When the Rockets become the best team in the NBA, their former second-round pick plans on being their third-best player. "I still feel like I have a lot of potential," said Chandler Parsons, the Rockets' 6-foot-9 small forward. "The draft is where you start. It's not where you finish."
The ongoing questions over Houston's potential to win a championship revolve as much around Parsons as they do around James Harden and Dwight Howard. The latter two were high lottery picks who entered the league with the highest expectations. Parsons, the No. 38 overall pick in the 2011 draft, has already exceeded his while averaging a versatile 17.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists -- all career bests in his third year.
"Even we didn't know he was going to be this good," said Rockets GM Daryl Morey. "Otherwise we would have picked him earlier."
The reason Parsons was still available in the second round had everything to do with his decision to stay at Florida as a senior, which played into the bias carried by NBA teams against four-year collegians. "It's that there must be something wrong if he didn't come out early," said Morey, who has a history of succeeding with second-round pickups like Carl Landry and Aaron Brooks in addition to Parsons. "It is a pretty strong bias against four-year players."
Because the draft is focused on upside, Parsons was undervalued by the assumption that he was a finished product who had peaked while becoming SEC Player of the Year in 2010-11. "I disagree with that big time," said Parsons. "I was 22 years old -- you're not in your prime until you're 28-30 years old.
"I was a late bloomer. I played baseball my whole life; I didn't really start playing basketball until my freshman or sophomore years of high school. I think it's more beneficial when you draft a guy who's been in college three or four years. He's more game-ready. I experienced everything you could experience as a player in college with the NIT, losing games, winning big games, playing in front of crazy crowds, playing in the NCAA Tournament."
Parsons helped himself by approaching the 2011 lockout aggressively. While others waited passively for the lockout to end, and therefore were in no shape to play when the 66-game season began abruptly, Parsons spent the early weeks of his rookie year playing professionally overseas for the French club Cholet. Even when he was held out of the Rockets' shortened training camp while waiting for his official release from France, Parsons used his time on the sidelines to prepare.
"I was sitting there in sandals working out every day and seeing what (head coach Kevin) McHale and (assistant J.B.) Bickerstaff and all these coaches wanted, and I felt that gave me an advantage too," Parsons said. "As frustrated as I was not being able to participate in training camp, I saw what they wanted. I saw the principles of the new staff, I was watching those guys - and when I went in there with two days left in training camp I knew exactly what they wanted to do."
Parsons was in the starting lineup by his seventh NBA game, and he has remained there ever since. His production and efficiency have improved each season because he hasn't had to force his game: He is doing the same things for McHale as he did for Billy Donovan at Florida.
"He breaks the mold in a bunch of ways," said Morey. "Because he wasn't a top scorer in college. Generally, all of the players who make the league were big-time scorers who played at much higher level in college, and then have to dial it back in the pros to play a smaller role. Where Chandler played the same role for a very good Florida team. He's playing a similar role, but he's playing it now in the pros."
He is doing what is needed by providing production and complementing Harden and Howard. "He knows how to play -- understanding spacing, understanding where you're going with the ball, understanding what your teammates' strengths and weaknesses are," said McHale. "When you do that and understand that, it makes it easier. If you're out there living in your own little bubble of 'How does this affect me? How does this affect me? How does this affect me?' -- and believe me, about half of our league plays in that bubble -- it's hard because I'm never concerned about you. I'll be right on top of you and I'm like, well, you've got to move because I want the ball; as opposed to me seeing you cutting and just giving yourself up. Space on the floor is a big thing, and the more space you have, the better everybody is.
"If the ball moves and pops and our guys are running, everybody plays better and plays with more energy. The more the ball moves, the better you play; the less the ball moves, the less anybody on our team plays. We don't have anybody that can play with the ball in their hands all the time. There's got to be ball movement and body movement."
Parsons' dual talent for scoring while also enhancing opportunities for his teammates can be seen whenever he reads the defense and takes it upon himself to drag his defender to the far side in order to create an opening for Harden or Howard or any of the other Rockets. Morey believes that several of Parsons' teammates could eventually become the No. 3 star as their young roster matures toward contention -- Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin, even Omer Asik, who the Rockets are now insisting will no longer be traded (a change in strategy which may eventually yield a larger market for him).
"We feel very comfortable that our two top players are what we need to be a championship team," said Morey. "And we do need someone to step into that third role. We don't have our third-best player on a championship team yet, and we need one of younger guys to develop into that -- or potentially make an addition, whether it be this year or in free agency this offseason."
Could Parsons be that player? "He's definitely got the ability to be the third-best player on a championship team," said Morey. "He's played like that many times. The tough transition is whether you bring that level every night."
It is the same transition that is being made by Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City and Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio. For Parsons, that potential is expressed by his joy for the game, and by the energy and intelligence that are byproducts of that joy.
"I feel like I can play with anybody in the NBA," said Parsons. "I'm not the fastest guy, I'm not the strongest guy, but I'm smart, I can score, I can defend, I can handle the ball in pick and roll, and I make the game easier for everybody else. The best compliment you can get as a basketball player is for someone to say they love playing with you, and what I try to do is to make the game easier for Dwight, and get James more open shots.
"People don't tag me as the 38th pick anymore. They tag me as a really good basketball player on a good team."
A player with upside.