Jabari Smith: The Case for the Defense
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Jabari Smith was a joy to watch at Auburn. He was dominant. The shot was beautiful; watching him light it up from 3 was basketball nirvana. And then he would go back on the other end and clamp the best player on the other team. But the player we are seeing now looks worlds away from the one who impressed so much in college. The shot has been the most disappointing aspect of his play up in the big leagues, but many have also found themselves confounded by his defense, some having pegged him as a future DPOY candidate. This blog marked its genesis with defensive breakdowns, and this is where I want to turn my digital ink to once again. Is Jabari Smith a good defender? Well, let's take a look, using clips from the opening two games of the season.
Digging straight in, by far my biggest gripe I have with Jabari’s defense is how easily he allows his man to drive to the rim. This is not an early season phenomenon, it was a staple of his all last year. Once you notice it, you will see it multiple possessions a game. He backpedals. He backpedals a lot. Perhaps he is aware of his lack of strength and has little confidence that he can get physical with a ballhandler, but if this is his solution, it is an unacceptable one. If a player drives at him, he will backpedal. All the way to the rim if necessary. In the clip below, we actually see a fairly rare attempt at him to get into the player, cutting off Victor Wembanyama at the FT line and making him give the ball up. He gets help from Dillon Brooks, but that's how it's supposed to work. You don't have to be a one on one stopper, few are. Just slow your man down and wait for help. He can do it. But then he switches onto the next player and gives him the runway to get all the way to the rim, offering as much resistance as a piece of tissue paper.
We can see more examples of this below. Not only does this cause a problem with players being able to get to the rim, but he is also easily susceptible to the pullup. His default choice is to fly backwards to stay in front of his man, but there are so many crafty players in the NBA and he makes it far too easy for them to simply stop and pullup, or step back to the 3pt line.
We have an extreme example below with this play by Paolo Banchero. He doesn’t even do any fancy dribble moves. To make Jabari look foolish, you really don’t have to. He will get on his ice skates almost voluntarily.
In fairness, the scouting report here is to allow Banchero to pullup, where he is weak, and stop him driving - so Smith is playing on the backfoot. But his movement is so exaggerated that Banchero creates space without even trying. Smith recovers to get an OK contest in, I think mostly because Banchero was so surprised his defender had disappeared momentarily.
With more tape, I will take longer looks at Jabari's biomechanics. Last season was cursed, I don't really want to dig into the film. We are brewing fresh leaves over here at Tea and Rockets. Suffice to say, there is a debate to be had over just how well or poorly Smith moves laterally. But I will turn now to an early season highlight. This play below is a good example of how he can move on the perimeter and stay with his man, adjusting after Franz Wagner caught him with the stepback earlier in the game. My hope is the kinks can be coached out of Jabari. He knows his weaknesses - mainly...his weakness - and is overcompensating. New coach Ime Udoka should encourage him to fight more and stay in the play. Because when he does, suddenly he looks to move rather well for someone so tall.
I'm putting Jabari under a microscope perhaps unfairly, because a young player struggling defensively is exceptionally common. It is only because of pre-draft expectations, some fair, some not, that this is even noteworthy. And he has shown growth in areas already. For one, I've been impressed with his screen navigation. I don’t think he will ever have the instinct (or the strength) to play as a rim protector. There has been and continues to be plenty of lust for Jabari to be able to play at the 5, and if his shot ever comes around it is easy to see why this is so tantalising. Unfortunately, in my opinion it is close to pure fantasy. He has given no indication whatsoever of being able to play on the interior, and is horribly miscast in his duties of collapsing in and helping Alperen Sengun protect the rim. Where his future lies is out on the perimeter. To be able to defend effectively out there requires defending around screens. This is one area where he shows promise. He jumps out at the ballhandler, avoiding the screen, bumps his chest forward at times to make them feel him, and uses his arms well to stay connected. He can also chase offball when he’s locked in like this. The NBA is flush with big creators who will run pick n roll from the wing. At 6’10, Jabari will need to defend the point of attack like he does here to thrive. Watch how he avoids contact with his excellent footwork and gets skinny around screens.
