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Can the Rockets get an Amen?

Should they?

Basketball: Overtime Elite-Cold Hearts at City Reapers
Can Amen Thompson lead the Rockets to the promised land?
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

“Would you still love me if I was a worm?”

Of course I would. I love your soul, not the corporal shell that hosts it. I’d love you if you were a worm.

Suddenly, you’re having an experience that is literally Kafkaesque. You’ve woken up next to a big, writhing worm where your girlfriend used to lay.

Still love her?

I wrote that I didn’t want the Rockets to draft Amen Thompson here. I implied it right here, too. Now, the Rockets have the fourth pick in the 2023 NBA draft - and guess what?

I think they should draft Amen Thompson.

Who does Thompson compare to?

Let’s review Thompson’s game.

He enters the NBA as arguably its single most impressive athlete. Thompson is an astonishing run-and-jump athlete. His burst and acceleration are second to none. His side-to-side movement is equally impressive.

His athletic profile should help him be an outstanding defender at the pro level. With that said, it’s his mind that’s perhaps most impressive. Thompson has remarkable floor vision.

Thompson can’t shoot. You probably have several friends with more fundamentally solid jump shots. We’re not going to pretend that isn't a problem, because this is the sport called basketball, and shooting is a big part of it.

So that overall profile has invited plenty of comparisons. Some are more flattering than others. Is Thompson the next Ben Simmons?

There are two counterarguments. Firstly, Thompson plays more aggressively than Simmons. He will shoot if he’s open, even if it’s probably not going in. That’s exactly how you get better at shooting - by shooting.

Thompson also isn’t passing to a cutting Matisse Thybulle when Trae Young is his primary defender. He’s yamming it. Yes, Thompson is an outstanding passer. He’s also got All-Defensive potential. This is why he invites the Simmons comparisons. Still, there is an apparent difference in his psychological makeup that has a tangible effect on how he plays basketball.

It’s also worth noting that Simmons, for a few years, looked the part of a first-overall pick. A few factors explain his decline. Simmons got hurt, and he does seem to have some problematic mental blocks. At the same time, he was never put in an opportune situation, either.

Joel Embiid was never the ideal co-star for Simmons. Sure, he can shoot, but he’s most effective in the same dunker spot that Simmons occupies. If Simmons had found himself alongside a Myles Turner, or a (cough) Naz Reid, he may have been maximized.

This isn’t high-level stuff. If your lead ball-handler can’t shoot, surround him with spot-up shooters. That will maximize the space of his driving lanes.

Will defenses pack the paint? You bet. How many NBA players are completely unsolvable? Defenses pack the paint against Giannis Antetokoumnpo, too.

Is he the better comparison for Thompson?

Thompson is a freak

Obviously, Amen is unlikely to be as good as Giannis Antetokoumnpo. There’s only one player in this draft whos likely to hit that level. He’s going to be a Spur, and his name rhymes with “friends have mommas”.

Still, functionally, Antetokoumnpo is a more instructive point of comparison than Simmons. Why? Well, we can assume that Thompson won’t adopt Simmons’ “I don’t shoot threes under any circumstance” policy.

In terms of combined efficiency and volume, Giannis’ best three-point shooting season came in 2019-20. That year, he hit 30.4 percent of his 4.7 attempts per game.

Thompson can hit that mark. If he works hard enough, and the Rockets hire a real shooting coach, there’s little to no doubt.

Why is this comparison imperfect? Obvious reasons. Thompson is about five inches shorter in height and wingspan than Antetokoumnpo. At the same time, he’s faster and he jumps higher. He’s also a much more gifted passer.

I sound crazy. Thompson is going to be better than Giannis Antetokoumnpo! Again - no. Here’s the point: there is a pathway to greatness for Thompson.

If your entire argument against him as a prospect is “he can’t shoot”, there is evidence that a lead option can function without a reliable jumper. Having exceedingly rare athletic gifts is fairly useful in that regard.

I know. Antetokoumnpo is an outlier. What about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? This is a 6’7” point guard who just shot 34.5 percent from long range on 2.5 attempts per contest. Yes, that’s a higher bar for accuracy - Thompson may never meet it. Still, defenses are willing to let Gilgeous-Alexander shoot. He averaged 31.4 points per game this year anyway.

Still not convinced? You should sell your Paolo Banchero stocks, too. The reigning Rookie of the Year just shot 29.8 percent on 4.0 attempts per contest. Are you really going to tell me that he didn’t look like a future superstar in the process?

Yes, these are both also imperfect comparisons. Gilgeous-Alexander’s angular driving patterns make him one of the more singular offensive players in the NBA. Banchero is bigger than Thompson and a more polished scorer.

Yet, Thompson has significant advantages over them both as well. He’s a much more impressive natural athlete, and he’s got much better floor vision than either (even if that’s a strength for both).

The point is this: you don’t need to be a knockdown shooter to be a primary offensive option in the NBA. In the midst of this three-point era, we’ve taken it for granted that a lead playmaker has to be able to shoot. Yet, there are countless examples of subpar shooters who are thriving as lead playmakers.

With that in mind, some of the counterexamples we’re using to bring Thompson down are patently absurd. Michael Carter-Williams? Evan Turner? Please. That’s how I know you haven’t seen Amen Thompson jump.

Rockets need to swing on upside

Let’s be realistic at the same time. There is a possibility that Thompson’s poor shooting knocks his career off course.

Frankly, he’s got a higher ceiling than Scoot Henderson. Being six inches taller than his classmate gives him that. Still, Henderson has flashed some indicators of at least being able to punish defenders for going under screens. It’s more likely that packing the paint won’t work against him. It’s safe to assume that Henderson can hit open threes at the NBA level.

That’s not a safe assumption for Thompson. So he’s got a much lower floor. That’s why Thompson is generally regarded as the fourth-ranked prospect in this draft despite having limitless potential.

Think about that. How often does the fourth-ranked prospect in the draft have limitless potential? Now, before you read the next paragraph, take a long look in the mirror.

Do you think Jalen Green is going to win MVP? How about Alperen Sengun? Does Jabari Smith Jr. have the burst to create for himself in the halfcourt?

I’m not saying this rebuild is going poorly. I remain optimistic. There’s a lot of talent here. Still, there’s not a player on this roster you can point to and say “If things go the right way, this guy could really be an MVP candidate”.

A 6’7” point guard with the best athleticism in the NBA? That can be an MVP candidate. If it goes poorly, yes, this rebuild probably goes poorly. Alternatively, if the Rockets play it safe and trade this pick for a solid starter or two, guess what?

This rebuild probably goes poorly. The Rockets didn’t land Victor Wemanyama either way. They will not acquire a can’t-miss All-NBA player through their tank. Now, they need to acquire a potential All-NBA player. The alternative would be waiving the white flag and trading the pick for OG Anunoby or Mikal Bridges.

If it doesn’t work out, it’s up to us to still love the Rockets.