One of my favorite exercises in sports is trying to guess which stat line belongs to which player. Let’s play that game for a second. Here are the college careers of three All American DI defensemen:
Player A (Grad Year 2019): 140 GBs, 59 CTs in 63 games. Team W/L of 35-28
Player B (Grad Year 2022): 264 GBs, 91 CTs in 74 games. Team W/L of 59-15
Player C (Grad Year 2021): 147 GBs, 89 CTs in 81 games. Team W/L of 62-19.
Easy to see that all three had exemplary college careers. And I’d imagine you think all three are currently playing in the PLL. Almost.
Player A is Jack Rowlett, top defenseman for the Chaos. Coach Towers considers him the best defender in the league, and he’ll be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation at a minimum. He’s a two time All Pro, two time All Star, and a PLL Champion.
Player C is JT Giles-Harris. He’s the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and was an All Star last year, remarkable feats for such a young player. He routinely draws the top matchup for Chrome and has successfully locked up some of the best attackmen in the world.
That leaves Player B. More CTs than the other two as a college player. Nearly double their ground balls in college. He even did that in fewer games than JTGH. His team was clearly a winner.
If you haven’t guessed yet, that’s Gibson Smith. An Inside Lacrosse All American three times, including 1st team in the shortened 2020 season. His 2019 season reads like video game stats. First Team All Big East, picked up 104 ground balls and caused 34 turnovers. The ground balls are a Georgetown record for most in a season by a non faceoff-specialist, and the third most regardless of position.
Currently, he’s in the player pool. He played sixes in the Championship Series with Chrome, who won the event. In five games there, with a short stick, he logged four caused turnovers, 10 ground balls, and eight points on five goals and three assists. He was sent to the player pool on May 30th per the PLL Transactions page, as Chrome decided not to keep him for the 25 man roster to start the 2023 regular season. Smith has yet to appear in a PLL regular season game.
Prior to the draft in 2022, when Smith was available but went undrafted, his numbers had him as a decently well regarded prospect. His going undrafted was a bit surprising. His last season did include a late start due to recovery from injury. Prior to the draft, some PLL coaches I spoke to had questions about him having the lateral speed to cover PLL level attackmen and said that he looked to have some lapses off ball at times.
In the 2022 draft, the defenders taken (and their current status) were:
Arden Cohen, 3rd overall. Regular starter for Redwoods
Koby Smith, 5th overall. Has yet to play for Atlas this year after a solid rookie season.
Brett Kennedy, 6th overall. Released by Chaos, picked up by Whips, has appeared once for them.
Ryan McNulty, 17th overall. In the player pool.
Max Wayne, 21st overall. Released by Atlas, signed by Cannons, made one appearance.
Bryan McIntosh, 23rd overall. In the player pool.
Jon Robbins, 28th overall. Regular starter for Archers.
Jason Reynolds, 30th overall. In the player pool
Colin Hinton, 31st overall. On PUP List with Whips, hasn’t played yet.
Smith’s chances at a roster aren’t helped at all by the fact that the 2023 draft was stacked with defensive talent as deep as the pro game may have ever seen. Poles went with the first three picks.
After Smith had a strong Championship Series, I thought he might have a better chance to stick on a PLL roster. The questions that coaches had about him, lateral quickness and off ball prowess, get answered in a format like Sixes. It’s not apples to apples, but he performed well enough, in my opinion, to erase some doubts. And yet he’s still in the player pool.
I revisited the Smith question with some PLL coaches recently. Some had essentially the same response as before, but others had changed their minds. Though clearly not enough to consider bringing him on board. One coach flatly said to me he didn’t know why Smith wasn’t on a PLL roster. Just thought it came down to numbers.
The feedback boiled down to a few key points. First is the obvious one, as the coach above said, it’s just a numbers game. Eight teams, room for maybe 5-6 poles for team, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 total spots being used for poles, meaning both LSM and close defenders, in the entire league. Fans pound the table for expansion to solve this problem; I’m not sold on it being near term viable.
Second is what I consider to be a primary driver for why guys like Smith might get stuck in the pool. In my experience, coaches are loyal. Fiercely loyal. They get guys they trust and they stick with them, particularly in lacrosse. He's one of our guys, he's a locker room guy, there's lots of positive ways to spin a player who isn't necessarily productive on the field, but is still rostered. The time to really impress and catch on is short. A few mistakes at camp might be all it takes for a coach to decide the new guy can't possibly be better than my guy. There’s an emotional attachment for some coaches to their players. This is hard to solve. The real answer to this is to separate the Head Coach and General Manager roles, hiring a GM for each PLL club. The GM is there to make the cold, business minded, best way to improve the team type moves that a coach might have a harder time with. Yes, there will be head butting over this, but that’s pro sports.
It’s often cited that pro sports careers last an average of three years. Currently, by my count, there are a total of 248 players on a PLL roster (this includes all roster designations such as Holdout List, PUP, Military Exemption, IR, and so forth, which is why it’s more than 200). Of those, 97 players graduated college in 2018 or earlier, making this their, at least, sixth year in the pros. 39% of that group are guys making it to year six and beyond not just as a pro, but a guy with a spot on a roster or one being held for him. Things that are forcing players into retirement aren’t always that they can’t play anymore, it’s marriage, kids, other professions not allowing for the time, and other reasons not necessarily related to being let go by a club. If not for those, safe to venture they'd still be out there.
Ultimately, it doesn’t serve anyone to scroll the pool and say “this player is better than that player so roster him”. That game is endless and doesn’t really solve anything. I use Gibson Smith just as the face of the larger topic getting more and more attention lately: the number of talented players in the pool. There are vets with solid pro experience, like Tommy Palasek, TJ Comizio, Nick Marrocco, or Mark Cockerton. There are young guys, like Smith, Wilson Stephenson, John Piatelli, Nate Solomon, or BJ Farrare, who maybe got a camp shot or a brief spell on a roster but just didn’t catch on long term. There are even young guys who have never even had a shot but may have real pro ability, like Dylan Beckwith, Brian Cameron, or Quinn McCahon. That’s a list of guys with the athleticism and skill to get a look from a pro club.
A GM might be inclined to bring some of these unknowns to camp, take a look, find time to watch their film, and evaluate. The GM also presumably is more ready to move on from an older player who might be considered a “slowing down known” to a younger player with upside but is not necessarily a sure thing. That’s what roster management is in pro sports. Coaches will stick with their knowns, their trusted pieces, their regular guys. GMs will always be hunting for the next known. Those two roles resting with the same person might put that person at odds with themselves and at the end of the day, coaches coach.
Is Smith someone’s next known? For now, it remains just a curious case.