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Should Ime Udoka lean on Rockets rookies more?

Are Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore ready for expanded roles?

Indiana Pacers v Houston Rockets
Is Ime Udoka maximizing his rookies? Should he?
Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

The NBA championship is like true happiness. It’s elusive, but you’ve got to pursue it anyway.

Around the league, at least 27 teams* are thinking about winning a title - now or later.

*I believe that some small market teams have no interest in pursuing a title and operate with a model that maximizes playoff appearances instead. A title would be a nice corollary effect, but it’s not the primary objective. I digress.

The Rockets are one of those 27-or-so teams. With that said, they won’t be winning any NBA championships in 2023-24. They won’t be winning any NBA championships in 2024-25. Even if you think they’ll contend for the NBA championship in 2025-26, you’re an unbridled optimist.

This team is largely future-focused. On the other hand, we’re in Phase Two. The present (finally) counts as well. This all raises a difficult question for Ime Udoka:

Should he rely on his rookies more often?

Are the Rockets’ rookies ready?

We’re going to be looking at some stats here. A million small sample caveats apply. Some stats are too noisy to consider. If a baby is struck by lightning on the day of their birth, that doesn’t mean that it’s statistically likely that the same person will be struck by lightning every day of their life.

(If a baby can survive being struck by lightning, that is).

For example, Cam Whitmore has a True Shooting % (TS%) of 63.3. Yet, his volume is so low that he ranks in the 2.6th percentile in B-Ball Index’s TS% metric. Hilarious.

Whitmore is also averaging 27.0 points per 36 minutes. That’s 36.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s a lot. Whitmore is in Index’s 93.3rd percentile in Points Per Scoring Possession.

Let’s talk eye test. We know Whitmore can fill it up, and he’s proving that. His opportunities have been limited by offensive tunnel vision and defensive lapses.

The defense seems to be coming around. Whitmore has made a few sharp plays on the defensive end in recent games. His on-ball stuff could still use some work, but he’s not useless on that end of the floor.

The tunnel vision is still a problem. Whitmore is averaging 1.7 assists per 100 possessions. An average NBA starter plays 75 possessions a game. Give Whitmore 25 more, and he’s a bit more likely to drop two dimes than one.

It’’s not even just that Whitmore isn’t setting guys up. Per, he’s making 6.7 passes per game. This isn’t a sample size problem: Boban Marjanovic is making 6.6 per game in four fewer minutes per contest.

That’s a concern. Still, the Rockets need floor spacing. Whitmore is shooting 42.9 percent from deep so far. They also need a scoring punch in the second unit. Whitmore also improves the transition game - at this stage of his career, he’s KJ Martin with a (semblance of) a handle (and no annoying Dad to our knowledge).

So Udoka should give Whitmore at least a few more minutes per game - even strictly from a pure win-now perspective.

What about Amen Thompson?

Can Thompson contribute for Rockets?

Of the two rookies, Whitmore looks more NBA-ready. Thompson needs some seasoning.

With that said, there are encouraging signs. Fans may disagree - it seems like disappointment is the prevailing sentiment with Thompson’s rookie season so far.

Everyone has their system for evaluating young NBA players. In my opinion, negative qualities ought to be discarded in a rookie season - only the positive flashes count as data points. In a sophomore, you’re looking for growth - but still ought to be lenient. By a player’s third year, the dress rehearsal is over. It’s time to be a good NBA player. By the fourth year, I’m writing a player off if they aren’t a positive contributor.

(Looking at you, Jalen Green).

Thompson has had positive flashes. The pull-up mid-range jumper is ahead of schedule. Otherwise, he’s roughly what we should have expected him to be. Thompson is a defensive demon - 94th percentile in Index’s Pickpocket Rating - who sees every pass on the floor at all times. The problem is that he’s not a reliable enough half-court scorer to create those passes.

His handle is especially weak. So from a win-now perspective, Udoka should give Whitmore more run for functional reasons. Thompson is likely receiving as many minutes and touches as he ought to - again, from a win-now perspective.

Should that be the perspective that the Rockets use?

What are the Rockets’ goals with Whitmore and Thompson?

The Houston Rockets will not win the 2023-24 NBA championship. It isn’t going to happen. The short-term goal is the play-in tournament. If you’re expecting more than that from this ragtag group, you’re putting a lot of pressure on the fine line between optimism and delusion.

So the medium and long-term goals have to matter. Still, almost paradoxically, those goals are partly accomplished through accomplishing the short-term goals. The idea for 2023-24 was always to get these kids some experience playing meaningful basketball.

Isn’t a mid-season game that will play a role in determining play-in seeding a meaningful game? The Rockets want to win every game this year - so in large part, that goal is already accomplished. Of course, that’s an abstraction. In concrete terms, the goal is the play-in tournament.

Now we’ve circled back to the same question. Should the Rockets pursue the play-in at the expense of Thompson and Whitmore? Even that’s not an easily answered question. There is much debate about whether on-court reps or practice and observation impact development more. Critics bemoaned the Rockets’ tanking approach for the past few seasons - they’re killing these young guys!

Right. Alperen Sengun is in the All-Star race. Jonathan Kuminga is publicly campaigning for a trade. There is at least a case to be made that the best way to develop young players is simply to get them on the floor.

Still, getting these guys in the play-in tournament would have its own benefits. What are the odds that Cade Cunningham will retire as a Detroit Piston? The trade request is likely on the tip of his tongue as we speak. Being a bad NBA team is like experimenting with psychedelics - it has its benefits, but do it for too long, and you’ll wind up in a sewer trying to round up the lizard people.

Here’s the final prognosis - give Whitmore a few more minutes per game. He’s capable of playing a role that this team needs someone to play.

Keep Thompson’s minutes where they are unless he improves. At the same time, don’t reduce his role. The Rockets shouldn’t target a backup point guard that’s going to squeeze him out of the rotation at the deadline. Get a floor spacer or a backup big. Sure, the Rockets would be better if they had Tyus Jones absorbing his minutes. They’re still not winning an NBA championship in 2023-24.

Maybe in 2027-28?