Jabari Smith Jr. is pushing past the pressure of his NBA rookie season
Rockets’ first-year forward, selected to Jordan Rising Stars, is taking his father’s advice during a challenging start to his career
NBA commissioner Adam Silver stood at the podium and said into the microphone, “With the second pick in the 2022 NBA draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder select Chet Holmgren from Gonzaga University.” With those words, Holmgren stood up while a stunned Jabari Smith Jr. was crushed because he expected to be taken. The former Auburn University forward went from being projected as the potential No. 1 draft pick to being passed over twice.
Jabari Smith Sr. noticed that his son was crumbling emotionally. Smith Jr.’s legs shook so hard it made the table jump in the NBA draft’s green room at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The elder Smith grabbed his son’s leg and said some words of wisdom to calm him and put it all quickly in perspective.
“So, they called Chet Holmgren’s name, and he lost it,” Smith Sr. told Andscape. “Leg went to shaking. I looked at him. He is almost in tears. And I forgot that he told me that OKC [promised to draft him], so I got to keep my mouth closed about that. I talked to him, ‘Well, hey, what are you doing? Straighten your face, man. You good, you good, you good.’ You know the camera was right at the table …
“First of all, you’re a millionaire. Second of all, I don’t think he understand the numbers of how many people in the world that play basketball who would love to just be in this room. It’s a blessing. It’s a [heck] of a day.”
With his father’s words and presence, Smith Jr. quickly began to compose himself. The angst was brief as he was selected with the third overall pick by the Houston Rockets.
“People around me just reminded me, ‘You’re still the third pick in the draft,’ ” Smith Jr. said. “ ‘You’ve still accomplished something that a lot of people don’t accomplish, and that’s making it to the NBA.’ So, I had to put that behind me, just enjoy the moment, and live in the moment …
“My dad was just telling me, ‘You would be disrespecting it to feel some type of way about getting drafted. This is the best day of your life. Enjoy it.’ ”
Now, nearly eight months later, Smith Sr. is also telling his son to enjoy his first NBA All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City.
“It’s tough to live up to it [the No. 3 overall pick] when you’re not in a position to live up to it. So, I want him to go to the All-Star Game and for one time this season smile, have fun.” — Jabari Smith Sr.
Smith Jr. has been selected to the 2023 Jordan NBA Rising Stars on Friday. The 6-foot-11, 220-pounder is averaging 11.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game entering Wednesday. The Jordan Rising Stars rosters consists of 11 first-year NBA players, including Smith Jr., 10 second-year players and seven NBA G-Leaguers. Jordan Rising Stars will feature four seven-player teams competing in a mini three-game tournament.
Smith Jr. will also be on the Rookie team for the Kia Skills Challenge on Saturday along with Orlando’s Paolo Banchero and Detroit’s Jaden Ivey.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself because he wants to be great so bad,” Smith Sr. said of his son. “I just want him to be able to enjoy himself for one time. He spent the first half of his rookie season trying to live up to this No. 3 pick when you the fifth, sixth option on the team. So that ain’t been too fun. In his system, he ain’t have anything drawn up for him. It’s tough to live up to it when you’re not in a position to live up to it. So, I want him to go to the All-Star Game and for one time this season smile, have fun.”
It sounds like Smith Jr. plans on taking his father’s advice again.
“Just being involved in that weekend is just such a big deal. It’s something everybody watches. I’ve been watching it since I was 5 years old,” Smith Jr., 19, said.
It was easy for Smith Sr. to put it all in perspective for his son considering his pro basketball career.
Smith Sr. was selected in the second round (45th overall) of the 2000 NBA draft out of Louisiana State University after averaging 12.6 points and 7.0 rebounds as a senior during the 1999-2000 season. He averaged 3 points and 1.6 rebounds in 108 career NBA games for the Sacramento Kings (2000-2001, 2003-2005), Philadelphia 76ers (2001-2002) and New Jersey Nets (2004-2005). The 6-11 forward also played professionally in Spain, Turkey, Iran, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
Looking back, Smith Sr. described the NBA as a “super business” but believes he was never given a fair shake in the league, most notably by the Kings. Smith Sr. said there’s is a “dark side” to the NBA.
“Everything happened for a reason,” Smith Sr. said. “Sacramento, I absolutely love that they drafted me. But they did it wrong.”
Smith Jr. was born on May 13, 2003, in Fayetteville, Georgia. His father said his son naturally gravitated to basketball. Smith Sr. began training him at about the age of 5, made a point to make sure he was a well-rounded and skilled player, and often had him around his rec league games.
Smith Jr. averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks as a senior at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia, during the 2020-2021 season. He was named Mr. Georgia Basketball, and was selected to the McDonald’s All-America Game and Nike Hoop Summit.
Smith Sr. said he had several different jobs that allowed him to attend his son’s high school games and take him to practice. Today, he adds a level of support because he lives in Houston, too.
“It really happened organically. It wasn’t one of those situations like, ‘I got to get my boy to the league because I played.’ Nah, I was a dad first,” Smith Sr. said.
ESPN ranked Smith Jr. as the No. 6 prospect in the Class of 2021, and he signed with Auburn. Smith Jr. averaged 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds during his lone season at Auburn (2021-22).
Smith Jr. says he has moved on from being passed over by the Orlando Magic and Thunder.
“It’s over now. There’s nothing to really think about now, but it’s something you have in the back of your mind just later down the road. But it’s gone. It’s over,” Smith Jr. said.
The biggest challenge for Smith Jr. now is finding a strong role in the Rockets’ offense and dealing with losing. The Rockets have the NBA’s worst record at 13-44 entering Wednesday.
“It’s been tough, honestly, because I feel like I’ve been winning all the way up to this point,” Smith Jr. said. “So, it’s just knowing that it’ll get brighter down the road, and just trusting the process and staying with it. Still loving the game, still enjoying it, and just taking the bad with the good, and good with the bad.”
Said Rockets coach Stephen Silas: “He is young and trying to find his way. Jabari has grit and toughness and tries defensively. And he’s not given much at all … I don’t run any plays for Jabari.”
“It’s been tough, honestly, because I feel like I’ve been winning all the way up to this point. So, it’s just knowing that it’ll get brighter down the road, and just trusting the process and staying with it.”— Jabari Smith Jr.
Perhaps the highlight of Smith Jr.’s rookie season so far is that he was able to give his dad a special moment with Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James.
Smith Jr. gave his dad a night he would never forget when he bought him courtside seats to see his son play against James and the Lakers on Jan. 16. James even talked to Smith Sr. after the game.
Smith Jr. told Andscape in early January that he was really looking forward to playing against James for the first time. He also was quite aware that James is his father’s “favorite player of all time” and he hoped to meet him one day.
Smith Sr. was playing for the Kings when James made his NBA debut on Oct. 29, 2003. The No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft scored 25 points in his first game. Smith Sr. did not play due to coach’s decision.
“In Sacramento I was able to watch. I didn’t play against him, but I was able to watch his first game from the bench,” Smith Sr. said of James.
“No. 1 all-time is LeBron and there are going to be another 30 years before we see another one. To come to L.A., sit on the front row and watch my son interact with LeBron, that was deep. That’s royalty. That’s first-class.”