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The Drive Behind Jabari Smith Jr.

Auburn’s star freshman doesn’t carry himself like a future lottery pick, but he’s been following the blueprint to become one his entire life. Can the son of a former NBA player realize his dreams and exceed his dad’s in the process?

John Jay Cabuay

It was pitch black outside, but Jabari Smith Jr. didn’t need to see. He just needed to feel. His feet knew where to jump, his arms knew when to pump.

It was 5:30 in the morning, an hour before Jabari, then in eighth grade, was supposed to wake up to get ready for school. But something tugged at him to hop out of bed and jump rope outside his home. To push himself harder. His mother, Taneskia Purnell, didn’t realize what was happening at first; she kept hearing a loud, persistent noise.

It was cold when she went outside and found him, wiry body bouncing up and down, rope whipping in the wind. She wished he would let himself sleep just a little bit longer. But he was too determined. Too awake. “I’m OK, Mama. Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’m OK.”

He continued to train most mornings and would ask her to take him to the school gym before classes. The gym was often locked. “The janitor said he’d come let me in,” Jabari would assure his mom. “I’m gonna shoot around before everybody gets here.”

His father, Jabari Smith Sr., a former NBA player, instilled that drive in him. When Jabari was around 5 years old, his dad had him run up and down hills in their neighborhood in Fayetteville, Georgia, a nod to all the greats who had said they ran hills at some point on their journeys. He didn’t want his son to think anything would be handed to him. He would have to work to make it in basketball.

Smith Sr. had made it, spending time with the Kings, the 76ers, and the Nets from 2000 to 2005. As he watched his son grow up, bouncing that same ball that he had loved, he looked back at his own career and tried to pinpoint things he could have done to stick around longer. To thrive more. And he thought of those things when he was teaching his son how to put the right amount of backspin on his shot. How to turn around at the elbow and drain a jumper. He never had to coax Jabari to put in the time. To love the game. Jabari’s hands naturally reached for the ball and wouldn’t let go.

Now, years later, those early-morning sessions have helped transform Jabari into one of college basketball’s most versatile and talented players. Many boards have the 6-foot-10, 220-pound Auburn freshman projected to be the no. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft. His size, skill set, and silky shot have impressed scouts. He has a signature turn-around jumper and an expanded 3-point shot, and prides himself on protecting the rim.

But Jabari hasn’t stopped working despite his projected draft status. He still jumps out of bed to train, shooting early in the morning, just as his dad taught him. Jabari is quick to point out that he isn’t a finished product. He might not even be close. He doesn’t necessarily see himself the way others see him. He carries himself more like a walk-on than a future lottery pick. “I haven’t done anything yet,” Jabari says. “I haven’t won any championships or anything special.”

He imagines a person, somewhere else, working just as hard as he is—and that pushes him. “I feel like it’s my duty to work while the camera’s on me, while the camera’s not on me,” he says. “And just always keep working.”

Jabari has a tattoo on his chest that reads: “Forever Humble.” He often repeats the phrase to himself. It’s a reminder to stay grounded. To not look too far ahead as he navigates being in between worlds: He’s close to reaching his NBA dream, and close to helping no. 1 Auburn (21-1) contend for a national title—but hasn’t yet achieved either goal.

Things have moved quickly since he arrived on campus last summer as the highest-rated recruit in school history. Those first few weeks, he barely touched a basketball. Head coach Bruce Pearl’s calling card is his defense. Sliding feet, staying low. Closing out. Over and over.

Are we ever going to work on offense? he thought to himself during one of those early practices. Am I ever going to get a chance to score?

But he worked and worked, embracing defense as not just the team’s identity, but as a budding part of his own. His ability to guard positions 1 through 5 has become one of the many reasons he’s leapt up draft boards. He gets excited when talking with his coaches about defensive assignments for an upcoming game. He’s often switched on to guards, showing the quickness to contain smaller players and the strength to hold his own against bigger ones. He blocks shots, changes shots. He embraces physicality inside.

“I just want to be the best,” Jabari says. “I don’t wanna be better necessarily than anybody, or nothing like that, because I don’t know if that’s what God has planned for me, but I just want to maximize me.”

His ability to score from anywhere on the court is what sets him apart from his peers. He releases the ball so high it’s nearly impossible to block. “He’s the best jump shooter at his size in college basketball,” Pearl says. One of the first times some members of the coaching staff saw Jabari work out, around 6:30 one morning at Sandy Creek High, they watched the sophomore drill 25 consecutive midrange jumpers.

