This could have been very ugly.
It still isn’t pretty. Let’s not delude ourselves: Jabari Smith Jr. did not have a perfect rookie season.
Realistically, he was well off of that mark. Let’s start with the raw numbers. Smith Jr. averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds with a True Shooting % (TS%) of 51.4 percent. That includes a 30.7 percent mark from long range.
Not great. Often, the threes just wouldn't fall. It feels fair to say that Stephen Silas’ pick-and-spread, five-out offense didn’t maximize him. At the same time, it should have. Let’s be honest: this was supposed to be a strong three-point shooter from the onset of his career.
Still, it turned out that Smith Jr. needed more mid-range reps than expected. At times, he looked like an absolute zone-buster from that range. The middy may be out of fashion, but when you’re 6’11” and accurate from that range, it’s a good shot.
On the defensive end, Smith Jr.’s season was...interesting? Per BBall Index, he was in the 79.9th percentile in the entire league in Rim Points Saved Per 75 Possessions. That’s a great mark for a rookie.
On the other hand, he was in the 61.5th percentile in Perimeter Isolation Defense. That’s less impressive.
Arguably, Smith Jr. was the inverse of what we expected him to be. This was supposed to be a lockdown wing who, in a pinch, could protect the rim. Instead, Smith Jr. defended like a big who could cover the perimeter if necessary.
Some of us have long wondered if Smith Jr. would be better served at the five. With that said, it’s hard to discern much from this season. Smith Jr. was forced to cover for a lack of rim protection at all times. That may have been a challenge after playing alongside Walker Kessler at Auburn. Often, it looked like he forgot he wasn’t funneling ball handlers into him.
Meanwhile, he was forced to cover for poor perimeter defenders as well. Smith Jr. shared the floor with fellow rookie Tari Eason rather infrequently, and nobody else besides Usman Garuba in this regular rotation can defend much of anything.
It will be interesting to see how Smith Jr.’s defensive profile changes when he’s playing within a more functional roster. With that said, he gave Rockets fans reason to hope on that end of the floor.
That wasn’t the brightest source of hope from his rookie season, however.
That would be Smith Jr.’s performance after the All-Star break. Over 24 games, the rookie averaged 14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds with a 53.5 TS%. That’s much better.
It still wasn’t perfect. Smith Jr. is still lagging behind expectations as a three-point shooter. On the other hand, he’s surpassing them as a self-creator. The eye test showed a player who can generate his own offense by simply shooting over defenders from any spot inside the arc.
Smith Jr. was better than expected in terms of finishing, too. He’s never going to have Globetrotter handles, but if a defender bites on a pump fake, he can get to the bucket with a couple of dribbles and finish.
Personally, I actually think Smith Jr. showcased a higher ceiling and a lower floor than anticipated coming out of Auburn. Rockets fans should be comfortable with that trade-off. What are the odds that elite college shooting was a mirage? Isn’t it more likely to regress to the mean?
If it does, Smith Jr. should be a cornerstone player for the next era of Rockets basketball. With any luck, he’ll put a sometimes-ugly rookie season in the rearview.