This piece will not advocate for starting Usman Garuba at the five for the rest of 2022-2023.
It’s tempted to. At the same time, its author is well aware that he just published a piece claiming a religious conversion to the Rockets’ current starting big man.
Besides, this Houston Rockets offense still looks like a diaper factory dumpster fire when it doesn’t run through Alperen Sengun. At the same time, if you’ve been watching the Rockets lately, you have to be impressed with Usman Garuba.
Usman Garuba did some stellar work on Steph Curry last night, picking him up in transition, getting up good contests, and working really hard on ball denial. Best defense on Steph from a Rocket we've seen in years. pic.twitter.com/vskfc3zVu5— Nathan Fogg (@NathanFogg1) November 21, 2022
You’re familiar with Steph Curry. The angel of death. He’s crushed more of your hopes and dreams than a doting mother who thinks you really just need to find a solid paycheck. There’s Garuba, doing a fine job guarding him. Most NBA centers can’t do that.
Of course, he’s not just guarding Curry. In several of these clips, Garuba guards across positions. He switches onto Andrew Wiggins on a couple of occasions. Garuba doesn’t care who you are: he thinks he can guard you.
How versatile is Garuba?
There are two variables to consider here: how versatile is Garuba, and how impactful is he? Defenders who can kind of guard everyone but don’t excel in any area do have value, but it would be hard to classify them as “perfect” modern players.
Garuba is among the league’s most versatile defensive bigs. For example, per BballIndex, among a group of 10 NBA players who qualify as “versatile bigs”, Garuba is in the 100th percentile in time spent guarding point guards. Sample size too small? Expand that sample to “Rotation Off-Ball Bigs”, and he’s in the 68.5th percentile in a group of 93.
In that same larger group, he’s in the 80.4th percentile in guarding off-guards. So he’s versatile. But is he effective?
How effective is Garuba?
Here are the fun stats. In the entire NBA, Garuba is in the 98th percentile in Pickpocket Rating and the 78.6th percentile in Passing Lane Defense. This is a guy who is playing the five.
Of course, he also needs to be doing the defensive work that’s expected of fives too. So far, so good. Opponents are shooting 57.1 percent with Garuba as their primary defender within six feet of the rim. That’s the exact same percentage Myles Turner is currently holding opponents to.
Two caveats. Firstly, defensive tracking numbers can be noisy. If the nearest defender happens to be in another ZIP code, they still count as the nearest defender. Secondly, Turner is contesting 8.3 of those shots per game: Garuba, in his limited playing time, contests 2.8.
Could he withstand more scrutiny in a larger role?
What is Garuba’s future role?
Garuba is 6’8”. Obviously, that makes him shorter than a conventional big.
The proxy that comes to mind first is Robert Williams III. Besides cool nicknames (Uzi is good: Time Lord is better), the two actually have a lot in common. They’re both undersized bigs who make their name with defensive versatility. Offensively, they’re both sneakily good passers.
In fact, it’s easier to identify one stark difference between the two: vertical leap. A healthy Time Lord can jump out of the gym. Garuba is not similarly blessed. That could limit him as a full-time rim protector. It’s guaranteed to limit him as a lob threat — if you’ve been talking about the Rockets on the internet lately, you know that’s a concern.
In fact, Garuba doesn’t have any outstanding athletic qualities. His feet are quick enough, but they’re not exceptional. He makes his defensive impact with high feel, instincts, timing and relentless effort.
I’m not sure whether he’ll ever be able to manage a role as a full-time, starting center in the NBA. He also doesn’t need to. It’s easy to envision a role for Garuba where he sees 20 to 25 minutes of action per contest as a combo big. If his extremely small sample of accurate three-point shooting (7-for-8 on the year, baby!) indicates anything about his shooting potential, there’s no reason he can’t lineup at the four alongside Sengun (or even Bruno Fernando) for spells.
After all, there’s no defensive assignment Garuba can’t handle. You name it, and Uzi does it.