Jabari Smith

Southwest Notes: Rockets, Clingan, Castle, Grizzlies

A wing player with size would be the perfect addition to the Rockets‘ current roster, Kelly Iko of The Athletic states in a mailbag column. He adds that the ideal player would be someone who can drive to the basket and create offense for himself and his teammates, pointing to San Antonio’s Keldon Johnson and Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan as examples, although they may not be obtainable.

Among realistic free agent targets, Iko names Nuggets shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Raptors swingman Bruce Brown. Both are veterans who can space the floor and fit into coach Ime Udoka’s defensive system, Iko writes. Brown dropped to 32.3% from three-point range this season after shooting 40.4% and 35.8% the previous two years, but Iko notes that Houston assistant coaches Royal Ivey and Tiago Splitter both worked with Brown in Brooklyn and may be able to help him regain his form. Iko contends Caldwell-Pope was worthy of an All-Defense nod this year.

Toronto holds a $23MM team option on Brown that has to be picked up by June 28, so there’s no guarantee he’ll be available in free agency. Caldwell-Pope has a $15.4MM player option with a June 29 deadline, and even if he tests the market, Denver figures to make a strong effort to retain one of the key members of its 2022/23 title team.

There’s more from the Southwest Division, all from Iko:

  • UConn center Donovan Clingan has been listed as the Rockets‘ pick at No. 3 in several mock drafts, but Iko isn’t convinced that he’s the best choice. Even though Clingan is a potential defensive anchor with a soft touch around the basket, Iko questions his fit alongside Alperen Sengun because neither is a proven three-point shooter. Iko notes that Houston had a top-10 defense this season without a reliable shot blocker, and Udoka likes having defensive versatility so he can adapt to the opponent. Even with the addition of Steven Adams, Iko expects the Rockets to employ smaller lineups next season with Jabari Smith seeing time at center.
  • According to Iko, the Spurs‘ perfect draft would include UConn guard Stephon Castle as No. 4 and a larger wing at No. 8, providing two more young talents to develop alongside Victor Wembanyama. Iko is concerned about Nikola Topic‘s latest ACL injury and says G League forward Matas Buzelis would be a much safer choice if he’s still on the board. Iko also likes Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard for San Antonio, but adds that an ideal situation would involve using the eighth and 35th picks to acquire a veteran guard like Dejounte Murray.
  • Iko advises the Grizzlies to trade down rather than trying to solve their need for a center by taking a project like Indiana’s Kel’el Ware at No. 9. Iko compares Ware to Christian Wood and suggests that Duke’s Kyle Filipowski could be a better fit later in the draft. Iko also considers a pair of potential trade scenarios with the Trail Blazers to land Robert Williams or Malcolm Brogdon.

Southwest Notes: Harrison, Kyrie, J. Smith, Spurs

When Mark Cuban, the majority owner of the Mavericks at the time, first reached out to longtime Nike executive Nico Harrison about the team’s general manager vacancy in 2021, Harrison declined an invitation to talk about the job, writes Sam Amick of The Athletic. However, Harrison eventually decided to listen to what Cuban had to say and came around to the idea of accepting the top front office role in Dallas.

“We talked for an hour,” Harrison said of his initial conversation with Cuban. “He told me his process, which was going to go for a few weeks. And then the next day, he skipped the process and wanted to hire me. I think he was just thinking outside the box. And the one thing he always says is that I had a real job. He respected the background that I had at Nike and all the people that were in my organization, managing the budget and all that stuff. He always says, ‘You had a real job. You had a real job.’ So I think that was one of the things.”

During his time at Nike, Harrison established a relationship with Kyrie Irving, which came in handy at the 2023 trade deadline when the star guard became available with his stock near an all-time low following a handful of off-court controversies. As Amick details, that relationship emboldened Harrison to “ignore the outside noise,” as he puts it, and take a shot on Irving.

