How Houston Rockets, Jabari Smith can unleash All-NBA potential

Houston’s forward and the No. 3 pick in the 2022 NBA draft tallied 22 points and seven assists in a narrow loss to the defending champions, registering a career-high scoring night as he made things difficult for the Golden State Warriors on both ends of the floor. Smith’s first professional campaign has been uneven thus far. Sunday night was the clearest example of his All-NBA potential.

“[Those are] some of the Greatest players to ever do it out there,” Smith said following Houston’s 127-120 loss. “Definitely a confidence booster going out there and knowing I can compete with some of the greatest.”

The season-best effort from Smith continued his progression on the Offensive end of the floor after a slow start. Smith enters Wednesday averaging just 10.9 points per game, fourth among all rookies. He’s shooting a paltry 33.3 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from three, a stark contrast to his 42 percent mark from three during one season at Auburn. Smith is still getting plenty of respect from defenses as a floor spacer. But through his first 15 games, Smith struggled to convert many of his open looks.

We shouldn’t derive much from shooting percentages in such a small sample. Although before Sunday night, you could see a bit of a frustrating habit develop. Smith’s typical green light was temporarily halted as his shooting slumped post-Halloween. His hesitation cost the Rockets down the stretch of a loss to Indiana on Nov. 18, with a trip in the final minutes all-but-ending any potential comeback.

Smith looked like a different player Sunday night. He fired off the catch with conviction, Burying three triples for just the fourth time in his career, and he was more than just a stationary shooter. You won’t see many 6-foot-10 players look as smooth curling off a screen for a three above the key.

Smith isn’t solely responsible for his own Offensive production. Rockets Coach Stephen Silas noted last week his wish for more drive-and-kick action from guards Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., which in turn should free up more open looks for Smith. Houston’s coaching staff additionally continues to push for a faster pace in order to generate more easy buckets. Smith has received a number of open looks as a trailer option on fast breaks, a trend Silas said he hopes continues in the coming weeks.

“The way to get [Smith] better and more opportunities is to push the ball, get the ball into the paint, get to our drive-and-kicks and space the floor well,” Silas said. “That leads to us sharing the ball, it leads to guys getting more opportunities with less play calls.

“It’s just a better way to play.”

Smith should see his shooting percentage tick closer to league average as the season progresses, and it’s possible he stands as one of the game’s better shooting big men sooner than later. Although for a high Lottery pick, expert spacing isn’t the end goal. Smith’s greatest hurdle at the moment is his inability to generate his own shot off the bounce, one of the few blemishes on his scouting report before the draft. Such a concern has come to fruition early in 2022-23, although Smith has also shown progress in that regard. He blew by a Golden State closeout for a dunk on Sunday, showing the kind of decisiveness that was lacking during a number of early-season matchups.

Continued development at creating his own shot is critical to not only Smith’s development, but also the construction of Houston’s roster across the next decade. Rockets Assistant Coach John Lucas even hinted at a potential future where Smith slides to small forward, helping create the sort of jumbo lineups we saw with Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen in Cleveland last season. Such optionality could be a boon for Houston, especially if a certain French teenager comes aboard next June.

“I think [Smith] will also be able to play a little three somewhere [down] the line,” Lucas said. “They can handle the ball better than people think.”

Jabari Smith Jr., #1 of the Houston Rockets pressures Kelly Olynyk #41 of the Utah Jazz during the second half of their game at the Vivint Arena October 26, 2022 in Salt Lake City Utah.(Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Chris Gardner/Getty Images

The Rockets are encouraged by the early returns on their most recent Lottery pick despite his modest numbers thus far. Smith is already flashing the All-Defense potential many ascribed to him ahead of the draft, and he isn’t just an impressive weak-side shot blocker. Silas marveled at Smith’s defensive prowess Sunday as he highlighted the Auburn product’s versatility.

“[Smith] is switchable at the four, he can play coverage at the five,” Silas said. “He helps his teammates, he’s long and athletic, he fills the gaps. … As far as his instincts and the things he can do, he’s going to be a very good player in this league.”

Sunday night represented a step forward for Houston as Smith, Porter and fellow rookie Tari Eason turned in standout performances. The Rockets are in the throes of a rebuild at the moment, with milestones tracked individually rather than in the league standings. A long-term lens is necessary, something Silas says he imparts on Smith on a near-daily basis. Silas name-checked a number of players Saturday who emerged as All-Stars after slow starts to their careers, including Steph Curry and—in a potentially-apt comparison—Chris Bosh.

Smith’s rookie year will invariably have plenty of clunkers ahead, but Sunday provided a brief picture of the kind of player he can be.

“For us to keep progressing, we’re going to need his progress,” Silas said. “Tonight was a good step for him.”

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