NBA Draft Night wasn’t supposed to go this way for Jabari Smith.
The All-American power forward out of Auburn was slated to go No. 1 overall to the Orlando Magic. It had been set that way for months.
But a couple of days before the NBA Draft, word of a shift began to spread. Maybe the Magic preferred the most NBA-ready player in the draft, Paolo Banchero.
Smith remained hopeful of hearing his name called first by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. But it wasn’t to be. Banchero went No. 1 and Chet Holmgren went second to Oklahoma City, leaving Smith the obvious pick of the Rockets.
That moment of disappointment quickly changed to excitement as Smith realized his dream of being a top NBA draft pick had been realized. He is just a little extra motivated now.
“Not necessarily slighted but it is what it is,” Smith said. “Those players that were selected before me, they are great players and great people. So it’s nothing about the teams or the people that were picked, but I will go in with that chip on my shoulder ready to prove to everybody.”
In many ways, the Rockets may have pulled off the steal of the 2022 NBA Draft. While the belief had been that Banchero would fall to them in the third spot, they ultimately ended up with a player who seems better suited for the young core that is already in place.
Smith is expected to form a nice inside-out combination with the Rockets’ young backcourt of last year’s No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. His perimeter shooting ability also figures to give second-year center Alperen Sengun more room to work on the block.
The 6-foot-10 Smith was easily the best shooting big man in the draft. He is a quality 3-point shooter and can defend both on the perimeter and interior. Smith averaged 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds as a freshman last season while shooting an impressive 42% from 3-point range.
While many have compared Smith favorably to Kevin Durant, general manager Rafael Stone doesn’t see a spot-on comparison for his 19-year-old draft pick.
“I think Jabari is really interesting,” said Stone, who also added LSU’s Tari Eason and Kentucky’s TyTy Washington in the first round of the 2022 draft. “He is big and he does move exceptionally well. He moves his feet really well on the perimeter. He is doing it in college so I don’t know how that translates in the NBA but we are hoping it translates perfectly and quickly but we will see how that works out.
“But I don’t remember anybody at his size in college with his ability to stay in front and contain and contest on the perimeter and he is also good on the interior. He has some kind of unique skills there and we are excited about it.”
The Rockets fan base seems to share in Stone’s excitement. As soon as the Thunder selected Holmgren with the No. 3 pick, the Rockets fans attending the draft watch party erupted. They knew that mean the Rockets had landed the most versatile big man in the draft.
The show of fan enthusiasm wasn’t lost on Smith.
“It means a lot,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m wanted, being welcomed with open arms is good. They give me love so I’m going to give them that same love back and the same energy and effort every night. It made me kind of happy and put a smile on my face.”
Now the real work begins. Smith hadn’t played organized basketball since his freshman season ended during March Madness. But that changes this week with workouts with the Rockets followed by his first pro action during the NBA Summer League next month.
“I’m real excited,” Smith said. “I haven’t played since the Miami game. I haven’t played in so long. So it will be good when I get home to get to play against the guys who are back and a couple of pros then get with my team for Summer League and just get to work.”