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How Will the Rockets Approach the No. 2 Pick in the 2021 NBA Draft?

Houston could jump start a fast rebuild if the right selection—or trade decision—is made with the second selection.

Rafael Stone is a man of process. The Rockets general manager is no Sam Hinkie disciple, and an extended tankathon is unlikely in Houston. But as the Rockets mull their options with the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft, Stone is quick to emphasize a key tenet of his philosophy as an executive. He plans to leave no stone unturned in his search for the next franchise anchor. Less than a year after James Harden’s departure, Stone can kickstart Houston’s rebuild in a hurry with the right decision.

“You shouldn’t foreclose anything,” Stone said following the NBA draft lottery on June 22. “You have to do the work and use the allotted time and have all of the discussions. I think the process is worthwhile to avoid predetermining things. That’s something we try hard to avoid.”

Houston dropped to No. 2 in the 2021 draft after putting up the league’s worst record in 2020-21, though sitting second in an impressive top-of-the-draft class is a welcomed outcome compared to the alternative. The Rockets risked losing their pick to the Thunder entering the lottery, with any pick outside the top four conveying to Oklahoma City as a result of the ill-fated Russell Westbrook trade. Forfeiting the pick would have been a disaster for Stone and Co. The Rockets are likely only a fringe playoff contender in 2021–22 even if they hit on the No. 2 pick. If there was no lottery talent on the way, another last-place finish in the West was certainly plausible. No rookie is a guaranteed success, especially right away. But there is legitimate star power in the top three of this draft. Daryl Morey’s biggest blunder hasn’t hurt his successor just yet.

So what exactly will the Rockets do with the No. 2 pick? Perhaps Stone knows whom he’s going to select, though if he does, he’s sporting an impressive poker face. Stone didn’t mention any of Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley or Jalen Green during his post-lottery press conference. He even floated the idea of trading the pick, though largely to illustrate his open mind entering the draft process. Houston could very well fall in love with either Mobley or Green in the coming weeks. Stone could pull a Morey and make a trade. As the Rockets chart a path forward in the post-Harden era, let’s assess their wealth of potential options:

Door A: Detroit Shocks the World

Cade Cunningham may be sitting atop nearly every mock draft imaginable, but the Oklahoma State point guard’s arrival in Detroit isn’t exactly a fait accompli at this point. Detroit’s interest in Green at No. 1 is legitimate per SI's Jeremy Woo, and there could be consideration of pairing a skilled center like Mobley with Jerami Grant in the frontcourt. The smart money is still on the Pistons taking the expected route and selecting Cunningham. But if they don’t, the Rockets are in prime position to land an NBA-ready star.

Expect Houston to pounce on Cunningham if he falls, and if Detroit shops the No. 1 pick, the Rockets could still be in position to move up. Houston has picks No. 23 and 24 in the 2021 draft, and perhaps a veteran wing like Eric Gordon could be of interest as the Pistons look to avoid another year in the lottery. Still, consider this more an unlikely hypothetical than anything at the moment.

Door B: Move Back From No. 2

We’ll be brief here with this option as well. If Cunningham is available at No. 2, he’ll be in the Toyota Center on opening night. If the Pistons stick with the presumed top pick, the debate between Mobley and Green will come to a head. I’d be skeptical of any rumor moving Houston out of the top three, though perhaps there’s a world where the Rockets slide down one spot in a deal with the Cavaliers. Cleveland could choose who it perceives to be the right fit alongside Darius Garland, Colin Sexton and Jarrett Allen, while the Rockets can add a couple of assets and select either Mobley or Green at No. 3. This is a bit of a hyper-specific scenario, though it is a plausible one considering the stage of each team’s rebuild.

Door C: Stick and Pick

The most likely scenario here is the simplest. Cunningham goes No. 1, the Rockets pass on making a trade, and a battle for the No. 2 pick emerges. Both Green and Mobley have star potential, and it’s easy to envision either youngster fitting in well on Stephen Silas’s squad. Let’s briefly put on our GM hat and assess each option.

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The Case for Mobley:

The NBA remains a league of guards, but a truly special big can change a team’s ceiling in a major way. And all signs point to USC’s Mobley being such a player. The 7-footer could very well contend for All-Defense honors with a 7’4” wingspan and quick feet, able to both battle behemoths down low and slide along with guards and wings on the perimeter. Mobley’s jump shot is a work in progress, though he’s an impressive athlete with a surprisingly solid handle, and his passing ability is quite advanced for a player of his age. Mobley could theoretically grow as a fulcrum in Houston’s offense, serving as an oversized version of Bam Adebayo. There’s legitimate upside here and a bankable floor, giving Kevin Porter Jr. a big man running mate of the future. Mobley is a special enough player to dismiss any positional value concerns.

The rangy Mobley was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in his only season at USC.

The rangy Mobley was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in his only season at USC.

Regardless of fit concerns, I’m not so sure Wood’s presence should impact Houston’s decision with its pick. Wood only has two years left on his deal, and his relatively cheap contract could make for an easy trade. The Rockets could use Wood in a package that would bring back a guard or wing (perhaps Buddy Hield in Sacramento, Malik Beasley in Minnesota or Marcus Smart in Boston), allowing Mobley to flourish without any crowding in the frontcourt. Drafting Mobley doesn’t necessitate a Wood trade—though it’s not out of the question for Stone to be proactive and swap Wood for more natural fit.

The Case for Green:

I’d be quick to assume Green is the Rockets’ choice if Morey was still running the show. Houston’s former architect prioritized dynamic ball handlers above all else, and by all indications, Green is just that. He has elite burst to the rim and a dynamic first step, and he creates space on his jump shot with relative ease. Add in an impressive showing against G League competition, and it’s not hard to see why Green is now in the conversation for the No. 1 pick.

Landing Green would create an interesting experiment in Houston. Green and Kevin Porter Jr. make for an intriguing backcourt combination, pairing two dynamic young scorers who have some real questions as playmakers. Houston may quickly lead the league in step-back threes, and on the right night, this could look like the Rockets’ duo for a decade. It won’t always be so easy. Porter is raw as a leading man in his own right, and John Wall’s presence only complicates matters. Garland and Sexton can combine for 60 points in a given evening, though their scoring ability doesn’t exactly equate to winning basketball. There are no guarantees in this league, but if Stone believes Green is the better prospect, he’ll worry about Porter’s development at a later date.

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Inside the Experiment That Produced Two Likely Top-Five Picks
NBA Draft Decisions That Will Shape the 2021–22 College Hoops Season
NBA Combine Notebook: Cade Cunningham at No. 1 Not a Foregone Conclusion