After another season full of growth in losses, the Rockets missed the playoffs. But Houston Rockets fans have been looking forward to the NBA Draft since the season ended on April 10th (if not before). While the majority of the league began focusing on playoff basketball, the Rockets and their fans dove into the tape of 18-23-year-old kids and tried to decide who would be able to help Houston continue to rebuild into an NBA Finals contender in the future.
So let’s look at who they chose
Pick No. 3: Jabari Smith Jr.
The opening three picks felt chaotic because they were. Most expert mock drafts had the Houston Rockets getting Duke’s Paolo Banchero, so he opted to focus on Houston. He had dinner with management, spent extra time in town, and had a great workout with the staff. But Banchero went first overall to Orlando… whom he never even worked out for.
Instead, projected number one pick Jabari Smith Jr. was the clear best player available for Houston at three. Smith was a dominant force in college and projected to fall no farther than pick two. Thus, he only worked out for Orlando and Oklahoma City… but was selected by Houston. It’s not that Smith Jr. doesn’t fit in Houston, but it felt improbable that the Auburn superstar would fall even as far as pick three.
Smith is a defensive-minded, six-foot-ten perimeter forward that shot 42-percent from three-point land. His pick and pop threat opposite Jalen Green is impossible to guard with just two defenders. Try to keep up with Green’s speed downhill? There’s a 42-percent chance you give up 3 points on a kick out. That’s 12 points for every 10 possessions. Try and cheat the pop? Smith Jr. has the athleticism to raise over the help defense and catch a lob at the rim. The matchup creates a rotating defense for the Rockets to break. His spacing as a Power Forward allows Alperen Sengun to go to his patented back-down game inside of six feet. If the defense collapses, Sengun is more than capable of finding an open player. Further, in “small” lineups, Smith Jr. as a “five” opens up the floor for all of Houston’s guards to attack.
But as good as Smith Jr. is beyond the arc, where he improves Houston immediately is defensively. Houston’s defense was, to put it nicely, slow last season. As Houston continues to play the youth, the rotations and help-side defense continue to hold them back. That’s normal for an NBA player under 24… but all of the Houston Rockets on the floor, at times, we’re under 24.
There will be a learning curve, but Smith Jr. will be the best Rocket at recovering from a help-side dunker spot to the front side of the rim. He’s also immediately the best young Houston Rocket at closing out to the opposite corner three and sinking his hips to keep up with opponents.
And, for the second year in a row, Houston gets a guy who comes in with a major chip on his shoulder. Much like Green a year ago, Jabari has every sense he should have Ben taken number one overall. That attitude was evident in Green and is to be expected in Smoth Jr.
All of that said, no prospect is flawless. The major hole in Smith Jr.’s game is that he struggles when forced to put the ball on the floor. As a catch and shoot screener, Smith could be a rotational player (if not starter) on a high-end playoff team right now. But when forced to put the ball on the ground? His youth shows.
While that comes with repetitions and game minutes, the Houston Rockets need to work around that hole.
Pick No. 17: Tari Eason
In sticking with a theme, the Houston Rockets took All-SEC forward Tari Eason. The six-foot-eight LSU Tiger has a similar draft profile to Smith Jr.: he’s long and an immediate impact defender. In the NBA, Eason can play in “54” coverage (switch on all players except the center) right now against any lineup. Further, as the league sees small lineups become trendy, Eason can play “55” coverage (switching everything). His aggressive mentality has left analysts to simply say “he has that dog in him.” He plays with low hips, good hands, and a knack for when to “gamble.”
Eason’s athleticism also makes him an offensive putback threat and dominant roller immediately. His highlights also include several fake-dribble-handoffs in which he turns the corner and sprints to a thunderous dunk.
Eason’s offensive game can be summarized as “work.” His jumper is developing, and that’s in large part due to the work he does in the gym. Eason has a crisp stroke, but early in his career, he shot low percentages. As the reps increase, so have his makes, and he projects to be a much stronger shooter than he is presently.
