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Rockets reel in historic haul in 2021 NBA Draft

Grading the Rockets four first-round picks in the 2021 NBA Draft and why the future is bright in Clutch City

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Alperen Sengun Josh Christopher Jalen Green

#2 Pick: Jalen Green

Jalen Green

At this point, Evan Mobley is in the rearview mirror and the road ahead is Jalen Green.

The Rockets selected one hell of a prospect, taking the livewire 6-foot-5 shooting guard with the second pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Rockets GM Rafael Stone called him a “transcendent athlete” and that his “love of basketball” really stood out.

“He’s electric,” said Stone. “His first step is as good as anybody’s in basketball. His second and third step might be better. And when he jumps, it’s really high. So good things happen.”

Green, who played his only year out of high school with the G-League Ignite, has fast-twitch athleticism that is borderline freakish. His ability to drive and score is plug-and-play for the league right now. His shooting looks good (36.5% from three with the Ignite) but it’s to be determined if it can be elite.

He’s a potential juggernaut scoring machine, but it’s his defense, or lack thereof, why some had Mobley a tad higher. Stone didn’t hide from that weakness at all.

“We’re going to work on that D (defense),” joked Stone as he turned to look at Green. “But the effort is there. It’s not nonexistent. I think he’s going to end up being a really good, well-rounded, all-around player who is impactful on both sides of the ball. If you’re as athletic as Jalen is, you can play defense. You can play defense at an elite level. So it’s all will and want and I do also think there’s a lot of will and want (in Jalen).”

It’s the talk of Green’s relentless work ethic that led me to being just fine with the Rockets taking him over Mobley. He’s a hooper who hits the gym consistently to improve. Those who coached and played with him swear by his strong drive and will to win. You can’t really argue with “IT factor” and comparisons to Kobe Bryant. Whether he’s worthy of that or not, that’s the conversation he generates.

“I work hard,” said Green. “I stay in the gym. I trust my work.”

The Rockets are playing the long game here. Green has to develop a defensive game and show that his outside shot is consistent and legit, but the potential for this dude to become a top 10 player in the entire league is there. I think Green could be an NBA magnet — the type of star that other guys want to play with — and it’s phenomenal to think the Rockets might have that so quickly after dealing away James Harden.

Time will tell but this looks like a game-changing pick.

Grade: A

#16 Pick: Alperen Sengun

Alperen Sengun

The Rockets were able to trade for a higher pick in the draft, #16 from Oklahoma City, but surprisingly, it didn’t cost them either of picks 23 and 24. They paid what sounded initially like a high price — two future first-round picks — but the picks they gave up are ones that we graded out last month to be the two least-valuable first-rounders that the Rockets had in their cupboard: The highly-protected picks from Washington (Westbrook-Wall trade) and Detroit (Wood trade).

They shipped out this package to land their prized target — Alperen Sengun.

“We think he potentially has a chance to be special,” said Stone, who did not think there was a chance Sengun could fall to 23. “He has a higher ceiling than most guys.”

Sengun is a 6-foot-9, 240-pound post player with an impressive post game. He’s strong, quick and crafty with excellent footwork. I mean, really good footwork — the “wow” kind. He has a very good feel for finding the open man and making the right pass and he can rebound. Sengun averaged 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals while shooting 62.6% from the floor and 81.2% from the foul line, being named the MVP of the Turkish Super League, which is unbelievably impressive for an 18-year old.

“You guys can do the research on people who have had that level of success at a high level of pro basketball,” said Stone. “It’s a short list… and a good one.”

His post moves remind me of a young Kevin McHale — he has a series of post spins, fakes and counters already in his bag. Luis Scola was a fun player to watch in Houston and I wouldn’t mind seeing some of that again as the offensive upside, especially given his age, is enormous here.

But there are two reasons I did not have Sengun on my favorites list, and they’re both based on the player model, fair or unfair, that he projects to be. Call it the Enes Kanter Effect, another Turkish big man who can score in the post and rebound at a high level but isn’t really an impact player in today’s league.

First, defense. If Sengun, or any post player, isn’t a rim-protector and at the same time doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay with threes and fours, then he can easily slip into defensive liability territory where opponents will target him, much the same way James Harden did to Kanter in the 2017 playoffs (giving birth to Billy Donovan’s “Can’t Play Kanter” line). That’s my biggest concern. But, while I don’t think he will ever be a plus defender, there’s reason to think Sengun might be better than that in the lateral quickness department so that concern might be overblown.