“I don’t want to call it a life raft or lifeline, but it was like family reaching out,” Irving told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports. “… This has been the greatest … portion of my career. To be able to now give wisdom and also speak from a place of experience. When you’re a young person, again, you’re trying to speed through life, you’re trying to get through everything.”

Here’s more from around the Southwest:

  • Acting as an “NBA correspondent” at Wednesday’s NBA Finals media day, Rockets forward Jabari Smith asked Celtics star Jayson Tatum what advice he’d give to a young player entering his third season who feels like he hadn’t lived up to his pre-draft expectations. That characterization describes Smith, who made major strides in his second season but apparently believes he should have accomplished more after being drafted third overall in 2022. According to Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required), Tatum advised Smith to avoid rushing the process. “It takes however long it takes,” Tatum said. “But as long as you work hard, you believe, you got the right support system — obviously, you do down in Houston; I know all those guys, coaches — everything will take care of itself how it’s supposed to.”
  • Kelly Iko and Sam Vecenie of The Athletic analyze the Spurs‘ options in the draft as they weigh how to best build around franchise player Victor Wembanyama. Vecenie loves the potential fit of UConn’s Stephon Castle next to Wembanyama, but says San Antonio should entirely rule out UConn’s other lottery talent, Donovan Clingan, since the two big men wouldn’t fit alongside one another. Vecenie also suggests that the Spurs should be open to trading down for extra value if Clingan is still on the board at No. 4 or even at No. 8.
  • Jeff McDonald of The San Antonio Express-News (subscription required) takes a closer look at Matas Buzelis‘ skill set and considers how he might fit with the Spurs, outlining the case for San Antonio to use one of its two lottery picks on the former G League Ignite forward.

Texas Notes: Smith, Whitmore, Sochan, Doncic

Rockets power forward/center Jabari Smith Jr. was suspended one game by the NBA following a physical fracas with Jazz point guard Kris Dunn. According to Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle, the Auburn alum admitted he was surprised by the decision at first.

“I wasn’t expecting it until they told me the rules,” Smith said. “I deserved it. That’s in the rule book… It’s not worth it… You hurt your team being ejected and then with a suspension.”

The Rockets did win the game Smith missed, a 110-92 victory over the Trail Blazers on Monday, and have since extended their league-best winning streak to 10 games. At 37-35, Houston is just one game behind the tenth-seeded Warriors for a spot in the West’s play-in tournament bracket.

There’s more out of the Lone Star State:

  • Rockets head coach Ime Udoka told reporters this week that rookie swingman Cam Whitmore‘s recovery from his current knee injury is progressing faster than his initially projected timeline, Feigen reports in another piece. “He’s going to get the contact portion eventually and progressing from spot shooting to moving to contact moving will be next, but we’ll see when that is,” Udoka said. “He heals fast and so he’ll probably beat the three-week diagnosis.” The small forward has enjoyed a productive inaugural pro season off the bench with Houston. He’s averaging 12.1 PPG on .464/.361/.670 shooting splits, plus 3.9 RPG.
  • Second-year Spurs power forward Jeremy Sochan seems to be settling into a groove as one of the peskier defenders in the NBA, writes Nick Moyle of The San Antonio Express-News. Moyle notes that Sochan has been limiting opposing players to shooting percentages that are 5.7% worse than their averages since the All-Star break. “I think it’s just remembering what they like, what they don’t like, how they like being guarded,” Sochan said of his defensive approach. “Watching even other players guard them, especially in the playoffs, because playoffs are a different level, especially with how aggressive people are. You see how some players don’t like it when you are up against them and making it difficult for them to dribble the ball. Sometimes it’s the other way around. But it’s just reading and reacting to who I am guarding and learning from them.”
  • The Mavericks are riding high of late, having gone 17-6 across their last 23 games. The team has ranked in the top 10 on both ends of the floor during that run and now controls the West’s No. 6 seed, just 1.5 games behind the No. 4 Clippers. According to The Athletic’s Tim Cato, All-Star guard Luka Doncic has embraced a more deferential game. Cato writes that Doncic’s pick-and-roll chemistry with new starting center Daniel Gafford and rookie reserve Dereck Lively II have really helped expand the team’s offensive arsenal.

