The Houston Rockets emerged from Thursday's NBA Draft with more players than one would have originally thought, but amidst all of the trade chatter, the only move that Houston made resulted in them sliding up three spots late in the first round. Chilling, isn't it?
The Rockets capped off draft night by selecting Kansas forward Marcus Morris with their first pick and Italian League forward Donatas Motiejunas with their second pick (via a trade that lost them Brad Miller and landed them Jonny Flynn, as if either of those terms can be taken seriously). They also re-acquired a second-round pick to take Florida forward and SEC Player of the Year, Chandler Parsons, who will now be tasked with convincing people that he is not Chase Budinger.
Thursday night saw plenty of frustration from a fanbase that may gradually be growing impatient. With Kawhi Leonard and Chris Singleton on the board at fourteen, Daryl Morey elected to take Morris, whom Morey says was their best player available at the time. The general consensus, however, was that Morris, despite his talent, was a power forward, or at least a tweener, and thus a redundant pick. I shared these sentiments with most of you, and I won't deny any of my initial thoughts: when the pick was made, I wasn't a fan.
To start, the Rockets just had to take someone from Kansas. Yuck. I suppose, for the sake of fandom, I should probably begin to pick away at the scab of disgust layered upon Morris and upon each and every Jayhawk I've ever laid eyes on. But it won't be easy.
Personal biases aside, there's a fine line between, as Morey said in his post-draft interview, "giving Coach [Kevin] McHale more options" and making a coach's job tougher. With Morris and Motiejunas, McHale will have more options at his disposal when it comes to mixing and matching different lineups, sure. Sometimes, though, I think this can be a headache for a coach who is trying to divide minutes and put together a final "closing" lineup at game's end. In drafting for the "best available," it's still important not to completely ignore the current roster and inadvertently send a coach into a frenzy as he tries to figure out how to best put together a capable, compliant squad.
Now that I've had some time to go back and watch more of Morris' tape and clear my head from the KAWHIKAWHIKAWHI train of thought that wouldn't leave for hours, I've warmed to the pick, just like I've eventually warmed to nearly every decision that this front office has made. I'd like to disagree with the Morris choice, if only for the principle of exercising free will. Yet, while it was a risky move, it was most likely the right one. Draft grades (which are somewhat useless this early anyhow) and explanations are after the jump.
Marcus Morris: No. 14
To Describe Marcus Morris
The gamble with Marcus Morris -- chosen with the fourteenth pick, one not normally reserved for standout players -- does not lie in his talent. I saw Morris play firsthand. He pissed me off, frankly. I rooted for Missouri, he played for Kansas, and by the end of each game, I absolutely despised him ten times more than I did before tipoff. You know those players that don't seem to screw up very often? The players who keep finding new ways to stun a defense and do so repeatedly to the point it gives you a headache? They play like machines. Actually, in your mind, they are one of The Machines, waiting to wage war with the humans following the fall of SkyNet.
Think Paul Milsap when he plays at Toyota Center. Think David West whenever he plays the Rockets, regardless of the location. When those players line up against your preferred team and succeed, you hate them. It goes beyond pure dislike or anything of a mild nature.
That's how I felt about Morris, each and every time Missouri played Kansas. Even when Kansas didn't face Mizzou but was still nationally televised, I thought to myself, "I would really enjoy it if he turned in an awful performance today." But I never saw it happen, not once. In fact, if Morris ever finished with subpar numbers, it always felt like he had still played a good game. It stung me. I could not stand Marcus Morris and his consistent production.
So, why should I suddenly complain now that Morris has crossed paths and joined my favorite team?
Folks, be aware: this particular Morris twin will help the Rockets a great deal if used properly. Say this for Morris: at least the Red won't have to play against him. That's a compliment I don't use very often. Who knows -- after a few meetings down the road, I bet we would have placed him in Jason Terry company, along with West and Milsap and a cast of other Rocket-killing characters. Instead, we will get to watch him induce twitches, super-serious pouts and even loud expletives from opposing fans. That's the level of player I think he can become. A solid, yet unspectacular forward with a knack for surprising and ultimately annoying opponents on a nightly basis.
Wait, wait, no... that's it. That's the word for which I was searching. Annoying. Yes, that's perfect. Marcus Morris, to opponents, may never be the center of a game plan, but by the end of the night, more often than not, the opposition will be incredibly annoyed with him. That's just excellent.
