NBA

What do the Rockets need from Jabari Smith Jr.?

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Sometimes there seems to be some cognitive dissonance among fans about what it means to select a player for the lottery.

The superstar is widely assumed for any player selected in the top five. It’s largely a function of the fandom. Unless you’re actively trying to be critical (which is to say, you’re a habitual depressant, like me), it’s hard to imagine anything other than a best-case scenario for an incoming recruit.

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Admittedly, the best-case scenario for Jabari Smith Jr. is enticing. At 6’10 with a wingspan of 7’2 and exceptional hip flexibility and lateral mobility, Smith has an incredible defensive profile. The fact that he’s the best clean shooter in his draft class doesn’t hurt either.

If he manages to develop his talent, nothing will prevent him from becoming one of the best players in the NBA.

Unfortunately, that’s a big “if”.

Jabari Smith Jr.’s floor is his best quality

After all, ball handling is generally considered to be one of the most difficult skills for a basketball player to develop. It seems innate: the league’s best ballhandlers seem to be born with the rock in their hands.

A medical anomaly, definitely.

Additionally, Smith Jr. also lacks the type of burst that top scorers in the league normally possess. His functional athleticism is unique – he is among the elite in terms of defensive qualities, but offensively he is limited. Apart from its superb shooting mechanics, it doesn’t have many elite traits in this area.

It may not matter. Smith Jr. is already shaping up to be one of the best three-and-D wings in the NBA. If that’s all he became, would that be enough for a third overall pick?

What should Smith Jr. become for the Rockets?

Suppose Smith Jr., over time, is one of the best 3-D players in the NBA. For the sake of discussion, let’s also assume that the handle never shows up, and he’s never a main shotmaker.

I looked at where some of the top threes and Ds in the league ranked in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and RAPTOR in 2021-22. Then I looked at where the seven third overall picks between 2013 and 2019 ranked last season in the same category.

I used this group of samples for several reasons. First, I didn’t want to use the third picks in 2020 or 2021 because presumably they’re still in development. Second, I discontinued the experiment in 2013 because Otto Porter Jr. was picked ninth that year. He’s a good low-end comparison for Smith Jr., so it was a fitting place to cut the data.

For reference, the next three selections there were Bradley Beal, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. Which conveniently highlights a central point here:

Historically, the third choice is a mixed bag.

Of the last nine third picks overall, the average VORP was 3.04. The average RAPTOR was 2.2.

It should be noted that one of the players in this sample group was Jahill Okafor. He didn’t play in the NBA last season. I mention this to say this – the absolute worst result imaginable for Jabari Smith Jr. does not land him in that territory. I used his 2020-21 grades instead.

Meanwhile, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Joel Embid certainly increase the average scores in both categories. The two players who complete the group are RJ Barrett and Porter Jr. – consider them midpoint results for Smith Jr.

In terms of players I thought I could reasonably be ranked as a three and D specialist in 2021-22, the highest VORP ranking was Mikal Bridges. He finished 35th in the league with a 3.5 rating. In RAPTOR terms, Alex Caruso was the highest rated player to fit that profile with a 5.3 rating, good for 10th in the league. Desmond Bane ranked 20th in the league with a 4.0 rating.

Of course, there are imperfections in this exercise. Caruso is a secondary ball handler – he’s not responsible for much creation, but he’s also not strictly a three-and-D wing. Still, a point stands here:

The league’s top three and D players have ranked higher in VORP and RAPTOR than an average third overall pick in 2021-22.

Of course, the Rockets would like Smith Jr. to be an All-NBA player. If he develops his sleeve, he could achieve this:

If he doesn’t, he may still turn out to be a great fit for the organization.

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