Over 1700 names entered the transfer once it opened this year and the great deck reshuffling has become more contentious and appealing than even the prep recruiting trail. The pivot has been seen at multiple tiers of the power conferences, notably even the likes of five-star-getter John Calipari and Kentucky.
As Gonzaga fans were licking their wounds when McDonald’s All-American Anthony Black made his decision to attend Arkansas, the staff continued studying and putting feelers out on the biggest remaining names that entered the portal. This included not just underclassmen looking for greener pastures but potential professionals that were eyeing an ideal landing spot should they have to hold onto their aspirations for another season.
One of those potential pros was former Chatanooga Mocs and SoCon Player of the Year Malachi Smith, a do-everything guard that tested the NBA Draft waters while retaining his eligibility. Smith’s recruitment was very under the radar; how could it not be considering how many teams in college basketball desperately need guards and he ended up with one of the few teams that have considerable depth in the backcourt?
You can imagine the pitch for Smith. Do you want to take the next level and make a professional league? Play in a professional-style offense. There’s even the track record for how Smith could play and look in a Zags uniform. The model is even still on the team. Looking at Smith’s usage and profile, the game resembles a similar skillset and diversity as fellow transfer Gonzaga guard Rasir Bolton. The two had similar usage rates, asked to not only initiate the offense but also simply be the offense when the going got tough.
At Chattanooga, Smith was an offensive machine at a high volume. He led the eventual 13 seed in points per game (19.9) and had 501 field goal attempts on the season. That’s more attempts than Drew Timme last season. In fact, he shot just 16 fewer attempts than what Bolton and Julian Strawther shot combined.
The high-volume shooter may have gaudy numbers but it’s difficult to see his totals and think that they were not high-value attempts. He had a true shooting percentage of 59% (for reference, Timme’s was 61% last season). He shot 43% on jumpers (Timme shot 46.3%). Smith shot 40% from three-point last season on the same amount of attempts as Bolton (46% from outside), with 81.4% of his makes coming off of assists (81.2% for Bolton).
To give perspective on his three-level and inside-out game, Smith even had more putback attempts than Timme did. Smith shot 89 more non-transition field attempts than the All-American and even shot more non-transition shots than Strawther and Andrew Nembhard combined on 54.8% eFG (which happens to be the make rate for the two Gonzaga guards last season).
He is a solid ballhandler that can set up his teammates as well as he can create for himself. He led the Mocs and averaged 3 assists per game last season, helping them become the 69th-ranked offense, according to KenPom. What will be fun to see for him is how Smith’s skills blossom in a faster-paced offense. Last season the Mocs averaged 67.6 possessions a game, nearly 8 possessions less than what the Zags averaged.
But offense is not Smith’s only positive contribution to the game. He’s a solid defender and rebounder, willing to outwork his opponent to gain extra possessions and limit his man. He averaged 1.7 steals and 6.7 rebounds per game, two things that will help Gonzaga as they look to offer versatility throughout their minute earners. He can fill in at times for Strawther’s rebounding prowess, he can lead the offense for Hickman. How this backcourt defends will inform us of the team’s ceiling, and the interchangeability Smith offers helps to at least raise its floor.
And projecting to this season, Smith’s versatility makes him a major weapon for Mark Few in a lot of different lineups. Few has prioritized having multiple ballhandlers on the floor and Smith’s ability to move off the ball and be a second 40% three-point shooter alongside Bolton is enticing. With the unbelievable depth and talent in the backcourt, it’s going to do no good to try and project out rotations, starting roles or even minutes.
Smith could be the primary ballhandler and start. And he could very easily be a sparkplug off of the bench as instant offense and creation. But that level of skill regardless of his usage is a massive thing for Few and the staff to lean on throughout the season.