Houston Rockets pick Jabari Smith Jr. in 2022 NBA Draft

The Rockets didn’t choose first, but landed the player who was most expected to be first in the 2022 NBA draft through the closing hours of the draft.

The Rockets picked versatile Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr. with the third pick of the draft, giving them what is considered the top big man shooter in the NBA draft.

Smith, a 6-10 forward with defensive skills to play as a three or four, made 42 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman.

Smith didn’t visit the Rockets but became available when Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero with the first pick and the Oklahoma City Thunder grabbed Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren for second.

With the selection of Smith, the Rockets are a year and a day after the Rockets emerged from the 2021 draft lottery with the second pick they would use to pick Jalen Green, for the first time since picking Ralph Sampson hit top-10 picks in consecutive seasons and Hakeem Olajuwon with the first picks of the 1983 and 1984 drafts.

Smith, like Green last season, was viewed as a potential No. 1, with Smith believing the Rockets had landed the player who should have gone first.

The draft marked the first time freshmen were selected with the top three picks, as Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum were the first picks of the 2017 draft.

Smith can take on a variety of players, giving him the defensive switch ability the Rockets covet to go with a competitive intensity.

“I just see myself as a defender influencing winning and just doing what the team asks me to do, save shots and run the floor.”

However, he is best known for his efficient shot with no wasted moves and excellent range. Smith, 19, needs to improve his ball handling, although with his length he doesn’t need to do much to get to his shot.

For the Rockets, he could work at both forward positions, giving them more options as they build, including the other two first-round picks they control Thursday.

It also offers frontcourt green balance, with shooting range and touch to make room for greens to drive to the edge.

Smith wasn’t training for the Rockets so sure he wouldn’t be available if they decided.

“I don’t see myself falling under two,” Smith said ahead of the draft. “Just keeping that mindset, that’s kind of my mindset. So I left it with these two.”

Smith, a 6-10 forward, averaged 16.9 points as a freshman, made 42 percent of his 3-pointers and averaged 7.4 rebounds. Smith was in the 91st percentile for scoring in catch-and-shoot situations and in the 96th percentile for scoring with jump shots from dribbling, according to Synergy Sports. He didn’t hit as well as a finisher, ranking in the 48th percentile and slightly behind Banchero in one-on-one defense.

“I can imagine being able to go one to five, being able to keep the guys up front, being able to defend multiple positions and just being a matchup nightmare be,” Smith said. “Being able to play the three, the four, the five and my shooting ability to spread the ground fits me into any lineup.”

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