At this point in the 2021-22 season, alarm bells ring whenever the Houston Rockets win a game. When they win two in a row, the townsfolk start looking for their pitchforks.
Any angst is understandable. Rockets fans have been through the wringer this year. At 20-55, the team has nothing left to play for. More aptly, they have nothing left to win for.
Do they have nothing left to lose? Do they have nothing left but to lose? However you frame it, the fanbase is acutely aware of the benefits of defeat. Of course the Rockets would prefer to select in the top four: this early in a rebuild, higher picks are better without exception.
Do they need to?
How strong is the 2022 draft?
Last season’s draft class is widely regarded as potentially historic. With Jalen Green hinting at immense upside during the backend of this season, and Alperen Sengun looking like the steal of the draft, the Rockets appear to have taken advantage.
It’s worth noting that the 2023 draft has similar hype. Victor Wembenyama is perhaps the most anticipated prospect since LeBron James. Scoot Henderson is arguably the best point guard prospect since John Wall. The field is deep as well.
The 2022 draft looks comparatively ho-hum. Of course, there is talent. It just happens that no surefire superstar emerges from the class.
Chet Holmgren may have the highest ceiling in the draft, but at 7’0” and 195 pounds, questions about his frame dominate the discourse. Paolo Banchero looks like an offensive engine, but his limitations in terms of three-point shooting and defense are a concern.
Jabari Smith Jr. should be elite in both of those categories, but can he develop the handle to be anything more than a high-end role player? Meanwhile, Jaden Ivey has star potential, but are the Rockets ready to try to convert another off-guard into a point guard?
Any of the top four prospects would be a welcomed addition to the roster, but none of them assure the Rockets’ salvation. It’s not necessarily a popular sentiment, but this team may actually benefit in the long term from grabbing a quality rotation player in the top 10 and hoping for better lottery luck in 2023.
In that event, the team would still have plenty of intriguing options.
Who could the Rockets target from the field?
Outside of the top four, Shaedon Sharpe from Kentucky probably has the highest upside. He’s one of the most unknown variables in the draft, as he hasn’t suited up for the Wildcats this season. His draft eligibility came as a surprise, and it’s not even certain that he’ll declare.
If he does, the Rockets need to consider him from the fifth pick onwards. An explosive athlete with a sophisticated offensive game and defensive tools, Sharpe does closely resemble Jalen Green. However, at 6’6” and potentially growing, he should be able to function as a scoring wing. If the Rockets intend to build around Alperen Sengun’s playmaking, they’ll have room for two alpha scorers in the starting lineup.
Iowa’s Keegan Murray is another intriguing option. He provides spacing and multi-positional defense at the four spot. Drawing comparisons to Al Horford and Harrison Barnes, Murray has all the appearances of a high-IQ, fundamentally sound player who eventually brings a contending roster together.
Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin has similar potential as a three-and-D wing with secondary scoring chops. Adrian Griffin Jr. fits the same description. Memphis big man Jalen Duren threatens to step on Alperen Sengun’s toes. Still, he could bring an element of rim protection to this team that they haven’t seen since Clint Capela roamed the paint in the Toyota Center.
Rockets fans will inevitably be disappointed with any of these selections in the short term. That doesn’t mean they won’t be thrilled with them eventually.
Rebuilds require a long lens
The Rockets don’t necessarily need to grab another star in this draft, as much as they’d like to. Selecting a strong future starter could eventually move the needle.
Rebuilding can be an arduous process. Fans like to imagine that progress will be strictly linear: you draft a star, you draft another star, and then you acquire veterans to fill out the rotation.
It’s not always so simple. Luck is a forever complicating factor. Slipping in this year’s draft could result in another season of misery in 2022-23.
That could result in the Rockets landing in a position to draft Victor Wembenyama.
Or not: nothing precludes the Rockets from slipping in the draft for two consecutive seasons. There’s also nothing stopping them from landing a star in free agency, through a trade, or an unexpected draft steal.
It may, in fact, still happen in the 2022 draft. If it doesn’t, Rockets fans should prepare to do something remarkably difficult during a rebuild: remain calm.