Jabari Smith Jr.‘s development has gone differently than most thought it would. But that doesn’t mean it’s been bad.
The Rockets selected Smith Jr. number three overall in the draft nearly six months ago after he flourished at Auburn, and he was widely considered one of, if not the best shooters in the country. To no surprise, many expected Smith Jr. to light it up from behind the arc in his rookie campaign. It hasn’t happened yet, but the 19-year-old’s growth is still trending upward, thanks to his performance in other areas on the court.
Before entering the league, there was concern surrounding Smith Jr.’s ability to attack the basket and finish at the rim. But based on his recent improvements, the cause for concern can be put to rest. Over his last 30 games, Smith Jr. is shooting 70 percent on shots at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass, which is in the 80th percentile for a forward. He’s also shooting 60 percent on drives to the basket in his last 15 contests according to NBA.com. His advancement as a finisher inside the painted area has been one of the few pleasant entities for the Rockets during another losing season.
As a defender, Smith Jr.’s been up and down. Sometimes excellent, other times not. His most impressive defensive moment was in early January when he was tasked to guard Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Smith Jr. held his own and did an exceptional job, limiting the two-time league MVP to 8 points on 4-for-13 shooting and two turnovers in possessions where he was the primary defender.
There have also been some not-so-impressive moments. In two recent games against the Charlotte Hornets and Los Angeles Clippers, Smith Jr. has failed to box out effectively and, at times, looked like he didn’t even care to try and defend. Houston was in the midst of a 13-game losing streak, so frustrations and lousy body language are not surprising, but the Rockets desperately need Smith Jr. to regroup and get back to playing high-level defense.
Last but not least, shooting. Smith Jr. shot 42 percent on threes during his lone college season, yet is now shooting just 31 percent in 44 games. So why hasn’t he found his rhythm yet? — For one, Smith Jr. is not the number one scoring option, which causes his number of shot attempts to drastically change on a nightly basis.
Also, the Rockets don’t have a true point guard on their roster besides rookie TyTy Washington Jr., who spends time with both the Rockets and their G-league affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Kevin Porter Jr. is the team’s starting point guard, but he’s only played the position for nearly two seasons. Without having an experienced lead guard to help create shots for he and the rest of the team, Smith Jr.’s catch-and-shoot opportunities have fluctuated. The Rookie forward has still shown flashes of how dangerous he can be, though, having posted 14 games where he shot 40 percent or better from three-point range. He just needs to do it more often.
Altogether, being just 19-years-old and possessing a combination of shooting and defense, Smith Jr. has immense room to develop and become a star — which makes him a quintessential piece for Houston’s rebuild going forward.