Holy shit, assistant coach Steven Pearl, Bruce’s son, thought. What high-schooler shoots midrange—let alone makes them at that clip? “You could just see that he was special from day one,” Steven says.

“Every time he shoots it,” Steven says, “I think it’s going in.”

With massive talent come massive expectations. Some scouts have likened parts of his game to Kevin Durant. “The stroke’s the same every time it comes off his hand,” Bruce says.

“He reminds me a lot of Kevin Garnett,” says Jon-Michael Nickerson, Jabari’s coach at Sandy Creek High School. “Chris Bosh. A little [Anthony Davis].” Some of his Auburn assistant coaches see more of Khris Middleton. Jabari’s dad thinks about Giannis Antetokounmpo in terms of Jabari’s defensive potential and how much better he can get on that end. He often tells his son: “There’s another level to it.”

Smith Sr. remembers Giannis’s progression from skinny teenager, barely able to hold his own on the block, to dominant MVP, bulldozing his way into the paint and blocking shots while relentlessly playing defense. “Body frame, size, but guarding the 1. You seeing that out of Giannis now,” Smith Sr. says. “I’m trying to put that in Jabari as a rookie.”

Smith Sr. instilled in Jabari that he couldn’t just play basketball, he had to be able to talk basketball. The game was to be studied. Dissected. Understood on a deeper level. “He’s enamored with scouting reports,” says Ira Bowman, Auburn assistant coach and a former NBA player himself. “You don’t have to continually go over things with him. He gets it.”

Jabari, now averaging 15.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game, has added about 20 pounds since he arrived last summer. The weight room has been a focus, as Bruce Pearl says he would ask Jabari what he weighed five times a week in the summer and early fall. “He’s got a frame that’s going to be able to put on another 30 pounds throughout his career,” Pearl says.

The NBA is looming, but for now the freshman’s focus is Auburn. Winning the next SEC game. “Jabari is very unselfish,” says guard K.D. Johnson. “He really doesn’t care about his stats or what’s going on with his draft stock.” Jabari obliges when asked for an autograph or picture. He’s polite, responding with “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” Part of that is because he understands that one day people might not be asking him for a selfie. The cameras might not always be on him. Adulation is fleeting, his dad taught him, and so are NBA careers.

His parents try their best to keep him grounded. His mother, especially: “You don’t worry about what’s next,” she often tells him. “You worry about today. Appreciate what’s going on today.

Before every Auburn game, Jabari prays. He reminds himself why he plays, why he loves the game, and what his family has been through. “Just reminding myself that this game is bigger than me, that it’s bigger than basketball,” he says. His father spent four seasons in the NBA before going overseas to play professionally in Spain, Turkey, Iran, and Puerto Rico. His older brother, A.J. Freeman, played at Sandy Creek High and Atlanta Metropolitan State College, but didn’t pursue the game further.

He says his father and brother’s careers didn’t necessarily pan out the way they may have wanted them to, and that motivates him. “Knowing what they’ve been through with the game of basketball just makes me want to maximize my potential and just give it my all every day,” he says.

In some ways, his father was ahead of his time. Despite Smith Sr. being 6-foot-11, the best part of his game was his shot. He could drain jumpers from anywhere. But he was a center. And at that time, big men were not expected, let alone encouraged, to let it fly. They were told to stay under the basket. “If his dad was in today’s NBA,” says Pat Harper, Jabari’s AAU coach with the Atlanta Celtics, “he’d be a $100 million man.”

A.J., five years older than Jabari, had potential, their mom says, but could have had a stronger work ethic. “Now that we’ve made our own mistakes, and learned from them, he doesn’t have to make those same mistakes,” A.J. says. “He can learn from us.”

Smith Sr. knew, as both of his sons were growing up, that the game was transitioning into a positionless shooter’s league, one so much different from the era he played in, and he wanted to prepare them to meet the challenge. Jabari showed promise early. Because Smith Sr. didn’t know how tall his youngest son would be, Smith Sr. focused on developing Jabari’s skill set.

Jabari and his dad would labor on the fundamentals of shooting. Smith Sr. taught him where to put his hands. His fingertips. How to get to spots with minimal dribbles. Sometimes he and A.J. would run sprints before school, practicing rip throughs and one-dribble pull-ups in the driveway. “We were doing that for years. Since he was a baby,” A.J. says. “He a young boy but he’s really a vet.”

