Coach Spins' Clipboard: Rookie Surges w/ Jabari Smith, Jalen Williams & AJ Griffin
Plus some Zion thoughts and the dilemma of prioritizing shooting on teams filled with young talent
Let’s talk about hot streaks!
The first few weeks of the season are the times when everybody starts to draw conclusions, oftentimes a little too quickly. That’s especially true about players and their performances. Initial cold streaks are held onto too long, even after guys come out of a slump. Rookies and second-year guys finally acclimate to their roles and punch their way into the rotation. Superstars go into a different gear and make things happen for their team.
The NBA is a long season, and we are barely through the first quarter of it. Roles will changes and guys will fade or surge regularly. For this week’s clipboard, let’s talk about those who are surging of late and have been really good for their teams, even if the public perception hasn’t caught up yet.
Jabari Finding his Stroke
Don’t look now, but Jabari Smith has been one of the league’s hottest shooters over the last few weeks. Since November 14th, Jabari is 23-45 (51.1%) from 3-point range and has made at least two triples in every game. He was 6-10 in back-to-back games on the road against the Denver Nuggets and has been in an unbelievable rhythm of late.
Smith is a really good catch-and-shoot guy, spacing to the corners and getting it up quickly when he is crowded. Jabari has added a really fast release to his arsenal where he eliminates the dip to the waist, something he seldomly did at Auburn and helps him fire before closeouts arrive.
It takes an amazing amount of touch to drill shots like this regularly:
We’ve long been skeptical of Smith’s ability to get to the rim and overall nuance as a self-creation scorer. There have been a few more flashes of comfort from Jabari here of late. He’s handling in transition and just pulling when hands are down. The green light seems to be given, and it’s resulting in much more confidence across the board.
He’s even snaking ball screens and getting into the mid-range for pull-ups! The rebound-and-run version of Jabari wasn’t one we expected to see his rookie year; the handling needed a lot of work mechanically and we thought that would prevent him from getting into the lane with craft. The confidence to be a creator and play his game is back after a rough Summer League and start to the year where the timing just felt off.
Smith is turning himself into a really solid piece for the Rockets. The bar of expectations, because he was talked about as a potential top pick, was set too high for how he’d fulfill a role in the NBA. Jabari is predominantly reliant on others to get easy looks and have offense created for him. Getting back to the mid-range with a green light and speeding up his release have helped him find and stay in this rhythm.
Jabari is finding his role and is going to be just fine.
Oklahoma City’s Priority Dilemma
Here’s a far-too-long Isaiah Joe-driven rant.
As someone who covers both the NBA Draft and the NBA at large, I spend a lot of time watching young stars on rebuilding teams. It’s an important part of getting immediate feedback on my pre-draft projections for these top-tier players. But what that also means is, more often than not, watching a lot of bad NBA basketball. The young stars aren’t ready to step up and lead their team to wins. The roster around them, likely responsible in the first place for landing that top pick, isn’t talented enough to make an immediate ascent in the standings.
Over the years, we’ve developed a common complaint with many of these rebuilding groups once they get their potential star or two: there’s a complete lack of shooting on their rosters.
Data backs that up. While 3-point shooting and wins aren’t directly correlated, the worst teams in the league year after year are the ones you will find at the bottom of the 3-point percentage marks. There’s often overlap with teams that feature young stars as well. Last year, the Detroit Pistons (during Cade Cunningham’s rookie season) shot 32.6% from 3, 29th in the NBA. The peak Process 76ers had three consecutive years with fewer than 34% of their 3-pointers going in. Those supremely young rosters all struggled to shoot.
That’s been a particular issue with the Oklahoma City Thunder the last few seasons. Last year, they were 30th in the league, drilling only 32.3% from deep. In 2020-21, they were 29th, with 33.9% of their triples going in. Both years have been moments where the Thunder know that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be their star guard of the future; 2021-22 saw them try to make SGA and a non-shooting point guard in Josh Giddey work together.
So far this year, the Thunder are knocking down 33.6% of their 3-pointers, which would put them in about the same ballpark of ineptitude. They fire them up at a top-ten clip in the league, the shots simply don’t go in.
To me, that drives an important question about the infrastructure teams surrounds young stars with. Cade’s rookie year in Detroit saw him playing with predominantly young players: Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Hami Diallo… just a bunch of players trying to figure out their own role in the league. Shooting was rare to come by, but the Pistons were clear about their organizational marching orders. They were to give every young guy a chance to develop through minutes.