Next is simply his top strengths and how important they are in the league. Post scorers are fine but I’m not wanting to place a premium on that alone in today’s NBA. Sengun can expand that skillset by adding three-point range. He has not shown that at this early stage, but his free-throw shooting (81.2%) suggests he can and will.

So my view is if Sengun can just be passable on defense, successfully hidden in a team concept, and develop range from downtown, then this is a pick with tremendous potential. The Rockets went with a guy who could be a star and that’s what they should be swinging for at this stage of the rebuild. They passed on Duke forward Jalen Johnson and Texas PF/C Kai Jones with this pick, but for the price they paid to get it, it’s a good roll of the dice.

Grade: A-

#23 Pick: Usman Garuba

Usman Garuba

After focusing heavily on offense with their first two picks, the Houston Rockets selected one Destiny Usman Garuba Alari and suddenly defense is once again a thing in Clutch City.

Out of Spain, Garuba is a 6-foot-8 center playing with Real Madrid of the Liga ACB and EuroLeague. He has an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan, an always-revving motor and terrific defensive instincts. Whether guarding on the post or switching on the perimeter, Garuba takes the challenge.

“I think he’s the best defender in the world outside of the NBA and he’s 19 years old,” said Stone. “Defensively, he’ll guard your center. He’ll guard your point guard. He’s disruptive. He gets steals. He blocks shots. He rebounds. I think he potentially could be really, really impactful on that side of the ball.”

Garuba needs to develop a better outside shot, and if he does, he could log heavy minutes at both the four and five long-term for the Rockets. I’ve written before that I love Garuba’s potential and see him as a PJ Tucker-type in his ability to guard multiple positions and be a team anchor defensively.

He is a player that would fit with just about any lineup, but especially one that runs a center that is more scoring-focused. That’s what the Rockets have in Christian Wood and now Sengun.

It likely never would’ve happened if Joshua Primo had not gone #12 to San Antonio, but I’m thrilled Garuba fell as far as he did. I absolutely love this pick.

Grade: A+

#24 Pick: Josh Christopher

Josh Christopher

I can not lie — I was initially very disappointed with the 24th pick as the Rockets took 6-foot-4, 215-pound guard Josh Christopher out of Arizona State. Christopher is a close friend of Jalen Green’s and was reportedly with him in Houston when Green worked out this past Monday. Tennessee guard Jaden Springer, a player I’m pretty high on, was on the board (interestingly, Daryl Morey scooped him up for the Sixers at pick 28).

But there are things to like about Christopher. He was the 11th-ranked prospect on the ESPN 100 coming out of high school. He’s got a strong build and isn’t afraid of contact. He’s got a good handle, is athletic and is consistently getting out to run.

“I think he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands,” said Stone. “He’s one of the best, if not the best, transition players in the draft.”

Defense might be where Christopher can really set himself apart. Stone feels he has “the potential to be a truly lockdown man-to-man defender” and compared his build to Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon defensively.
that opens my eyes a bit.

His shot, however, is painfully inconsistent. He connected on just 30.5% from three as a freshman. It’s not really clear how well he’ll score/shoot around better offensive players, but the frame and potential is there.

I’m not in love with the pick but I’m open to see what he can do here alongside his buddy. Christopher won over the press conference with his charisma and has the look of a potential fan favorite here in Houston.

Grade: C+

Overall

The front office investment in analytics, scouting and the draft is starting to pay off and it’s not hard to see why the Rockets are drawing so much praise for their picks. The trade they made was not overly expensive nor high-risk. Every player they drafted is 19-years old with a visible path to how they could become an impact player in the league. That doesn’t mean they’re all going to hit, but they are mostly ideal selections for a team looking to produce star talent down the line.

Overall, I give the squad an easy A. They’ve helped shape their future significantly in just one draft and they have at least two more to go before the Rockets are expected to be a playoff team (if they end up ahead of schedule, great). The James Harden trade has already indirectly brought in a potential star backcourt of Green and Kevin Porter Jr. and they have tantalizing prospects now in the frontcourt, with several future picks still in hand.

They’re executing a plan and — so far, so good. It’s going to be a lot of fun for us to watch this team develop.

