After spending his teenage years admiring Kevin Durant from afar, Houston Rockets second-year forward Jabari Smith Jr. finally saw it up close.
Thankfully this session entailed the Suns forward helping Smith instead of putting on a clinic at his expense. While practicing at UCLA during the ‘Rico Hines runs,’ Smith saw Durant training and summoned up the courage to ask if he could join. Durant happily accommodated.
“Getting a chance to work with him was almost like a dream,” Smith told Sportskeeda. “He’s one of the greatest scorers ever, and I get to pick his brain.”
Jabari Smith Interview (Exclusive)
Smith spoke to Sportskeeda about numerous topics, including training with Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum. Smith also touched on his development under Rockets head coach Ime Udoaka and when he told Lakers forward LeBron James last season that he also played against his father.
Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited and condensed.
What has fueled the strong start both as a team?
Smith: “Last year was still stinging for us. We just wanted to pick it up and win some games. The winning effort and togetherness right now is really what has been driving us.”
How about you individually?
Smith: “My coach trusts me to put me in different positions. My teammates also trust in me. Everybody believes in each other. Everybody has the confidence to do what they want and play their game. All in all, everybody knows that you have to play defense and you have to play hard.”
I read that you worked with Kevin Durant this past offseason. What came out of that?
Smith: “I came out here in LA playing in the Rico Hines runs. Before a pickup, he was working out and I just jumped in with him and his trainer. It was pretty good. He pays a lot of attention to detail. It was good for me to see with just how hard you got to work, how consistent you got to be and how important it is to focus on the little things.”
What are examples of the little things that you noticed that KD did?
Smith: “Shooting the same shot every time. If you see him shoot, every shot is the same. If you see how precise all of his movements are, he’s like a robot. Everything looks the same. So, I tried to mimic that.”
Did you have much of a relationship with him before that?
Smith: “Not really. But Jalen [Green] was working with him before that. I was down there working with Jalen. It meant a lot for KD to work with me. I’ve been watching him a lot since I was in high school and middle school. Getting a chance to work with him was almost like a dream. He’s one of the greatest scorers ever, and I got to pick his brain.”
When you watched him when you were younger, what did you admire about him?
Smith: “How effortlessly he puts the ball in the hole and how efficient he is. If you look at his percentages, he’s always over 50%. He’s always shooting at a high clip. I want that.”
Ime also mentioned you worked out with Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum this past offseason. What came out of that?
Smith: “We played some one-on-one. It was good to compete against them and learn from them. Like it was with KD, it was about observing their attention to detail. Everything that they do is the same.”
I also read you did some yoga in the offseason. How did that come to be?
Smith: “Recommendations from older players and people that also play in the league. It also came from players that are out of the league now that say they wish they would’ve done it earlier. I wanted to take the initiative to do it now. It’s made a big difference with my flexibility, my mobility and my overall recovery.”
Your pops also suggested it, too, right? (Smith nods) What did he say?
Smith: “He said, ‘It was a great tool and that Michael Jordan did it.’ A lot of great players did it just to help their recovery and mobility. So, I took the initiative and jumped on that. It’ll definitely extend my career and help me play longer years as long as I stay on top of that and keep going.”
Speaking of your pops, what was it like to tell LeBron that he played against him?
Smith: “That was pretty cool. I was telling him that he played against my dad, and I’m playing against him now and just that it’s all full circle. LeBron was like, ‘You made me feel old.’”
What did you take away from LeBron when you watched him when you were growing up?
Smith: “What can’t you take away? It’s his commitment to the game, even when everybody doubts him and he deals with a lot of naysayers.”
What have Udoka and your veteran teammates done for your development?
Smith: “Just helping me learn the game and learn it fast. I take all that I can that I can learn from them. They’ve been around the game for a long time. It’s about the consistency and having a routine. They always preach routine. They tell me to trust in my work and trust in who I am and not to lose any confidence.”
You had different defensive responsibilities on Kawhi and [James] Harden against the Clippers. What was your approach with taking on those matchups?
Smith: “Just stop them, make it hard with them and be physical with them. Just try to go out with our principles and tendencies and make it tough on them. It’s going to be hard to shut them down with how good they are. So you just try to slow them down and make it hard for them.”
With that, you often use your length and your hands when you’re defending someone. In what ways do you try to make things difficult for your opponent with those two qualities?
Smith: “I can give them a little bit more space a little bit and jab at the ball. I’m just using God’s gifts with my arms and length to contest shots late. I try to make it hard on them.”