The Houston Rockets rolled out the youngest starting lineup in the history of the NBA earlier this season when they sent out Kevin Porter Jr. (22), Jalen Green (20), Kenyon Martin Jr. (21), Jabari Smith Jr. (19) and Usman Garuba (20) for the opening tip versus the Milwaukee Bucks. The reason this was possible is a boatload of recent draft picks that comprises the majority of this roster.
The genetic makeup of this team that Rafael Stone has built is a complete 180 of how the previous GM, Daryl Morey, went about constructing the roster. Of the players currently on the roster, seven of them are first rounders selected by Houston during the past two drafts.
Compare that to Morey’s last season with the team (2019-20) where they only had two players on the roster that Morey had selected, and you’ll see the stark contrast in philosophies. For Daryl, the picks only served the purpose to incentivize deals that would push the Rockets over the mountain.
There was no real development of draft assets besides Clint Capela. I guess it didn’t make sense for a team that was going to be near the bottom of the first round every season to invest into someone who couldn’t immediately help with the pursuit of a title.
That being said, if I put my hindsight hat on, I think Morey actually had the vision when it came to the draft. However, he got too overzealous with his approach, and it’s not in the way you might think.
Look back at his second round picks from that 2014-20 stretch and you’ll see some legitimate talent that probably could have helped those teams had he been a little more patient.
Montrezl Harrell went on to become a Sixth Man of The Year winner. He got the longest look among the picks, but he was a casualty of the Chris Paul acquisition.
Memphis saw something in Dillon Brooks which prompted them to move for him on draft night. Although he is aggravating as hell, he essentially came into the league as an NBA-ready starter.
It took awhile, but Isaiah Hartenstein eventually carved himself into a guy that earned himself a $16 million contract this past offseason. He’s a serviceable backup at the very least.
Last but not least, there is De’Anthony Melton who has shown he is a really solid rotation piece for playoff teams. Melton has played well enough to the point that the Philadelphia 76ers feel comfortable enough to start him alongside James Harden while Tyrese Maxey provides scoring off the bench.
However, that era of Houston Rockets basketball came to a screeching halt...
A combination of pick-loaded swaps for aging point guards, Morey stepping down, and the imminent trade request by Harden really didn’t leave Stone any other choice besides than to build through the draft.
To his credit and his fault, Stone has thus far avoided the risky win-now temptations that his predecessor salivated over. He was able to recoup a haul of draft assets from the Brooklyn Nets in the Harden mega-deal and gather another as he pawned off P.J. Tucker to the Milwaukee Bucks two years ago. His fate will now depend on how well he executes on those draft night decisions.
Of the seven players Houston has taken in the past two drafts, I think it’s safe to assume that at least four of them are or will be hits. None have been perfect so far, but I’ve seen enough flashes from Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün, Tari Eason and Jabari Smith Jr. to think that they will factor into the long-term plans.
As for Josh Christopher, Usman Garuba and TyTy Washington Jr., it appears they just need more opportunity.
Between the three, Garuba has shown spurts of belonging here as he is most effective in Houston’s Goon Squad along with Eason and Kenyon Martin Jr.
TyTy was injured early on and has started to get more playing time as of late. A recent 53-point outing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers shows there’s potential there with him.
Christopher has really been the one that has received the short end of the stick, and while his mistakes can be loud, I don't believe there can be a reasonable evaluation of him until the coaching staff gives him consistent minutes.
With only so much roster space available and an influx of first rounders on the way, it’s crucial that Stone gets a fair appraisal of the those other guys while the winning expectations for the team are still low. With a heap of cap room opening up this summer and another year of experience under the belt for the lottery picks, it’s going to increasingly approach the time to see those picks transition into more wins.
And while we may be hyper-focused on the incoming first round talent within our grasp, I sincerely hope that Stone doesn’t neglect the second round picks like Morey did. The talent coming into the league is deeper than ever and important’s to leave no stone unturned (that was a pun).
Even though he was drafted elsewhere and traded here after the draft, KJ has turned into a delight as another one of those second round picks that has blossomed. I’d hate to see the team succumb to those early season trade requests because he truly looks like he belongs here.
For Stone, finding those additional diamonds in the rough to supplement the high-end talent might just be what secures his tenure and pushes Houston to that next level.