Armed with a bizarre fascination for Mario Elie and a deep love of the Houston Rockets, Dave Hardisty started ClutchFans in 1996 under the pen name “Clutch”.

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Podcast: Houston Rockets options with the #3 pick of the 2024 NBA Draft

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Houston Rockets 2024 NBA Draft prospects Zaccharie Risacher Stephon Castle Reed Sheppard Donovan Clingan

The offseason is now underway.

The forecast looks good for the Houston Rockets, but… there’s pressure as well this offseason because there are a handful of other West teams that might have rosier futures. Ime Udoka wants to win and win big. As we are about five weeks away from the NBA Draft, what are the Rockets looking to do this summer?

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Rockets shockingly landing the #3 pick and their options in this draft, including Reed Sheppard, Donovan Clingan, Zaccharie Risacher, Stephon Castle, Matas Buzelis and others. They also discuss the possibility of some big game hunting in Houston.


CLUTCHFANS PODCAST: SPOTIFY | APPLE

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Podcast: Steven Adams, Mikal Bridges and Trade Possibilities for the Rockets

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Houston Rockets Trade Deadline 2024

The Houston Rockets already made one deal, acquiring center Steven Adams from Memphis for a handful of second-round picks, but we still have several days left before this Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline.

Are more deals on the way?

Rumors of interest in Mikal Bridges have swirled, with the Rockets holding precious (and unprotected) first-round picks from Brooklyn. They also could use some help inside this season, which Adams can not provide. Shooting is always in demand.

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Adams trade, its impact on the Rockets in 2024-25 and beyond, the Mikal Bridges rumors, the Brooklyn picks, other trade possibilities and options for Rafael Stone moving forward. Also discussed is the play of Houston’s core 6 prospects: Amen Thompson, Cam Whitmore, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and Jalen Green.


CLUTCHFANS PODCAST: SPOTIFY | APPLE

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Rockets trade for center Steven Adams

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Steven Adams Houston Rockets

The Rockets made a surprise trade on Thursday, sending the contract of Victor Oladipo and three second-round picks to Memphis for center Steven Adams.

The deal came together quickly and the Rockets had a small window to get it done, hence why this trade was made with a week to go until the trade deadline.

The Price

When you consider that Memphis did this for cost savings primarily and that Adams would not play for any team in the league this season, the price seemed a little high to me. The Rockets gave up the OKC second-round pick this year, which is no big loss, but they also give up the better of Brooklyn’s or Golden State’s second-round pick this season. That’s a pretty good pick (likely in the late 30’s). They also give up the better of Houston’s or OKC’s second-round pick in 2025. If things go as planned for the Rockets, that pick should be in the 45-55 range.

But they didn’t sacrifice a first-round pick, which would have been brutal, and they were not going to use all those seconds this season. So it’s just a matter of opportunity cost — who else could they have gotten for this package?

My understanding is they (particularly Ime Udoka) are very high on Adams.

The Rockets also did this move for cap purposes as well. By moving out the Oladipo contract, which was expiring, and bringing in Adams’ deal, which is signed for $12.4M next season, the window for the Rockets to put together a trade package for a star player is extended out until the 2025 trade deadline. They continue to wait to see which players, if any, shake loose here and become available. They want flexible (see: expiring) contracts that they can combine with assets and this gives them another year to be in that position.

The Trade

It’s not often that the Rockets acquire a player I had not considered beforehand but that’s the case with Steven Adams. The Rockets sorely need a big with size that provides more traditional center strengths, making Clint Capela, Robert Williams, Nick Richards or Daniel Gafford potential candidates, but Adams was overlooked for a few reasons.

First, the 30-year old big man is out for the season after knee surgery cost him the entire 2023-24 campaign, so the Rockets won’t get any benefit from this trade this season. Secondly, Adams is not your traditional center either when it comes to rim protection.

But what Adams does do, he’s really good at and he has some of the same strengths of Brook Lopez, who the Rockets tried to sign in the offseason. Adams is quite possibly the strongest guy in the league and a legitimate 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He’s an outstanding screen-setter, something that could really benefit the likes of Fred VanVleet, Amen Thompson and Jalen Green. He was also an elite rebounder last season, finishing 6th in the league in caroms at 11.5 a game despite playing just 27.0 minutes a contest.

After watching Jonas Valanciunas absolutely bully the Rockets inside on Wednesday, it should be apparent by now to everyone that this was a pretty big need.

