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The (un) hidden potential of Jabari Smith Jr.

Could Smith Jr. be a more potent offensive player than some thought?

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs
Jabari Smith Jr. may be much more than a role player
Photos by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

Armchair scouting is a funny thing. In the age of the internet, it’s widespread. We’ve all heard of Cooper Flagg, and he doesn't even know what college he’s going to play for yet. Meanwhile, the 2033 NBA MVP is probably in Burkina Faso or rural Poland as we speak cheesing for a photo that will be folklore legend in a decade.

Sometimes, we get it right. Other times, we get it wrong. Yet, even at other times, we’re somewhere in between. Personally, I was somewhere in between on Jabari Smith Jr. I thought he’d be good:

Now, I think he could be better than I’d thought.

Is Jabari Smith Jr. going to be a star?

I wasn’t alone in my evaluation of Jabari Smith Jr. I thought he’d be a 6’11” three-and-D. There’s nothing wrong with that. If the version of Smith Jr. that many armchair scouts envisioned came to be, he’d be worthy of a top-three pick.

Apparently, Stephen Silas had the same vision for Smith Jr. when he infamously declared that he didn’t run plays for Smith Jr., people were understandably upset. Still, it wasn't necessarily that, in a vacuum, Smith Jr. deserved to have plays run for him. He hadn’t done much to earn that kind of treatment on merit. Moreso, the feeling was that the Rockets were one of the worst teams in the NBA anyway - why not run some plays for the kid? What’s the worst that can happen - they won’t work?

Smith Jr.’s usage reflected Silas’ assessment of him. In 2022-23, Smith Jr. shot 2.1 field goals per game inside the restricted area. He shot the same number from midrange. Meanwhile, Smith Jr. shot 4.0 above-the-break threes per game.

This shot profile is indicative of a player who doesn't have plays set up for him. Instead, Smith Jr. was hunting his own shots last season. An above-the-break three comes as a consequence of happenstance. It’s not a shot that’s necessarily “meant” to be taken. It happens when a player is exercising their own judgment.

In this year’s preseason, Smith has looked like a different beast. He’s shooting roughly the same number of shots in the restricted area and from midrange: 2.0 per preseason contest in each case. Yet, it’s preseason - those numbers are coming in about six fewer minutes per contest than he played last season. Smith Jr. is being prioritized in this offense, and it’s paying off. His efficiency has seen a tremendous boost as well.

That’s not to attribute all of Smith Jr.’s improvements to a coaching change. He’s a sophomore - Smith Jr. is supposed to improve. It’s his rate of improvement that’s remarkable. Smith Jr. has gone from looking pretty awful to looking like a future star very quickly.

What did scouts miss?

What kind of star can Rockets’ Smith Jr. be?

There’s a lot of focus in amateur scout circles on shot creation. Can this player create his own shot? Does he depend on others? Does he have playmaking gravity?

These are fair questions. They’re also generally tied to a view of NBA basketball that directly links “offensive star” to “heliocentric playmaker”. The goal here isn't to disparage any player type, but here’s the thing about Smith Jr.:

He doesn’t create shots. He just makes them.

That’s what we were missing. It’s so simple that it’s complicated. When you’re 6’11” and you’ve got the type of heat that Smith Jr. does, you don’t need gravity. With Smith Jr.’s high release point, there are few defenders who can properly contest him in the first place. All he needs is a rudimentary handle that gets him from one spot to a slightly closer spot, and he can create from-scratch offense without “beating” your average defender.

He’s far from a finished product. Interestingly, Smith Jr. has a lot of work to do on the defensive end. He’s got a habit of collapsing prematurely. Smith Jr. seems preoccupied with making sure that the paint is defended. It’s possible that where fans were picturing a 6’11” point-of-attack lockdown defender, they’re actually getting a switch big. Either way, he needs to stay with his man until he’s specifically stationed in the paint.

Aside from that, his play has been very encouraging recently. Nobody should have been ringing the alarm over his rookie season. Rookie seasons are like a box of chocolates - some of them aren’t very good. A disappointing maiden voyage doesn't always mean that a player is going to sink. Some Smith Jr. optimists were holding out for him to develop into a fantastic role player.

It’s starting to feel like he might be a bit more than that.