Jabari and his dad used to have shooting contests, with Smith Sr. yelling at his son in jest: “You can’t shoot! You can’t shoot!” His dad was the blueprint for everything he wanted. It was like having every secret right in front of him. Every pitfall to avoid, every milestone to reach toward. Jabari soon developed a high IQ by just talking the game with his dad on rides home from games. They’d discuss ball movement. What to do when one gets the ball in a certain place. How good a certain player would be if he had just added this element, or that element, to his game.

Smith Sr. would challenge his son, trying to rattle him on the court by cursing at him, or embarrassing him. Yelling at him in front of his teammates. “I always wanted to see how he react,” Smith Sr. says. That’s partially because during his time in the NBA, Smith Sr. was a player who could be “viewed as uncoachable at times,” Smith Sr. recalls. “I understood how that maybe hurt my career at times,” he says. He wanted his son to do everything right. Be coachable. Play the right way. And Jabari took that wisdom to heart, always looking his coaches in the eye. Never talking back. Never giving attitude. Just always responding: “I got you.”

As Jabari got older, his dad would tell him stories about how short the shelf life of an NBA player was. “You’re replaceable,” he’d remind Jabari, given the thousands of players out there competing for the same spot. “I was mad at the NBA for a while,” Smith Sr. says. “I didn’t understand the business part.” He’d tell Jabari that the end goal wasn’t always to make it pro. It was about loving the game, focusing on improvement rather than results. “That stayed with him,” Taneskia says. “He knows what you put in is what you get out.”

Jabari made sure he was prepared each day, making four or five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so he’d be fueled throughout a long day of classes and basketball, sometimes not returning home until eight at night. “No matter how exhausting the practice was,” says Nickerson, his high-school coach, “he would always get shots up afterwards.”

He was “a perfectionist,” Harper says. Harper remembers times when Jabari would miss free throws in the game, then text him later, still dwelling on the bricks.

His coaches continued to push him. One game, playing for the Celtics in the Adidas Summer Championships in Birmingham, Alabama, Jabari kept missing shots. As a result, he started passing up open looks. Harper called a timeout. “If you pass the ball,” Harper said to him, “you won’t play again.”

Jabari just gave his coach a look. He then scored 12 or 14 straight points, Harper recalls, leading his team to the title.

Smith eventually learned to apply that same mentality elsewhere. After his sophomore year, he struggled with his grade point average. Nickerson told him if he didn’t change his habits, he wouldn’t be able to accept a Division I scholarship. “You can transfer from here, and you can go somewhere, like one of these pop-up prep schools that’ll change your grades and do something illegal,” Nickerson told him, “Then you know you didn’t do it the right way and you cheated. You cut corners. People do that all the time, that are your talent. The choice is yours.”

That was all the motivation Jabari needed to get that same look in his eye. He studied hard, earning A’s and B’s after that. His British literature teacher, Cindy Claxton, remembers assigning her students to memorize and recite the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English in front of the class. It was a daunting task. Many didn’t think they could pull it off. But Jabari, so tall and lanky that he had to duck his head down just to get into the classroom, quickly shuffled to the front of the room when it was his day to present. He recited the lines by heart, seamlessly. “Very composed,” Claxton says. “You can tell that he is cool under pressure.”

He had his choice of colleges, as the no. 5 recruit in the country. Yet he would thank coaches for coming to his workouts, as if they were doing him a favor. Growing up, he dreamed of playing for John Calipari after he met the coach when he was 5 years old. However, years later, Kentucky came to see Jabari play only once or twice, and Jabari wanted to play for someone who had recognized his potential from the beginning. He liked Auburn’s system, preferred being closer to home, and thought the campus could provide him a more traditional college experience. He sought normalcy, not attention. When he was named a McDonald’s All American, his mom remembers having to get him excited about it.

“It’s a big deal,” she told him.

“OK,” he said. “Now I’m just going to keep working.”

“Do you understand what this is?”

“OK, Mama. That’s cool. Now can you pick me up so I can go shoot?”

The quiet, humble kid started to develop the confidence of someone who wasn’t afraid to call his own number. From all those years of shooting, Jabari knew he wanted the pressure when the game was on the line. There was a moment in a recent game when Auburn needed a bucket in the second half, and Pearl heard an unusual voice asking for a play.

