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Is it time to worry about Jabari Smith?
Fear of the 'B' word
There’s no fear quite like the fear a fanbase gets when they see their 3rd overall pick have an underwhelming rookie campaign. Considering just how many of these Top-3 selections fail, it’s an understandable fear. The hope that’s put into these draft picks is unlike anything in sports. It’s the light at the end of a season from hell.
Nobody wants to be the team that picked a loser and worst of all, nobody wants to be the team that passed on a winner. But is 59 games enough to tell if the Houston Rockets have picked a loser?
Unsurprisingly, it’s complicated. First and foremost, Jabari Smith is scheduled to play in 20 more games this season. That’s important data that we haven’t collected yet and it could completely change the conclusion one may draw about Smith. It could also further cement the disappointing nature of his rookie season.
For the purposes of this examination, let’s just assume Smith has played his last game this year. 59 games is a pretty significant sample size for us to look at.
These are Smith’s numbers (per 100 possessions):
38.3% from the field
29.1% from 3-PT range
78.8% from the FT line
And here are the numbers for 4th overall pick Keegan Murray (per 100 possessions):
44.8% from the field
41.4% from 3-PT range
80.0% from the FT line
That’s a pretty drastic contrast. However, it’s worth noting that Smith is three years younger than Murray. In fact, Smith was the youngest player taken in the Top-6 of the 2022 NBA Draft. He’s six months younger than Paolo Banchero (taken 1st overall) and one year younger than Chet Holmgren, Jaden Ivey, and Bennedict Mathurin (taken 2nd, 5th, and 6th overall respectively).
Smith’s youth relative to his peers was a big reason why most pundits considered him the top prospect of 2022.
Does that mean they were right? No, at this point it’s difficult to rebuttal that, at the very least, Banchero appears to be a superior selection to Smith. Though it should serve as a welcome reminder to panicking Rockets fans that Smith has some time to catch up to these prospects.
And make no mistake, anyone who’s criticizing Houston for taking Smith over Mathurin, Murray, or Ivey is doing so in bad faith. All three prospects were ranked below Smith in the mainstream consensus.
With that said, this only proves two things:
Smith is very young and has time to catch up to the top rookies.
The Rockets weren’t wrong for selecting Jabari Smith at number three.
Neither argument puts people at ease about Smith’s prospects moving forward. The first could be viewed as offering up false hope and the second is a defense of the pick as if it’s already failed. So let’s go ahead and contextualize Smith’s rookie year and see if there’s a case for real hope.
A natural place to start is Smith’s three-point shooting. Coming out of college, Smith was accurately touted as one of the greatest big man shooting prospects of all time. At Auburn, Smith shot 42.0% from downtown on 5.5 attempts per game. He shot a similar percentage and volume in his senior year of high school as well. In fact, Smith shot 37% from distance for his entire varsity career.
His shooting form was textbook and consistent on every catch-and-shoot or pull-up jumper. Smith also had a great deal of comfort shooting pull-ups and fade-aways from the mid-range area of the floor. Looking back at the film, it’s hard to disagree with the general evaluation: this was one of the greatest big man shooting prospects of all time.
So what’s changed? Honestly, it’s anyone’s best guess. Smith’s form looks pretty close to how it was in college and he’s hitting his free throws at a similar clip. After watching all of Smith’s shooting possessions this season, two things stick out:
The NBA’s 3-PT line is too far for Smith.
From the eye test, Smith’s form from deep beyond the arc looked a tad different than it did from corner 3s and close range. He’s focusing on getting the ball far rather than naturally shooting it. And the numbers seem to back this up. Smith is shooting a putrid 25% from from 25-29 feet (nearly 230 attempts). From 20-24 feet, however? 37.6% on 93 attempts.
The Rockets obviously have access to this data (and practice data) so it’s weird that they’ve allowed him to continue attempting the majority of his shots from an area where he’s clearly not comfortable right now
Houston’s offense isn’t helping Smith
Most shooters have a spot on the floor where they’re the most comfortable taking shots, commonly referred to as a “hot spot”. When they’re playing, they don’t even think about it. Their instincts just take them there. For Smith, this spot has always been the above-the-break area.
As shown here, he thrived off being a trailer big that wrecked havoc on transition and semi-transition defenses.
