UCLA leading scorer Chris Smith declares for NBA draft

Ben Bolch
LA Times
UCLA guard Chris Smith averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game this season for the Bruins. <span class="copyright">(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)</span>
UCLA guard Chris Smith averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game this season for the Bruins. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

He is wading into the great unknown, a fringe NBA prospect embarking on an undetermined process that could culminate in a delayed draft because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chris Smith took the first step toward that uncertainty Tuesday, UCLA’s leading scorer and the Pac-12 Conference’s most improved player declaring for the NBA draft one month after the end of his junior season.

“This is a step-by-step process,” Sean Smith, Chris’ father, said via text message.

Chris Smith has long intrigued NBA personnel because he’s a bouncy 6-foot-9 guard with a versatile skill set, but he’s also been prone to consistency issues throughout his college career. He’s considered by some a borderline second-round pick after a season in which he averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, becoming a first-team All-Pac-12 selection.

ESPN has listed Smith as the No. 72 best available prospect, meaning he could be left on the board in a two-round draft that includes 60 picks. Under current rules, draft-eligible underclassmen have until June 3 to inform the NBA that they intend to withdraw from draft consideration and return to college.

“Chris is a wonderful guy and we support him exploring his options,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “He’s doing great in school, we’re in constant communication and we’re going to be there for him to help him with the entire process. We’re going to support him however it plays out.”

Smith’s considerable selling points include the upside of a player who, after turning 20 in December, is among the youngest juniors in the country. He is coming off a season in which he enhanced his game across the board, setting career highs in not just points and rebounds but also assists (1.6 per game), steals (1.0), field-goal accuracy (45.8%), three-point accuracy (34.1%) and free-throw accuracy (84%).

Smith said the increased belief of his coaches and teammates in his abilities pushed him toward his breakthrough season.

“When I’m out there and I have the ball in my hands or I’m guarding somebody, it’s just the confidence that I have in myself and the other people on the team have in me,” Smith said in February. “That’s, I believe, what’s been pushing me to be as consistent.”

Questions about sustained effort remain. After a career-high 30-point outburst against Colorado in late January, Smith was held to single digits in four of his next eight games. He was also prone to sloppy play, committing six turnovers during the Bruins’ season-ending loss to USC in March.

Several factors could compel Smith to return for his senior season, including continued improvement under Cronin that could elevate his draft stock and the prospect of playing alongside an emerging core that helped the Bruins (19-12) win 11 of their final 14 games before the season was halted. UCLA will welcome a freshman class that includes Daishen Nix, one of the nation’s most heralded point guard prospects.

Should Smith depart for the NBA, it would create a third open roster spot. Among the players the Bruins are recruiting are Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon forward Ziaire Williams, Ohio State transfer Luther Muhammad, San Francisco transfer Charles Minlend, Long Beach State transfer Joshua Morgan and Lakewood Mayfair guard Joshua Christopher.

Sean Smith recently acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding a draft that is scheduled for June 25 but could be pushed back amid the coronavirus pandemic. ESPN reported that the NBA informed teams on Monday that they are barred from conducting in-person workouts or interviews with draft-eligible players until further notice.

“You can’t get into workouts and things of that sort to try and adjust your position,” Sean Smith said last month, “so where he stands right now is where he stands.”

UCLA has a history of mixed success among its recent early draft entrants. Kris Wilkes, Moses Brown and Jaylen Hands all left for the draft after last season but only Hands was selected, by the Brooklyn Nets with the No. 56 pick overall. Hands went on to spend the entire season with the Long Island Nets of the G League.

The previous year, Aaron Holiday was selected late in the first round by the Indiana Pacers. He became a part-time starter this season, averaging 9.4 points and 3.3 assists per game.

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