In sports, homerism is the enemy of objectivity. I’ll start there. This article doesn’t make any pretense: it’s written by a Houston Rockets fan.
It’s also written by one who’s drawn the ire of several comment sections by criticizing players that this team’s fanbase reveres. It is always my intention in this space to discuss the Rockets with as much clarity and as little bias as I can.
All of which is to say: I think Tari Eason could be a franchise-altering draft steal.
How did Rockets’ Tari Eason slip to 17th?
Whenever one asserts that a player has steal potential, they automatically raise a related question: why did they slip to the spot they were drafted in?
After all, a lot of expertise goes into the NBA draft. Professional and amateur scouts alike publish countless big boards. Teams study prospects in greater depth than the masses have access to. This is not some kind of wild guessing game.
It’s just not an exact science either. Every year, a player or two is selected significantly lower than they should have been in retrospect. At the same time, every year, many fanbases across the league will claim that their team landed a steal two games into Summer League.
Some will be right, and some will be wrong. Let’s circle back to the original question: why did Eason fall to 17th?
In my research, I found that scouts had two main concerns about Eason. They worried about the viability of his unorthodox shooting form (more on that later). More concerningly, they worried about his “feel”.
Let’s talk about “feel”. What is feel? Essentially, it’s what we used to call basketball IQ. That language is evolving, and it’s a good thing. The history of IQ testing is steeped in racism.
On the other hand, intelligence is still a quality that matters in a basketball player. Effectively, scouts, as far as I can tell, questioned Eason’s on-court intelligence.
Were they right to?
Does Eason Lack Feel?
The first thing you need to know about Tari Eason is that he doesn’t want the ball. He needs it. If you have it, and you’re not a Houston Rocket, he is going to try to take it from you.
I have a theory: scouts mistook Eason’s relentless aggression for a lack of feel. At first glance, he looks like a bull in a china shop. On closer inspection, it’s clear that he’s a man in a china shop under some kind of curse (or blessing) that’s forced him to live out his remaining days in a bull’s body.
In simple terms, defense in basketball boils down to two properties: awareness and effort. Nobody can question the latter quality in Eason: his energy is relentless. I suspect that his vision is as well.
Awareness is the first step. Seeing an opportunity to make a defensive play is an essential step before trying to make one. After that, the defender has two choices: attempt to capitalize (thus gambling your positioning), or don’t.
Unless you’re Tari Eason. In that case, you only have one choice: attempt to capitalize.
Eason sees every potential defensive play. He just doesn’t pick his battles. Instead, he fights all of them. He knows he’s got rare athletic gifts: big hands, lateral quickness, strength. They allow him to make plays that others can’t.
Meanwhile, his preternatural gifts as a defensive player allow him to recognize opportunities to make those plays that mere mortals like scouts and basketball writers can’t see. When he tries to make those plays, and he fails, he looks like a low-feel player.
It couldn't be farther from the truth.
Sure, Eason will have to rein it in at times, if for no other reason than to avoid foul trouble. Just don’t mistake the plays where he tried and failed for indicating low feel.
What is the difference between ignorance and courage? I would argue that ignorance underestimates the risk, while courage acknowledges the risk and takes it anyway.
Eason plays defense without fear. He doesn’t care whether scouts think he can get the ball. He knows what he’s capable of.
The next question is, what are his capabilities on offense?
Eason’s jump shot is his swing skill
There’s no denying it: Eason’s jump shot is funkier than EPMD’s greatest hits. Does it matter?
NBA history is littered with players who shot well in spite of an odd shooting form. Some readers will recall Kevin Martin. Meanwhile, Shawn Marion is actually a solid general comparison for Eason (granted, that’s an absolute ceiling).
The results matter more than the process. It’s worth noting that Eason shot 35.9 percent from distance in college. If he could replicate that figure at the professional level, or even approach it, that would suffice given how much more he brings to the table.
Eason has a deceptively strong handle. That’s particularly valuable for a potentially elite defensive playmaker. He’s literally a one-man fastbreak: he can create the opportunity and finish it.
It’s hard to say how Eason’s career will go. He could absolutely be a role player, which of course, would be a perfectly acceptable outcome for the 17th pick.
Still, something tells me that Eason wants more.
By all appearances, if he wants it, he’s going to work until he gets it.