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Prospect Plays: How the Rockets can use Jabari Smith Jr.

Prospect Plays: How the Rockets can use Jabari Smith Jr.

Welcome to Prospect Plays! It's a mini-series I'll be doing on some of the top prospects from this year's class. I'm not a draftnik, so if you want five-year projections, you can find that elsewhere — I won't be offended. The X's and O's are what I'm interested in; breaking down how a rookie fits on a roster is one thing, but analyzing how they'll actually be used is another. I want to hone in on the latter. 

As such, be mindful that the video clips being shown are highlighting the actions being used, not necessarily if the shot is made. Let's have some fun.

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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 tough shot-making.

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 that.

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 happen. 

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 action.

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 here.

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 point.

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 thing.

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