The Houston Rockets were blessed by the lottery gods, landing at #2 and retaining their own first round selection. Thankfully, the 48% chance didn’t hit and the good guys will get a real building block for their future to speed up the rebuild.
Now the question is: who is that piece? Let’s look into the potential suspects.
The Big Three
It’s pretty clear that after Cade Cunningham, there is a solid group of three players in the next tier. Let’s go through them in alphabetical order, with their ages on opening night in parentheses.
Jalen Green (19)
We know the least about Green because he didn’t attend college. Taking advantage of the G-League’s new pay-for-play rules, Green decided to skip out on the co-eds and trained for the G-League Bubble (the Gubble, if you will) with the Ignite.
In 15 games with the Ignite, Green averaged 18 points on 46% shooting (36.5% from deep), to go along with 4 rebounds and 3 assists per contest.
Green is consistently called the best scorer in the draft, and it’s easy to see why. The controlled athleticism is obvious from the get-go, and at 6-6, Green should be able to handle on-ball duties as well. Green is the youngest of the prospects, and the Rockets might covet control over a player that will be 28 or 29 when his first extension ends.
Evan Mobley (20)
The USC center has drawn comparisons to Christian Wood, and Rockets fans have seen what Wood has brought to the team. On the surface, Mobley feels redundant with Wood on the roster. However, trades happen all the time, and Wood only has two years left on his deal with Houston. The Rockets could use both big men for a year, then look to deal Wood before his contract year next summer. Or the Rockets could dial it back to the 80s and run two bigs. We’ve seen that strategy work a little bit in the playoffs (the Lakers last season), but this pick would be more about developing Mobley into a long-term franchise fixture.
Whereas Green is known for his explosive scoring, Mobley’s calling card is as a rim protector that can defend multiple positions. Offensively, he can jump out of the building and has great hands. His vision is above average for a big man as well. Mobley won the Pac-12 Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Freshman of the Year.
Mobley still doesn’t have the range that Wood has. He shot 30% from deep with the shorter college line. He’ll need to bulk up and work on his shooting to succeed at the next level, but all of the tools are there. The only warning sign for me is that in the biggest game of his career, he was absolutely demolished by Drew Timme, a skilled but athletically inferior big man. Using one game to judge a big man is stupid though, so don’t mind me.
Jalen Suggs (20)
Anyone who reads this blog or knows me is keenly aware that I am unable to remove my extreme bias when talking about Gonzaga. While I didn’t attend the university, I have been a fan of Mark Few’s crew from Spokane since 1999. But I will attempt to wade through this objectively.
Jalen Suggs is the greatest basketball player of all time.
Okay, fine. He isn’t. But he’s a top 5 player all time for sure.
In all seriousness, Suggs is probably the best all-around player of the three guards expected to go in the top 4. He doesn’t have Cade’s ability to take control of a game or Green’s pure scoring potential, but as a playmaker and defender, he beats the other two. Of the three players listed here, Suggs’s stats are the hardest to sort through because half of his games come against a decent-but-not-great West Coast Conference.
Suggs shot 50% from the floor (33.7% from deep) to go with 5 boards, 4.5 assists, and 2 steals per game. The biggest detriment to his success was turnovers, of which he averaged 3 per game. A 1.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire.
If you want to understand the full Jalen Suggs experience, look no further than his Final Four game against the UCLA Bruins. Yes, everyone knows about the game winner, but watch the other highlights. The entire gambit is on display: defense, finishing, and passing. This is the glimpse into what teams want Suggs to become: a floor general that can affect the game on both ends.
Each of these three players could make an immediate difference, and Houston is sure to bring each one in for a workout. There are some wild cards here too, because there’s always the possibility that Davion Mitchell (23 years old but an absolute stud), Jonathan Kuminga (18 and raw), or someone else impresses Rockets brass in workouts and interviews.
Trade the Pick
Before the lottery, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski mentioned that if Houston landed in the top 4, they would actively shop the pick.
After the lottery, Rafael Stone all but confirmed it.
Stone said the Rockets feel they will get someone really, really talented but made sure to add the qualifier "if they keep the pick".— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) June 23, 2021
Houston has two other picks (#23 and #24) in the first round as well, and can package one or both of those picks with the second pick to get a star player. That’s clearly a potential goal here. Houston also has the bevy of picks from the James Harden trade.
The Rockets could also trade down and kick the can to next season. However, last season we saw seemingly every team in the top 5 attempt to trade down, to no avail. That draft was historically poor, whereas this group of players is expected to produce multiple All-Stars. The #2 pick is a perfect trade chip because teams drafting behind Houston could covet one of the 3 players listed above. To guarantee that they could land one of those potential stars, jumping to the front of the line will be appealing. The top pick is Cade Cunningham, but the second pick comes with some power.
The types of players and packages the Rockets can expect to get for the second pick will vary wildly. Imagine the Raptors offering Pascal Siakam and the fourth pick for the second pick. Would you do that? Orlando has the fifth and eighth picks. Would Stone want two top eight picks for the extra shot at a star draftee? Does he want four first round picks? If a team is willing to trade an actual All-Star, they will likely ask for some of the Brooklyn picks.
There’s another possibility, but it’s not as fun. Could Houston use the second pick to unload a bad contract like John Wall and/or Eric Gordon? What about giving Eric Gordon (3 years remaining) and D.J. Augustin (2 years remaining), along with the #2 overall pick to Cleveland for Kevin Love (two years left) and the #3 overall pick? Don’t think about the players in that hypothetical deal, but the idea behind it. Would Houston be willing to move down to shove off Wall or EG’s bad deals? What if they had to move down a handful of spots? I think a move like this would alienate the fanbase (who is expecting this pick to turn into either a hot young talent or a proven star), but might be a more fiscally responsible deal for a team that might feel like embracing the tank is better than the alternatives.
Stone is facing a difficult second test as Rockets GM. When he traded Harden for draft picks, he bet on himself and his staff to nail the draft or subsequent trades. How he handles this pick will be a test of his resolve and belief in the franchise. Here’s hoping he aces it.
We’re sure to have plenty of coverage up through draft night on July 29. So keep it right here until then.
Who should the Rockets target with the #2 overall pick?
This poll is closed
An established star
A package of picks
Other (comment below)