shot 41 percent from beyond the arc last season.

“He can do it all. He can score, defend one through five, he’s a great passer, he is an unbelievable rim protector, and he has an elite IQ,” Nickerson said. “It’s not good, it’s not great — it’s elite.

“He sees things before they happen. He knows the opposing team’s offensive sets from scouting reports and is calling it out before they’re even moving and even getting into their stuff. … He’s the full package.”

Smith will play the same role Tobias Harris and Chuma Okeke played in Pearl’s wide-open, up-tempo system, which is essentially the fourth guard lining up where a traditional power forward would. Pearl asks that player to do a little bit of everything, from stretching the floor to facilitating from the post to defending the opponent’s best player on the wing. It made Harris and Okeke stars — both became top-20 NBA Draft picks after two or fewer seasons in college.

And still, Pearl said he doesn’t think he’s ever coached “anybody as young, as big and as skilled” as Smith. Harris and Okeke were 6-8 in college. Smith is two inches taller. Pearl compared him to a young Kevin Garnett, who skipped college and averaged 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists as a 19-year-old rookie with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The only question Pearl has about Smith is how much weight he’ll be able to add to his 215-pound frame to match up with larger players inside.

“Kevin got big, strong and physical,” Pearl said. “But Kevin Garnett was a big, skilled young kid and that’s who Jabari is.”

Add that to the list of ways to describe Auburn’s newest five-star.