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A way-too-early evaluation of the Alen Smailagić era

Let’s take a closer look, way sooner than we should.

Milwaukee Bucks v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Alen Smailagić has to wait more than 19 months before he can legally drink alcohol in the country where he is employed. He’s played in just half a dozen NBA games, logging a mere 69 minutes.

Seems like a pretty good time to evaluate his performance, right? We’ve been calm and patient. We’ve waited long enough, don’t you think?

The Golden State Warriors intriguing and amusing young project had the best game of his short career last night, in the team’s 107-98 loss to the world-beating Milwaukee Bucks. Smiley cracked double digits for the first time in his career, needing fewer than 12 minutes to log 10 points and 4 rebounds.

A vast spectrum of opinions and evaluations follows Smailagić everywhere he goes, which is in turn met by a wide range of outcomes when he’s on the floor. There are moments where, at just 19-years old, he looks like the most talented center on the Warriors roster. And those are followed by sequences that make you think the Warriors should stash him in Santa Cruz until the 2021-22 season.

So what’s the net result? From a production standpoint, here’s how Smailagić compares to the other Warriors centers on a per 100 possessions basis:

Warriors centers per 100 possessions

Willie Cauley-Stein 16.9 13.2 3.0 2.7 0.0% 55.7% 1.9 5.5
Omari Spellman 21.0 13.9 2.5 1.5 39.7% 56.5% 3.2 2.9
Marquese Chriss 19.9 14.7 5.1 2.4 22.7% 56.1% 3.8 5.3
Alen Smailagic 24.3 11.1 2.8 1.4 25.0% 60.4% 2.1 5.6

So, first things first: the ever-present context caveat. While these numbers are weighted per possession, they’re still lacking context and volume. Smailagić hasn’t played many minutes, hasn’t played in stable lineups, and hasn’t played in many important minutes. He probably has less freedom than his teammates, which could be partially responsible for the strong efficiency.

But still. The numbers are encouraging, if accompanied by a four-fingered pinch of your favorite salt.

The value of Smailagić is not in the current production, but in the intrigue of what that production could morph into down the road. And that’s where his play has given even more room for opinions to grow in one way or the other.

At times, the young Serbian resembles a basketball savant, seemingly knowing exactly where to be to find the ball in his hands, be it from a pass, a deflection, or a missed shot. At other times, he seems as lost as you would expect a teenager to be in the best basketball league in the world.

Earlier in the year, Draymond Green addressed both of those elements of Smailagić’s game. Near the end of December, the three-time All-Star praised the rookie’s basketball IQ:

Then, a few days later, Green lovingly admitted that Smailagić, “doesn’t have a fucking clue what’s going on out there.”

Both can be, and are true. And, for his part, Smailagić acknowledges that.

After his performance on Wednesday, Smiley earned a spot on the post-game podium for the first time in his career. Through a laugh, the rookie candidly stated that, “I just go out and play - I don’t know what I’m doing on the court.”

Few, if any, 19-year olds do, at least at the NBA level. The potential to absorb what is happening on the floor, and the work ethic to expedite that growth and development, are what makes the future so bright for Smailagić.

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