It took about 72 hours of Summer League action for the overreaction to the 2022 draft class to kick in.
Chet Holmgren hit shots and deflated three-pointers in a stellar performance against the Jazz on his debut, marking the first flag to be set among the top three picks in the debate. Paolo Banchero scored a win over the Rockets with 17 points and six assists two nights later and then shined with a 23/6/6 stat line against the Kings in his final Las Vegas appearance. As the NBA world descended into the desert, the top two picks quickly met the hype.
Jabari Smith Jr. got off to a more subdued start in the Summer League. The No. 3 scored just 10 points on 10 shots on his debut, which did little to affect the offensive end for significant stretches against Orlando. Smith went off the field just 9-to-29 in his first two games, and while he had a solid 19-point, nine-rebound performance against San Antonio on Monday night, his performance didn’t set social media on fire like Banchero’s and Holmgren.
Don’t mistake Smith’s calmer arrival for disappointment, however. Houston’s rookie showed an array of talents at both ends, with particular shine as a defender. As we look to 2022-23, Smith’s greatest value as a rookie may lie outside of the box score. Let’s dive into a movie and take a look.
Smith picked up the mantle as the “safest” pick in the 2022 class, thanks in part to a stellar defensive effort in a year at Auburn. Smith is an active and alert defender who brings a controlled presence as an inner anchor. In his first three Summer League competitions, he switched and transitioned deftly and effortlessly, a skill that would quickly translate to actual NBA competition.
Smith should be far more than just a cog in a quality defense. He has the advantages of an all-defense player who can both protect the rim and skate on the edge. The latter ability is central to Smith’s appeal. Combining light feet with a 7ft 2in wingspan, it excels at fending off the pavement as it shuffles its feet to the edge. Incoming drivers are likely to struggle to shake off the young forward throughout the year.
Smith should help solve some headaches for Rockets coach Stephen Silas. The Rockets’ defense was abysmal last season as Houston lacked both the necessary communications and manpower to slow down opponents. Smith should help make up for Alperen Şengün’s defensive weaknesses up front and the signing of number 17 Tari Eason adds another energetic wing to the mix. Smith’s defensive skills and attitude will be a welcome sight for Silas and his staff. Perhaps this translates into a more competitive product most nights.
Gentle shot stroke
While Smith’s defense has been his calling card in Summer League, draft pundits (including sports illustrated‘s Jeremy Woo) have also highlighted his innate skills as a marksman. Smith is 6’10”, has a high release and an impressive knack for getting his body to the edge off screen and handoffs. Smith is comfortable getting up and shooting from both catch and dribble. As a college boy he shot 43.5% of three players, and if Summer League is any indication, he won’t be struggling with the NBA’s three-point line.
Smith should enjoy pick-and-pop attempts alongside guards Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. The Auburn product has a good chance of becoming the first rookie in NBA history to record 100 blocks and 100 threes in a season.
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We shouldn’t sell Smith as a simple catch and shoot player. He’s capable of scoring on all three levels of the floor, and his most intriguing offensive tape comes into play in awkward situations. Smith is a gifted shooter around the free-throw line, with a smooth turnaround jump facilitated by his release point. Smith will salvage hundreds of possessions during his NBA career. Such ability could prove invaluable if the Rockets can return to the playoffs in the 2020s.
Despite the strong returns in Summer League, I’d still hit the brakes on Smith’s Rookie of the Year odds. He won’t be given the same amount of possession as Banchero, and even if Houston doesn’t have his currently talented backcourt, it’s hard to imagine Smith currently functioning as a true offensive lynchpin. His grip isn’t advanced enough to dance past top-tier isolation defenders, and he’s not physically strong enough to consistently win doubles teams as a driver.
Smith is excellent at scoring in tight spaces and can drill jumpers from one to two dribbles. But we shouldn’t expect him to rip defenders off the hook as a rookie. Considering his advanced play in other areas, such a deficiency is of secondary importance.
One last thought
The Rockets are a lottery team as it stands, with too many youth to compete in what is expected to be one hell of a Western Conference. But there are reasons to be happy in Houston just two years away from James Harden’s trade demand.
Houston’s selection of Brooklyn draft picks is looking better by the month. The 2020-21 Tankathon landed green. Smith is the latest highly acclaimed prospect to join the group, and there are intriguing complementary pieces in Şengün, Porter and Jae’Sean Tate, among others. Houston should have a mountain of Cap spot next summer, and barring an unexpected jump, another Lottery talent is on the way next June.
Rockets GM Rafael Stone turned two disaffected stars and a disastrous pick situation into a future of young talent, draft equity and financial flexibility. His patience could pay off over the next decade, especially if Smith emerges as a potential All-NBA talent. After an impressive debut in the Summer League, we will see our first results on this front in the coming months.
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