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Rockets reel in historic haul in 2021 NBA Draft

Alperen Sengun Josh Christopher Jalen Green

Houston Rockets

Rockets reel in historic haul in 2021 NBA Draft

Grading the Rockets four first-round picks in the 2021 NBA Draft and why the future is bright in Clutch City

#2 Pick: Jalen Green

Jalen Green

At this point, Evan Mobley is in the rearview mirror and the road ahead is Jalen Green.

The Rockets selected one hell of a prospect, taking the livewire 6-foot-5 shooting guard with the second pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Rockets GM Rafael Stone called him a “transcendent athlete” and that his “love of basketball” really stood out.

“He’s electric,” said Stone. “His first step is as good as anybody’s in basketball. His second and third step might be better. And when he jumps, it’s really high. So good things happen.”

Green, who played his only year out of high school with the G-League Ignite, has fast-twitch athleticism that is borderline freakish. His ability to drive and score is plug-and-play for the league right now. His shooting looks good (36.5% from three with the Ignite) but it’s to be determined if it can be elite.

He’s a potential juggernaut scoring machine, but it’s his defense, or lack thereof, why some had Mobley a tad higher. Stone didn’t hide from that weakness at all.

“We’re going to work on that D (defense),” joked Stone as he turned to look at Green. “But the effort is there. It’s not nonexistent. I think he’s going to end up being a really good, well-rounded, all-around player who is impactful on both sides of the ball. If you’re as athletic as Jalen is, you can play defense. You can play defense at an elite level. So it’s all will and want and I do also think there’s a lot of will and want (in Jalen).”

It’s the talk of Green’s relentless work ethic that led me to being just fine with the Rockets taking him over Mobley. He’s a hooper who hits the gym consistently to improve. Those who coached and played with him swear by his strong drive and will to win. You can’t really argue with “IT factor” and comparisons to Kobe Bryant. Whether he’s worthy of that or not, that’s the conversation he generates.

“I work hard,” said Green. “I stay in the gym. I trust my work.”

The Rockets are playing the long game here. Green has to develop a defensive game and show that his outside shot is consistent and legit, but the potential for this dude to become a top 10 player in the entire league is there. I think Green could be an NBA magnet — the type of star that other guys want to play with — and it’s phenomenal to think the Rockets might have that so quickly after dealing away James Harden.

Time will tell but this looks like a game-changing pick.

Grade: A

#16 Pick: Alperen Sengun

Alperen Sengun

The Rockets were able to trade for a higher pick in the draft, #16 from Oklahoma City, but surprisingly, it didn’t cost them either of picks 23 and 24. They paid what sounded initially like a high price — two future first-round picks — but the picks they gave up are ones that we graded out last month to be the two least-valuable first-rounders that the Rockets had in their cupboard: The highly-protected picks from Washington (Westbrook-Wall trade) and Detroit (Wood trade).

They shipped out this package to land their prized target — Alperen Sengun.

“We think he potentially has a chance to be special,” said Stone, who did not think there was a chance Sengun could fall to 23. “He has a higher ceiling than most guys.”

Sengun is a 6-foot-9, 240-pound post player with an impressive post game. He’s strong, quick and crafty with excellent footwork. I mean, really good footwork — the “wow” kind. He has a very good feel for finding the open man and making the right pass and he can rebound. Sengun averaged 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals while shooting 62.6% from the floor and 81.2% from the foul line, being named the MVP of the Turkish Super League, which is unbelievably impressive for an 18-year old.

“You guys can do the research on people who have had that level of success at a high level of pro basketball,” said Stone. “It’s a short list… and a good one.”

His post moves remind me of a young Kevin McHale — he has a series of post spins, fakes and counters already in his bag. Luis Scola was a fun player to watch in Houston and I wouldn’t mind seeing some of that again as the offensive upside, especially given his age, is enormous here.

But there are two reasons I did not have Sengun on my favorites list, and they’re both based on the player model, fair or unfair, that he projects to be. Call it the Enes Kanter Effect, another Turkish big man who can score in the post and rebound at a high level but isn’t really an impact player in today’s league.

First, defense. If Sengun, or any post player, isn’t a rim-protector and at the same time doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay with threes and fours, then he can easily slip into defensive liability territory where opponents will target him, much the same way James Harden did to Kanter in the 2017 playoffs (giving birth to Billy Donovan’s “Can’t Play Kanter” line). That’s my biggest concern. But, while I don’t think he will ever be a plus defender, there’s reason to think Sengun might be better than that in the lateral quickness department so that concern might be overblown.

