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What’s behind Jabari Smith Jr.’s turnaround?

Is this the real Smith Jr.?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Houston Rockets
Jabari Smith Jr. is blossoming before our eyes.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Admit it. You were getting concerned.

We all were. Even the most fervent supporters (I see you, Uncle Mike) must have had a shred of doubt buried somewhere deep in their subconscious (besides possibly Mike).

Was Jabari Smith Jr. going to be a bust?

It’s become popular to suggest that his rookie year has mirrored Jalen Green’s. I disagree. Green showed flashes early. This kid dropped 30 on the Celtics on 8-for-10 shooting from long range in October.

Yes, he trended upwards throughout the year, as Smith Jr. has. The rise simply wasn’t as steep. Green had ebbs and flows throughout his rookie season. Smith Jr. was awful for most of his, and for the past few games, he’s been amazing.

In March, Smith Jr. is averaging 16.6 points per game while shooting an even 50 percent from three-point range. Smith Jr. has arrived.

How did he get here?

The eye test

Someone in a group chat made a simple suggestion — Smith Jr. is playing with more confidence.

I concur. Still, I wanted a more scientific explanation as to what was happening. So I did what any serious journalist would do:

I asked the fellas.

“I think he’s using his legs more. His shot has more arc, at least the middies”

-Paulo Alves

“He was using his arms and chest as a source of power when shooting standstill, it’s why his shot looked way better on pull-ups where he already had forward momentum and didn’t need the upper body power”

-Rob Kimbell

Each of these explanations works for me. I’m not a jump shot scientist, but it’s sensible to assume that Smith Jr. has changed some mechanics. He may have struggled to adjust to the league’s three-point range.

Tall shooters often do.

The statistical explanation

Don’t ask me why, but it sometimes takes shooters in Smith Jr.’s height range a little longer to start knocking down triples at the NBA level.

Dirk Nowitzki shot 20.6 percent from long range as a rookie. He hit 37.9 percent of his triples as a sophomore.

Rashard Lewis? A similar story: 16.7 percent as a rookie (albeit on just 0.3 attempts per game), 33.3 percent as a sophomore, and 43.2 percent in his third season.

These are good macro examples, but is there a micro example? In other words, can we find a tall shooter who struggled throughout much of his rookie season, only to explode near the end of the year?

Sure we can. It happens to be the most encouraging example of them all. Kevin Durant shot 19.6 percent from three prior to the All-Star break. In April, he connected on 36.4 percent of his triples.

Need another example? How about Rockets legend Kelly Olynyk? Before the All-Star break, he was shooting 31.6 percent from distance. In April, he hit 42.9 percent of his tries.

This isn’t scientific proof that tall shooters all need time to adjust. There are counterexamples. Karl-Anthony Towns and Lauri Markkanen both came into the league with guns blazing.

Still, it does reflect a pattern. It’s possible that being a good shooter when you’re in the vicinity of seven feet tall is just too easy in college. If I play too much Pop-a-Shot at the arcade, I’m probably useless in pick-up unless we have a substantial shootaround first.

Who knows? For that matter, who cares? Smith Jr. has arrived, and it’s a sight to behold.

We can finally put our doubts aside.