BROOKLYN, NY – The highest-rated recruit to ever wear an Auburn basketball uniform seemed to be within minutes from becoming the program’s first No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick.
But the draft is rarely that simple, especially in a crowded class of top talent.
Auburn forward Jabari Smith was selected by the Houston Rockets with the third pick of the draft Thursday night, becoming the highest-picked player in Auburn basketball history.
The 19-year-old from Sandy Creek, Georgia, in the Atlanta area was the No. 7 recruit in the 2021 class, and he excelled in his one season at Auburn. The 6-foot-10 forward averaged 16.9 points in 28.8 minutes per game on 42% 3-point shooting.
Here is what the Rockets are getting in Smith.
Combining size and shooting, there’s very little precedent for a prospect entering the NBA already as polished as Smith. He’s the best 3-point shooter at his height to be drafted in the last 20 years. His consistent, fluid form is a sign that his numbers last season weren’t an anomaly.
In catch-and-shoot situations, he receives passes already in a shooting motion. Off the bounce (he prefers to go into his jump shot with one or two dribbles), he rises quickly to an unblockable release point. Auburn often fed him in the pinch post, where he squared up defenders and used one-dribble pull-ups, turnaround jumpers and physical rip-throughs to draw fouls.
Smith is a versatile defender. Auburn switched him on screens because he could guard all five positions. He’s a high-energy on-ball and help defender.
Smith is regarded as one of the hardest workers and best teammates in this draft class. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl needed to empower him to be more aggressive at taking shots a few times (for better or for worse). Smith responded to that well and showed off a takeover gene in several games (Vanderbilt, Florida).
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Smith’s dribbling needs a lot of work. For now, his lack of a tight handle is what holds him back from more legitimate Kevin Durant comparisons. If he could develop more explosiveness and a better range of motion attacking the rim, it would add a crucial dimension to his offensive game. Without that, he might have a limited toolbox that NBA-caliber defenders can figure out.
Smith only showed limited flashes as an interior defender and rim protector considering his length, although Auburn didn’t need him in those roles as frequently with Walker Kessler in the paint. Smith did show he can rise and absorb contact in the lane. He averaged 7.4 rebounds despite often defending on the perimeter.
Smith’s build, shooting and defense make him the safest of the top three prospects in this draft, and he has room to develop into a perennial all-star. He’s skilled, smart and intensely competitive.
The Rockets are getting one of the most driven and mature players available in the NBA Draft, and to get him third is a steal considering he had No. 1 hype.