By Wil Crews
NEW YORK ––
Following a stellar freshman campaign on the Plains, Auburn’s Jabari Smith was selected Thursday to the Houston Rockets as the No. 3 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft in New York, making him the highest drafted player in the Tigers’ basketball program history.
“I’m happy to be where I’m wanted,” Smith said. “I’m glad they took a chance on me, and I’m ready to get in there and show them they made the right decision.”
This past season, Smith, the SEC Freshman of the Year and All-SEC First-Team selection, helped the Tigers to the program’s first No. 1 national ranking, an SEC Regular Season Championship, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the third most wins in school history.
Smith “fell” to No. 3 after weeks of being the odds-on favorite to be selected No. 1 in the NBA draft to the Orlando Magic. Orlando instead opted to select Duke freshman Paolo Banchero, and the Oklahoma City Thunder passed on Smith at No. 2 for Gonzaga’s Chet Holgrem.
Smith is no stranger to being passed up. His own college coach, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, said after the draft that Smith was overlooked in his recruitment process, allowing the Tigers to swoop in and earn a commitment from the potentially generational talent.
“Paolo and Chet were always one and two (in the recruiting rankings),” he said. “We didn’t beat the Blue Bloods to Jabari. We beat out Tennessee and LSU. It’s not the first time Jabari has been overlooked.
“Yep. Just go ahead and poke the bear … I wouldn’t want to be Orlando or OKC in those matchups. That’s just how he is. He keeps score.”
Smith is the fourth one-and-done player from Auburn to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season, following Isaac Okoro in 2020, and Sharife Cooper and JT Thor in 2021.
Chuck Person and Chris Morris were previously Auburn’s highest-ever NBA Draft picks; both were selected at No. 4 in 1986 and 1988, respectively. Okoro and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley were selected No. 5 in 2020 and 1984, respectively.
Smith will now travel 687 miles from Auburn to Houston and become a focal point of a franchise that is trying to rejuvenate itself. The Rockets last made the playoffs in 2020, when they lost in the Western Conference Semifinals behind the efforts of NBA Superstars Chris Paul and James Harden — both of whom have since departed the franchise.
Smith figures to pair nicely with last year’s No. 2 overall selection, Jalen Green, to form a one-two punch that could position the franchise to be competitive for the next decade-plus. Green and company led the Rockets to a measly 20-62 record — the worst in the Western Conference.
Of course, in today’s era of the NBA where power lies in the hands of the players and mobility is prioritized over loyalty to a franchise, Smith could be in different threads after the conclusion of his rookie contract; however, ideally, the Rockets are building a core that will return the franchise to the relevance it has lacked since the days of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in the 2000s.
The NBA is in the midst of a generational switch, with the last of the superstars from the 2000-2010s giving way to the younger up-and-comers. Smith’s selection at No. 3 provides innumerable benefits to the Auburn basketball program in terms of exposure and recruitment; for Smith, he and the Auburn Family can only hope the Rockets franchise acts as a springboard for a great career.
“You’re getting a hard worker,” Smith said to the Rockets and their fans on the ESPN NBA Draft broadcast. “You’re getting someone with a chip on their shoulder. You’re getting somebody who is gonna compete from day one. Somebody who doesn’t care about stats … all I care about is the ‘W’. I want to make the playoffs; obviously I want to go for Rookie of the Year, but I just want to win.”