The Southwest division quite possibly holds the largest assortment of young and talented assets throughout the league. It is also the home of your Houston Rockets, and as you know, the team has compiled their fair share of high pedigree players over the past three drafts.
That being said, while the sum of the whole will ideally amount to a team built to withstand the long haul, we’re still not certain if any of these guys are suited to become the face of a franchise. Do the Rockets possess that one supernova capable of transcending the upper echelon of the league?
I often wonder how well the Rockets’ individual pieces match up against the rest of the division’s cornerstones. It would be reassuring to be able to count on a franchise caliber player in a division that features a surplus of top four picks and multiple All-NBA performers. Who on the Rockets can go toe-to-toe with the best in the Southwest?
In deciding how the Southwest’s top five foundational pieces stack up, I should probably define the timeline for these linchpins. Are we determining the top five players for this season alone? If so, that’s not too difficult. I’ll give some quick thoughts on that below.
Let’s also establish if we’re identifying the top five players overall, regardless if they’re on the same team, or if we’re choosing one candidate per team. Just by taking a quick glance, it appears that the other four teams in the division have already identified their guy.
Ultimately, I think what we’re looking for is the top five players that a GM can build around over the next decade plus. In essence, who are you willing to hitch your wagon to? To figure this out, everything will need to be taken into consideration, including: past performance, future projections, injury history and off-court happenings.
I set the cutoff time at under 25 years old because that’s generally how these lists work. That would disqualify a player such as Brandon Ingram (26). Desmond Bane and Herb Jones (both 25) also just missed the cut for consideration, but there are still plenty of names to pool from.
Houston Rockets: Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore
Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, Jaden Hardy, Dereck Lively II and Josh Green
Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson, Dyson Daniels and Trey Murphy III
San Antonio Spurs: Victor Wembanyama, Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassell, Malaki Branham and Keldon Johnson.
Before I reveal my rankings for the top five franchise players to build around over the next decade plus, here are my rankings on a top five for the 2023-24 season.
- Jackson Jr.
- Doncic is the easy choice to top this list. Four straight All-NBA appearances places him within the top five players in the league.
- I’m still sipping the kool-aid on Zion. He may not be the newest shiny toy in the box anymore, but if he produces when he is on the court. I think he’s focused more than ever.
- I’m extremely high on Wemby, so much so that he’s pole-vaulted much more accomplished players even before playing in this league.
- I don’t think he’s the best Grizzlies player on this list, but I elevated reigning DPOY Jaren Jackson Jr. for this season alone due to Morant’s 25 game suspension. There will be a lot of pressure on him to produce, but he’s talented enough to keep Memphis respectable.
- Sadly, I omitted any Rockets from the list as I still have to give the nod to Wembanyama (he’s ridiculously good) and the four All-Stars.
- Jalen Green would have been my first honorable mention as he is currently the closest to achieving star status in my eyes.
- Other honorable mentions for the 2023-24 season include: Sengun, Smith Jr., Josh Green, Sochan, Vassell and Keldon Johnson. Figuring out who will become Robin on the Rockets and Spurs is still a toss up at this point.
- Trey Murphy III would have also made my honorables list had he not entered the season recovering from torn meniscus surgery. He is the goods.
Those are my projections for this season, but if I’m to peer into the future, I believe there’s only five or six players that are legitimate franchise players. I had to settle on five though. Selecting the top four was pretty simple. Settling on the fifth spot is where I tore my hair out. The good news is that it was between two Rockets.
I’ve recently made the case that Jalen Green is capable of taking a leap into being one of the top guards in the league. Going into year three, he appears to be the focal point of the team. I expect he turns into a more efficient leading scorer and develops in other facets of the game this year and that should give him claim to being the face of the franchise.
However, I’d be disingenuous if I said that I believe he has the highest ceiling on the team. I believe there’s someone that possesses more innate attributes that will result in them becoming the better overall player, thus Green has made honorable mention once more.
So without further adieu...
The Southwest division’s top five under 25
- Victor Wembanyama
- Luka Doncic
- Ja Morant
- Zion Williamson
- Amen Thompson
While I know landing in San Antonio was likely the best case scenario for Wembanyama, it’s going to pain me to have to root against him. He’s truly an anomaly, a potential game-changing defender that moves more fluidly than any seven footer the game has ever seen.
It doesn’t even feel disrespectful putting Doncic down at the second spot. Luka is a wizard with the ball, but if I’m looking towards the highest ceilings going forward, Big Vic’s head is sticking through the roof.
While I’ve remained a huge proponent that a healthy Williamson is better than Morant, I still have to account for Zion’s vast injury history. Taking that into consideration, I believe a reformed Morant will give his team a chance at winning for a longer period of time.
As the first Rockets player to crack either list, Amen Thompson rounds out the top five. It definitely looks silly to list him here, even after acknowledging that Jalen/Sengun/Jabari will get the first chance at asserting rank, but he has the intangibles to prove me right.
I’ve already sold myself on the fact that he’s a 6’7” Jason Kidd with elite athleticism. Even with the concerns about his jump shot, his athletic upside and ability to share the rock is what will make him special. Kidd in his prime was able to lead the Nets to back-to-back Finals appearances. Just imagine what a supercharged version of that can do if he has a supporting cast around him that is capable of carrying the scoring load.
The prophecy of Amen may not actualize until a few years from now, but when it does, I will remind the people. The cream always rises to the top.