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Exclusive: Going into overtime with Jabari Smith ahead of the NBA draft

For the first time in his life, Jabari Smith looks awkward shooting jumpers. With the Atlanta sun beating down, Smith tries to shoot with a baseball glove on one hand and an oven mitt on the other.

Smith, Kentucky’s TyTy Washington and Alabama’s JD Davison take turns trying to shoot the basketball with less-than-ideal items on their hands as part of a competition. It’s the calm before the storm on an early June morning, just weeks before the NBA draft, as the three prospects take part in an overtime documentary.

With the baseball glove off, Smith is arguably the best shot in the draft. Smith’s stroke is lemon pepper to be precise, fitting for an Atlanta native. The big man shot 42% from long range at Auburn and hit 2.3 threes per fight in his freshman season. Players hate comparisons to other athletes, but Smith credits Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis as inspirations for his own game.

“I would say people like KD, Anthony Davis, people who can do a lot,” Smith explained. “Shooting, defending, dribbling, a lot of these guys who are just versatile and really do a lot.”

The big man’s punch combined with his defensive versatility is a key reason for Smith emerged as the favourite to be the No. 1, but weeks before the draft, Smith admitted during our interview that he hadn’t spoken to Magic. Smith noted that he felt he deserved the #1, but called Magic’s decision a “coin toss”.

Days later, that all changed when Smith coached for Orlando and Oklahoma City before ending his appointment-only tour. It’s an impeccable strategy for a player who will hear his name before the first commercial break of the NBA draft.

The road to greatness is a lonely one, and one reason the three would-be NBA players instantly bonded while hanging out at the Overtime Draft House. Washington believes the trio will be “bonded for life” following their Overtime experience.

“It was really cool to be able to team up with two other good athletes off the court,” Washington said of his friendship with Smith and Davison. “I feel like the game of basketball can always bring friendship longer than you play. I’m pretty sure the three of us will be linked for life. I mean I’m just a phone call away but if I ever need anything I can call one of them. So it’s really cool to team up with them off the pitch.”

Few know the toll it takes on a person to be constantly evaluated, and the process begins much earlier than the preliminary interviews. Most NBA players previously attended various high school travel courses, which is where they first gained notoriety, leading to offers, many of them in the Washington, Smith and Davison cases. In addition to college, there are now professional options with programs like Overtime Elite and the G-League helping to prepare players aiming to eventually make it to The Association.

Once the top players begin their post-high school careers, the scrutiny intensifies as NBA general managers monitor everything from a prospect’s defensive intensity during a random Wednesday night blowout to a player’s Instagram posts. The pre-draft evaluation process is constant and may include awkward interviews with NBA executives asking if they’d rather be a lion or a tiger. It’s an extremely intense process, but understandable given the stakes. Botched enough lottery tickets can result in front office staff being fired. So if the preliminary design process seems like paranoia, that’s because it is.

Players fly to different cities and wonder if this could be their forever home after draft night. Smith and Washington admit they see the mock drafts even when they’re not looking for them. The prospects show fans tagging them whenever a new one is released to let the stars know they’re heading to Houston, Philadelphia, Portland or some other exciting NBA city on that particular day.

“I mean, it’s hard to really get away from that, you know what I mean?” Smith revealed. “You see it everywhere, so I look at it, but it doesn’t really mean much to me.”

Jabari Smith Sr. was a grinder and embarked on a professional basketball career after being selected by the Kings No. 45 overall in the second round of the 2000 NBA draft. After brief stints with Sacramento and Philadelphia, Smith Sr. played in Spain before returning to the States and re-signing with the Kings. Smith Sr. ended his NBA career with the Nets, ending five NBA seasons.

The big man played one more season in Turkey before calling it a career. Basketball has taken him all over the world, but his determination has created a basketball career despite the great odds.

The reality is that most NBA careers will be closer to Smith Sr. than Smith Jr., players fighting for a roster spot and pushing for another pro season. While select Superstars have the power to request trades, the majority of players will scrap a G-League opportunity, 10-day contract, or two-way deal. This would be the environment you would want a top prospect to grow up in when creating a player for NBA 2K.

Smith Sr. had the reverse path to the NBA as his son. Being a first-round pick comes with a guaranteed contract, while the majority of second-round picks don’t make the final list. Smith’s “Forever Humble” tattoo on the right side of his chest makes so much sense knowing his father’s background as a journeyman basketball player.

The future NBA big man is also familiar with the pressures of being No. 1, as he is the cousin of former top pick Kwame Brown. The forward was picked by Michael Jordan in the 2001 NBA draft straight out of high school but failed to land a second contract with the Wizards. Instead, Brown played 12 NBA seasons with his additional stints including the Lakers, Pistons, Hornets, Sixers, Grizzlies and Warriors.

The benefits of being an NBA player are numerous, but the effort to continue earning those benefits is endless. Smith has experienced both ends of the spectrum and will enter the league with high expectations.

“Versatility, I can do a lot on the floor,” Smith explained. “Passing, defending, rebounding, anything the team asks of me, I feel like I can do it. That’s what I bring to a team, just a winning mentality and versatility.”

Don’t let the humility fool you, as NBA opponents will be hoping Smith is still shooting with a baseball glove when the season kicks off this fall.

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