In 2021-22, the Memphis Grizzlies finished #2 in the West at 56-26. Their top two players in Net Rating that season were Dillon Brooks (+11.0) and Adams (+8.3), key cogs in a defense that held opponents to 108.6 points per 100 possessions. They’re both now Houston Rockets.

So this adds another trusted vet to Ime Udoka’s rotation.

The question is will the 30-year old Adams return to form after the knee injury? Adams sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee a year ago, which cost him the end of that season and the playoffs. He tried rehabbing it and it never got better, so surgery became the option just as this season was kicking off.

I like to think the Rockets did their due diligence on that, despite the short time it took for this deal to come together, but that’s unclear.

If he does bounce back, then Udoka has a big man he can turn to reliably in situational matchups or on nights when the younger bigs struggle. He wouldn’t be Boban or even Jock Landale in that scenario — he’s going to play, so the frontcourt depth in 2024-25 should be better. In the end, they got a starting-caliber center who will have no problems coming off the bench, and that’s what they were looking for.

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On the KPJ trade and future of the Rockets

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The Houston Rockets are back to being a professional NBA team once again.

The Rockets finally ended the Kevin Porter Jr. era on Tuesday, coughing up two second-round picks in order to unload his contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder, getting back the contract of Victor Oladipo and third-year forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. The move puts an end to a long investment and very rocky tenure with KPJ.

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Porter Jr. Experiment, the price paid to move him, Houston’s potential trade options moving forward, the new culture and the current state of the Rockets young core.

ClutchFans Podcast: On Apple | Spotify

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Heavy investment in Kevin Porter Jr raises serious questions about Rockets front office

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Kevin Porter Jr. Rafael Stone

Soon-to-be-ex Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr was arrested last week for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, resulting in a fractured neck vertebra and a deep gash above her right eye after an attack at a hotel in New York. He allegedly woke her up by punching her repeatedly, strangled her and did not stop hitting her until she ran out of the hotel room screaming for help and covered in blood.

“This is a serious domestic violence case,” said assistant Manhattan district attorney Mirah Curzer.

First and foremost, I wish the victim healing. I don’t know what to say about the nightmare she went through. She and her family will forever be impacted. As for KPJ, if this is true, he doesn’t belong on the Rockets or in the NBA at all. He belongs in jail.

Secondly, this can’t be overlooked and just swept under the rug: Why did the Houston Rockets bank on and invest so heavily in this guy?

Kevin Porter Jr. being accused of crimes of this severity should not be shocking – at all. Before he even came to the Rockets, he had a long list of serious problems. He was suspended multiple times in high school. In 2019, he had a “conduct issue” significant enough that USC suspended the 5-star recruit indefinitely. He fell to the end of the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft because of his behavior liability. He was accused of punching a woman in the face in Cleveland. He also had a gun and marijuana charge later dismissed after getting into a car crash. He went into a tirade and got into a nasty confrontation with both the Cleveland coach and GM, resulting in the Cavs severing ties immediately and dumping him to the Rockets for nothing.

You could make the argument that initially giving Porter Jr. a second chance in Houston was praiseworthy, but the Rockets experienced KPJ’s anger management and immaturity issues firsthand on several occasions.

Former Rocket Austin Rivers said this week that this isn’t the first, second or even seventh issue with Porter Jr. and that Rockets “higher-ups” confided in him that they had no idea how to handle him.

“I remember talking to guys in the Houston Rockets organization, higher-ups, [and] they were having issues then,” said Rivers. “They were like, ‘We don’t know what to do with him.’ And that’s when he just got there from Cleveland!”

Porter Jr. was routinely a nightmare for Rockets coaches to deal with. On several occasions, he confronted and cussed out members of the coaching staff, saying they didn’t have the “credentials”, per source, a reference to the fact that him playing heavy minutes at point guard was a decision they did not control.

Once at a night out, Porter Jr. had a disagreement with a DJ over music choice and he snapped, smashing the DJ’s laptop to the floor. He needed to be restrained and removed. Rockets personnel and several of Porter’s teammates witnessed the incident.

Curzer also dropped a bombshell at the arraignment in saying that Porter Jr. has a history of abusing his girlfriend, who he had only been dating since early last year, his second season with the Rockets. Curzer specifically cited an incident in which KPJ allegedly rammed his car into hers.

