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Should the Rockets trade for Cam Reddish?

Reddish has fallen short of expectations in his career to date. Should the Rockets gamble on his upside?

NBA: Miami Heat at New York Knicks
Could Cam Reddish thrive as a Houston Rocket?
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, a theory is grand in concept but doesn’t work in practice.

Communism. Have the government control the economy so they can force economic equality. Perfect: no more economic inequality! What’s that? Power corrupts and now the government is hoarding money for themselves? Well, we gave it a shot.

None of which is to say Cam Reddish is a communist.

He might be, but we’re concerned with him as an NBA player. So far, he hasn’t been a very good one. Reddish has, to this point, been more of a theory than an actual product.

Where did the theory originate from?

Cam Reddish’s winding career path

In 2018, Cam Reddish was perhaps the most sought-after high school basketball player in the United States of America. Eventually, he’d choose Duke. Some would laud that decision — Duke is one of the most prestigious programs in the country. The school’s history of NBA products is a rich one.

Unfortunately for Reddish, some other highly-touted recruits would also see the appeal in their program. Reddish joined Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett for his lone college basketball season. Suddenly, the ball-dominant superstar was relegated to floor-spacing duties. Reddish would watch his teammates get selected first and third in the 2019 draft, while he’d wait until 10th to hear his name called.

Question — who were you in high school? Who are you now? I had bleached blonde hair that I wore down to my shoulders, and I had every intention of making a living as a rapper in time. Stop laughing. Get out of my head!

Reddish was a different player then. Subsequently, his scouting reports listed two comparisons more than others: Tracy McGrady and Paul George.

There’s a wide stylistic range between those two players. McGrady was an elite shot creator, whereas George is a three-and-D wing who doubles as a near-elite shot creator. Reddish will never be McGrady — that ship has sailed.

On the other hand, George has probably been a more impactful NBA player than McGrady ever was anyway. How close can Reddish get to him?

Projecting Reddish’s future

To look at Reddish’s potential outcome, I plotted his progression in some metrics thus far against several theoretically comparable players. I looked at two players who would represent a high-end outcome (Andrew Wiggins and Jaylen Brown) and two players on the opposite end of the spectrum (Jarrett Culver and Josh Jackson).

The results were interesting. It appears that, on a macro level, Reddish is far behind Wiggins and Brown in terms of their career development. On the other hand, on some micro measurements, he would appear to have a lot of promise.

(Note - I used Bball Index to find and compile all of this data. I finally bit the bullet and paid for a subscription. Does that officially make me a professional basketball journalist? Can I make it a tax write-off?)

LEBRON is BBall Index’s comprehensive plus/minus metric. It’s worth noting that both Wiggins and Brown made huge leaps in their percentile between their rookie and sophomore seasons - from 11.25 to 63.26 and 14.47 to 86.93, respectively. By contrast, Jackson slipped from 6.38 to the 3.57 in percentile, and Culver dipped from the 6.7 to not even qualifying.

Reddish split the difference. He jumped from the 5.37 in percentile to the 22.1. Unfortunately, he took another dive in his third year, down to the 0.79.

Of course, the numbers don't tell the whole story. Firstly, this is just one metric. Moreover, Wiggins and Brown both dipped in LEBRON their third years as well, only to climb back. In all likelihood, teams started scheming for them.

Still, both Wiggins and Brown also rose to surpass the league’s average in their sophomore years, and never dipped below it. Reddish hasn’t even sniffed average yet. By that projection, he’s likely to be something closer to Josh Jackson than a Jaylen Brown.

Andrew Wiggins’ D-LEBRON (which is LEBRON for defense) arc leaves some room for optimism in regards to Reddish. Wiggins was below league average in that metric for the first five years of his career, never surpassing the 25.01 in percentile, until he skyrocketed to the 89.5 just last season. Of course, Wiggins benefitted from joining an elite Golden State Warriors program, but a point stands: improvement is possible.

