Has all the other noise this offseason distracted us from the potential of a massive Jabari Smith Jr. leap? Sure, there were ups and downs over the course of last season. We’re also aware that he looked overqualified after his scintillating Las Vegas Summer League performance — a performance so dominant that he was swiftly shut down for the remainder of the LVSL.
Be that as it may, it still doesn't seem like the conversation surrounding a Smith emergence has been as big as it should be given that the Houston Rockets took him with the third pick in last year’s draft.
It didn’t help that a large and looming offseason involved hiring a new coaching staff and spending beaucoup bucks in free agency. Understandably so, a lot of attention was rightfully directed to the arrivals of Ime Udoka, Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks.
On top of that, there were factors already in place that required sorting out. Entering year three, Jalen Green’s development into a high-end star is still a big talking point. Alperen Sengun’s distinctive talents also make him a focal point given the similarities to Domantas Sabonis and the success of Nikola Jokic.
Then we have to factor in the draft. Enter Houston’s newest shiny toy, Amen Thompson. Some say this Thompson Twin has a ceiling second to only Victor Wembanyama. Once the mystique surrounding Amen was sucked out of the room due to injury, Smith rose to the occasion during his two game stint at the LVSL.
He responded with 35.5 points per game and an electric game-winning buzzer-beater, but that was enough to say we’ve seen enough from him and Tari Eason. We didn’t need them to get hurt too. Alas, Cam Whitmore, another touted lottery talent, became the darling of the Summer League.
The summer progressed, slow as usual, then the disturbing allegations against Kevin Porter Jr. happened...
So besides those couple days in July when Smith looked like a deity in Las Vegas, the conversation has mostly overlooked him.
That figures to change. If he manages to carry that same momentum and confidence he grew over the second half of the season and summer of 2023, Smith will remind people why he was in serious consideration for the first pick last year.
The biggest development in Smith’s success is when he realized he can shoot over just about anyone. Despite his flawed shooting splits from last year, the form still remains smooth. It’s what made him such an enticing prospect. There’s only a handful of guys his size that can make it look as effortless when releasing the ball.
While the promise of being an elite three-point shooter didn’t manifest in year one, it’s too early to write him. If the work ethic remains, the shots will eventually fall like they did in LVSL. Also of importance is the he additions of adept distributors, VanVleet and Thompson. They figure to make life easier for Smith and company.
I can’t imagine it was easy for a rookie to try and find his footing in last year’s version of this offense where plays weren’t called for him. It’s hard to find rhythm when others incessantly pound the air out of the ball.
It will also be fascinating to see how Udoka utilizes Smith on the defensive end. His defense was uneven last year, but the effort was there. Now alongside more competent defenders, it should put less stress on Smith to try and cover for too much.
Also, with a full NBA Summer of bulking up, could we see more opportunities for Smith at the five? I ask because of my persistent concerns regarding rim protection. I’ll promise to cease my bellyaching over not landing Brook Lopez in free agency if Udoka can somehow develop him into a viable rim protecting option.
Jabari Smith Jr.’s second season is lining up to be a pleasant reminder. He can still be molded into everything that the Rockets want and need. Don’t be surprised if he finds a way to be everything we imagined and more.