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Can Jabari Smith Jr. be a center in the future?

Should the Houston Rockets be thinking outside of the box with their rookie forward?

NBA: Summer League-Houston Rockets at Sacramento Kings
What’s this? A contest at the rim from Jabari Smith Jr.?
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

-John F. Kennedy

Ingenuity is at the core of the human story. It’s our central theme. What is the history of humankind if not for a series of innovations, pushing us ever closer to the hem of God?

Of course, not all innovation is good. Call it a hot take, but personally, I’m not a huge fan of weapons. Yet, we invent them, and we produce them. It’s what we do.

Perhaps for that very reason, innovation always finds enemies. “That won’t work!” - the rallying crying of the uninspired and meek. While someone was inventing the wheel, rest assured, someone else was saying, “So what, you’re just going to roll that thing around all day? It’s easier to walk!”

Sometimes, our curious nature lands us in trouble. Other times, it leads us to unforeseen glory.

Luckily, the stakes are lower in basketball than are in, say, the entirety of civilization. You can try something funky in basketball, and if it turns out to be more gun than wheel, nobody will die.

In time, the Rockets should get funky with Jabari Smith Jr. by playing him at center.

A brief history of innovative bigs

I’m not going to bore you with an elaborate historical account of big men in the NBA. I’m quite sure you’re aware of it, and I’ll be as brief as possible.

For a long time, big, slow-footed seven-footers exclusively populated the center position. Shoot threes? Why would we take the biggest man on the court out of the paint? Switch? Let the guards guard the guards. On both ends, at all costs, keep that big man in the paint.

Of course, we have answers to those questions now. Bigs who can shoot threes should shoot them because any player who can, should. Players should guard players that they can guard.

It’s hard to imagine that we didn’t realize these things before. In some ways, that’s the nature of progress. Whoever invented the wheel had a lightbulb moment - before we’d invented lightbulbs.

A lot of events led to our modern notion of an NBA big, but Draymond Green’s shift from being a four/three to a four/five may be the most significant one. When the Warriors decided to start giving him run in the middle, the response was predictable:

“This man is 6’6”! That won’t work!”

Nobody likes a yes man, but it’s worse to be a no man. They always find themselves on the wrong side of history.

What does the film say?

Before we dig into some succulent Jabari Smith Jr. defensive plays, I’ll add a couple of caveats.

Firstly, all of these clips come courtesy of ClutchFans, with permission. I just took his compilation and chopped it up. Thanks, Dave!

Secondly, I know I can’t convince you that Jabari Smith Jr. can be a full-time center with three clips. This is evidence, not proof.

The beauty in this selection is I’m getting two plays in one. In the first sequence, we see that Smith Jr.’s primary assignment is the corner shooter. He leaves just enough space between himself and that assignment that, given his unique foot speed and length, he can defend the shot or the paint depending on the ball handler’s choice.

The ball-handler chooses the paint. Bad choice. Smith Jr. makes a quick rotation to get the block — and as you can see in the clip this one will transition into, he’s got the necessary timing to swat layup attempts.

Smith Jr. may not be packed into the paint like Dikembe Mutombo here, but he doesn’t need to be. Plenty of his primary assignments, even if he were playing center, will be floor spacers. Welcome to 2022.

Same thing here. Smith Jr. is responsible for a perimeter shooter, the ball never gets to that perimeter shooter, he swats the layup attempt instead.

It’s hard to say whether Smith Jr.’s presence is actively deterring the ball-handlers from passing to the shooter in these clips, but we wouldn’t rule it out. A center whose mere presence on the perimeter stops opponents from passing to his assignment, who can easily and quickly rotate to defend the rim when they don’t?

That sounds pretty interesting to me: innovative, even.

This is my personal favorite. Smith Jr.’s man sets a slip screen and flares out to the perimeter. Smith Jr. processes that Josh Christopher is in a good position to check him if he receives a pass and that his talents will find more use on the interior in this case. He follows the ball-handler into the paint, where he and Anthony Lamb trap him. The ball-handler dumps it into the interior. It’s a solid read — his man has a pretty good chance at a dunk attempt.

At least, he would, if Jabari Smith Jr. didn’t move his feet like they were on fire. He makes a quick rotation, stifles the attempt, and forces the offense to reset into a contested three.

He starts the play off guarding the shooter, makes a good choice on the fly to guard the ball-handler, and then makes a difficult rotation to guard the dunker. It’s almost like he can guard anybody.


Jabari Smith Jr. needs to bulk up to play the five

I didn’t have time to go find every instance of good interior defense that Smith Jr. gave us in Summer League. These are only four of, to my eye and memory, many. Still, that doesn’t alleviate every concern about running him at the five.

Sure, Smith Jr. could block a Trae Young layup tomorrow. That’s not the whole point. How is he going to body Nikola Jokic for 30 minutes on a given night?

Right now, he isn’t. If Smith Jr. is ever going to transition to the five, it’s going to take a few years. He’d need to add some muscle to his frame: but not too much. Smith Jr. needs to maintain his elite footspeed and lateral quickness. Otherwise, he loses what makes him special in the first place. The Rockets would prefer for him to be a taller Mikal Bridges than Myles Turner. With that said, I suspect there’s a sweet spot where Smith Jr. can add 15 lbs of muscle without compromising his lateral quickness.

Moreover, very few teams run their offense through the low block these days. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean you can put just anybody at center — if you give your opponent an obvious advantage, they will exploit it. If the Rockets put TyTy Washington at the five, rest assured, Jusuf Nurkic would give him an easy 45 and 20.

The Rockets don’t need Jabari Smith Jr. to be a five. They drafted him to be a four. With that said, if he can add the necessary muscle to even competently hold bigger opponents, he can leverage his much quicker hands and feet to give the NBA’s Nurkic’s fits. If teams are unwilling to alter their game plan because it doesn’t give them much of an advantage anyway, having a center who’s an elite point-of-attack defender could give the Rockets a unique edge.

Sometimes, unique edges win championships. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the offensive benefits of having Smith Jr.’s floor spacing at the five. They’re obvious — history has already vindicated them.

In a few years, the Rockets might be the ones making history — by innovating the five spot.