The Hoop Collective: Jabari Smith Jr. anchoring a rebuilding Rockets team

Houston Rockets coach Stephen Silas says rookie Jabari Smith Jr. is "starting to understand the NBA game." Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

Brian Windhorst and a team of ESPN's Insiders sort out life and the news from in and around the NBA world, including rookie Jabari Smith Jr.'s development with the Houston Rockets, a surprising star's future with the Los Angeles Lakers and how one tweak could impact season-ending awards races.

Editor's note: A line in today's story about Rockets coach Stephen Silas breaking down in tears after a game this season was inaccurate. Silas got emotional at a news conference in 2021. ... A stat for Jabari Smith Jr. has been corrected; he's averaging 14.6 points per game on 47% shooting over his past 17 games.

If Jabari Smith Jr. could walk into the visitors locker room inside Atlanta's State Farm Arena on Oct. 19 -- opening night for the Rockets and Smith's NBA debut -- and give himself advice from the future, it would be some version of "Calm down!"

"Just not get too hard on yourself, because I feel like that was my big thing. I was real, real tough critic and I get down on myself a lot," Smith, now 73 games into his career with some fresh rookie-season scars, told ESPN.

"I would tell myself just to have fun, enjoy it and stay of course."

Like most rookies, the Rockets' 19-year-old forward thought he knew what to expect at the next level. And, like most rookies, his first few weeks were a total crash course.

"This league is so different from college," Smith said, raising his hands and spreading them for emphasis. "It's a whole different game."

Smith was limited early by ankle and wrist injuries. He was bullied while playing power forward at 220 pounds as a target for bruising veterans. And, perhaps most important, a player known for his sweet shooting could not find the bottom of the net.

The rebuilding Rockets started the season 2-12 and Smith shot 35% his first month. He struggled on catch-and-shoot chances (35% over his first 35 games). He struggled on pull-ups (37% over that span). He struggled on drives (39%). (Thanks to his 6-foot-11 frame, Smith did fare better on shots from the paint, hitting 53%.)

As the son of a former NBA player who grew up as a top prospect and had just recorded a well-received freshman season at Auburn, struggling had not been a part of Smith's basketball life.

"Things come so fast when you're a rookie," Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. "There's a lot of expectations around and you're just trying to survive."

Magnifying Smith's growing pains was the terrific start by fellow rookie Paolo Banchero, whom Smith will probably be linked to for the foreseeable future as they are players the Orlando Magic debated taking with the No. 1 overall pick until draft day.

"Was I feeling the pressure of the expectations? Definitely," Smith said. "That's my nature."

But since the All-Star break in February, Smith has emerged as a calmer, steadier player.