Following an unusual extended break in the schedule that included Thanksgiving, the Houston Rockets will return to work on Friday when they host the Atlanta Hawks.

The Rockets, who have dropped five of their last six and have won only once at home this season, last played on Sunday, suffering a 127-120 home loss to the Golden State Warriors. It’s rare in the NBA to have so many days off between games, and this stretch could prove crucial for the Rockets as they continue to build and develop their young roster.

So much of the focus in Houston centers on the maturation of guards Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. However, for the Rockets to continue on the path forward, they must see growth from rookie forward Jabari Smith Jr. while crafting a reliable bench in support of their starting unit.

Smith, taken third overall in the 2022 NBA draft, has labored through an uneven start to his career. But Smith won’t turn 20 until May, and when he flashes as he did against the Warriors (22 points and seven rebounds), what must be remembered is his individual potential in addition to his ability to influence the Rockets at large.

“For us to kind of keep progressing, we’re going to need his progress,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said of Smith, who is averaging 10.9 points and 6.9 boards per game. “(This) was a good start for him.”

Three Houston reserves have taken the initiative to provide juice off the bench: rookie forward Tari Eason, second-year big Usman Garuba and third-year swingman KJ Martin. Eason in particular has shown a penchant for ball-hawking and doing everything necessary to light a fuse.

Eason and Martin combined for 31 points, 12 rebounds and four steals against the Warriors. Garuba added six rebounds (three offensive) and two steals in 22 minutes off the bench.

“He’s right at the top of it, him and KJ especially bring the energy, and then (Garuba) brings great energy as well,” Silas said. “To have Tari out there playing the way that he plays — he comes up with the basketball — it’s great to have that energy on the floor.”

The Hawks snapped the Sacramento Kings’ seven-game winning streak with a 115-106 home victory on Wednesday. Trae Young scored a game-high 35 points on 11-of-19 shooting while Clint Capela (11 points, 14 rebounds) and De’Andre Hunter (13 points, 10 rebounds) added double-doubles. The Hawks have alternated wins and losses over their last nine contests.

Young lauded the Hawks’ success at “playing fast, playing aggressive (and) getting downhill” against the Kings, necessary facets for an offense that ranks seventh in pace, according to Basketball Reference.

“When we get into the paint, whether we’re scoring in the paint or firing to somebody on the wing or the perimeter, it brings good offense,” Young said. “We were doing a good job of getting in the paint and making plays.”

Atlanta has featured a middling offense, a modest surprise given its roster construction with Young at the controls. Some of the lack of punch could be linked to guard Bogdan Bogdanovic remaining sidelined from a knee injury suffered during the offseason.

–Field Level Media