Next is simply his top strengths and how important they are in the league. Post scorers are fine but I’m not wanting to place a premium on that alone in today’s NBA. Sengun can expand that skillset by adding three-point range. He has not shown that at this early stage, but his free-throw shooting (81.2%) suggests he can and will.

So my view is if Sengun can just be passable on defense, successfully hidden in a team concept, and develop range from downtown, then this is a pick with tremendous potential. The Rockets went with a guy who could be a star and that’s what they should be swinging for at this stage of the rebuild. They passed on Duke forward Jalen Johnson and Texas PF/C Kai Jones with this pick, but for the price they paid to get it, it’s a good roll of the dice.

Grade: A-

#23 Pick: Usman Garuba

Usman Garuba

After focusing heavily on offense with their first two picks, the Houston Rockets selected one Destiny Usman Garuba Alari and suddenly defense is once again a thing in Clutch City.

Out of Spain, Garuba is a 6-foot-8 center playing with Real Madrid of the Liga ACB and EuroLeague. He has an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan, an always-revving motor and terrific defensive instincts. Whether guarding on the post or switching on the perimeter, Garuba takes the challenge.

“I think he’s the best defender in the world outside of the NBA and he’s 19 years old,” said Stone. “Defensively, he’ll guard your center. He’ll guard your point guard. He’s disruptive. He gets steals. He blocks shots. He rebounds. I think he potentially could be really, really impactful on that side of the ball.”

Garuba needs to develop a better outside shot, and if he does, he could log heavy minutes at both the four and five long-term for the Rockets. I’ve written before that I love Garuba’s potential and see him as a PJ Tucker-type in his ability to guard multiple positions and be a team anchor defensively.

He is a player that would fit with just about any lineup, but especially one that runs a center that is more scoring-focused. That’s what the Rockets have in Christian Wood and now Sengun.

It likely never would’ve happened if Joshua Primo had not gone #12 to San Antonio, but I’m thrilled Garuba fell as far as he did. I absolutely love this pick.

Grade: A+

#24 Pick: Josh Christopher

Josh Christopher

I can not lie — I was initially very disappointed with the 24th pick as the Rockets took 6-foot-4, 215-pound guard Josh Christopher out of Arizona State. Christopher is a close friend of Jalen Green’s and was reportedly with him in Houston when Green worked out this past Monday. Tennessee guard Jaden Springer, a player I’m pretty high on, was on the board (interestingly, Daryl Morey scooped him up for the Sixers at pick 28).

But there are things to like about Christopher. He was the 11th-ranked prospect on the ESPN 100 coming out of high school. He’s got a strong build and isn’t afraid of contact. He’s got a good handle, is athletic and is consistently getting out to run.

“I think he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands,” said Stone. “He’s one of the best, if not the best, transition players in the draft.”

Defense might be where Christopher can really set himself apart. Stone feels he has “the potential to be a truly lockdown man-to-man defender” and compared his build to Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon defensively.
that opens my eyes a bit.

His shot, however, is painfully inconsistent. He connected on just 30.5% from three as a freshman. It’s not really clear how well he’ll score/shoot around better offensive players, but the frame and potential is there.

I’m not in love with the pick but I’m open to see what he can do here alongside his buddy. Christopher won over the press conference with his charisma and has the look of a potential fan favorite here in Houston.

Grade: C+

Overall

The front office investment in analytics, scouting and the draft is starting to pay off and it’s not hard to see why the Rockets are drawing so much praise for their picks. The trade they made was not overly expensive nor high-risk. Every player they drafted is 19-years old with a visible path to how they could become an impact player in the league. That doesn’t mean they’re all going to hit, but they are mostly ideal selections for a team looking to produce star talent down the line.

Overall, I give the squad an easy A. They’ve helped shape their future significantly in just one draft and they have at least two more to go before the Rockets are expected to be a playoff team (if they end up ahead of schedule, great). The James Harden trade has already indirectly brought in a potential star backcourt of Green and Kevin Porter Jr. and they have tantalizing prospects now in the frontcourt, with several future picks still in hand.

They’re executing a plan and — so far, so good. It’s going to be a lot of fun for us to watch this team develop.

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Armed with a bizarre fascination for Mario Elie and a deep love of the Houston Rockets, Dave Hardisty started ClutchFans in 1996 under the pen name “Clutch”.

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