We’ve hit the #3 slot in our top returning Pac-12 guards countdown, and after two straight Oregon guards to kick off our rankings, we head away from Eugene and down to sunny Los Angeles for our third feature. Coming in at #3 in this Pac-12 countdown is Chris Smith of UCLA, who averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on 46% shooting from the field. For Smith, a change in coaching proved crucial in sparking his breakout collegiate campaign, as he was hardly on the Pac-12 radar, let alone in a national spotlight after two relatively nondescript seasons.. However, as the Bruins rapidly improved under first-year head Mick Cronin, so did Smith, who led the Pac-12 runner-ups in scoring, while earning a first-team all conference selection and the Pac-12 Most Improved Player award. Smith declared for the NBA draft this past spring, but he did not hire an agent and maintains his eligibility if he decides to return. This ranking at #3 is working under the assumption that Smith comes back for his senior season. Currently ranked the 65th best available prospect in the draft, Smith appears to be a fringe selection if he stays with the draft. Staying for a final season with Cronin could see his stock shoot up towards first-round value.
After averaging under 20 minutes per game in both his freshman and sophomore years, Smith became the go-to-guy in the UCLA offense this past season. Averaging 28.3 minutes on the court per game, Smith improved his shooting from 40 to 46% and from 28% to 34% from beyond the arc, allowing him to post more consistent performances throughout the season. Smith put up solid numbers out of the gate, but UCLA faced a watered-down non-confernece schedule that featured just one ranked opponent, so his improved efforts were hardly considered a major headline at the time. However, he truly broke out in the Pac-12 opener at Washington, as he dropped 17 points on the Huskies, while ripping down 12 rebounds and dishing out five assists, giving the Bruins a critical road win to start their conference season. He did all his damage inside the arc, shooting 8-12 from 2-point range. He followed that performance up with a 22-point torching of Washington State and another double-double against USC, who finished 3rd in the Pac-12.
Smith’s early domination of the Pac-12 was certainly a nod to his marked improvement in his junior season, but it wasn’t until January 30, with UCLA sitting at 3-4 in conference play and welcoming #20 Colorado onto their court, that Smith delivered his signature effort of the year. In a critical game for the Bruins, the Chicago product shot 8-11 from two-point range and cooly sank 13 of 15 free throws en route to a 30-point effort, which he complemented with nine rebounds and three steals. UCLA won the game, 72-68, and proceeded to rip off a 9-1 run in their next ten games to rise near the top of the Pac-12 standings.
Smith continued to torch the Pac-12, racking up another double-double against Washington State and shooting a combined 7-13 from three-point range in key road victories against Arizona and Colorado, helping UCLA earn a #2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. The cancellation of the conference tournament and March Madness deprived basketball fans of the Pac-12’s newest star shine in the postseason, but should Smith come back for his senior season, he should be making headlines as one of the best in the business, both in the Pac-12 and in the country.