It’s one of the oldest truisms in the National Basketball Associations: when you’re drafting in the lottery, you draft the best player available.
The logic is sound. If you find yourself in the lottery, chances are, you don’t have the luxury to think about fit. You don’t have a surefire superstar at any one position on your team. If you did, you probably wouldn’t be drafting in the lottery.
As sound as that logic is, there are exceptions to every rule. NBA general managers are not clairvoyant. They cannot identify the best player available as some matter of empirical fact. Realistically, the best approach is to divide players into tiers and select based on fit from those tiers.
The 2022 NBA draft is not a draft with a distinctive top prospect. Any one of the top four is a strong candidate to hear their name called first. The draft is also a fair distance away: any one of these guys could do enough to improve or destroy their stock.
Without a clear first-overall selection, we’re ranking the current top five prospects based on their fit with the Houston Rockets.
Adrian Griffin Jr., Duke
Outside of the aforementioned top 4, Adrian Griffin Jr. is widely regarded as a prospect with a star ceiling. His combination of shot-making ability and defensive potential make for the type of two-way wing that an NBA franchise could build a team around. If he can prove that recent injury issues were fleeting concerns, he could creep into the top five.
Kendall Brown, Baylor
A young, uptempo team like the Rockets has to be looking at the best pure athlete in the entire draft. Brown can run and jump with the best of them, and he’s also displayed strong defensive and passing instincts during his time with Baylor. Still, drafting him in the top five would border on malpractice unless he improves his three-point cannon (32.0 percent on 1.0 attempts per contest). The Rockets may be more likely to land him with their later-round Brooklyn Nets pick.
Keegan Murray, Iowa
If we’re talking purely in terms of fit, Keegan Murray is about the best player the Rockets could acquire. He projects as the type of three-and-D wing with the potential to compensate for either of Christian Wood or Alperen Sengun’s defensive deficiencies. Like Brown, he’s simply not a top five player at this juncture.
The top five 2022 NBA draft prospects according to fit with the Houston Rockets
5. Shaedon Sharpe, Kentucky
It’s worth noting that Shaedon Sharpe may not even enter the 2022 draft. It was recently announced that he’ll be eligible, but as one of the youngest prospects in the draft, it feels likely that he’ll wait until 2023.
For argument’s sake, we’ll assume that he’s joining the league next season. Sharpe is a 6’6” off-guard with otherworldly athleticism and a questionable jump shot.
From a best player available perspective, the Rockets would be lucky to add Sharpe into the fold next season. It’s just hard to imagine his fit. This club is already (successfully) converting a career off-guard into a point guard. It recently drafted a remarkably similar player with the second-overall pick in Green, and Josh Christopher is playing beyond his 2021 draft selection as well.
Something has to give. If the Rockets are forced to select a guard in the 2022 draft, it should be because the next player listed is comfortably the best player left on the board.
4. Jaden Ivey, Purdue
There may be good reasons for Rafael Stone to be apprehensive about selecting a guard in this draft. If the team is selecting fourth and Ivey is on the board, he may be forced to disregard them.
That’s how good the Purdue product has been throughout this college basketball season. With exceptionally long arms to go with elite athletic qualities, Ivey projects as a defensive disruptor and fastbreak terror at the NBA level.
His fit with this roster is also a little easier to grasp than Sharpe’s. Ivey’s positional future is unclear. He’s currently listed as a shooting guard, but he has every opportunity to make his future as a point guard as well.
Drafting him allows the Rockets an extra kick at the can. Ivey could start the year as a sixth man, allowing Stephen Silas to experiment with different backcourt combinations until he finds out what works. While Sharpe would step directly on Green’s toes, Ivey at least has the potential to function with either of Houston’s young starting guards.
Drafting Ivey could still create difficult decisions. That’s fine. Those are an expected part of life in an NBA rebuild.
3. Paolo Banchero, Duke
There was a time when Paolo Banchero looked like the distinctive candidate to get selected first overall in this draft. The respective rises of Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. have changed that dialogue, but Banchero has done nothing to lead to any significant questions about his game.