But where his “work” really shows is in his physicality. When Eason or LSU needed a basket, he sunk his hip, put his left shoulder into the waistline of the defender, and attacked the rim. Hard. Where Smith Jr. has a wiry frame that will fill out with time, Eason is strong. Eason will have a dozen or more rim-rattling, Sportscenter type of dunks throughout his rookie campaign because of his hustle defensively as well as his determination offensively.
Eason is a developing shooter but shot over 36-percent from three this season. That is roughly league average for a “shooter,” and thus some are understandably bullish. While some worry about spacing with Eason and any other non-shooter on the floor at once, that feels like an early-career issue. Eason demonstrated between his Freshman year at Cincinnati and his sophomore year at LSU that he would continue to work as a shooter. His form is solid, and he improved from a low starting point between years in college. Assuming that work continues, there is no reason he has to be a “one-way” player instead of the “3 and D” wing the Houston Rockets need.
Pick No. 29: Tyty Washington
After some dealing, the Houston Rockets flipped the recently acquired 26th pick to Minnesota and received the 29th pick and two future Second Round Picks. Fans on Twitter confusedly wondered what was coming. Kentucky guard Tyty Washington had fallen, Houston hadn’t taken him at 17, and his natural fit in the backcourt rotation felt too good to pass up. When Houston continued to trade back, it felt like they threw in the towel on drafting the Arizonan.
Instead, Washington somehow continued to fall to 29 and Houston was still able to get him there. Washington’s season at Kentucky, while he missed a handful of games hurt, was impressive. What Washington does well, presently, are the things that are hard to teach. He has great touch around the rim and can avoid defenders and a floater that soars over them. He has a phenomenal pull-up jump shot in the midrange both add a dimension to the future Houston Rockets offense.
Washington is also elite as a distributor in the pick and roll. Whether it’s with future teammates Smith Jr., Sengun, KJ Martin, or others, Washington has shown he will make defenses pay for bending in whichever way they bend. That, in combination with his midrange game, makes him impossible for a defensive big to truly “drop” against.
Washington’s selfless nature will help in his rotations on offense too because Houston has accumulated several scorers and shooters who will need “their turn.” Throughout his season at Kentucky, Washington was a capable scorer when required but not a primary one. Washington is more of a “traditional point guard” than many guys in the Houston Rockets’ backcourt rotation.
The drawback to Washington is that, at six-foot-three, he isn’t the shooter an NBA team needs in the backcourt. His midrange jumper indicates a high upside, and thus while it may be a moot point… as a smaller guard he’s going to need to continue to extend his range or defenses will sag off of him. Similarly, as a guard who does a great job of attacking off of the bounce, he doesn’t get to the foul line much. While it’s beautiful to see him avoid contact and finish, there will be times Houston needs the opposing big in foul trouble. Can Washington do that?
Defensively, Washington is a six-foot-three guard. Was he overpowered at times by bigger guys in the SEC? Yes. Will he be great against opposing, traditional-sized guards? He has the potential to be.
The Houston Rockets won the NBA Draft. They managed to not just get one of the three best prospects, but get a player who many slotted as the number one pick. They grabbed two guys that were consensus mid-round picks and projected to be long-term NBA role players and traded them back to accumulate more future picks while doing it.
What’s intriguing about the Houston Rockets’ draft is they’re far from finished rebuilding, but they are clearly headed in a particular direction. Space, pace. Length, explosiveness. Houston will likely trot out a starting lineup ranging from six-foot-five to six-foot-ten (if Smith Jr. doesn’t continue to grow), and have a healthy mixture of ways to attack and ways to apply pressure defensively. The Rockets can apply rim pressure while commanding defensive attention to the three-point line while running a five-out offense.
It’s not that Houston is winning 60 games next year. There will be growing pains. Even the slew of second-year guys will run into the speed bumps of learning as defenses adjust and gameplan.
But the current roster has cornerstones. Green and Smith Jr. will be impactful, All-Star caliber players in the near future. Kevin Porter Jr., Tyty Washington, Daishen Nix, and Josh Christopher will all be rotational guards, if not more impactful.