By KRISTIE RIEKEN
AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — After falling to the third overall pick by the Houston Rockets after most projected him to go No. 1 in the NBA draft, Jabari Smith Jr. wasn’t worried about the two teams that didn’t pick him. He was looking ahead to how he’ll help the one that did.
“Ultimately I just want to win championships and be labeled as a winner, always deep in the playoffs, somebody always competing for championships,” Smith said. “That’s what I want to be.”
Rockets general manager Rafael Stone was thrilled that Smith was still available when their slot came up.
“It was huge,” he said. “It made my night. We think he’s a super important piece of the puzzle.”
Orlando took Paolo Banchero first and Oklahoma City chose Chet Holmgren at No. 2 on Thursday night before Houston selected the Auburn freshman, adding a skilled player to join last year’s second pick Jalen Green as the team continues its rebuild.
“I’m just going to bring competitive edge,” Smith said. “My shooting ability, my ability to score, ability to guard multiple positions, and just my will to win… I’m a team player, so that’s what they’re getting.”
Stone raved about the shooting skills of the 6-foot-10 Smith.
“I think he’s probably the best shooter in the draft,” he said. “At his height that’s extraordinarily unusual. So we’re beyond excited to have Jabari.”
Smith was one of three first-round picks the Rockets had in this year’s draft. Houston added LSU forward Tari Eason with the 17th pick, which the team received as part of the trade for James Harden, and the 26th pick of the Dallas Mavericks once the trade for center Christian Wood is official.
Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. was taken with the 26th pick and ESPN reported that he was traded to Minnesota for the 29th pick in this year’s draft and two future second-round picks. Kentucky’s TyTy Washington Jr. was selected 29th — the player who will reportedly go to Houston.
Eason spent his freshman year at Cincinnati before transferring to LSU last season. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.6 rebounds last season for the Tigers.
“He plays really hard and he’s a great athlete,” Stone said. “I would definitely consider him a playmaker on defense.”
The Rockets have finished with the NBA’s worst record the last two seasons after reaching the playoffs in each of the previous eight seasons. After trading Harden and the rest of their established stars, Houston went all in on the rebuild, looking to develop young draft picks to bring the team back into contention.
Smith comes to Houston after the power forward averaged 16.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and two assists per game to win SEC freshman of the year, All-SEC first-team and second-team All-America honors.
Green had a solid rookie year, starting 67 games and averaging 17.3 points, 2.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds last season. Green was one of four first-round picks the Rockets had last season, as they also added Alperen Sengun at 16, Usman Garuba with the 23rd pick and Josh Christopher at 24.
Houston is counting on Sengun to be its long-term solution at center after dealing Wood. He played mostly a reserve role last season, appearing in 72 games with 13 starts. The Turkish player averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds as a rookie.
Christopher also contributed off the bench last season, averaging 7.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and two assists. Garuba played in just 24 games as a rookie after missing significant time with a broken wrist.
The Rockets will expect Smith to play immediately as they move on from Wood, who led the team in scoring in each of the last two seasons. If the 19-year-old starts as expected, the team will field an extraordinarily young starting lineup with four players under 22.
“Thing I’m looking forward to is just growing with them over these next few years… we’re all young, all new to the NBA lifestyle, so just learning from them,” Smith said. “They’re older than me, so just getting in there and ultimately building that relationship with them so it can transfer to the court.”
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