Jabari Smith Jr. is polarizing. That’s because his skillset is polarized.
Few prospects enter the NBA as fully developed in their strengths and underdeveloped in their areas of weakness.
Luckily, the Houston Rockets will only need Smith Jr. to focus on his strengths in 2022-2023. It just so happens that he excels in areas that the Rockets have needed help in since, roughly, time immemorial. What should Rockets fans expect from Smith Jr. this season?
Smith Jr.’s role in 2022-2023
As it stands, Jabari Smith Jr. is probably already an above-average three-and-D wing at the NBA level. Nothing in his film suggests that he’s not already prepared for that role.
Smith Jr.’s defensive potential is the most exciting aspect of his game. Elite length, lateral mobility, and hip flexibility make him a projectable one-through-five defender. He can already lock down the point-of-attack, and he’s flashed great switching instincts.
One area to keep an eye on this season is rim protection. Smith Jr. didn’t show a lot of potential as an interior defender at Auburn. At the same time, he didn’t need to. Teammate Walker Kessler was one of the best drop coverage big men in college basketball last season. Generally speaking, Smith Jr. handled the point-of-attack and Auburn routinely funneled opposing ball-handlers into Kessler.
College teams aren’t invested in expanding a player’s role: why would they be? Barring a National Lampoon’s Van Wilder situation, these guys are leaving. In the same way that Gonzaga ran their offense through Drew Timme instead of Chet Holmgren, Auburn structured its defensive scheme around Kessler’s rim protection and Smith Jr.’s perimeter powers.
Moreover, Smith Jr. did flash some interior defense during the NBA’s Summer League. It will be interesting to see whether he can’t function as a rim protector or simply hasn’t been asked to. The Rockets have a lot of big men as currently constructed, but outside of Alperen Sengun, none of them are strong candidates to receive heavy minutes. Here’s hoping for some looks at Smith Jr. at the five.
Still, he’ll mostly be asked to lock down the perimeter - and it won’t be a problem for him.
Areas for improvement
So about those underdeveloped weaknesses...
As of now, it’s a bit difficult to envision Smith Jr. as a primary offensive option. His set of athletic traits is wildly disparate: for all of his elite lateral mobility, foot speed and hip flexibility, Smith Jr. is lacking burst and vertical.
His ball handling is notoriously shaky as well. That’s probably the area Smith Jr. needs to focus on improving the most. Skills, as a general rule, are easier to develop than physical traits. Furthermore, Smith Jr. probably doesn't need elite burst or vertical to become a featured offensive weapon. For what it’s worth, he was probably (definitely?) the best pure shooter in the 2022 Draft.
His ability to draw close-outs alone will give him leverage on offense. When defenders start biting hard on his pump fakes, Smith Jr. won’t need an elite burst to get by them — they’ll already be in the air.
Smith Jr. should probably start watching Dirk Nowitzki tape. For our younger readers: Nowitzki was somewhat lacking in elite burst and vertical. Frankly, I wouldn’t have let him try to jump over my laptop in his athletic prime.
He still managed to be an elite offensive weapon with a functional handle, a flexible jumper and a crafty set of pump fakes and head fakes.
The Rockets don’t need to see much of that in 2022-2023. Last season, fans (including myself) complained about Jalen Green’s offensive usage — why is he camped in the corner? Luckily, that’s exactly what Smith Jr. should be doing this season. Smith Jr. is likely to spend much of the year functioning as a 6’11” P.J. Tucker, and that’s fine. Still, as the season wears on, it’ll be interesting to see if the Rockets extend his leash on offense.
Just don’t worry about him on the defensive end.