Sometimes, you get what you want, but you should have been careful about what you’d wished for.
Leading up to the 2021 NBA draft, most Rockets fans had a lot of wants (let’s leave the Green/Mobley debate aside. Nobody wants to revisit that).
I was neutral on Alperen Sengun. I didn’t want Josh Christopher. In fact, I was so disinterested in Gup that I barely scouted him. I wanted two players later in the draft:
Jalen Johnson and Usman Garuba.
Are you questioning my efficacy as an amateur NBA scout yet?
You shouldn’t be. The jury is still out on both. With that said, it isn’t looking good for Uzi. He’s been traded twice and cut once in a single NBA summer.
Sure, he’s been turning heads in FIBA. That’s FIBA. Whether you think the NBA Champions should be billed as the World Champions or the pig dog imperialist swine of the world, one fact remains: FIBA is not the NBA.
Does Garuba still have a chance to thrive in the NBA?
Will the Rockets miss Usman Garuba?
This is the second love letter that I’ve penned to Uzi. The last one resonated with the optimism of a teenage romance. This one reeks of the desperation of a post-divorce confessional.
The last one was “Will Garuba be a key player on the next contending Rockets team?”. This one is “Is Garuba an NBA player?”.
Truthfully, Garuba is a very complicated player. He doesn’t have a great physical profile for a defensive specialist - you wish his feet were quicker. His biggest strength is impeccable timing on that end. Garuba is a master of (intentionally?) blowing his coverage and then recovering. Is that a sustainable way to defend?
Offensively, he’s a very good passer. Garuba is a cerebral player. Is that enough to make up for otherwise offering very little in terms of skill?
Granted, Garuba shot a very high percentage from deep last year - on a very low volume. If he can shoot a little more regularly, that will do wonders for his long-term outlook.
In terms of his actual NBA production value on the Rockets, Garuba was grading out as one of the most versatile defensive bigs in the NBA when I last wrote about him. That’s likely to be his calling card in the NBA if he sticks. Garuba isn’t an elite rim protector, and he’s not an elite perimeter defender, but he can do a little bit of both.
Honestly, that was part of his issue in Houston. Garuba isn’t suited to be Sengun’s primary backup. That role needs to go to a better stationary rim protector. If that rim protector can’t switch, hey - the Rockets can’t predominantly switch. That’s a lesser problem than playing 48 minutes without truly anchoring the interior.
Garuba - ironically enough - needs to be backing up a Brook Lopez type. If he’s actualized, he’s a guy that gives you 20 valuable minutes per game split between the five backing his Lopez up and the four alongside his Lopez. Still, the Rockets probably wouldn’t have given him that role even if they’d landed Lopez. This team is looking to take a step forward, and Garuba may need some time to become actualized.
Did the Rockets have to make Garuba a casualty in order to take that step forward?
Did the Rockets make a mistake?
There is no question that yes, technically, the Rockets made a mistake. They drafted players in the first round and they traded them for nothing. That is a negative return on investment - that’s ROI for the more financially inclined. The Rockets took a loss.
The debate is over how big of a deal this is. Even then, there are different ways to frame the discussion. An NBA team doesn't expect much from a pick in the 20s. In a vacuum, the probability of finding a meaningful rotation player in that range of the draft is just extremely low. So, in a vacuum, taking a loss on three late first-round picks is a big pile of meh. A financial analyst will tell you that every penny counts, but a human being with a soul will tell you that a penny is just a penny.
Only, we don’t know what these guys will be worth yet. We may have our hunches, but we may have had a strong hunch about Jalen Johnson too. Personally, I don’t have a lot of faith in Josh Christopher or TyTy Washington - I just don’t. What about Garuba?
If I was to make a prediction? I have a feeling he’s going to be one of those random reserves on a title run in his sixth year whose value contract allows the team to spend elsewhere. I’m seeing a quality eighth man who’s paid like a 10th man.
“Where did this guy come from”, people will ask. Where has he been?
I just wanted the answer to be “on the Rockets.”