ANAHEIM – Zhaire Smith didn’t get to be a part of the Texas Tech team that pushed that step further. After the loss in the Elite Eight to Villanova a year ago, Smith was drafted 16th overall and traded to the Sixers. Injuries and bad luck derailed his rookie season, but he’s finally healthy, making his debut a few days ago for Philly. He’s also been keeping a close watch on the Red Raiders, especially classmate Jarrett Culver, who came in with Smith in the fall of 2017.
Culver took home Most Outstanding Player in the West Region after knocking off top-seeded Gonzaga, and Smith had words for Culver prior to the matchup.
“He just said, ‘go further than we did last year.’ I know he’s proud of us,” Culver said following the 75-69 win over the Bulldogs. “He’s a close part of the team still.”
Texas Tech has already gone further than it ever has, making its first Final Four in school history, which is a testament to players like Culver — and Smith — who have pushed the idea of what’s possible when it comes to basketball in Lubbock. For Culver, the Red Raiders’ Final Four run is just the beginning. The sophomore has seen his NBA Draft profile rise with each and every Red Raiders win in March, and his combination of size, smooth handling, shot creation, and defensive awareness has him projected as a lock to be a lottery pick come June. He might just be the highest drafted Texas Tech player since Tony Battie was taken fifth overall in 1997.
“His IQ and feel for the game is off the charts,” NBA Draft expert Sam Vecenie of The Athletic told Dime. “The shooting is good, the passing is good, he has a great handle in straight lines, he has a solid crossover game and creates separation going backward. I don’t know that I would say he’s terrific with gaining separation going forward. But overall, I mean, I have Jarrett Culver number four on my big board. A lot of the questions are more like splitting hairs on, “Is this guy going to be a starter?” vs. “Is this guy going to be a top 30 player in the NBA?”
While Culver is missing some of the polish of guys like DeAndre Hunter of Virginia and Brandon Clarke of Gonzaga, his work ethic and size (he’s a legit 6’7, and there’s speculation he might be taller than that) indicate he’s far from a finished product. That’s scary considering how good he is already.
Coach Chris Beard, who recruited Zhaire and Culver to Texas Tech (a short trip for Culver who is from Lubbock), attributes much of Culver’s growth to film study. Culver dives right into the game on his iPad after it’s over, looking at his own play, then the play of the team on both offense and defense.
“It kind of sounds like maybe not the full truth, but it is,” Beard said following the Elite Eight win, “the guy loves basketball.”
That part goes unnoticed at times when evaluating draft prospects. Analytics matter, production matters, but a prototypical top pick needs a combination of those tangibles and a desire to get better. Scouts have a tough job when evaluating guys, and in a Process-based world where picks are scrutinized more and more, minimizing that risk matters. Do you go with a higher ceiling guy who hasn’t quite put it all together, or someone with elite production who is already who they’re going to be?
Culver finds himself somewhere in the middle, and that makes him such an interesting player to project at the next level. The stats are there, both in traditional and advanced metrics, but he also has the drive to get better. Having just turned 20 years old, and potentially still growing, with an Olympic caliber athlete in his family (his brother Trey, a two-time indoor high jump NCAA Champion), it’s easy to see why even scouts who are torn on where to draft Culver are still fans of his game.
Against Gonzaga there were at least half a dozen plays that offered a glimpse of what teams hope to get out of Culver at the next level. A step-back three looked fluid, and shows the work he’s put into his shot between his freshman and sophomore seasons. He can switch from point guard to center, force turnovers, and poke the ball away. He’ll sky for a rebound and run the floor as a trailer, ready to put up a shot. And he can be trusted to take clutch free throws with the game on the line.
Plus, he has the vision to make a pass like this:
Add it all up and you can see why comparisons to Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler, and even Kawhi Leonard are being tossed around.
Culver himself watches a lot of Jamal Crawford and Jayson Tatum.
“There’s always little pieces I can add to my game and I can get from those players,” Culver says.
Like he always does, Culver will go back to the tape to make that happen. This is a tournament run he’ll want to keep coming back to, as the Final Four is new territory for Culver and the Red Raiders. Beard kept repeating “Texas Tech is in the Final Four,” as if going too long without saying it would make it disappear. In the locker room following the game, players and coaches danced to “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X before queuing up “Minnesota” by Lil Yachty, getting their minds right for a trip to Minneapolis.
As for what Beard told the team following the win?
“Moments like this is legendary,” Culver says.
Synergy data compiled by Brian Schroeder.