The Curious Case of Lenzelle Smith’s OffensePosted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 2nd, 2014
Have you ever seen glimpses of talent from an underclassman and begin to extrapolate his talent over the next two or three years? Of course you have. The freshman may only play a supporting role at the time, but he shows enough in those flashes that you expect him to take off once the upperclassmen in front of him move on. Ohio State senior Lenzelle Smith, Jr., reminds me of one such player, who, for some reason or another, has never been able to take that next step. Over the last several years, Ohio State has lost one of its best offensive players and expected Smith to step up in his wake, but it just hasn’t happened. It was first Jared Sullinger, followed by Deshaun Thomas, but Smith wasn’t able to become that necessary second best scoring option on the Buckeyes. This discussion is not about whether Smith has underachieved to this point in his career — after all, averaging 11.8 PPG for a Top 25 squad is not a bad thing — but given his obvious talent and athleticism, we’re left wanting more from him. Let’s try to understand if there were other structural reasons why he hasn’t yet become the player that we all thought he could become.
It is no secret that since Sullinger left Columbus, the Buckeyes have struggled to consistently score points. Averaging 1.03 points per possession during conference play isn’t too shabby, but there really isn’t a go-to player in Thad Matta’s offense. When Sullinger was still around, the guards always had the option to dump the ball inside and expect a kick-out pass for a wide open shot from the perimeter, but since his departure, they have been forced to find shots without the luxury of a low post presence. It took a while last season for Thomas to figure out that he could score in the paint, so most of Smith’s junior year was spent throwing up long-range shots (he made a solid 37 percent of those attempts). This year, the Buckeyes average 34.0 percent from beyond the arc (32.6 percent against B1G teams), and Smith in particular is shooting a career-low 35.3 percent.
As a sophomore, Smith’s free throw rate was 48.9 percent because he could use the pump-fake to penetrate into the paint. But on the perimeter-oriented teams of the last two years, his free throw rate has dropped to 30 percent. One of the biggest issues that has haunted his role in the Ohio State offense is the overall lack of offensive diversity among the guards. Outside of Aaron Craft, who doesn’t consistently look for his shot, the other Buckeye guards had a similar game. Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson aren’t great shooters either, but neither looks to score by aggressively driving to the basket. There are times when Thompson will wow you with a big dunk, but he usually doesn’t create that shot by himself. The same goes for Scott: If he can’t break his man down one-on-one, he’ll try to pop into a mid-range shot. If the other guards could independently create their own shot, Smith may have been more effective with his perimeter game and tried to expand it as a result.
Regardless of his individual contributions, Smith’s career should ultimately be defined from a total win/loss perspective. Alongside Craft, he will go down as one of the most successful guards during Matta’s regime in Columbus, but the confusing aspect is that there hasn’t been anything particularly special about his game. Playing in the Final Four as a key contributor as a sophomore and the Elite Eight as a junior is nothing to be ashamed of, but with time now running short in his career, there’s still a faint but realistic hope that Smith will finally max out his talent for a March run that everybody has been waiting on for several years.