Dunn Suspended Two Games, Smith Jr. Gets One-Game Ban For Fight

Jazz guard Kris Dunn has been suspended two games without pay for initiating an altercation and throwing a punch at Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr., the NBA announced today in a press release (via Twitter). Smith has been suspended one game for the fight.

The incident, for which both Dunn and Smith Jr. were assessed technical fouls and ejected, occurred with 11:55 remaining in the second quarter of the Rockets’ 147-119 win over the Jazz on Saturday.

Dunn will begin to serve his suspension on Monday, when the Jazz host the Mavericks. Smith will also serve his suspension Monday when the Rockets host the Trail Blazers.

“I think Dunn hit him with a shot, and then, they got wrapped up and threw a few punches,” Houston coach Ime Udoka said of Saturday’s skirmish. “Basically, nothing landed, but as soon as you throw a punch, you’re going to be ejected.”

The suspension will cost Dunn a total of $35,678, while Smith loses $53,601, tweets ESPN’s Bobby Marks. Despite only being suspended for a single game and losing a smaller percentage of his salary per game, Smith is earning over $9.3MM this season, dwarfing Dunn’s $2.6MM salary, which is why the penalty costs him more.

Rockets Notes: Green, Tate, Smith, Whitmore

Rockets coach Ime Udoka considered lineup changes during the All-Star break that might have taken away Jalen Green‘s starting spot, but his show of faith in the third-year guard is paying huge dividends.

As Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle writes, Green continued his scoring binge Saturday night, pouring in 41 points as Houston won its eighth straight game. The reigning Western Conference Player of the Week is averaging 27.8 PPG in March while shooting 51.4% from the field and 41.7% from three-point range, and the Rockets have moved back into the play-in race with a 10-1 record during the month.

“He’s on a hot streak, obviously,” Udoka said. “Just like people have slumps at times, people can go on runs like this. But the main thing is he’s stayed resilient and continued to be confident when things weren’t going great. And all it takes for a really good scorer is to see a few go through. Run off a game or two of hot shooting and it can kind of snowball like this. I’m proud of the way he fought through some adversity. It’s not easy with a newer team and some different demands from a coaching staff and doing different things to always stay the course and fight through it. And he’s done that. Great to see him come out on the other side.”

A little more than a month ago, there were doubts about Green’s long-term future in Houston. Feigen points out that he was scoring just 17.1 PPG midway through the season while connecting at 39.8% from the field and 32.3% beyond the arc. Udoka was frequently keeping Green on the bench for long stretches in the fourth quarter due to concerns about his shot selection and defensive effort. The No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft will be extension-eligible this offseason, so he’s picked a great time to play the best basketball of his career.

“He’s been the key to everything,” Fred VanVleet said. “Our confidence, our pace, our spacing, he’s guarding. When he’s on like that, that’s just another nuclear weapon you have out there that can go give you 30, 40 any time. It changes the way the defense is guarding, changes the defense, the matchups. He’s been huge for us. It’s a testament to him staying with it, working through what’s been an up-and-down year for him. He’s finding it.”

There’s more from Houston:

  • Saturday’s win was the 35th of the season for the Rockets, which triggered an automatic $500K bonus for Jae’Sean Tate, tweets Kelly Iko of The Athletic. Tate, who has been with the team longer than anyone on the roster, has a $7MM team option for next season and will be eligible for an extension this summer.
  • Jabari Smith could face further discipline from the league after being ejected for fighting with Utah guard Kris Dunn five seconds into the second quarter, according to an Associated Press story. Udoka notes that Smith and Dunn had an altercation in a January game that resulted in technical fouls for both players. “I think Dunn hit him with a shot, and then, they got wrapped up and threw a few punches,” Udoka said of Saturday’s skirmish. “Basically, nothing landed, but as soon as you throw a punch, you’re going to be ejected.”
  • Udoka said Cam Whitmore has resumed shooting as he works his way back from a sprained right knee, per Ben DuBose of Rockets Wire (Twitter link).