A Brief Scouting Report
Morris separates himself from Kawhi Leonard and Chris Singleton -- two prospects whom Houston could have selected in Morris' place -- in a number of ways, primarily on the offensive end. He's far more polished than each, and that could be an understatement. His polish and coordination is the first thing that comes to mind when you watch him play. For a 6-foot-9 presumed post player, he can do plenty. Nothing that he does looks overly natural or stunningly creative, but he's not robotic, either. It appears that many facets of his offensive game -- his jump shot, his post game and his movement on the outside -- have been blueprinted and practiced to the point that they almost seem natural, yet are still carefully crafted and wholly purposeful. I interpret this as a strength; Morris is not going to go off like Trevor Ariza and attempt to make plays that stretch beyond his limits. Speaking of Ariza, Morris' handles aren't great, but they look good enough to get by. His low turnover rate reflects this.
Morris can shoot much better than Singleton and especially better than Leonard, who never appeared to find a rhythm on the offensive end. That's another thing about Marcus that I like. He's sort of like Kevin Martin in that you see many of his same moves game in and game out, but they work with perfect rhythm and are executed smoothly. He can knock down jumpers from the elbow, the corner and the top of the key. His shot is quick and compact and in this sense, despite his lack of dynamite athleticism, I think he'll be able to get off shots on his own just fine. He can play anywhere on the court, from the post to the perimeter, and no matter where he ends up on a possession -- whether it be in isolation or on the run -- he'll find a way to get off a good shot. Marcus doesn't waste possessions like many college scorers do. He had a low usage rate and didn't turn the ball over. Suddenly, doesn't he sound like a typical Rockets pick? Should we be surprised that the Rockets drafted an efficient scorer?
Defensively, he appears to be committed, which is always the necessary first step. He rarely took plays off at Kansas and always kept his feet moving. He'll never reach the level of defender that Leonard and Singleton will, but I don't think he'll be a liability, either. He's quicker than people think, but the question will persist until the regular season, whenever that starts: can he guard NBA small forwards?
According to Chad Ford, Morris kept telling teams in interviews that he could play the three. Be it a way to make himself look more attractive or be it an honest self-assessment, that's what he said. I always saw him as more of a stretch four, at least from what I saw in college. Yet, he's quicker than his easy comparison -- David West -- and fits more into the Al Harrington physical range. No doubt, the Rockets will be praying that Morris' character and drive will supplant Harrington's to the point that Marcus can become a good defender. Would it be a stretch to call Morris a smarter, slightly less athletic version of Al Harrington altogether? Perhaps not. Each is big, quick on his feet and can shoot the three-ball. Believe me, the comparison is more of a compliment than a knock, because if Al Harrington knew how to best use his attributes, he could have easily been a top-20 player in his prime. For the record, I also suspect that Morris will be far more assertive in the paint than Harrington ever was.
If you find any faults in the Morris pick, do not tie them to idea that he is somehow Patrick Patterson: Part Two. Of the two, Morris is much more comfortable on the perimeter and has a better three-point shot. Patterson, despite his lateral quickness and knock-down mid-range jumper, is first and foremost a post player, more in the spirit of Carl Landry than of -- for comparison's sake -- Harrington. Morris and Patterson should be able to compliment each other just fine.
Morris, by himself, is not the question here. If you indeed choose to doubt Morris, do so cautiously and keep your focus on his position. Can he play the three? If so, he's going to turn out to be a real nice player; a power three not easily guardable. If not, he'll still be productive, but he won't cause the same mismatch problems on offense and will likely need to find a new home.
Moreover, my concern about the pick is two-fold:
A) Can Morris play the three?
B) Why pass on two established small forwards in Leonard and Singleton that are nearly guaranteed to become lockdown defenders?
We've addressed part A, but it will remain my key concern until swiftly dispelled. Morris will be serviceable as a backup four and is a versatile player, but his primary position needs to be at the three in order to best improve Houston's fortunes.
Regarding part B: the Rockets are still without a big wing stopper, someone who can line up against an opponent's best perimeter scorer and shut them down. I consider Singleton and Leonard to be of this mold, and I had hoped that Houston wouldn't pass up a glaring need to take a player like Morris, whose overall talent level isn't significantly higher. I understand drafting for talent over need, but I thought the Rockets could kill two birds with one stone. They elected not to do so. Alas, Courtney Lee will continue to have to guard people who are bigger than him, should Budinger or Morris fail to hold their own.
Alas, Morris is the pick and there is nothing to be done but accept it. My best advice would be to forget about Leonard and his availability at the time of the selection, because when removing total context, this is a very good choice. But I understand that some people won't be able to do that. We'll call this grade a B, but it could easily turn out to be much better.
