The annual NBA Summer League is there to put the association’s young guns in a microscope, both for those who are heralded and not. It’s a good opening test for everyone – we got this year’s top overall pick Victor Wembanyama playing hot-and-cold, and undrafted guys like Colin Castleton of the Los Angeles Lakers playing well consistently.
Also included in that whole mix is one of Houston Rockets’ youngsters: Jabari Smith Jr. He’s been crushing it thus far as he dropped 30 or more points in back-to-back contests.
Last Saturday, July 8th, he fired up 33 points against the Portland Trail Blazers to start things off, including the buzzer-beating three-pointer to win them the game, 100-99.
Smith Jr. then continued the tear on Monday, July 10th, as he poured in 38 points, seven rebounds, and six assists on the Detroit Pistons in a double-digit victory, 113-101. He was particularly feeling it in the second half, where he posted 29 of his 38 points and punctuated it by flexing on 2020 second-overall pick James Wiseman after knocking down a three.
The pair of performances are great to see, especially for Rocket fans. While it is only indeed Summer League, their prized second-year forward is at least doing what he’s supposed to do: playing well against mostly inferior defenders. The body language is also good since he’s more loose, perhaps showing signs that he’s gaining more confidence in what he offers and believing how much he can expand it. Such a boost is what he needs after experiencing some growing pains in his rookie season.
It was somewhat of a roller-coaster first-year for Smith Jr. In a season where he was a top talent for the highly-ranked University of Auburn Tigers, he was regarded as the first overall pick for the 2022 draft for months and months, until his buzz suddenly got quieter just days going into the draft, in favor of Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren. It came to fruition after he ended up being the third pick.
It was a sudden shift, but it proved to be a good decision as Banchero played magnificent for the Orlando Magic, averaging 20.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.7 assists, and eventually capturing the Rookie of the Year award. The Magic also had a 12-win improvement from the season prior.
Smith Jr., meanwhile, became average for the most part. He showed plenty of flashes all year long, but he was stuck with okay scoring numbers (11.8 PPG through early March) and ugly percentages (38.9% FG, 30% from three). To top it off, he was in a core that appears to lack discipline, one that notably angered former coach Stephen Silas, who was eventually fired.
Though Jabari did end 2022-23 on a high note (16.4 PPG, 8.2 RPG in his last 17 games), he took a backseat and only ended up on the All-Rookie second team, a bit underwhelming from the consensus pre-season projections for him. Lastly, the Rockets only went 22-60, just two wins above from ’21-22.
Bound for a big jump in his second season?
Aside from the encouraging Summer League run thus far, the new blood coming into the Rockets’ locker room is also intriguing.
Smith Jr., alongside Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., and Alperen Sengun, will now be with former Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, who guided the Celtics into the Finals in his first and only season in Boston. Then, there’s also free agent acquisition Fred VanVleet, a veteran and champion point guard that can help the group become a better-flowing unit on the floor. He’s an on-court presence that they’ve been lacking.
Smith Jr. didn’t have a good defensive season, but he definitely has a two-way potential with his outside touch, length, and athleticism. It should be interesting to see if he can make that jump next season.