Lately, it’s been Revenge of the (Draft) Nerds when it comes to NBA discourse. The 2022-2023 season hasn’t even started yet, and somehow, everyone’s talking about the next draft.
For enthusiasts, that’s par for the course. The draft cycle runs year-round, but generally, you’ve got to travel to the darkest corners of Twitter to find anyone willing to talk about it. With a potentially historic draft on the horizon, even casual fans are talking about Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson.
Houston Rockets fans are no exception. After all, this team has been the worst in the NBA for two consecutive seasons. Fans should be forgiven for imagining a future with an eight-foot demigod patrolling the paint.
On the other hand, the Rockets, barring a trade, will be bringing two rookies into the fold following the next draft. They own the Bucks’ selection as a consequence of having lent them P.J. Tucker for the 2020-2021 postseason. The pick has become a red-headed stepchild among fans, but it deserves love too.
Here are a few options the Rockets should explore with it.
The Trade-Up Target
For the most part, I’ll only be looking at players who are generally mocked in the 20-to-30 range here. We can’t rule out a disastrous season for the Bucks, but it feels too unlikely to seriously consider. I’m making an exception for one player because I would love for the Rockets to package this pick with another asset to move up in the draft for.
That player is Anthony Black.
Black is 6’7”, and he’s probably the best passer in the draft. What else do you need to know?
He’s set to run point for a loaded Arkansas squad this year. They will also feature projected lottery pick Nick Smith, and three-and-D wing Jordan Walsh (more on him later). The Razorbacks’ loaded roster should make for perfect conditions to evaluate a talent like Black. This is a guy who makes the players around him better.
Black could unlock a lot of options for the Rockets. “Death lineups” featuring him at the point, Jabari Smith Jr. at the five and Tari Eason freelancing could boast some of the most effective switch-everything defensive schemes in the NBA. Meanwhile, Black and Alperen Sengun would give the Rockets two of the most creative young passers in the game.
As of now, Black struggles with his jump shot. He’s also a sub-elite athlete, so his ability to create in the halfcourt is fairly limited. He’s basically Josh Giddey with defense. If the jumper doesn’t come around, he’s likely to land in the 12-to-18 range.
If it does, don’t be shocked if the Rockets look at him with their own pick.
Full disclosure: I love project players. If I was the General Manager of an NBA team, I’d probably draft a lot of busts — but I’m also willing to bet I’d unearth a franchise-altering steal in the process. Alas, I’m resigned to 2K’s MyNBA with the rest of the common folk.
(On the off-chance that Ronnie2K is reading this: Can we get a buy-out market? Why can’t we trade injured players? That isn’t a rule! I’m just trying to use my platform to do some good here).
Three guys fit that mold that I think the Rockets should look at late in the first round: Baba Miller, Leonard Miller, and Rayan Rupert.
Baba Miller is a lot of fun. He’s a 6’11”, 205-pound wing who’ll be suiting up for Florida State next season. He’s a lot like Black, actually: a gifted passer with a high defensive upside and a shooting problem. With that said, Miller is an (even) less projectable shooter. His form is bad. Similarly, he’s not athletic enough to create a lot of advantages in half-court sets without the ability to draw close-outs. Still, even if the jumper never comes around, I can see a career for Miller as a valuable long-term reserve who can guard every frontcourt position and make good passing reads.
By contrast, Leonard Miller (I’m just going to insert the It’s Miller Time joke here) has a more projectable three-point stroke. He can even shoot it off the dribble when he’s hot. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen very often. Otherwise, Miller is raw. Watching this guy play, it’s hard to decide whether he’s acting with intent or not.
Miller’s movements are funky: he’s got a habitual rip-through move that doesn’t always seem to serve a purpose. He’s got herky-jerky driving habits that are reminiscent of fellow Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, only he doesn’t seem to have the smoothness that SGA contrasts those moves with.
Defensively, Miller has a lot of potential as a 6’10” wing with impressive mobility. With that said, as of now, he lacks awareness and discipline. We’ll see if he can improve his stock alongside Scoot Henderson on the G-League Ignite this season.
Finally, Rayan Rupert is a 6’7” shooting guard who’ll be playing for the New Zealand Breakers this year. Apparently, they have a type — like Ousmane Dieng before him, Rupert is a crafty finisher with passing chops and defensive upside. Also like Dieng, he can’t finish through contact, and his shot is a question mark.
Targeting any one of these guys would be a high-risk, high-reward gamble. On the other hand, at this (projected) stage in the draft, the Rockets could justify drafting for fit as well.
The Defensive Bigs
Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe is a human block of granite. A 6’9”, 255-pound wrecking ball, he’s not likely to ever carve out an offensive role outside of catching lobs in the NBA. On the other hand, he should gobble up rebounds for a decade if he gets the opportunity to.
His swing skill will come on defense. It’s easy to imagine a world where Tshiebwe is a solid rim protector who can survive switches, but it’s equally easy to imagine a world where he’s too short to defend the paint and too slow to guard the perimeter.
On the other hand, FC Barcelona’s James Nnaji shouldn’t have a problem on either front. He’s a 6’10”, 225-pound big with a combination of wingspan and lateral quickness that many NBA teams use to anchor their defense. Like Tshiebwe, he doesn’t do much on offense, but with proven defensive tools, he doesn’t need to.
This draft is deep. I couldn’t provide a detailed account of every prospect the Rockets could consider without having sheer contempt for my editor. Here are a few more options:
Florida State’s Matthew Cleveland is a 6’7” off-guard/wing who can do everything but shoot. UCLA’s Amari Bailey is a hyper-athletic, aggressive combo guard with natural scoring ability. If his three-point shooting and decision-making improve, he’ll be picked before this selection is on the board.
I already touched on Arkansas’ Jordan Walsh. He’s a 6’7” three-and-D wing with a limitless motor and well-rounded athleticism. He’s also a limited self-creator, but there’s no shame in grabbing a high-floor role player at this stage in the draft.
Lastly, I’ll make a quick case for Michigan’s Emoni Bates. You may have heard of him. Not long ago, he was the presumptive second-overall pick behind Wembanyama. An utter mess of a freshman season has destroyed his stock, and an extremely negative wingspan hasn’t helped matters.
Still, at one point, people thought this kid could be Tracy McGrady with passion. If he’s on the board at 30th overall, he could be worth a gamble.
On the other hand, he could play his way out of this range too. After all, the draft is still very, very far away.