Rockets Rookie Finally Finds His Footing

Jabari Smith is seeing his star rise...finally.
Jabari Smith is seeing his star rise...finally. Photo by Jeff Balke
When you are drafted No. 3 and considered by some to be the best prospect in the draft, it stands to reason you might feel a bit of pressure. Add in the fact that you have just become one of the young faces of a rebuilding franchise and that's a lot of weight for a teenager to carry.

For the first five months of the NBA season, Jabari Smith, Jr. looked like he felt the load. His vaunted three point shot failed him. His still-slight frame had him pushed around on the interior. He found himself out of place on a roster filled with other youngsters all trying to figure out the NBA while flying along at light speed.

But, over the past two weeks, something has clicked for the rookie forward. In the last five games, Smith is averaging 21 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from downtown. It's no wonder the Rockets have won two in a row including beating Boston, with another loss against the very good Indiana Pacers in overtime at Indianapolis.

Smith clearly has grown in confidence, taking more shots without hesitation and asking for the ball with regularity. He's also getting after it defensively, another hallmark of his brief collegiate career.

But, it's really the consistency we are seeing from Smith that stands out. He seems to be a big part of every game now and his teammates are looking for him both on the perimeter and in the lane. There is a growing chemistry between Smith, Jalen Green, Kevin Porter, Jr., Alperen Sengun and KJ Martin, something fans and coaches have been wanting 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 and a "pray for Victor" miracle. But, this team feels different as they head into game 70 with only 13 games remaining.

Is it progress? For Smith, it certainly appears so, particularly since moving to the center spot in Sengun's absence. But, positions aside, the 19-year-old looks more the part of a pro player. He will need work to improve himself physically, to be able to withstand the grind of a full season in the paint, but it is encouraging that the best of his improvement has come towards the end of the season when rookies tend to struggle with the grind of 82 games.

For much of this awful season for the Rockets, it was about progress. Now former Rocket Eric Gordon, when asked about progress the team had made earlier this season, simply said, "There has been no progress." It was acknowledgement of the fact that, both offensively and defensively, the team had not improved and, in some ways, had regressed.

As they round the corner toward an important and uncertain offseason, progress seems to have been made, and Smith is at the center of that improvement.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke