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What do the Rockets need from Jabari Smith Jr.?

Smith Jr.’s underdeveloped handle may impede his path to superstardom - or it may not matter.

NBA: Summer League-Houston Rockets at Sacramento Kings
Could Jabari Smith Jr. be an elite 3-and-D wing?
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

At times, there appears to be some cognitive dissonance among fans about what it means to select a player in the lottery.

Superstardom is widely assumed of any player picked within the top five. That’s largely a function of fandom. Unless you’re actively trying to be critical (i.e. if you’re a habitual downer, like I am), it’s hard to imagine anything short of the best-case scenario for an incoming rookie.

To be sure, the best-case scenario for Jabari Smith Jr. is an enticing one. At 6’10 with a 7’2 wingspan and exceptional hip flexibility and lateral mobility, Smith has an incredible defensive profile. The fact that he’s the best pure shooter in his draft class doesn’t hurt either.

If he can develop his handle, there will be little stopping him from becoming one of the very best players in the NBA.

Unfortunately, that’s a pretty big “if”.

Jabari Smith Jr.’s floor is his best quality

After all, ball-handling is generally viewed as one of the hardest skills for a basketball player to develop. It seems in-born: the league’s best ball-handlers appear to have been born with the rock in their hands.

A medical anomaly, to be sure.

Moreover, Smith Jr. is also lacking the type of burst that the league’s best scorers normally possess. His functional athleticism is unique — he’s elite in terms of defensive qualities, but offensively, he’s limited. Outside of his gorgeous shooting mechanics, he doesn’t have much in the way of elite traits in that area.

It may not matter. Smith Jr. already profiles as one of the best three-and-D wings in the NBA. If that’s all he ever became, would that be enough for a third overall pick?

What does Smith Jr. need to become for the Rockets?

Let’s assume Smith Jr., in time, is one of the best 3-and-D players in the NBA. For argument’s sake, let’s also assume the handle never comes around, and he’s never a primary shot creator.

I looked at where some of the league’s best three-and-Ds ranked in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and RAPTOR in 2021-22. Then, I looked at where the seven third-overall picks between 2013 and 2019 ranked last season in the same category.

I used this sample group for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t want to use the third picks in 2020 or 2021 because we can assume they’re still in development. Second, I cut the experiment off in 2013 because Otto Porter Jr. was picked ninth that year. He’s a good low-end comparison for Smith Jr., so it felt like an appropriate place to cut the data off.

For reference, the next three selections at that spot were Bradley Beal, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors. Which, conveniently, highlights a central point here:

Historically, the third pick is a mixed bag.

Of the last nine third overall picks, the average VORP was 3.04. The average RAPTOR was 2.2.

It’s worth noting that one of the players in that sample group was Jahill Okafor. He didn’t play in the NBA last season. I mention that to say this — the absolute worst imaginable outcome for Jabari Smith Jr. doesn’t land him in that territory. I used his marks from 2020-21 instead.

Meanwhile, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Joel Embiid certainly boost the average scores in both categories. The two players rounding out the group were RJ Barrett and Porter Jr. - consider them median outcomes for Smith Jr.

In terms of players I thought could reasonably be classified as three-and-D specialists in 2021-22, the highest ranking in VORP was Mikal Bridges. He finished 35th in the league with a mark of 3.5. In terms of RAPTOR, Alex Caruso was the highest ranking player to fit that profile with a mark of 5.3, good for 10th in the league. Desmond Bane ranked 20th in the league with a mark of 4.0.

Of course, there are imperfections in this exercise. Caruso is a secondary ball-handler — he’s not responsible for much creation, but he’s not strictly a three-and-D wing either. Still, a point stands here:

The league’s best three-and-D players ranked higher in VORP and RAPTOR than an average third overall pick in 2021-22.

Of course, the Rockets would like Smith Jr. to be an All-NBA player. If he develops his handle, he might get there:

If he doesn’t, he can still prove to be a great selection for the organization.