Rockets Notes: J. Smith, Offense, Sengun, Whitmore

With Alperen Sengun unavailable for the past three games, the Rockets have opted to use power forward Jabari Smith as their starting center rather than moving Jock Landale or another bench player into that role.

According to Kelly Iko of The Athletic, Houston’s coaching staff has been interested since training camp in taking a longer look at Smith as a small-ball center. Head coach Ime Udoka said that getting the opportunity to use Smith in that role is a silver lining of Sengun’s absence.

“I love his versatility. He can go both ways, as far as upsizing, downsizing, and he’s comfortable in that,” Udoka said of Smith. “There’s advantages in both. Really can take advantage of some of the five men in the league. He’s agile enough, strong enough to defend multiple positions. I like what he does there, the versatility he gives us.”

The early returns on the move have been positive, albeit in a small sample size. The Rockets had a -1.8 net rating with Smith on the floor though their first 64 games — that number has jumped to +14.1 in 92 minutes across the past three games, all wins.

Here’s more on the Rockets:

  • Winners of five consecutive games, the Rockets are refusing to fall out of the hunt for a play-in spot and sit 3.5 games behind the Warriors and Lakers. Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required) takes a look at how the team has thrived as of late by making offensive adjustments necessitated by not having Sengun available.
  • Asked to evaluate Sengun’s third NBA season, Udoka said the Rockets’ center is “not even close to reaching his ceiling,” per ClutchFans (Twitter video link). “His future is bright, basically,” Udoka continued. “All the things that we really challenged him with, he kind of stepped up to the plate there and improved in certain areas. Next steps are the shooting and some consistency things.”
  • Count Paul George among the NBA veterans who are high on Cam Whitmore‘s potential. As ClutchFans relays (via Twitter video), the Rockets rookie was the first player George mentioned in the latest episode of his podcast (YouTube link) when he was asked about players who have had strong under-the-radar seasons. “He’s a player that is going to shake up some things in Houston and can be a star player,” George said. “I saw stardom on both ends. He played hard on both ends. He can shoot it. He can handle. He’s explosive. He was strong. He had a nastiness to him that you don’t really see in a lot of super young guys. He was trying to challenge me (when the Clippers faced the Rockets). He was challenging Kawhi (Leonard).”

Rockets Notes: Smith, Green, Trade Assets, Udoka

Jabari Smith spent the All-Star break figuring out how to have a strong finish to his second NBA season, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. While Smith has improved since his rookie year, especially in terms of shooting, he still believes he can take his game to new levels. He has responded to the week of introspection by averaging 20.0 points and 15.3 rebounds over his last three games.

“For sure, it was an examination, just trying to figure out how can I improve, how can I help the team win,” Smith said. “I’m a big part of the team, and I feel like my play affects winning a lot. I just tried to figure out ways I can affect the game and ways I can improve and ways I need to improve. (Self-examination) is something that’s just natural at the break. You kind of just see the first half of the season and find things to improve. Us finishing going into the break how we did (with a loss at Memphis), you kind of look in the mirror.”

The third pick in the 2022 draft, Smith earned second-team All-Rookie honors last season. However, he struggled with his three-point shot early in his career and wasn’t able to find a consistent role the Rockets’ offense.

“I feel more sure, more like I belong,” Smith said. “Last year, I was very unsure, floating around, not knowing what to do. Now I have more knowledge, and I’m more confident. I feel like it’s been not what I want it to be, but it has been better than last year. There’s definitely some bright spots to it, but definitely not where I want to be.”