The appeal in Banchero largely rests on his floor. It’s hard to watch Duke and not conclude that this kid will be a first option at the NBA level. The only question is whether the team that grants him that role will be led to serious title contention.
With that said, the top two prospects provide a cleaner fit with the players currently on Houston’s roster. That holds on both ends of the floor. Offensively, Banchero provides little value off-the-ball: that’s a problem for a team featuring two ball-dominant players in the backcourt.
Defensively, Banchero looks a little limited (particularly in comparison to the next two players on this list). The Rockets may eventually have to decide between Christian Wood and Alperen Sengun as their center of the future (more on that shortly). Neither projects as an elite defensive big in the future.
We recently went into detail about Wood’s defensive deficiencies. Sengun’s are different. He’s an effortful, high IQ defender, but slow feet and shortish arms may limit his ceiling on that end. Banchero suffers from the same afflictions. He’s unlikely to cover for either existing Rockets big man’s shortcomings.
As with any of these prospects, the Rockets would be thrilled to add Banchero over the upcoming offseason. Still, there are at least two prospects who’d provide a better fit with their current core.
2. Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Chet Holmgren is steadily making a case as the top prospect in this draft class. Fans are concerned about his particularly thin frame. Scouts seem to generally doubt that it will be a problem.
In terms of team needs, he’s probably the best fit for this roster. The Rockets field the worst defense in the NBA, and Holmgren projects as a potentially generational rim protector. That feels like a perfect marriage.
It could well be. With that said, selecting Holmgren backs the Rocket into another corner. It’s basically certain that all of Holmgren, Wood, and Sengun cannot co-exist. This selection would probably force the front office to deal Wood.
More optimism exists about the fit between Holmgren and Sengun. It’s possible that the former could thrive at the four spot, focusing on weak side shot-blocking. On the other hand, he may not have the agility required to guard the league’s more perimeter-oriented fours. If he can’t play with either of the Rockets’ current big men, he may force some major organizational overhaul sooner than later.
Which, again, is normal when a team is rebuilding. However, in terms of assessing fit with the currently existent core, one prospect rises above the rest for the Rockets.
1. Jabari Smith Jr., Auburn
Jabari Smith Jr. scratches every itch the Rockets currently have. If the front office sees a clear best player advantage in Holmgren, they could easily justify drafting him. Otherwise, Smith Jr. is the choice for this roster.
Offensively, he compliments all of Kevin Porter Jr, Green, and Sengun perfectly. Smith has the potential to be one of the game’s premiere off-ball weapons. At 6’10”, he may be the best pure shooter in this class. He can generate quality unassisted three-point shots with a smooth, alterable stroke.
He thus far struggles with dribble penetration. That may keep him from being one of the league’s top five offensive players down the road. However, if the Rockets are content to gamble on Porter Jr. and Green’s development, Smith’s elite floor spacing and from distance shot creation is perfect. He’ll open the floor for their relentless drives to the rim, and provide a safety valve when defenses collapse.
He also fits with either of the Rockets’ potential future starting big men. His offensive game is similar to Christian Wood’s. In Silas’ five-out offensive system, there’s no such thing as too many stretch bigs. Meanwhile, if the Rockets commit to Sengun, his passing vision on the low block pairs perfectly with Smith’s game in a clean inside/outside dynamic.
Smith’s potential fit on offense is exciting, but it’s his defensive ability the Rockets would especially covet. He’s a dogged perimeter defender, capable of slipping screens like a 6’10” Marcus Smart and sticking to his man. He doesn’t project as an elite rim protector, but he can provide weakside help. Smith looks like the type of defender who could guard at least two through five. The Rockets, as currently constructed, couldn’t put a price on that kind of defensive versatility.
Unless the team’s recent acquisition of Dennis Schroder launches them into the play-in tournament (highly unlikely), the odds are high that they’ll enter the 2022-23 season with one of these players on their roster. No matter which one it ends up being, it should make for a more exciting season.
Which player would you most like to see become a Houston Rocket in the upcoming draft?
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Jabari Smith Jr.