While Jabari’s stance is technically solid, he does have one problem. He sits into it a lot, which can be fine, except he doesn’t have that hip flexibility to then consistently hop up back into an upright stance and chase. He has taken up yoga over the summer, and we can only hope that this up and down fluidity improves, but on the play below you can see where this gets him into trouble. There is clearly a slight processing delay here as he feels the screener flip on his back and then the ballhandler rejects it, which is perfectly natural and not necessarily biomechanical. But I also think there is something in his body positioning and hips which hurts him, and it's something I saw a lot of last year. It’s something to keep an eye on for the rest of the season.
Moving on now, and perhaps surprisingly Jabari can be quite stout in the post, certainly when he isn’t giving up too much of a weight advantage. His Synergy ranking as a post defender last year ranks out as average, which is fairly encouraging for a rookie, and one so skinny at that. He is patient, but is handsy and can get deflections and steals. Even if he doesn’t get his hand on the ball, he forces his opponent to take more time and think, which allows players such as Dillon Brooks time to sneak in for a double-team. As you can see in the compilation below, he uses his chest well, and has a wide-legged frame. There are times you can see how his slightness reduces his effectiveness, but this is an area where he performs admirably well in.
Offball, Jabari's work leaves a lot to be desired. As a near 7 footer, he should be a menace as a help defender. Even young, raw players can make a difference this way. Just take a look at Tari Eason, for example, who shines by playing the passing lanes and jumping in for steals and deflections. Jabari, on the other hand, is a particularly bad offender for ball-watching. This is where he lets himself down the most, in my opinion. By all accounts, he is a mature young man who is intensely devoted to basketball, and his own drive to get better at it. Despite a rough start to his NBA career, stories from practice portray him as extremely professional, sometimes jawing at his fellow younger players who at times have taken a more loose approach. I find it difficult to countenance this reputation then, with the player I see so often - one that is so switched off when he is playing offball. This is an area he simply must tighten up. He cannot continue to concede these types of backdoor cuts, or be so slow to realise that the man he is guarding has started his move.
I'm close to calling him lazy offball, which is arguably too harsh. Maybe this is more of a habit of ballwatching which must be coached out, rather than inattention. But then, watch the embarrasing attempts at helping in transistion defense below, can this be defended? Can someone so poor at so many aspects of the NBA game afford to be so lax in effort, during overtime no less? Can someone still filling out his frame afford to fall asleep on rebounds and let bigger players push over him as if he forgot somebody else might want the ball?
The Rockets have a new coach, and all the talk over the summer portrayed a team desperate to turn the page and start winning again. It must be difficult for Jabari. A little over a year ago he was the darling of draft media and readying himself to hear his name announced as the new number 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. With everything that has happened since then, I can only imagine his world seems like it has fallen apart a bit. When you have shot so well over so many years, at high school and in college, and then it just deserts you, how must that feel? When you have to try to fit into the offense but play hard on defense too, a demand for too long not seemingly required of other Rockets young players, how taxing is it on your body? Playing defense in the NBA is hard enough. Trying to do it so young is even harder. But that's kind of my point. Why make it even harder for yourself? Losing a rebound because a 33 year old center with 50 pounds on you grabs it is forgivable. What isn't forgivable is watching the ball bounce off the rim as the player you were defending cuts in to get position because you didn't box out. Nor is refusing to closeout because you already collapsed into the paint, something I didn't highlight here but would find plenty of clips of if I chose to. It might take a while for Jabari to thrive as a defender. But in the meantime, he can tighten up around the edges and give himself a chance. With every missed shot and every day that Tari Eason nears his return, the urgency for him to prove his value on the defensive side increases. Now is the time to lock in.