Greg Smith, a previously unheralded and undrafted second-year player out of Fresno State, entered the realm of NBA relevance with a crucial role in Houston’s 107-105 win over the Lakers on December 4th. In 24 minutes of action that included much of a tight fourth quarter, Smith took over Asik’s role as the roll man in the Rockets’ pick-and-roll attack, racking up a career-high 21 points on 7-8 shooting and 7-8 from the line. Since then, despite not necessarily garnering a larger role (Smith is playing slightly more than his season average of 14 minutes in recent games), Smith has been sneakily efficient: he is in the top 20 in PER at 22.3, tied with likely NBA All-Stars Chris Bosh and Anderson Varejao. While he is unlikely to maintain that level of efficiency throughout an entire season, Rockets fans should be excited that their team has a young big man who can contribute on both ends of the floor- a relatively rare commodity in today’s NBA.
So far this season, having Greg Smith on the floor has yielded benefits for the Rockets. According to 82games.com, the Rockets score 9 more points per 100 possessions with Smith on the floor and give up only 0.5 more points per 100 possessions: in fact, Houston is a net +8 points per 100 possessions with Smith in the ballgame. In line-ups in which Smith replaces Asik (but the other four starters remain), the Rockets are scoring a ridiculous 108 points per 100 possessions and giving up only 98 points on the other end of the floor. Furthermore, according to NBA.com, the top three Rockets line-ups this season in terms of plus-minus all feature Greg Smith. Granted, the sample size for these line-ups is miniscule (the four aforementioned line-ups have played less than 100 minutes so far) and Smith also has the luxury of facing second-unit defenders.
Nonetheless, Smith has proven to be a useful player and has improved drastically on last year’s campaign. According to Basketball Reference, on a 36-minute basis, Smith is scoring a whopping 10 more points this season as well as shooting 6 free throws compared with zero last season. Smith is shooting 61% from the field and giving up only one turnover per 36 minutes, compared with 48% shooting and three turnovers for the Rockets’ starting center, Omer Asik. Much of Smith’s value comes from his ability to finish or draw fouls in the paint. According to Hoopdata, Smith is shooting a robust 67% at the rim, where he attempts 75% of his shots. Smith also draws fouls on 23% of shots he takes—this, coupled with the fact that he’s shooting 76% from the line explains his offensive efficiency and his stellar 66% True Shooting Percentage. Indeed, watching Smith play, he seems like a more natural pick and roll big man than Asik. Smith has better hands, turns the ball over less, and is more capable of finishing around the basket (Asik, however, still sets superior screens).
In Greg Smith, the Rockets have a young, offensively capable big man on a dirt-cheap contract (Smith makes less than $1 million this year and next). While Smith lacks even a rudimentary post-game or a spot up jumper, the ability to score as a roll man can pay huge dividends for a team offensively (see Tyson Chandler on the Knicks). Houston’s success with Greg Smith also underscores an oft-overlooked aspect of the Rockets organization: the importance of the Houston’s D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Since the ’09-’10 season, the Vipers have been the “single-affiliate” D-League team for the Rockets, meaning the Rockets organization manages but do not own the Vipers. This has led to an increasingly tight relationship between the two teams, with the Rockets sending young draft picks (Marcus Morris, Terrence Jones, D-Mo) down to the Vipers to develop their skills as well as calling up productive Vipers players including Greg Smith, who played there for much of last season. This is yet another example of the small things the Rockets’ front office does to gain a competitive advantage over other NBA franchises.