Jabari Smith Jr., Jalen Green are not the cornerstones the Rockets expected

HOUSTON – The 126-121 loss in overtime against the San Antonio Spurs was certainly winnable to say the least. However, due to costly plays by expected stars in Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. down the stretch, the Houston Rockets now face a 0-2 hole to start the season, with a home opener set on Sunday against the Golden State Warriors.

Coming into the season, many fans had high hopes for the Rockets, expecting significant improvement after a busy offseason that included veteran acquisitions and the development of their two top-three draft picks.

Initially, both Green and Jabari were drafted to be the next cornerstones of the Rockets franchise. Now in the 2023-24 season, that cornerstone player is looking more like Alperen Sengun by the minute. At just 21, Sengun has consistently improved each and every season since his debut. Originally a low-post piece with some passing upside, the Turkish center has become a premier facilitator with impeccable footwork on all areas of the court. Not to mention his improvement behind the arc. Given his development, Coach Ime Udoka is fully leaning on his playmaking throughout each possession, including the pick-and-roll game with Fred VanVleet. This proved wonders against the Spurs on Friday night, as both players had double-double performances with solid efficiency.

Given their strong offensive performance, the main reason why they lost goes on Jabari Smith Jr. and Jalen Green. Both players disappeared down the stretch in the second half.

Jalen Green: Houston’s unfulfilled star

Let’s go back to 2021. G-League Ignite product Jalen Green was drafted to become the next franchise star for Houston in replace of James Harden. Green, a player with blistering speed to the basket and impressive scoring ability all over the court in the G-League, has only mustered a fraction of his potential in his third NBA season. Yes, there are several 40-point games under his belt, but those do not outweigh his performance on the defensive side and his inability to play off the ball.

In the first two games for the Rockets, most of the non-Green possessions relegated him to the corners, a reflection of ailing issues in previous seasons. Don’t get me wrong, the Sengun and VanVleet tandem is loads better than the Kevin Porter Jr. and Daishen Nix days. Nevertheless, it still results in similar underwhelming results for Green’s predictable offense. Time and time again, Green often finds himself useless on the offensive end unless he has the ball in his hands.

This was evident in the showdown with the Spurs. Jalen Green had a strong start, exploding with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the first quarter, including a buzzer-beating bank shot. However, his performance tapered off significantly as he attempted only seven shots in both the second and third quarters, with just one shot in the fourth. Although Green finished with 22 points, shooting 10-for-20 from the field and 2-for-6 from beyond the arc, most of his impactful play came during the first quarter.

Let’s take a look at a specific possession:

Up one with a minute left in the fourth, VanVleet handed the ball to Sengun in the post. The Spurs, being hounded in the low post by Sengun all game, made adjustments to double team him. Sengun then kicked it back out to VanVleet at the top of the key. To avoid a closeout, FVV kicked it to Green at the left wing.

At this point, you’re thinking, hopefully the Rockets reset and run a different play because San Antonio is making in game adjustments. However, Green decided to feed it inside to Sengun again in the low post, resulting in a missed shot due to heavy contesting. This failed possession ultimately led to overtime. Surprisingly, Udoka ran the same exact play in overtime, which had a much worse outcome: a turnover that fueled a Spurs fastbreak.

With his talent and size, Green can be a consistent 30-point scorer, but his inconsistency shows at times, swinging from explosive scoring nights to being a non-factor on the court, unveiling his defensive liabilities. It’s still early, but Udoka needs to find a way for incorporate Green effectively off the ball. It’s still very possible Jalen can showcase his scoring ability off the ball on any given night, but is he willing to commit?

The issues of Jabari Smith Jr.

Jabari Smith Jr., on the other hand, is another can of worms. Chosen third overall by the Rockets for his two-way ability and consistent 3-point specialty at Auburn, he’s endured an underwhelming start to his NBA career. However, down the stretch, Smith displayed flashes of brilliance, averaging close to 16 points shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. Additionally, the 2023 Summer League showcased promising moments from the Auburn product, averaging over 35 points per game including a game-winning buzzer beater.

These improved performances had the potential to start his sophomore season on the right foot. Unfortunately, it’s been more of the same. In two games, Jabari has combined to go 8-for-25 (32 percent) from the field and 16.7 percent from deep on 12 attempts. More specifically on Friday night, Jabari missed two clutch free throws while up by two with 35 seconds left in regulation, failing to put the game out of reach.

Wemby gonna Wemby

On the subject of defense for Jabari Smith Jr., his primary assignment was the French prospect phenom Victor Wembanyama. While Wemby went 7-for-19 against Houston, most of his missed shots and turnovers occurred when Sengun or Dillon Brooks switched onto him during a possession. However, when matched up against Jabari, Wembanyama had a notable impact on the game, including executing a crossover drive reverse slam and drawing an “and-1” on offense, as well as recording two consecutive blocks on defense.

Defense, a skill that Smith Jr. was known for during the draft, did not show up in the first two games of the 2023-2024 season.

Again, it’s still early, but for both Green and Jabari, the growing pains for the Rockets are still reminiscent of the forgettable Stephen Silas era. If this still persists, these two selections could make the Rockets path back to the playoffs more tumultuous than before.

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