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Do the Rockets have their franchise player?

The answer to this question could play a big role in the upcoming NBA Draft.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets
Can Jalen Green be “the guy” for Houston?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This Houston Rockets rebuild has been interesting. The Rockets have a lot of guys who are going to be guys. Do they have a guy that can be the guy?

It’s kind of the single most important question about this team. The NBA Draft is looming. As we all know, the Rockets have the fourth overall pick. Their range of options at that spot is quite intriguing.

Assuming that Rafael Stone keeps the pick, there are really only four players who might get picked at that spot: Amen Thompson, Brandon Miller, Cameron Whitmore, and Ausar Thompson. They won’t all be available. If Miller is on the board, that means the Charlotte Hornets went with Scoot Henderson, and someone reached for Amen Thompson at 3.

For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that they could all be on the board. Amen Thompson has the highest ceiling of that group and the lowest floor. Miller is likely the inverse. His limited capacity for creating shots in halfcourt sets lowers his ceiling, but he’s a very high-floor prospect. Whitmore and Ausar Thompson split the difference.

You don’t have to agree with that assessment. Some will, and others won’t. It’s generally the consensus view among experts. Let’s just defer to it. Who should the Rockets take?

Well, that depends. If the Rockets already have their franchise player, they should be praying for Miller, and settling for Whitmore if (when?) he doesn't drop to fourth. If they don’t, they should be targeting Amen Thompson.

Do the Rockets have their franchise player? We’re talking about a player who can be the best player on a team with actual title hopes.

Realistically, this boils down to three players. I personally think Tari Eason has star upside, but let’s table that. It’s too hot of a take to entertain here. If the Rockets have their franchise player of the future, it’s likely one of Jabari Smith Jr., Jalen Green, or Alperen Sengun.

Jabari Smith Jr.

This is going to be brief.

Nothing about Smith Jr.’s rookie season suggests that he can be a franchise player. Sorry, not sorry.

I’m not saying he can’t get to that level. I’m saying that it would be asinine to plan around the possibility. There’s no proof of concept. If my girlfriend turned down a high-paying job because “Don’t worry, you’re going to be a multimillionaire”, I’d be pretty concerned.

It’s possible, but there’s no evidence that we should be banking on it.

Jalen Green

Now it gets interesting. Jalen Green has flashed the potential to be a franchise player.

What are we looking for in a franchise player? More than anything, we’re looking for gravity, right? A player that defenses have to key in on so intensely that it creates easy opportunities for others.

Well, according to Bball Index, Green was in the 93.9th percentile leaguewide in Overall Gravity. So, he’s already drawing the defensive attention of a franchise player.

He’s not always doing the right thing with that attention. Green finished in the 97.1st percentile in Rim Shot Creation. Good. He also finished in the 24.2nd percentile in Rim Shot Making.

...Not good.

So Green can get to the rim at will, but he can’t consistently finish when he gets there yet. What is that doing for his teammates?

Again, Green’s record is mixed. He finished in the 93.6th percentile in Creation Quality, but just the 61.6th percentile in Passing Versatility.

There’s a pattern here. Green creates opportunities like a franchise player should. He just doesn't capitalize on them properly yet.

Will that improve with proper spacing and better coaching? Time will tell. Still, it seems a bit premature to bank on Green as a potential best player on a serious contender. There is hope, but not enough to be sure of.

Normatively speaking, Green’s archetype doesn't have a great track record in that area in recent years. We’ve all compared him to Devin Booker by now. Statistically, that’s the pace he’s on.

It’s an imperfect comparison. If Green is ever as skilled as Booker, he will be a franchise-caliber player - because he is a lot more athletic. That’s exactly how he’s managed to be roughly as productive as a sophomore as Booker was at the same stage in his career despite the fact that Booker was a lot more skilled.

Still, in terms of impact, that’s roughly the trajectory Green is on.

I realize that Devin Booker was (narrowly) the best player on a team that went to the NBA Finals. In the end, he was still vanquished by a true franchise player. Giannis Antetokoumnpo is the type of unimpeachable franchise pillar that every team covets.

Do you love the odds of a Booker-led title run? If so, pray for Brandon Miller. On the other hand, we’re likely about to watch a title run led by a player who a certain Rocket is frequently compared to...

Alperen Sengun

Somewhere, I am on a Turkish government list. I just know it. Who knew pursuing basketball writing would make me an enemy of the state?

I have concerns about Sengun’s defense. Have I mentioned?

God. I’ve had this debate a million times. Let’s rehash it quickly.

“Sengun is a bad defender”.

“So is Jalen Green!”

“Yes, but defense matters most at the five”.

“Tell that to Nikola Jokic!”

Right. So Jokic is the best offensive player in basketball. He’s also got an extra three inches in his wingspan that have helped him develop from “abysmal” to “regular bad” on defense. On some nights, he even verges on average.

Can Sengun get there? It’s possible. Listen, I don’t hate the kid the way you probably think I do. I’m actually deeply conflicted. I wrote a whole piece comparing my viewing of him to a religious experience, and then I flipped again. Simply put, I can’t really decide.

Sengun will probably be the best low-post scorer in the NBA. He may already be the second-best passing big in the NBA. Let me say it clearly:

Alperen Sengun has franchise player potential too.

On the other hand, I think we’re overstating the idea that this is where the NBA is heading. The only other comparable big in a starting role on a decent team is Domantas Sabonis. If you feel good about a Sabonis-led title run, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. It’ll cost you a few first-round picks.

Otherwise, look at how the best teams in the league were constructed this year. Robert Williams III and Al Horford. Bam Adebayo. Anthony Davis. The value of defense at the five isn’t declining just because one team is being led by a mediocre defensive big with generational offensive talent.

Sure, rim protection is less important than it was before. Teams shoot more threes. That only means that switchability is more important. Bigs who can guard inside and out are on the rise.

Yes, having a passing hub at the five poses advantages. Just as a stretch big draws his man out of the paint to create more open lanes, a passing big does the same. Suddenly, the paint is wide open for cutters. That’s part of how the Kings built the best offense in the NBA this season.

Yet, Sabonis was decimated by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of this year’s playoffs. Like it or not, that’s what happened. The Sacramento Kings were better when he wasn't in the game.

I think Sengun can be better than Sabonis. Does that mean he can be as good as Jokic? Is that the level he needs to hit to be a franchise player?

So many questions, and so few answers. I genuinely do believe that Sengun can be a franchise player.

I still wouldn’t bank on it.

What do the Rockets have?

I know, I know. I’m a bad fan. All I do is rag on “our guys”.

Ironically, I believe the Rockets have two players with franchise player potential. I’m not out on Jabari Smith Jr., either.

He’ll be excellent. He’s just more likely to be an elite complimentary player. Remember, we’re looking for a player who can be the first option on a title run here. That’s an awfully high bar.

The Rockets should enter this draft under the assumption that nobody on their current roster can clear it.