During the Air Force game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, Jay Bilas called Jamar Smith “the best freshman shooter in the country.” In his sophomore season, Smith and the Illini coaching staff will be looking at him to be known as something besides just a shooter. Last year, with Dee Brown manning the point guard position (and Chester Frazier handling back up point guard duties for five minutes a game), Smith was not looked at to be an all around player on offense, but this season his progression as an all around player will be key to the Illini’s success.
In an effort to further his all around offensive skills, Jamar Smith went on a three-game traveling tour to China where he was coached by Illinois assistant Wayne McClain. On this tour (where he was also joined by redshirt freshman CJ Jackson), Smith got experience playing the point guard in game situations, something that Bruce Weber will be looking at him to do this season as he tries to replace Dee Brown in the Illinois rotation. No one player will be able to replace Brown, but if Smith can further broaden his offensive game to include the requisite point guard skills, the Illini backcourt will be much more potent on offense, and Bruce Weber will also have greater flexibility when filling out his lineups.
While Jamar, like all players, is looking to expand their overall skill set, his most reliable skill for the Illini this season will be his best asset, his shooting. In his freshman season Jamar shot an amazing 48.18% from behind the three point line, I believe it was also Jay Bilas who dubbed the three-point shot a “Jamar Smith lay up” during one of Illinois’ games last season. There is no denying that Jamar is one of the premier shooters in the NCAA, but a closer look at his shooting shows that as defenses realized how good of a shooter he was, they made a concerted effort to slow him down.
Let’s look at the difference in his season between the non-conference schedule, and then the Big Ten schedule.
Double Digit Scoring Games
Non-Conference: 8 (including the NCAA Tournament)
Conference Season: 3
Non-Conference: 44-82 (53.7%)
Conference: 22-55 (40.0%)
If you remove the two NCAA Tournament games from Jamar’s non-conference three point shooting numbers, his numbers are: 36-65 (55.4%).
Even with his decline in three-point shooting from the non-conference season to the rigors of Big Ten play, there is no denying that 40% from behind the three point arc over the entire conference season is an astounding number. But that does not mean there are not things Jamar will need to do this season to ensure the number stays at the same level, and hopefully even higher.
While Jamar has the quickest release I have seen in an Illinois uniform in a long time, he still struggles to get his shot up against physical defenders. With over 75% of his shots last season coming from behind the three-point arc, defenders barely even bothered to take Smith’s dribble drive seriously, and just bodied him up on the perimeter and ran out at him when he was given an open look.
Without Dee Brown to worry about this season, defenses will probably be able to put even more pressure on Smith as he looks to be one of Illinois’ primary scorers right now. Smith has worked this summer to improve his ability to penetrate with the basketball as well as his point guard skills. If this work is able to translate onto the court, and he is able to become a true triple threat with the basketball from the perimeter, the sky is the limit for what this sharp shooter from Peoria can become for the Illini, and it will be tough to keep him off the floor.
Speaking of keeping him off the floor, one of the questions that Bruce Weber will have to answer heading into the 2006-2007 season is who will be joining Rich McBride, Shaun Pruitt, and Brian Randle in the Illinois starting lineup. Now, I am not a person that really cares who starts out a game, I think it matters more who plays the most, but many people care about the starting lineup, especially players themselves. Bruce Weber will have the ability to choose two guards for his starting lineup, and it has been assumed that one of those guards would be a more traditional point guard (Chester Frazier or Trent Meacham), but with Jamar working on his point guard skills in China this summer under the tutelage of Wayne McClain, he may be able to sneak into that position, as well.
So there can potentially be two places that Jamar fits into the starting lineup for Bruce Weber: the point guard or the third guard. I do not think it would be a good idea for Illinois to start three guards, mainly due to a lack of depth in the backcourt, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. Even if Jamar is the sixth man like he was last season, he will have a giant impact on the Illini. His offense is something that a team missing its top two scorers from a year before will desperately need. His offensive ability will keep him on the floor, while his improving defense will still be a sore spot for Bruce Weber.
Last season, Jamar Smith had to adjust to play Bruce Weber’s man-to-man defense as a freshman, and he had some struggles. Mid-way through the non-conference season it was pretty obvious to everyone watching that Jamar struggled to defend off the ball, and that brought about an adjustment in the Illinois defensive game plan when he was in the contest. Weber made the conscious decision to have Smith guard the primary ball handler for the opposition, and often times the Illini perimeter defenders (specifically Dee Brown) would switch to keep Smith guarding the ball handler at the top of the key.
As the season progressed, Smith’s defense continued to improve to the point where he did not get lost off the ball, but it still has room for improvement. He did not get into the passing lanes that often, as shown by his steal numbers, but those numbers increased as the season progressed. (Smith only had 6 steals in the non-conference schedule, while he had 8 steals in during Big Ten play and one in Illinois’ NCAA Tournament loss to Washington). Unfortunately, the toughest skill to master during summer workouts due to their informality, and the lack of defense played in most pick up games, is off the ball defense. Without knowledge of how his defense was in China this summer, expect that to be one of the key aspects of his game that the Illinois coaches work on during workouts leading up to the season with Jamar.
So where does Jamar Smith sit in the Illinois rotation?
For a player that could conceivably be the Fighting Illini’s best player next season, it is a little weird that I cannot without hesitation state right where Smith will sit in the rotation.
If he doesn’t improve one iota (which is highly unlikely), Smith would still be a player the Fighting Illini would rely on to provide a scoring punch either from the starting lineup or the bench.
If he improves his overall game, and specifically his point guard skills, Smith could be Illinois’ best player, and nearly impossible to keep off the court.
One thing is for sure, Bruce Weber will probably have a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out ways to get this sophomore from Peoria involved in the offense, but how much he is involved is still up to Smith and his improvement.
If Smith is a reliable triple threat from the wing, the sky is the limit for his contribution to Illinois’ offense. If he is still primarily a jump shooter, his offensive contribution will be more than it was last season (out of necessity), but he might still be just that sixth man that comes off the bench to provide instant offense.
The good news for his general improvement is that his numbers last season hinted at some point guard skills on the college level. Yes, he did turn the ball over a little too much, but what freshman doesn’t? His assist numbers were not on the same level as Chester Frazier’s, but his offensive game was much more rounded, so that is a good thing. On 15.93% of his offensive possessions last year, Smith had an assist. While not an astronomical number, it is still one that shows he has a very solid feeling for the game and where his teammates will be on the court. Working this summer to hone those skills like he has this summer, specifically on the trip to China, will most likely pay large dividends for him (and Illinois) during the 2006-2007 season.
|On the ball defense
||Off the ball defense