The phrase "cannot be played off the court" has been previously mentioned for players who are so good on one particular side of the court that they can fit with any lineup. For example, P.J. Tucker, even more as he gets older, has gone games without scoring a single point but still stays on the court because of what he brings on the defensive end. It's not common, especially in today's NBA, to have a player who can change a game so much on the defensive end that their offense is not needed to win a game.
That statement was commonly mentioned with Jabari Smith Jr. even after the Houston Rockets drafted him with the third overall pick. He was a player who the scouts knew could one day be an elite defensive talent but seeing is believing, and sometimes scouts tend to generalize potential draft picks, and once they get to the NBA, it's a different story. Last night, we saw the statement "lineup proof” manifest itself on the Toyota Center court.
Jabari Smith proves he can change a game without making a shot
In the Rockets' 97-92 win last night over the Milwaukee Bucks, Smith made only one shot, missed nine, and finished with only six points. For most players, that would get you a seat next to the coach on the bench for most of the game. Now add that Smith is a rookie, and that’s almost a guaranteed quick hook. That wasn't the case last night for Smith, who, despite going 1-for-10, played the second-most minutes on the team.
This is even more impressive, considering Smith was the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo majority of the game. Giannis leads the league in free throw attempts per game, but Smith managed not to foul out and make huge play after huge play at the end of the game.
It wasn't just the highlight plays that have been re-run repeatedly over the last 12 hours, but the plays that didn't appear in the box score. In one play, Giannis was coming full speed down the court as he is known to do but instead of his regular dunk or drawing a foul, Smith shut down the drive forcing a pass out. Another play eventually led to a turnover when the ball was first passed in the post to Giannis, but he was turned back again at the basket by Smith, and on a second attempt, Smith did come away with a steal. Of course, the highlight defensive plays weren't too bad, either.
Smith would go on to get a massive block at the rim on a Giannis attempted layup that led to a Porter Jr. dunk on the other end. Giannis finished 7-for-17 and only 2-for-7 from the field and 1-for-3 from the line in the second half.
Let me repeat: Giannis only got to the line three times in the second half and only made two shots. Gianni's seven field goals were his second-lowest of the season, and his 16 points matched his lowest output of the year.
Smith had a great game defensively, maybe even the best of his short career, but it was a team effort. The Rockets held the Bucks to 92 points and flew all over the court. That being said, having a player like Smith who can hold his own with a former MVP who came into the game averaging 31.1 is a dimension the Rockets didn't have last year.
Smith has shown flashes that he can be a game-changing defensive player, but last night, he lived up to the defensive hype by showing he can guard even one of the most unguardable players in the league. That made him a top-three pick. When you can change a game without making a shot, that means you cannot be played off the court.