The Houston Rockets, after almost a decade of not being involved in the first round of NBA drafts, had four first-round picks last year. First, of course, Jalen Green was the number two overall pick who started slow but torched the league the last few weeks of the year. Then, you had a surprise pick at 16 when the Rockets traded into the spot to select Alperen Sengun. The Rockets also selected Josh Christopher with the 24th overall pick.
Each of the three players mentioned earlier has had an impact throughout the year for the Rockets. Each has had nights where you saw the potential of these players on full display. But unfortunately, one name missing from that list is Usman Garuba, the 23rd overall pick.
Garuba's season was uneven, to say the least, as the big man bounced from the G-League to the Rockets and back all year long. Injuries in between stalled a lot of Garuba's progress as well. However, even with the short season, Garuba had some highlights throughout the year, mainly with the Vipers in the five games he played with the Rockets’ G-League affiliate. The off-season and training camp will be huge for Garuba because the Rockets are poised to bring in another frontcourt player in the draft, maybe even two.
Garuba will need to improve in several areas this year not to get lost in the big man shuffle. Here are three ways Garuba can take his game to the next level next season.
Play consistent minutes for the Vipers
The plan last year for the Rockets was to have Garuba play 30 minutes a game last season for the Vipers, especially to start the year with the Rockets having Christian Wood and Sengun already in the frontcourt. Garuba, as mentioned earlier, played five games for the Vipers averaging 9 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 1.4 blocks. Even though it was a short span, Garuba had highlight plays. However, a right thigh bruise shortened his time for the Vipers, and later a hand injury meant he would spend most of his time with the Rockets training staff.
Garuba did have moments with the Vipers that showed his potential. For example, in a game vs. Ciudad De Mexico Capitanes, Garuba had 18 points, 17 rebounds, and the game-saving block on the Capitanes last-second layup attempt.
Garuba with great one on one defense and the game saving block! Vipers go to 5-0 pic.twitter.com/lHbssOTVGn— Lachard Binkley (@BinkleyHoops) November 23, 2021
With the Rockets adding even more talent in the frontcourt this draft, Garuba needs to have extended time in the G-League to take that next step. More time on the court, more reps which mean more game experience. As I covered the Vipers last year, Garuba's skills are apparent, from his skills on defense to even showing passing abilities.
Work on his defensive positioning on defense
When Garuba was drafted, his elite defense was his main selling point for drafting him. He showed that while playing overseas and even during the Olympics when Spain took on the United States. At times last season, you saw how his ability to recover quickly and as a weakside defender could be a huge plus.
The #Rockets got demolished last night we all know this but I still like to go back and watch as many plays as possible because that's how you evaluate players. This play by Usman Garuba shows how Garuba's great defensive instincts as he does a great job on the switch. pic.twitter.com/6sV5fsPnfG— Lachard Binkley (@BinkleyHoops) December 16, 2021
Garuba, at times, can be out of position, which can cause him to get in early foul trouble. In addition, he tends to reach and not take the right defensive stance, which lets players get by him on the perimeter. Garuba has excellent recovery speed that helps him cover up mistakes, but he has to be in a better position to stay on the court. Also, not committing silly fouls like over the back or being too aggressive on closeouts.
The issues that Garuba had on defense can be fixed with more playing time. Garuba had two significant injuries last season, with the hand injury costing him 25 games. If Garuba stays healthy and gets in-game reps, he will show how much his defensive abilities can impact a game.
Keep improving on the offensive end of the court
From the start, the Rockets knew Garuba was going to be a project on the offensive end of the court. So this was the scouting report for Garuba coming into the draft from NBA Draft Room.
He’s a high energy guy (think Kenneth Fareid) who runs the floor hard, sets good screens and brings a lot of energy on defense. He’s a smart defender who knows when to leave his feet and how to play with proper position. He plays with good awareness and is a good help defender and weak-side shot blocker.
His current offensive game is mostly dunks, layups and back to the basket moves, but he shows promise of a mid range and outside shot.
He does a good job in the pick-and-roll and cuts hard to the basket, using his brute power, strength and agility to get to the basket. His length is a big factor in the lane, making him a dangerous offensive rebounder.
The rest of his offensive game is young, but he shows flashes of ball handling, passing and perimeter shooting.
This is almost unanimous across the board when looking at other scouting sites and reading scouring expert reports on Garuba going into the draft. That played out for most of the season, and we saw Garuba show the ability to play above the rim and run hard to the basket off pick-and-rolls. However, we also saw Garuba struggle at times when he needed to make a counter move once defenders stopped the initial roll.
One development I did notice from Garuba was his passing. Something that was not mentioned in those scouting reports. I saw a player willing to pass and make good reads to find open teammates. If Garuba can continue to improve his passing, that will go a long way to getting him more playing time for the Rockets.
He will need to improve his three-point shooting, which was only 11 percent in the G-League and 25 percent for the Rockets in 24 limited games. If he can continue to improve his outside shooting, that will make a big difference because his defense is already at an NBA level.
Garuba didn't have the rookie season I am sure he was hoping for. From injuries to lack of playing time, he didn't get to show what he can do. Therefore, this off-season and training camp will play a significant role in Garuba's development. He will need to come into camp focused and ready to take the next step not to be buried on the bench again next season.