“BP,” Jabari said, with a little smirk, “trust me.”

“In other words,” Pearl says now, reflecting on the moment, “that’s not just an 18-year-old kid. I’m a 61-year-old coach.” It wasn’t disrespectful. Jabari wasn’t questioning what his coach was doing. Pearl welcomes that dialogue. “It was just, he was ready to deliver,” Pearl says.

The coaches are impressed by how receptive he is. How he handles tough love, especially on defense. Maybe he failed to rotate to the right spot. Maybe he didn’t step up to take the charge. When Pearl chews him out, Jabari doesn’t say a word. He just nods, and says, “I got you, Coach. I got you,” and fixes it on the next play. He’ll then continue working on his weaknesses.

“He holds himself to a very high standard,” says teammate Walker Kessler.

Jabari is constantly learning what it means to be a leader. He knows he has to lead by example and consistently set the tone. “You want to be a leader but sometimes you might not be feeling it and you don’t want that to trickle down to your team,” he says. “You just have to always have a different mindset and know that the team is going to feed off of you.”

Because the expectations for him are so high, there is little room for error. In his first SEC road game, against South Carolina in early January, he was a bit disappointed in his performance. He went 3-for-9 for 10 points. He wasn’t down—because his team won, 81-66—but he wasn’t as excited as his mom was.

“Can you believe you just played your first SEC game on the road?!” she said afterward.

“Mom,” he said, “you always extra.”

They both laughed. But she wanted her son to know this was a special moment. A moment worth cherishing. He had spent so many years dreaming of being here. And now that he was here, she wanted him to embrace it. Before it’s all behind him.

Smith Sr. reads every Instagram comment on Jabari’s page. “If it’s a thousand comments,” Smith Sr. says, “I’m a thousand comments in.” He wants to see what Jabari is saying—and what others are saying about Jabari. Who his friends are. Smith Sr. knows making the NBA—staying in the NBA—isn’t always about performance or being in the right situation. Sometimes, perception can play a factor. He wants Jabari to understand that he has to be mindful of everything he says and does, because how he moves, how he types, can be dissected.

Jabari has long been aware of the eyes following him. As a junior in high school, he started getting asked to do interviews and podcasts. When he and his mom would listen back to the clips, they started to notice how Jabari often said “um” and “uh.”

“That’s terrible!” Jabari would say, disappointed in himself. He vowed to improve, taking each interview so seriously that he’d practice in his bedroom before calling the reporter. The more he improved as a public speaker, the more confidence he developed. He’s planning to major in communications. “I’ve been listening to my interviews, and I’m getting better,” he told his mom recently. “Listen to this!”

The requests can be overwhelming for Auburn to coordinate. But Jabari’s focus hasn’t changed, nor has his dad’s. “We’ve seen so many athletes over time that get success and they lose their mind,” Smith Sr. says. “I gotta make sure my child stays the same and he keeps his feet on the ground.”

“Just don’t switch up,” he often tells Jabari. Meaning: don’t lose the work ethic that got him here. Don’t start getting arrogant. Complacent. And, of course, continue to grow into a better player, a better person. Become the defensive terror in the paint his dad has been grooming him to be. Keep expanding his 3-point range. Do whatever is asked of him, whenever it is asked of him.

One recent game, Smith Sr. watched Bruce Pearl say something to Jabari, and Smith Sr. thought it looked like Jabari was talking back. Later, Smith Sr. asked Pearl what Jabari had said, wanting to make sure his son wasn’t saying anything disrespectful. Pearl assured him that Jabari never said anything out of line—that the two have that kind of open dialogue. Pearl welcomes it. But Smith Sr. just wanted to make sure.

Smith Sr. knows the inevitable is happening: His son is becoming a man. His son might not need him the way he used to. His son is finding his own voice. But his son is still his son. And he is still his father. His protector. And that bond will always defy space, time. So, he gently reminds his son that he’s still there. He’s always going to be there.

Smith Sr. laughs, recalling how Jabari has corrected him a few times lately when talking hoops. “He done put his dad in his place a couple times.” He could have seen this coming.

“Dad, it ain’t like that no more,” Jabari said, on one of those occasions. “I’m good. I got that.”

“OK, son,” Smith Sr. said, not bothered in the slightest.

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