The Thunder are the most fascinating team in that regard. They’ve had countless young players and draft picks on their roster. Some of them have already been squeezed out of development opportunities. Theo Maledon, now in Charlotte, was dumped via trade this summer after it was clear other youngsters Giddey and Tre Mann had surpassed him on the depth chart. There are currently 14 players on the Thunder roster within their first four years in the NBA. It’s impossible to prioritize the on-court development of them all.
Enter Isaiah Joe, still a youngster who fits that timeframe but is much more of a known quantity in terms of role. Joe is a floor-spacer, playing off others, who thrives with a green light and has his deficiencies on defense. The Thunder could become enamored with the higher-ceiling guys like Mann, Giddey, and Ousmane Dieng, prioritizing their minutes for development and seeing if the team can build chemistry together. Doing so would make sense based on their prior investments: over the last two years, OKC has spent significant first-round capital to acquire all three.
Mann (28.7% from 3), Giddey (25.5%), and Dieng (23.3%) make little sense together as a lineup, especially when the ball will be placed in Shai’s hands so much. Then there’s Joe, shooting 43.5% from 3 since coming to Oklahoma City. He’s made at least two 3-pointers in every game for the team where he’s played at least nine minutes. Joe’s plus-minus of +3.8 is the best on the team for all rotation players.
The conundrum for teams is quite clear. During developmental seasons, do they give the important reps to youngsters they have high hopes for and draft based on their potential upside, or do they find ways to value shooting role players that make it easier to identify star play and simplify the game for those stars? The answer isn’t at either pole but somewhere in between. Still, the danger in drafting so many young players is that it makes it harder to justify the shooting role players, like Joe, who just make everyone’s lives easier.
To me, that’s an issue.
Jalen Williams, my Hero
Let’s stay in Oklahoma City for a moment. On Wednesday, Jalen Williams pretty much single-handedly won the Thunder a game against the Spurs. After a steady deficit throughout the third quarter, Williams turned it on late and then sealed the deal in the fourth with some clutch buckets and free throws.
Williams exploded during the pre-draft cycle from an unheard of prospect to the #15 guy on our final board. His combination of sweet shooting, size, playmaking, and advanced handle made him a versatile piece on offense. His mentality (and 40% catch-and-shoot impact) seemed to work well as a high-end connector piece, and he’s played that role well for the Thunder.
But Jalen is already so much more. Williams had a career-high 27 on Wednesday, his seventh double-digit scoring night over his last nine games. He has the feel and scoring ability to put his stamp on a game with the ball in his hands — and on Wednesday with Shai Gilgeous-Alexnader out of the lineup, he did just that.
Jalen’s handle is really good in terms of his ambidextrous usage. Williams has an excellent left hand, finishing near the rim well and exploding off the bounce with his off-hand. The change of speed is really impressive for a 6’8” wing, and he’s got great touch and angles when he rises to finish those drives.
Like most players, his runner is a shot that he’ll take with his dominant hand. Williams isn’t an elite athlete by any means; he can play quick and has vertical lift, he just doesn’t tap into that consistently. As a former smaller guard (he hit a late growth spurt at Santa Clara), Williams is used to utilizing a runner when he gets to the mid-range area and cannot make it all the way to the hoop.
Williams can find himself in those same situations driving left, and he decelerates in a funky way that prevents defenders from jumping to his right shoulder to anticipate that runner. He’s got great touch on them, and it’s a real weapon of a move:
Of course, part of the appeal for the Thunder in drafting Jalen was his ability to play off-ball as well. With Giddey and SGA in those ball-dominant roles, Williams has to be able to flank those guys and succeed without the ball in his hands. He’s got a tremendous feel for backdoor cutting out of the corners, knowing the high-IQ guards in their system will find him roaming the baseline.
Williams was the November Western Conference Rookie of the Month. He’s been really good for Oklahoma City and is making an impact in so many ways, even if the shot hasn’t fallen at the rate it’s capable of. What this week showed was the upside he has to run offense through him on an NBA level. He’s a sturdy passer, but the translation of his rim attacks to the pro game helps him become a credible threat as a scorer. Whether he’s needed to space the floor or step up and command the O, Jalen is finding ways to be both comfortable and helpful in either role.