When you are selected at no. 3 and considered by some to be the best prospect in the draft, it stands to reason that you might feel some pressure. Add in the fact that you’ve just become one of the young faces of a rebuilding franchise and that’s a huge burden for a teenager to carry.
For the first five months of the NBA season, Jabari Smith, Jr. seemed to be feeling the load. His vaunted three-point shooting missed him. His still slender frame made him push inside. He found himself out of place in a roster full of other youngsters all trying to figure out the NBA while flying at lightning speed.
But, in the last couple of weeks, something clicked for the rookie forward. Over the past five games, Smith has averaged 21 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting 50% from downtown. It’s no wonder the Rockets won two in a row, including defeating Boston, with another loss to the very good Indiana Pacers in overtime in Indianapolis.
Smith has clearly grown in confidence, taking more shots without hesitation and asking for the ball with regularity. He also takes it defensively, another hallmark of his short collegiate career.
But it’s really the consistency we’re seeing from Smith that stands out. He seems to be a big part of every game now and his teammates look out for him both on the perimeter and in the lane. There is growing chemistry between Smith, Jalen Green, Kevin Porter, Jr., Alperen Sengun and KJ Martin, something fans and coaches have wanted to see all year.
The Rockets still have the second-worst record in the league and remain firmly in position for a shot at the No. 1 pick. 1 and a miracle “pray for Victor”. But this team feels different as they head into Game 70 with only 13 games remaining.
Is it progress? For Smith it certainly seems so, especially since he moved to the center in the absence of Sengun. But, positions aside, the 19-year-old looks more like a professional player. He’ll need to work on improving physically, to be able to withstand the strain of a full season in the paint, but it’s encouraging that the best of his improvement has come towards the end of the season, when rookies tend to struggle with the fatigue. of 82 games.
For much of this terrible season for the Rockets, it has been about progress. Now former Rocket Eric Gordon, when asked about the progress the team made earlier this season, simply said, “There has been no progress.” It was an acknowledgment that, both offensively and defensively, the team had not improved and, in some ways, had regressed.
As they round the corner into an important and uncertain offseason, progress appears to be being made and Smith is at the heart of that improvement.