There’s more from Houston:

  • There’s not much chance Jalen Green will be moved to the bench for the rest of the season, Kelly Iko of The Athletic states in a mailbag column. Coach Ime Udoka refused to discuss the possibility when Iko asked about it earlier in the year, and Iko doesn’t believe Udoka would consider the move now, even though Green has frequently been sitting out the fourth quarter in favor of rookie Amen Thompson. Iko acknowledges that Green is frustrated about his current situation, but notes that his decision-making is improving and he benefits from playing alongside the other starters.
  • Although the Rockets are counting on more internal improvement, a trade is their best path toward improving this summer, Iko adds in the same piece. They have plenty of young talent and veteran contracts to match salaries if a star becomes available, along with a Brooklyn first-round pick that appears likely to land in the top 10 in this year’s draft.
  • Udoka picked up a technical foul Tuesday at Oklahoma City and now leads all NBA coaches with 10, Feigen writes in a separate story. Udoka will receive an automatic one-game suspension if he reaches 16.

Rockets’ Stone Discusses Adams Deal, Green, Deadline Talks

After the Rockets acquired Steven Adams a week before the trade deadline in a move with next season in mind, the front office had plenty of discussions about deals that would’ve helped the team more in the short term, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required). According to Kelly Iko of The Athletic, Houston kicked the tires on players like Kelly Olynyk, Andre Drummond, Jericho Sims, and Xavier Tillman, among others, but couldn’t find a trade that worked for both sides.

“We certainly weren’t going to do something that would hurt us on a going-forward basis,” general manager Rafael Stone said. “The moves we were the most excited about were moves where we thought that could help us in the short term and also the long term, the moves subsequent to (the trade for) Steven.
We were very excited about acquiring Steven. Subsequently, a lot of the ones we had long discussions about were moves that would have provided elements this year maybe that we don’t have, as well as stuff for the future.

“But they didn’t happen, and we’re fine with that. We like our group, and this gives everybody on our current roster an opportunity to shine.”

If the Rockets had wanted to make a more significant deal, it would’ve likely required them to part with a player from their young core: Alperen Sengun, Jalen Green, Jabari Smith, Tari Eason, Amen Thompson, or Cam Whitmore. But Stone said the team wasn’t looking to move on from any of those youngsters, adding that he and head coach Ime Udoka were in agreement on the deals they pursued and those they didn’t.

“We’re looking at the long term more so than anything,” Udoka said. “When you have that many young, talented players, you want to see what they become and not rush to judgment on anything.
As far as those guys, everyone’s going to check in when you have this amount of young talent. We’re trying to win. We’re in the development and winning stage at the same time, so people checked in. We knew they would. They are talented young guys, and we have some duplicated positions there. We like what we’re seeing from those guys and want to see what we are as a whole unit.”

Here are a few more of Stone’s most notable comments from Monday’s post-deadline media session:

On the acquisition of Adams:

“I think we got a really high-level basketball player. A guy who’s been a dominant rebounding force in the NBA for the last five, six years. One of the best defenders in the NBA. We obviously feel great with Alperen, but now we have two truly starter-level centers next year. Depth is extraordinarily important. On top of that, he’s a very different player and will be a good complement on and off the court for our group.”

On the long-term fit of Jalen Green, whose name popped up in some predeadline rumors:

“Jalen has been and continues to be, on paper, a great fit with us. He has a skill set that isn’t really replicated on our roster. My expectation of him – and he knows this, and I think he echoed in his postgame comments – my expectation is that the defense, which has gotten better, is still going to get a lot better. That the physicality and the efficiency are all going to get better. He needs to take those steps. That’s extraordinarily important. He’s aware of it. We’re aware of it. And that’s the challenge for him and for us.”

On Stone’s assessment of his own job performance in the past year:

“I’m happy with the choices we made. I think for the most part, we’ve gotten what we want. And the additions of Fred (VanVleet) and Dillon (Brooks) were necessary and really important. I like that we brought Boban (Marjanovic) back. I like that we have Jeff (Green). I love the hire of Ime. And then I think we did well drafting Cam and Amen. So we had a very successful offseason, which set us up to make the right steps for this season.

