NBA Draft Notes: Do The Houston Rockets Desire Themselves A Donatas?

Yesterday, the blog formally introduced Donatas Motiejunas, a known Houston Rockets draft target. Today, with the help of a few mainstream basketball writers, we'll take a second look at the seven-foot European sharpshooter.

When we think of mock drafters, we rarely think of the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. That's no accident, either: Feigen has never appeared to be one for mock drafts and has generally shied away from playing the Internet's most popular pre-draft game. Nevertheless, Feigen released his first mock Sunday evening, and speak of the devil, there sat Donatas Motiejunas at number fourteen.

Feigen has always appeared to understand the mindset of the Rockets' brass, and as such, I've long considered his scoop to be as good as any available. In keeping with his normal routine of dispelling Internet rumors, Feigen prefaced his mock with a noteworthy, yet rather widely-known disclaimer:

When it comes to the Rockets, predictions are particularly dicey because they absolutely refuse to consider need. That is central to their draft philosophy.

NBA rosters change so rapidly, it makes little sense to draft players to fit needs that might not exist by the time that player is ready to help.

Upon reaching the end of his mock lottery, Feigen narrowed his choice for Houston down to Chris Singleton and Motiejunas, but ultimately chose the mohawk over the headband. Here's why:

For several versions of this mock draft, I had the Rockets taking Chris Singleton, who fits their need for a stronger small forward. I won't compare him to Gerald Wallace, whom the Rockets tried to acquire at the trade deadline, but he does seem a bit like Wallace when he entered the NBA after one college season. Singleton could be the pick at 14, could go several spots sooner and like most of the mid-first round picks, could slide.

In the end, I thought the Rockets are more likely to choose someone that does something great, rather than a more versatile player that does more things well. Donatas Motiejunas has outstanding length and offensive skills.

Assuming Singleton and Motiejunas are available when the Rockets make their pick -- there are no guarantees that will be the case -- I have one question regarding the decision:

(For the record, I posed the following question to Feigen in the comments, so perhaps he will have answered it by now.)

If Houston is indeed looking for someone who can do something "great" -- seemingly a departure from last year's strategy surrounding the Patterson pick -- is Motiejunas' scoring ability significantly better than Singleton's defensive ability?

Better yet, rather than mulling over which player is the better overall talent, wouldn't a decision between Singleton and Motiejunas boil down to a desire to add bulk to either the offense or defense alone? I don't think the talent gap between the two is very great, or for that matter, easily measurable. Each's strength appears to be the other's weakness, and they don't play the same position.

With this in mind, I think taking Singleton would both fill a need and land Houston the best talent available. There would be no sense in ignoring a need-filler solely for the principle, especially if it's with a player such as Singleton, widely considered to be a top-ten prospect. In the end, regarding these two players, it all depends if the Rockets want help on offense or help on defense.

*   *   *

Speaking of Motiejunas, I came across the following from NBA.com's David Aldridge, posted back in early May. To say the least, a few NBA execs aren't exactly wild about Donatas.

"He doesn't really love basketball," a Central Division executive says. "He doesn't seem to appear to like to do anything that's even a little difficult. That scares you a little bit. The only thing he gets an excellent on is offensive rebounding and putbacks, and that's because he's doing it against midgets."

Said an Atlantic Division exec: "Right now, it's not even close. Vesely is a player and Motiejunas is an unknown. I've seen him play too many times when he would get two rebounds, three rebounds. He's projected in all these mocks to go top 10. I don't think so. I think he lacks passion for the game. He looks like he's got short arms. That might be a factor.

"He gets pushed under (the basket) a lot and then he reaches up. Guys are going up over him to get rebounds. He lacks fire, lacks emotion. Always has the same demeanor on the court. If you're 7 feet tall and you have any hope of coming over here you have to be, routinely, getting 10, 11 boards ... I can't get excited about him."

Well, this certainly makes Donatas sound like a winner, doesn't it?

I won't place enough value into these opinions to sway my belief that Motiejunas could turn out to be a good player, but they certainly dent the windshield a little. I've always been a proponent of overachievers, the players who show a passion for the game. It's why I loved last year's Patterson pick, and it's why I think he could turn out to be a steal. Also, for the record, the Patterson selection should dispel any potential argument that Houston's numbers-based strategy overlooks a player's mental makeup. To me, that's ridiculous.

In digesting the accusations against Motiejunas' personal drive, I think it is key to note that a player's perceived "passion" and "dedication" can sway and fluctuate. Take Chase Budinger and last season's roller coaster ride. For the first two months of the year, he looked as lackluster and disinterested as the typical Toyota Center lower level season ticket holder. And then, suddenly, he began driving to the rim and running out in transition as if his pants were on fire. He developed a consistent grit that translated into better performances on a nightly basis. Most telling is that all of this emerged following the worst shooting slump of his career.

In short, sometimes, it's difficult to really judge the mental makeup of a player until you throw him into the situation for which you are scouting him. I think it's fair to say that Motiejunas perhaps never felt the need to fully exert himself against lower-level Italian competition. For every botched rebound, he could simply turn around on offense and knock down a momentum-gaining three-pointer.

Now, if that mindset doesn't change once he enters the NBA, I'd certainly be worried.

As draft day approaches, it sounds as if Motiejunas is as sure a bet to go to Houston as any prospect, assuming the Rockets stay put. However, should a player such as Kawhi Leonard, Bismack Biyombo or even Singleton slip to fourteen in the same the way that Patterson fell past New Orleans and Toronto last year, Houston may not feel the need to move. Expect the Rockets to play the process by ear for every last minute until their name is called.

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