BROOKLYN, NY – The highest-rated rookie to ever wear an Auburn basketball uniform appeared to be minutes away from becoming the program’s first No. 1 NBA draft pick.
But the draft is rarely that simple, especially in a class crowded with top talent.
auburn striker Jabari Smith was selected by the Houston Rockets with the third overall draft pick on Thursday night, becoming the highest drafted player in Auburn basketball history.
The 19-year-old from Sandy Creek, Ga., in the Atlanta area, was the No. 7 rookie in the 2021 class, and he excelled in his only season at Auburn. The 6-foot-10 forward averaged 16.9 points in 28.8 minutes per game on 42 percent shooting from 3-pointers.
Here’s what the Rockets are getting at Smith.
The positive points
Combining size and shooting, there are very few precedents for a prospect entering the NBA already as polished as Smith. He is the best 3-point shooter at his height to have been drafted in the past 20 years. His smooth and consistent form is a sign that his numbers last season were not an anomaly.
In catch-and-shoot situations, he already receives passes in a shooting motion. Off the rebound (he prefers getting into his jump with a dribble or two) he quickly rises to an unblockable clearing point. Auburn often fed him to the pinch post, where he lined up defenders and used one-dribble pull-ups, turnaround jumps and physical tears to draw fouls.
Smith is a versatile defender. Auburn put him on screens because he could hold all five positions. He is a high energy ball and assist defender.
Smith is considered one of the hardest workers and best teammates in this draft class. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl needed to empower him to be more aggressive to take hits a few times (for better or worse). Smith responded well to this and showed a takeover gene in multiple games (Vanderbilt, Florida).
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Smith’s dribbling takes a lot of work. For now, his lack of grip is what’s holding him back from more legitimate comparisons to Kevin Durant. If he can develop more explosiveness and a better range of motion when attacking the rim, it would add a crucial dimension to his attacking game. Without it, he might have a limited toolkit that NBA-caliber defenders can figure out.
Smith showed only limited flashes as an inside defenseman and rim protector given his length, although Auburn didn’t need him in those roles as often with Walker Kessler in the paint. Smith showed he could get up and absorb contact in the lane. He averaged 7.4 rebounds despite often defending on the perimeter.
Smith’s construction, shooting and defense make him the surest of the top three prospects in this draft, and he has room to become an eternal star. He is skilled, intelligent and intensely competitive.
The Rockets are getting one of the most motivated and mature players available in the NBA draft, and to place him third is a steal given he had the No. 1 hype.