“But I would say for myself, similar to our young guys, it’s not good enough. And so they need to improve. Our front office — not just me, all of us, our coaching staff, all of us — we’ve got to continue on the grind and make sure the choices we make between now and the end of the season, the ones in the offseason all set us up to have the best possible chance to win a championship in the short term. Not meaning like a year or two, but not 20 years either. And that’s very much our goal. And my goal.”

Rockets Rumors: Bridges, Centers, Tate, Brogdon, Core

Despite a modest 22-24 record that places them 11th in the West, the Rockets are motivated to be buyers on the trade market at next week’s deadline and will be seeking high-level talent, according to Kelly Iko, Shams Charania, and Sam Amick of The Athletic.

As The Athletic’s trio explains, the presence of new head coach Ime Udoka – and his strong influence with the team’s top decision-makers – has contributed to an acceleration of the Rockets’ timeline. Udoka has been frustrated by the team’s “inconsistencies” and is determined to make the postseason, and his level of urgency has helped convince the front office to adjust its expectations for the club and its strategy on the trade market.

The Rockets’ interest in Nets forward Mikal Bridges, reported earlier today by Michael Scotto of HoopsHype, is one example of the club’s pursuit of impact players. The Athletic’s reporters confirm that Houston’s level of interest in Bridges is “extremely high,” but echo Scotto in saying that Brooklyn continues to view the 27-year-old as a cornerstone piece and has no interest in moving him.

Here’s more on the Rockets:

  • Houston also continues to scour the trade market for more frontcourt help, with Kelly Olynyk (Jazz), Clint Capela (Hawks), Andre Drummond (Bulls), and Robert Williams (Trail Blazers) among the big men on the team’s radar, per Iko, Charania, and Amick. Udoka would like to find a center capable of not only manning the position when Alperen Sengun is on the bench but also potentially playing alongside Sengun, like Williams and Al Horford did during Udoka’s time in Boston.
  • While the Rockets will likely look to package draft capital with expiring or pseudo-expiring contracts like those belonging to Victor Oladipo, Jock Landale, and Boban Marjanovic, they also view forward Jae’Sean Tate as “movable,” according to The Athletic’s report. League sources tell The Athletic that the Celtics and Suns have shown some level of interest in Tate.
  • A ball-handler who can defend would also be on the Rockets’ wish list, league sources tell The Athletic’s trio, who mention Trail Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon as one player who fits the bill. However, Houston isn’t eager to cut into Cam Whitmore‘s or Amen Thompson‘s minutes, which may affect the club’s aggressiveness in pursuing backcourt help.
  • Whitmore and Thompson are considered off-limits in most trade talks, according to Iko, Charania, and Amick, who say the Rockets aren’t interested in moving Jabari Smith or Tari Eason either. Jalen Green is also in that group of young players Houston would be very reluctant to trade, though The Athletic’s reporters suggest he’s not necessarily viewed as untouchable like he would’ve been a year or two ago, with Sengun having overtaken him as the player prioritized in the Rockets’ schemes. It sounds as if Houston won’t move any of its young core players in a deal for a mere rotation upgrade, but would consider including one in a package for a star.

NBA Announces Player Pool For 2024 Rising Stars Event

The NBA has officially revealed the 11 rookies, 10 sophomores, and seven G League players who will take part in the Rising Stars event at All-Star weekend in Indianapolis next month.

The following players, as voted on by NBA coaching staffs, made the cut:



G League Players

As was the case last season, the Rising Stars event will consist of four teams and three games. The seven G League players will comprise one team, coached by former NBA forward Detlef Schrempf. The other 21 players will be drafted to three squads coached by former NBA and WNBA stars Pau Gasol, Jalen Rose, and Tamika Catchings.

The four teams will be split into two first-round matchups and the winners of those two games will face one another for the Rising Stars championship. The two semifinals will be played to a target score of 40 points, while the final will be played to a target score of 25 points.

All three contests will take place on Friday, February 16 as part of All-Star weekend’s opening night.