Naturally, this is where Smith has been trying to get the bulk of his shots in the NBA. Of the 5.2 three-pointers he attempts per game, 4.2 of them are from above the break. There’s just one problem: above-the-break threes are the farthest three-pointers in the NBA (23 feet and 9 inches). Smith, who we’ve already established is struggling to adapt to NBA distance, is shooting 28.8% from this region.
In contrast, corner threes (22 feet) are much closer to what Smith was shooting in college. In the NCAA, three-pointers are a proportional distance (20 feet and 9 inches) all the way around. In the NBA, the top of arc is significantly farther from the basket than the corners are. There’s a reason corner threes are exploited as much as they are in the league.
It appears Smith hasn’t adjusted to this new reality. So it’s not a surprise that he’s shooting almost 10% better from the corners (37%).
Above-the-break threes are not his hot spot anymore - corners are.
But Houston isn’t doing anything to get him these looks. Smith is simply roaming the spots he was used to shooting from in college as opposed to leaking out to corners or running any sort of back screening action to get himself open. Rockets head coach Stephen Silas shockingly admitted that the team isn’t running plays for Smith to ESPN’s Marc Spears.
Unless you’re running a heliocentric offense around a player like James Harden or Luka Doncic, non-ball-handling shooters are supposed to have plays drawn up for them. It’s criminal that Houston isn’t doing that for Smith, specifically plays that are designed to get him to the corners.
Still, based on his free throw percentage alone, Smith should be shooting at a higher clip from three. It was a huge part of his appeal as a prospect. This wasn’t someone who was regularly beating people off the dribble to get to the basket. Three-pointers and free throws accounted for 64% of Smith’s points per game.
As a side note, this free throw rate is down 15% from where it was at Auburn (rookies don’t get calls).
Could this go down as a fluke shooting year for Smith?
It’s certainly not uncommon for players to have outlier shooting years. And though it can be alarming when that year happens to be one’s first season in the NBA, it’s not unprecedented.
Player - Rookie 3-PT% / Career 3-PT%
LeBron James - 29.0% / 34.4%
Kristaps Porzingis - 33.3% / 35.7%
Brandon Ingram - 29.4% / 36.3%
Paul George - 29.7% / 38.2%
Kevin Durant - 28.8% / 38.4%
Grayson Allen - 32.3% / 39.6%
Even 2021 first overall pick Cade Cunningham (a strong shooter in high school and college) shot 30.9% from three in his first 76 games. So this kind of thing can happen. More often than not, the player isn’t accustomed to NBA speed, three-point distance, their role/environment is not ideal, or it’s some combination of the three. The point is, these examples show that it’s possible for Smith to turn it around and become a very capable three-point shooter again.
It’s just going to take some adjusting on his part (and likely a change at head coach).
Smith is as toolsy as advertised. The motor, the length, the lateral quickness, and the versatility - it’s all there. His rebounding, block, steal, and deflections numbers are impressive for someone his age. It’s not hard to squint and see how a prospect like this could make an All-Defense team one day.
However, he’s far from where he needs to be. Smith has his moments every game, but that’s kind of all they are right now - moments. Long-term, the Rockets will need an elite help-side defender that can make up for Alperen Sengun’s deficiencies. Not only is Smith not that guy right now, but he’s the cause of a lot of their breakdowns himself.
Don’t get me wrong - the defense is by far Smith’s most impressive quality, but it’s a stretch to say it’s elite right now. Perhaps he’s best suited to complimenting a strong rim protecting center like he did in college. But as of now, it’s hard to see a future in which Smith becomes the lynchpin for an elite defense. Still, he’s firmly in the “above average for a rookie” category with a lot of potential due to the aforementioned physical tools.
Bottom line though:
Is it fair to use the ‘B’ word to describe Smith right now? No. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom tells us about grand proclamations 59 games into someone’s career. Smith can still close the season strong or have an amazing enough 2023-24 campaign and make such a claim look stupid.
But is it fair the ‘D’ word - disappointing? Yes. Based on where Smith was taken in the draft and most reasonable expectations for his rookie season, ‘disappointing’ is a completely acceptable characterization.
Let’s see if he can turn it around.
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