Houston’s situation entering Thursday’s draft felt almost unthinkable at the end of the 2019-20 season.
The Rockets exited the NBA bubble still standing as fringe contenders in the Western Conference despite a first-round loss to the Lakers, looking to augment their roster around James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the offseason. Even with the league’s oldest roster and an imperfect superstar duo, the Rockets’ path forward was clear. They were all-in on working toward the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Houston quickly had to pivot as 2020-21 approached. Grumbling regarding James Harden’s future led to Russell Westbrook’s trade demand, and the Harden circus followed. He skipped the first day of training camp, loafed his way through nine games, then demanded a trade before getting his wish in a move to Brooklyn. The Rockets have plenty of draft capital in the coming seasons. But when exactly will they obtain a player anywhere close to Harden? Jalen Green is Houston’s first chance.
We won’t saddle Green with such lofty expectations less than 12 months after Harden’s departure. Harden is likely the second-greatest player in franchise history, tallying one MVP, seven All-NBA appearances and eight straight playoff appearances with the Rockets. Expecting similar accomplishments for any player is unfair. But the No. 2 pick on Thursday night should be considered a potential franchise anchor in the making. Green has been firmly in consideration for the top pick for over a year, and he impressed in his lone season with the G League Ignite. Green draws comparisons to Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine. He’s an elite athlete with a smooth step-back jumper. No lottery pick is a golden ticket to contention, but Green sports everything you want in a top-of-the-lottery talent.
So what exactly does Green join in the post-Harden era? The cupboards aren’t necessarily bare. Kevin Porter Jr. represents the greatest reason for optimism outside of Green, providing Houston with a pair of intriguing backcourt talents. Green and Porter established a rapport in the G League bubble, and the Rockets have expressed optimism in the two guards serving as complementary pieces together in the backcourt. Porter is slithery in the pick-and-roll with impressive vision to boot. Green should be a menace in transition, and his jumper should be reliable enough to make an impact off the ball. Even as the Rockets likely hover near the Western Conference cellar in 2021-22, their pair of guards should provide glimmers of hope for the future.
“[Green] is a transcendent athlete,” Rockets general manager Rafael Stone said Thursday. He runs faster than people and he’s athletic in a super functional way. ... We think that combination of tools makes him an extraordinarily exciting prospect.”
There was one silver lining to Houston’s nightmarish campaign in 2020-21. The Harden deal and an onslaught of injuries and COVID absences created an extended showcase for the Rockets’ youngsters, many of whom acquitted themselves well in the first year under head coach Stephen Silas. Christian Wood continued to flash his versatility as an offensive fulcrum. Jae’Sean Tate earned All-Rookie honors, establishing himself as an elite defensive force. Silas is an inventive young coach who helped launch Luka Doncic’s ascent in Dallas. He should make life easier for Green and Porter, using Houston’s crop of young pieces to create a competitive, if imperfect, outfit.
Hitting on lottery picks is nearly essential for an effective rebuild. But the addition of a foundational piece isn’t enough to vault a team back into contention. Neither LaVine nor De’Aaron Fox have been able to bring their teams to the playoffs despite impressive statistical campaigns. Devin Booker needed Chris Paul’s arrival to reach the postseason. Beal has been spinning his wheels in Washington for years now. Creating a contender requires winning on the margins as well as landing a star, something Houston did with aplomb in its previous era. Daryl Morey found a starting center late in the first round with the selection of Clint Capela. He added a defensive anchor with the 2017 signing of P.J. Tucker. Harden alone didn’t fuel the greatest Western threat to the Warriors over the last decade. His organization consistently built a competitor for the greater part of a decade.
Morey’s successor appears to have picked up a thing or two from his predecessor if Thursday night is any indication. Stone added to Houston’s collection of talent after the Green pick, taking a pair of worthwhile fliers before the end of the first round. The first pick following Green required some maneuvering. Stone dealt a protected Detroit first-rounder to Oklahoma City to move up to No. 16, then selected center Alperen Sengun. Is the Turkish big man a guaranteed starter? Not exactly. But he possesses plenty of offensive potential, sporting an advanced feel for the game and a refined interior skillset. There’s enough talent on hand for a quality player to emerge given the right coaching.
“We did not think [Sengun] would fall to us at 23,” Stone said Thursday. “We were really aggressive to try and move up all throughout the first round to acquire him."
Houston added another international prospect at No. 23 with the selection of Spanish forward Usman Garuba. There isn’t the same offensive skill at hand with Garuba, but it’s easy to see him fitting into NBA rotations for years to come.
Stone called Garuba “the best defender in the word outside the NBA.” He’s a long forward with some playmaking feel, and he could emerge as Houston’s next lanky impact wing. It’s impossible to say whether any of Sengun, Garuba or Arizona State product Josh Christopher—whom Houston took at No. 24—will make a marked impact in 2021-22 and beyond. What’s worth assessing is Stone’s process amid Houston’s rebuild. In pairing his young backcourt with high-upside wings and bigs, the outline of a winning team is being sketched.
“All these guys I think are really, really talented, and they're all players who do things already,” Stone said. “I think they're likely to already be good NBA players. And so given their age, they're all 19, that's really exciting because I think they're at an age where you can really improve.”
The Rockets are taking the long route back to contention as the Harden era sits in the rearview mirror. Houston opted for Brooklyn’s treasure trove of picks over the immediate satisfaction of adding Ben Simmons, and it’s hard to see Houston cobbling together a package to land Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal or any other star potentially on the trade market. After landing Harden in a blockbuster deal with Oklahoma City in 2012, Houston is taking a traditional route back toward the playoffs. With Green, Porter and a collection of post-lottery picks, the pathway to relevance is becoming increasingly clear.
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