• Wed. Oct 5th, 2022

Jabari Smith Jr. another new face in the franchise

ByStephanie M. Akbar

Jun 24, 2022

Every time I drive downtown for work — Minute Maid Park, the 2026 World Cup announcement, Toyota Center — I notice five or 10 new things.

A building that suddenly disappeared.

A block that has been completely transformed.

New residences and restaurants. Abandoned trash cans, tents and beginnings.

The void balanced in real time with contemporary creation, as the heart of Houston keeps shifting and changing.

A towering wall at the corner of La Branch and Bell streets, next to the Rockets’ multi-year rebuilding center, once belonged to James Harden.

I remember Dwight Howard and a tribute to the legacy of great men in the franchise. I believe at one point Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, at different times, co-commissioned the vertical side of a parking lot with the former face of the Rockets franchise. But the organization has changed so much in recent years – Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey, The Beard, CP3, Westbrook and Christian Wood, all scattered across the Association or trying to get back into the limelight – that it’s hard to remember perfectly who once dominated the wall next to the Toyota Center.

It was a cool mark for the Rockets.

He told you that special big things were happening in the building next door – and you had to be inside the 18,000-seat arena to really feel the buzz.

Now the wall is empty.

Who’s next?

Jabari Smith Jr?

Jalen Green?

Kevin Porter Jr?

Rafael Stone, Stephen Silas and Tilman Fertitta, showing off new world championship rings in 2026 and reminding every visiting opponent that the Rockets have had their historic top-to-bottom rebuild, right?

To be determined.

But the Rockets need a new face – or new faces. The wall needs a trendy image. Reconstruction requires identity. All young people need a catchy slogan.

“I feel like one of my jobs is to explain to people what we’re trying to do,” Stone said Friday inside the Toyota Center. “I’m not trying to hide the ball. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what we try to be. These guys are our future.

“Light the Fuse” ignited the league’s worst record (20-62) last season and put the Rockets bottom of the NBA for the second straight year.

Thursday’s draft seemed like another starting point for a team that can only go up. Wood and his hollow numbers were traded. Tari Eason, TyTy Washington and Smith joined a young core that already included Alperen Sengun, Jae’Sean Tate, Josh Christopher, Green and Porter.

“Just achieving a lifelong dream is a big deal,” said Smith, who fell to the Rockets third overall and made a solid first impression in his first press conference. . “I’m thrilled to be part of a new family and the organization is thriving.”

If you’re counting at home, you’ve already realized that the rebuilding Rockets now have enough promising young players to create an eight-man rotation simply based on all of their youth.

But which face will be draped over this billboard-like wall in a few years?

Who will turn all the pre- and post-draft buzz into something that really matters?

Who will lead this completely remade team and create a new base for victory within the Toyota Center?

“Once you start playing against pros and playing against people of the same caliber as you, anyone can score,” Smith said, describing his preference for team wins over individual points. “You have to do things to separate yourself and do things to affect the win. I feel like if you go into every game focusing on winning and you don’t score more points than you did in the last game…everything else will take care of itself. That’s kind of how I approach the game.”

The empty wall next to the Toyota Center is downtown right now. It was something for years, changing slightly but ultimately remaining the same. Now it’s stalled and faceless. Soon it will be something new and exciting.

The Rockets of the scorching summer of 2022 echo the downtown streets – completely crowded or eerily empty – that surround them.

In transition. In construction. Leading to familiar places but hinting at all the change that is yet to come.

“The challenge just comes with the learning curve,” Silas said. “It’s going to take patience, but there’s also going to be pressure for these guys to make sure they do things the right way.”

Prior to the final rollout of draft picks on Friday, five empty chairs sat on an elevated stage at the Rockets practice field. In the same red and white room, Hall of Fame names and numbers (Malone 24, Drexler 22, Olajuwon 34) and two famous world championship banners. On a side wall, a long list of “offensive engagements”. The latest: “Play to your strengths and help your teammates play to theirs.”

It’s been almost 30 years since the Rockets won everything.

Harden has lived through the playoffs every year and reached the Western Conference Finals twice. Disappointment always followed, however, and internal tension only continued to mount. Then the dismantling began, the nightly losses began, and the building next to the Toyota Center lost its star attraction.

The arena itself?

Mostly empty and light years away from the real NBA buzz.

This will change. The Rockets have too many young talents not to become something to watch and proudly follow.

The bright, youthful face of a new star player could fill the empty wall. But if this rebuild really works, the Rockets’ best hope is that one team will one day dominate the open space.

You look up to catch a glimpse of the new sports buzz as you cross a crowded street on game night in downtown Houston.

You have to be inside Toyota Center, once again, to see all of the exciting young names guiding the rebuilt Rockets to the playoffs.

“I’m excited. I feel like we’re on the right track,” Stone said. “We have amazing fans. They feel like they’re part of this process and I’m grateful for that.


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