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Usman Garuba can be the defensive anchor Rockets need

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Possibly the biggest steal of the first round.

Spain v United States Men’s Basketball - Olympics: Day 11 Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When the Houston Rockets selected Usman Garuba with the 23rd overall pick in last week’s NBA Draft, he did not shake commissioner Adam Silver’s hand like many prospects do on draft night.

Instead, he was over 6,000 miles away in Tokyo, Japan playing with the Spanish national team in pursuit of a gold medal.

Garuba, 19, was the youngest player on the squad featuring a good number of players who have tested NBA waters in their careers, and on Thursday night, Garuba joined that group when the Rockets were fortunate to pick him at 23.

When I saw the Rockets trading up for 16, I thought Garuba had potential to be the pick there. The fact that a world-class defender like Garuba was still on the board at 23 is still baffling to me. It will likely continue to become even more baffling as he dives into his NBA career.

At just 19 years old, Garuba can be one of the best defenders in the NBA. With Real Madrid, he has already shown how versatile he can be on the defensive end, guarding on the perimeter and in the post.

The two things that stand out to me are his IQ and his footwork.

Garuba is the defensive quarterback, or perhaps the middle linebacker. He sets the tone and will likely be given some big assignments should the minutes trend in his direction.

Take a look at this possession in the United States-Spain quarterfinal:

Garuba meets Jayson Tatum, arguably a Top-10 NBA player right now, on the perimeter. And although Tatum beats him on his first step, Garuba is able to recover in large part due to his footwork and quickness. He eventually catches back up to Tatum on his drive and his frame allows him to go strong and deny him at the rim with that 7’3” wingspan.

If Garuba is already doing that on one of the best players in the NBA before he even steps on an NBA court, I can’t imagine what this guy is going to do once he gets a training camp under his belt, or even just a few seasons. Imagine what Garuba can be at the end of his rookie contract when he turns 23!

Defense was not Houston’s friend last season. The team had the fourth-worst defensive rating in the league last year and it was an issue that had to be addressed in the offseason. Garuba will dramatically improve the defense. He may not cure it entirely, but he will stifle some big matchup issues and allow players like Jalen Green and Christian Wood to do what they need to do on offense.

Garuba is an above-average defender, but he is definitely a below-average presence on offense. That is what prohibits Garuba from being a sure-fire stud in the NBA.

He doesn’t need to be a 20 points per night guy but if he can work on his three-point shot and become a 3-and-D forward, he’s going to be very scary in this league. We should be incredibly fortunate that Garuba fell into Houston’s lap and extremely excited to see how he can fulfill his potential.