Moreover, a look at some more micro metrics suggests that Reddish has some untapped potential.

In terms of defensive tools, he’s graded well in some key categories even if his overall impact has been poor according to D-LEBRON (32.65 in percentile in 2020-21, 1.69 last year). Reddish was in the 91.34 percentile in BBall Index’s On-Ball Defense metric last season, and 97 in percentile in passing lane defense.

Offensively, he’s also thrived in some key areas for a three-and-D wing/secondary shot creator. Reddish was 22.57 in percentile in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage in his sophomore year, but he jumped to 71.06th in percentile last season. Wiggins made a similar jump between his second and third seasons (38.73 to 74.72), where Brown has more consistently graded above league average in that category.

Without bogging this piece down with numbers any further, we’ll finally note that Reddish has remained above the 70th percentile in three-point shot creation percentage for his whole career as well, whereas Wiggins and Brown had to work harder to reach that threshold.

It’s fascinating. Reddish’s trajectory in some key metrics that should determine the success of a player in his mold has been great. Yet, the more macro-level, all-encompassing LEBRON, O-LEBRON and D-LEBRON metrics all indicate that he’s lagging far behind Wiggins and Brown’s trajectories. They placed Reddish in the Josh Jackson/Jarred Culver category.

Perhaps there’s a normative explanation.

Is Reddish right for the Rockets?

Taking a flier on a young player is good business for a team like the Rockets. It doesn’t even matter if they haven't played well so far. The Rockets should be hoping to put themselves in a position to facilitate a young player’s breakout season.

Moreover, Reddish is due for a rookie contract extension following this year. His trade value may be close to nil — David Nwaba and a second-round pick might get a deal done.

Still, the question persists: if Reddish is an elite on-ball defender and an elite passing lane disrupter, why the poor overall defensive impact? I’ll confess that I haven’t watched him enough over recent years to truly have a credible eye test, but it’s hard not to wonder if his attitude is getting in his way.

This is the normative explanation I spoke of. If Reddish is elite on-ball, and in passing lanes, but doesn’t make a strong overall defensive impact, isn’t it possible that he’s just not trying very hard?

After all, the Atlanta Hawks moved Reddish on his rookie contract. That doesn't happen very often. Now, it’s rumored that he wants another change of scenery from the New York Knicks. Apparently, he’d like a larger role.

There’s a tension here that’s a little worrying. It feels like Reddish would like to be McGrady when he should be Wiggins — and even then, he has to prove that he can be Royce O’Neale consistently first.

I have to wonder if the Rockets are the right team for a young player looking to experiment with an increased role right now. If you’re reading this, you’d surely like to see Jalen Green’s usage increase next year. Yet, some would argue that giving Kevin Porter Jr. more leeway is even more important. With his extension in the air, the team needs to finally figure out what they actually have in him.

That’s to say nothing of Alperen Sengun, and even guys like Josh Christopher and Tari Eason will need on-ball reps. For that matter, Jabari Smith Jr. will be mostly deployed as an off-ball weapon in year one, but he will still need a sufficient number of shots available to him.

Moreover, there are already concerns about Porter Jr.’s headspace. I hate playing armchair psychologist with NBA players. As writers, we usually don’t know these guys - I certainly don't. Yet, it’s an intrinsic part of analyzing them as basketball players. Who they are has a direct relationship with how they’ll play.

With questions already surrounding Porter Jr.’s mindset, bringing another player with similar concerns onboard may be too substantial a risk, no matter what any metrics tell us.

Personally, I’d consider taking a low-cost flier on Reddish. If David Nwaba and a second-round pick works for New York, the Rockets may be forced to entertain adding a player with Reddish’s upside. Moreover, if Kenyon Martin Jr. is dead set on his trade request, Reddish might be a good return for him as well.

Still, all things considered, the Rockets probably shouldn’t go out of their way. Reddish’s upside may be enticing, but for one reason or another, he’s not quite on pace to realize it.