“Houston, we have a problem” … is the headline I had to fight off for days when contemplating an article on the early returns (or lack thereof) from No. 3 pick Jabari Smith Jr. And that’s just wrong. Literally. The astronauts of Apollo 13 actually said to mission control, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” While we’re at it: Forrest Gump said, “Life was like a box of chocolates;” Marie Antoinette wanted them to eat a pastry, not cake; Manfred Mann was “Revved up like a deuce;” the cornfield winds whispered “If you build it, he will come;” and Darth Vader’s famous line is, “No, I am your father” (either way, its hilarious to say into a fan). Thanks to my Master’s degree in Web Searchography, I know those formations of false collective memories are called the Mandela Effect. What does this have to do with Smith? I have no idea, but it was a fun way to cut through some writer’s block.

Aaaanywho, Smith is averaging 10 points, 6 rebounds, not quite an assist and 1 block through 11 games, while shooting 30% from three and overall. And that’s not good. He’s got those early rookie struggles that are common, especially for a 19-year-old used to being the Alpha Male on the court now adapting to run with the big boys. 

On Smith’s side is Rockets coach Stephen Silas, who recently compared his 2022 lottery pick’s early struggles to his 2021 lottery pick’s (Jalen Green) early struggles. And it’s fair consideration: In his first 18 games (before injury kept him out for some time), Green averaged 14-3-2 while shooting 38% and 30% from deep. In 23 games after the All-Star break, Green finished the season averaging 22 points, shooting 48% from the field and 39% from deep, with 4 boards and 3 assists, and about half the turnovers compared to his start.  

So there’s reason to take a breath and allow Smith time to develop. However, I’m not going to hold my breath. Things will get better for Smith, but there’s too many red flags for me to believe he’ll be an impact fantasy player later in the season. 

Silas’ predictable offensive schemes clearly are doing his rookie no favors, which could be a season-long issue. Smith’s lack of free throw attempts (1.8 a game) and steals (he’s only had two on the season) in 30 minutes per game tells me it’ll take him longer to adapt to the NBA than other lottery picks. Also, he’s shooting the same percentage from deep as he is overall, which is similar to his one year at Auburn (43.5% and 42%). So while the 3-point shooting will improve, overall efficiency is a major question mark.

Well enough negative Smith reasons, let’s change focus to the positive Eason. How long can Silas continue to play his other 1st Round pick under 20 minutes per game? Tari Eason is the only Rockets player with a positive +/- (+11), and is the team’s only guy on the floor with, as the kids say these days, “that dog in him.” (Smith, for the record, is 106; which requires consideration of playing against starters vs. bench players, but still…) Eason posted 14 points, 6 boards, 5(!) assists and 5(!!) steals in 21 minutes Wednesday at Toronto. Per 36, he’s averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, almost 3 steals, a block and 1.7 turnovers. 

Eason has produced 11th round standard league value to start the season, while Smith is off the radar for the time being. Smith may well become the better player long term. But for their respective rookie seasons, it’s likely Eason continues to be the better fantasy option – especially if those minutes creep up into the mid-20s. 

Elsewhere around the Class of 2022-23 landscape:

An article on FanNation this week provided a great dive into Christian Koloko‘s defensive impact for Toronto and why they 2nd rounder continues to have a significant role for Toronto.  But Koloko still isn’t making any type of similar impact in fantasy. Outside of his 11-7-2 game with 6 blocks against the Bulls on Sunday, his box scores have been nothing to write a 1980s Beach Boys song parody about. ( “We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow…”)

Andrew Nembhard has yet to miss a free throw this year” is far more impressive than saying the Indiana rookie is 5 of 5 from the charity stripe (Side question: Is “charity stripe” a classic term to keep around or a nonsense phrase to do away with?). More impressive is the fact he’s had at least 5 assists in four of his last five games. He’s started the last two games in place of Chris Duarte, who’s out a few weeks with a bum ankle. Knowing Paolo Banchero is a lock for Rookie of the Year (barring injury – knock on wood), Rick Carlisle is clearly Bennedict Mathurin’s campaign manager for 6th Man of the Year. The rest of Nembhard’s stat line isn’t great, but he’s definitely on the radar for standard leagues depending how the Pacers’ season develops. 

With Trae Young out against the Bucks on Monday, AJ Griffin was called upon for his first big taste of NBA minutes, and feasted on 10 of 15 field goals for 24 points to go with four boards and three steals in 31+ minutes. I hope to see more big games from Griffin as an excuse to write up a Greek mythology lesson.

In case there was any question (there isn’t), Paolo Banchero made sure everyone knows he’s The Dude of the 2022-23 rookie class. In two games facing Keegan Murray’s Kings and Smith’s Rockets this week, he totaled 63 points, 22 boards and 8 assists (while the other two Top 5 picks forgot to show up). The defensive stats and shooting efficiency are still rookish, but he’s performing close to his average draft position and likely only gets better from here.

Jaden Ivey put up two double-doubles with 6 assists each this week. He’s also averaging a steal-and-a-half and .5 blocks per game. If his shooting percentages keep trending up, I’ll be forced to post an apology for questioning his value this season. 

Finally, Walker Kessler, Utah Ranger, is back! Since the Jazz seemingly transitioned from tank team to “GET OUT THE WAY OF THIS BADDASS TANK” team, Kessler was shunned in fantasy like a 5.5% ABV Ale in Salt Lake City. But in his last four games, he’s had 9 blocks while making 16 of 19 field goal attempts and grabbing 6 boards a game, in just 15 minutes per. As long as the Jazz continue to roll, Kessler’s role will remain under 20 minutes/game. But from the fantasy standpoint, he’s still a better option than Koloko.