Donatas Motiejunas: No. 20
I've written about Motiejunas before, but this is a nice find for Houston late in the first round. He's a lottery talent who has been projected as a top-five talent in the past. So what if he didn't exactly inspire anyone this past season? Nothing about his game got any worse -- in fact, it got better, though only subtly. The trouble is that Motiejunas will be yet another power forward on the roster, and that's assuming he will be able to play in the United States this season. His defense leaves plenty to be desired, but I think Houston is baking on a revamped scheme to get them over the hump of poor individual defense. Besides, they weren't going to find an interior stopper in this draft once Bismack Biyombo left the board.
I don't think Motiejunas will turn out to be the next Nowitzki, but I can guarantee that he won't slump to Dave Andersen's level either. I'll say this for Dave, though: if Motiejunas can mimic Andersen's automatic turnaround jumper, he'll have himself a leg up on everyone else in the post. And as for concerns about his dedication? I suggest we wait until he plays in a league that will fully challenge him.
Chandler Parsons: No. 38
Love Chandler Parsons here. Great value, great player. There's nothing outstanding about his game, but from a bird's eye view, a 6'10 point forward has always got to be intriguing. Parsons can do just about anything on offense, albeit not at an elite level. He's a good plug-n-play candidate, for when a better player gets in foul trouble or is tired. You won't lose a lead because of Parsons, and that's a nice compliment for any bench player. The questions lie in his athleticism and ability to guard shorter, quicker small forwards. He's also going to be behind Budinger and Morris on the depth chart, but as of now, the Rockets may as well not have a depth chart.
That Funky Trade With Minnesota
As Marc Stein reported earlier, this trade wasn't primarily about Brad Miller, Jonny Flynn or any of the picks switching hands: it was all about getting Donatas Motiejunas in a Rockets uniform. However, dumping Miller and adding Flynn saved the Rockets money and very well could have placed them back under the luxury tax threshold.
Now, the only issue? Losing the first rounder from the Memphis trade. It may not turn out to be a great pick, but it feels like a little much to give up for only moving three spots forward. However, the Rockets did what they could to get their guy and I can respect that.
More To Be Done
Currently, assuming Motiejunas can play this season, this is Houston's "depth chart:"
SF: Chase Budinger, Marcus Morris, Chandler Parsons
This list leaves Marqus Blakely, Marcus Cousin and Yao Ming off the roster as well. I doubt Blakely and Cousin stick, but from there, everything is up for grabs. For the time being, not only will Morey have to decide who makes the team; he'll also have to console Kevin McHale once the new coach realizes how many of his players deserve or require at least ten minutes of playing time per game. Somewhere, Rick Adelman is chuckling, as Rick Adelman would chuckle.
Given the crowd, the time to make a big splash trade is now, but who is available? How will the lockout affect Morey's ability to deal? These are questions that won't easily be answered, and for the present, Houston's roster looks like a jumbled mess. Suddenly, that playing time that we envisioned McHale allotting for Terrence Williams has all but disappeared. Is Jordan Hill officially finished in Houston? Who is going to take Jonny Flynn off Houston's hands? I get the sense that Morey would simply prefer to cut Hill and Flynn altogether -- Marc Stein reported that Flynn was being shopped as early as last night -- but that wouldn't be the frugal thing to do. He'll involve them in a trade for a slightly better player, as he has done for the past few years.
Houston leaves this draft in better shape, but with more questions unanswered than when the night began. Nothing that the Rockets did solved anything. It's a risk-reward way to approach a draft, but now Morey has only made his job more difficult. He's going to have to take all of this talent that he has assembled from the 2009 lottery and turn it into someone good, because there's no chance all four will be with Houston in the near future -- they can't be if Houston wants to rebuild effectively.
Actually, I take back that last term: rebuild. Consider the draft -- and the past season -- to be a period not of rebuilding, but of re-stocking. Morey could have left this draft without making a pick. He could have finally sacrificed his many assets in order to move up in this draft or potentially in next year's draft. But he didn't do it. A deal wasn't made. The draft, it seems, is not Morey's preferred place to gamble with assets, or at least this draft wasn't. He chose to keep stocking up.
Morris will be the young talent to watch: as for the others, consider them to be temporary trade chips. This isn't Morey's roster. Not even close to it. We're in the intermediate stages of Project Morey, though sometimes it feels like we should be starting from scratch.
Morey said it himself: the Rockets are "reestablishing our foundation." I do not see a foundation after Thursday night, and I do not believe Morey will have a foundation until he has a star or a player capable of becoming a star. This is the foundation for a trade, not for a franchise.
Thursday night was a good night for Houston, but the best is still yet to come. Let's hope it arrives at some point.
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