When a lottery pick like Smith returns for a sophomore season at Summer League, the team usually expects him to dominate. Smith’s 33 points and a game-winner is exactly the kind of effort Houston wanted to see after an up-and-down rookie season.
The shot electrified the crowd, which had previously been openly booing anything that delayed the subsequent Wembanyama game. Fouls drew boos. Free throws drew boos. Even the timeout Houston called to set up Smith’s game-winner drew a cacophony of disapproval from the crowd.
Perhaps that’s the lesson the NBA can take away from this game. Forget ideas like the midseason tournament or mic-ing up young players. If the NBA really wants to build interest in up-and-coming teams, it should just schedule games ahead of Wembanyama’s contests, and watch the sales of Smith’s jerseys soar.
As time ticked off the clock, Smith rose above his defender and nailed the 3-point basket, giving Houston the victory. During his post-game press conference, Smith said he felt like he was playing a video game the way things transpired towards the end of the game.
The results on Friday night in Las Vegas were the same, although the circumstances were slightly different than in March.
In the summer-league opener, Houston trailed the Portland Trail Blazers, 99-97, with 0.6 seconds left in the game. Second-year forward Tari Eason took the ball out on the sideline beyond halfcourt and was looking for the only option on the play, which was Smith.
With an overhead pass, Eason put the ball in a spot where only Smith could catch it. He did, and Smith knocked down a game-winning shot to give the Rockets a 100-99 victory at summer league.
Smith finished with a game-high 33 points, scoring 29 in the second half after a rough start to the game in which he went 1-for-6 from the field and scored only four points in the first half.
Shaedon Sharpe led Portland with 21 points and eight rebounds. Scoot Henderson, who the Trail Blazers took with the No. 3 overall pick last month, had 15 points, six assists and five rebounds in his 21 minutes on Friday. He left early with a shoulder injury, and did not return. Henderson will undergo an MRI on his shoulder, per Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes, and there’s optimism that it’s not a dislocation.
The Rockets took Smith with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft out of Auburn. He had 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds as a rookie last season for Houston, which missed the playoffs for a third straight season.
Even an anxious crowd seemed to grow more by the second in the previous game between Portland and Houston, which seemed to drag in the last minute. Once Jabari Smith Jr. hit a triple at the buzzer off an inbounds pass with 0.6 seconds left to complete the improbable comeback, the euphoria was less about the thrilling finish and more about what was to come.
You could hardly tell it was a battle between the first pick and second pick, Charlotte’s Brandon Miller. Even North Carolina’s own J. Cole, who sat across from the Hornets’ bench, was there for the spectacle as much as the individual matchup.
Wembanyama seemed to take it in, if only in moments, the spectacle of it all. He wanted to please the crowd, to meet the moment. The crowd not only cheered whenever he touched the ball, but inhaled in anticipation of something special happening — witnessing history meant there was an appetite to chronicle it as well, and Wembanyama felt it palpably.
“I was working out by myself a couple days before this,” he said afterward. “I think there’s a lot of conditioning to do, especially in an 82-game season. When you run a lot, it was really exhausting. When I subbed out, I was tired and exhausted, so there’s a lot of conditioning to do.”
The 18,000 in attendance exhaled in disappointment when one of his shots went awry, or even when he routinely passed the ball around the perimeter to keep the offense moving — but showed its approval when he hit a cutting Dominick Barlow for a layup off a double-team.
There wasn’t a seat to be found in the lower bowl, and usually that’s not the case at Summer League. It’s the second time the first day of Summer League has been sold out in advance of gameday, and even the likes of Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hung around to take in the evening.
“I’ve seen big crowds before. It wasn’t a home game or an away game,” Wembanyama said. “It’s not like the crowd is only here to cheer my team or to destroy us. But I’m glad a lot of people can get to see us play.”
While he didn’t shine tangibly, you could see the gifts even through the struggles. The crowd oohed and aahed whenever he sent a block backward, and was ready for a dunk when he spun off a defender, only to find himself too far underneath the rim to gather himself properly.
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