Jabari Smith Jr. makes a strong first impression

Rick Higgins, the Rockets assistant who is coaching their Summer League team, quickly clarified that three summer practices does not qualify as Jabari Smith Jr.’s first taste of the NBA. It’s similar, almost NBA adjacent. This isn’t the real thing.

Yet, Higgins also has seen enough to know there is more there than the obvious shooting touch, great length and unusual drive.

“I’m going to say this isn’t quite him in the NBA,” Higgins said of the first days on the Toyota Center practice court and summer workouts for the team’s first of three first-round picks. “I mean, he’s got some other NBA players in the gym with him, but this is a Summer League. And we know that and we’re here to get better and grow. I would hold on saying that is his getting his feet wet in the NBA, yet.”

Still, when asked if Smith, who just turned 19 in May and is by far the youngest Rockets player, looks like an unusually tall teenager snuck in a side door of the gym, Higgins said he noticed that a player that does not play as if he is just 19 does not see and think the game like a kid, either.

“There’s moments he seems like he’s the smartest basketball player I’ve ever met and then there’s going to be moments where he’s going be 19,” Higgins said. “That’s just part of the process. I’m going to be honest with you that they’ve been rare. But it’s part of the process.”

A large part of that process, at least in the days that lead to Thursday’s Summer League opener against Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic, is getting the counsel of the relative veterans in the practices, second year guards Josh Christopher and Daishen Nix, and center /forward Usman Garuba.

“Just guys who’ve been here for one year, guys who have been around the league, they’re just telling me how simple the game is, you know, ‘Don’t make it complicated, do what you’re good at , just play hard,’” Smith said. “Some guys will be better than you on some nights. But at the end of the day, it’s all who wants to play right.”

That’s good advice, in keeping with the attitude the Rockets would like him to bring to his first games in the NBA spotlight.

As with Jalen Green’s Summer League showcase as a rookie, when the Rockets played against the Pistons and Cade Cunningham, the only player chosen before Green, the NBA scheduled Smith’s first game against the Magic, the team that was thought to be certain to choose him with the first pick of the draft.

“I’m looking forward to playing everybody,” Smith said of making his debut against Orlando and Banchero. “It doesn’t matter what team. I’m just excited to play with my new team and new organization and just get back out there competing. I mean, that’s what it’s all about.”

But when asked if he would like to show the Magic what they could have had, he said, “definitely,” before downplaying that as a motivation.

“But you know, I’m not focused on that,” Smith said. “I’m focused on going out there and just winning the whole thing, winning the championship. If that comes with me showing that, … I just want to win.”

Snap judgments will be unavoidable, but players are not chosen at the top of the draft to win games in Las Vegas or even Summer League titles. No matter how Thursday’s game goes, the goals are about development.

“I want him to go play,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “I think it’s more about the kind of the whole picture, instead of is pointed at this one game. It’s a process and there’s going to be ups and downs. Go out there and take what you’ve learned in these practices and apply it and go out there and have fun.

“That’s the message. It’s not, you’re going to be dealing with scrutiny and all that stuff, who you’re playing against, because in actuality, Summer League not at all about who you’re playing against. It’s (about) you and how you played.”

Simplifying the game, as he was advised, would seem a good approach, especially for a player that can knock down simple catch-and-shoot looks and attack closeouts.

Smith said he has been working on more than that in his transition from one season at Auburn to the start of his NBA career, including adjustment to the shorter shot clock to the need to be more vocal defensively. But when asked about what he wants to accomplish most in Las Vegas, Smith cited a simple goal that he believed could help him achieve the others.

“I want to feel like that I play hard all week, no matter how long I’m there, no matter if I make shots, if I’m missing shots,” Smith said. “I want to know that I was out there competing, out there listening, out there learning. At the end of the day, all of this is new to me, and so you know, I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself.

“Just going out here with a chip on my shoulder, playing hard and just trying to win.”

As Higgins said, “smart.”

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