We're kicking things off with Jabari Smith Jr., a
smooth-shooting forward who fell into the lap of the Houston
Rockets in the 2022 NBA Draft. That's not meant as a knock on
either party, but all signs pointed to Smith being selected by the
Orlando Magic until the signs just... didn't anymore.
In Smith, the Rockets have arguably the most skilled shooter in
the class. At the very least, there's no one with his stroke at his
size. Combine his 6-foot-9 frame with an even higher release point,
and you have an unrepentant gunner who can demoralize foes with
In a way, that skill set let Auburn off the hook. Why run
anything elaborate when you can just get him a mid-post touch and
let him torch dudes? You don't have to reinvent the wheel when your
guy can do this:
Tough sleddin', I'd say.
Luckily, Auburn didn't let themselves off the hook. They
recognized Smith could bomb away, both off the catch and off
movement, so Bruce Pearl opened up the playbook. You got the
traditional pick-and-pop reps against drop coverage, but also
brought the funk off the ball.
I like how the Tigers used Smith as a movement threat. He
received flare screens and popped outside. They ran him off of
staggers. They loved using him during Flex sets, either as the
cutter or screener. Even though Smith isn't a
put-you-under-the-basket guy against smalls, his ability to shoot
over people makes switching a tricky proposition. Auburn knew
In that vein, the Rockets really do seem like a solid landing
spot for him. Pairing him with Jalen Green is obvious fun; they can
take turns splashing jumpers in their opponent's faces — and let
them hear about it afterwards. But we've also seen Houston's
willingness to invert actions to free bigs in space during the
Stephen Silas Era.
Kelly Olynyk's 27-game stretch during the 2020-21 season can be
instructive here. First, never forget that guy slapped up 19-8-4
while converting over 64% of his twos and 39.2% of his threes. If
he's had a better extended stretch during his career, please hit me
on Twitter (@NekiasNBA)
and correct me. I can't think of one.
Olynyk was able to succeed because the Rockets asked him to do a
little bit of everything. I don't foresee the same handoff utility
— Smith has some serious driving and finishing kinks to work out —
but there's some movement film worth exploring.
The Rockets showcased comfort running Olynyk off of flares —
some scripted, some not. He and Jae'Sean Tate had some fun
chemistry off the ball; pairing Olynyk's movement skills with
Tate's penchant for physicality made for some fun possessions.
The second clip — with Olynyk and Tate flowing out of a HORNS
alignment — is one to keep in mind.
(A "HORNS" alignment features a ball-handler up top, a player
stationed at each elbow and a player stationed in each corner.)
Going back through Smith's film at school, Auburn ran similar
stuff out of HORNS to get him open. The set felt more like "HORNS
Veer" than "HORNS Flare" for the super nerds reading this piece,
but what really matters is the template.
A quick example:
Again, the fun of (having) Olynyk is the unpredictable nature of
his game. You don't have to scheme stuff up.
It's a little different on the Christian Wood front; his skill set
allowed the Rockets open the playbook in similar ways to Olynyk,
but he's more rigid, so you didn't get the randomness.
But as mentioned earlier, you don't always need the randomness.
For Wood, he didn't mind taking on defenders 1-on-1. If an off-ball
screen didn't work, he'd jab and shoot, or drive to make something
Smith has more wiggle as a movement shooter, but doesn't have
nearly the same force as a driver. But as long as the Rockets can
get him to catch the ball in spots he's comfortable with, it won't
matter much to Smith. He'll just rise right over the top.
From a set perspective, it's cool that both Auburn and Houston
have staggers on film.
It's also worth noting that the Rockets had guards screening for
Wood for some off-ball goodness, too. I don't forsee much Spain
pick-and-roll usage for Smith unless he's the back-screener in the
action, but that might just work.
They didn't mind running traditional pindowns for Wood. Eric
Gordon in particular didn't mind getting his hands dirty to free
Wood, and it's been fruitful. Over the past two seasons, a trip
featuring a Gordon screen for Wood has generated 1.2 points per
possession, per Second Spectrum.
A favorite for Houston: Clearing a corner before having Gordon
screen down for Wood. It was a way for Houston to create an open
three or force an unfavorable switch — the latter would allow them
to set up an isolation, depending on where the catch was made. It's
easy to envision Smith being the beneficiary of this type of
Beyond that, the same Veer-type action — a player setting a
ball-screen, then immediately screening for someone off the ball —
for Smith is also present in Wood's film. You can see that
Wood was able to get all the way downhill on that possession.
That may not be Smith's ministry in Year 1 — he may opt to slow
things down and iso from the mid-post, or flow into one or
two-dribble pull-ups. Those kind of quick-hitters are how he'll win
early on, thanks to the sweet shooting stroke and high release
Different action here, but an example of Smith's process:
Forwards and centers aren't used to chasing guys off screens,
and it's encouraging that:
1) Auburn recognized that and utilized Smith in that way.
2) The Rockets have shown they're willing to do the same