There were dozens of maturity issues visible on the court to anyone paying attention. He refused to check out of games. He got into an argument on the bench with assistant Lionel Hollins. On numerous occasions, he would visibly shut down when he wasn’t passed the ball. I invite you to watch this video from a game against Memphis on March 20, 2022. Just listen to the Grizzlies broadcasters, particularly starting at the 1:40 mark, talk about what they are witnessing here:



Privately, people around the league would say they were baffled by the Rockets continued fascination with Porter Jr. Nobody could understand it.

That fascination starts with Rockets general manager Rafael Stone, who by every account over the last two years was the driving force behind the investment in Porter Jr. It has been no secret. Trading for him in January 2021 was seen by some with the team as his “Harden acquisition”, code for a signature move that makes an executive’s career, much in the way landing James Harden did for Daryl Morey in 2012.

For example, former Rockets head coach Stephen Silas never considered Porter Jr. to be a point guard, per sources — playing him there was a Stone mandate because the GM believed that is where his future lied.

John Wall also told us as much publicly when he explained the phone call he got from Silas about coming off the bench. He said Silas told him “This is what the GM wants,” adding again that Silas said, “Man, you don’t deserve that. You should be the starter. This is just what they want to do.” Wall was upset because he believed KPJ should have to earn the spot.

“I have a hard time finding anybody outside of the Rockets front office that believes that Kevin Porter Jr. is a starting point guard in the NBA,” said ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon in December.

There were plenty of warning signs about KPJ to the public too.

After Porter Jr. got into a heated argument in which KPJ “physically shoved” Rockets assistant coach John Lucas and quit on the team in the middle of a game against Denver in January of 2022, leaving the arena at halftime, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix famously wrote that the Rockets should “Cut Porter Jr. Waive him. Release him. Whatever. Eat what’s left of the $1.8 million he’s owed this season and the $3.2 million he’s got next and move on.” It became a source of mockery for Porter Jr’s fans, a line they would bring up after each game he hit a few threes or handed out some assists.

In February of this year, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, one of the most connected reporters in the league, flat out warned us that he was hearing awful things about the Rockets culture and locker room. He was blunt in what the Rockets needed to do — waive Kevin Porter Jr. outright and bring in a new coach and GM.

“Just cut him. That’s it,” said Givony of Porter Jr. “And you’re sending a signal to the league that we’re going to do things differently from here on out.”

“When you talk to people around the NBA about Houston, you just don’t hear good things about their culture, about that locker room. You talk to people that are on that team, and they are like, ‘We are a mess’,” said Givony. “Do people want to work with this organization? But you can change that fairly quickly if you come in, get rid of the bad apples and you change the coaching staff, and all of a sudden, you’re Houston. It’s the third-biggest city in America. There’s a history here of you actually being good.”

Porter came to the Rockets for “free” (in exchange for a top-55 protected second-round pick, which was designed not to convey), but he proved far from it as the Rockets continued to pour investment into him. Over the last 2-3 seasons, no Rockets player got more developmental capital than Porter Jr. – not Jalen Green, not Alperen Sengun, not Jabari Smith Jr. The Fertittas paid John Wall $85+ million over two years to sit at home so the team could groom Porter Jr. to be their future point guard.

Then they doubled down. With restricted free agency on the horizon and a seemingly non-existent market for KPJ’s services, the Rockets gave Porter Jr. an extension a year sooner – a contract that was presented as a four-year, $82.5 million deal. The deal was more team-friendly than that, putting team options in it after years 1 and 3. Going from the potential disaster that was initially reported to a deal they could escape after one season felt like a “win”, but the biggest question was why they wanted him long-term at all. The unprecedented nature of a contract that size with that kind of club control clearly showed the Rockets knew there was unique and significant risk here.

After KPJ signed the extension, The Athletic’s Kelly Iko summarized the Rockets view of Porter Jr. – “As has been [their] stance for months, the Rockets have maintained the notion that Porter is a priority and is considered a huge part of their core, along with Green and Jabari Smith Jr.”

The Rockets actions to kick off the 2022-23 season showed exactly that – that he was a priority. They benched Sengun to start the season, in large part to give KPJ a “lob threat” and defender in the starting lineup. They gave him the superstar “Harden Locker”. They introduced him last in the starting lineups. They treated him as the star and empowered him to be the self-proclaimed “Head Honcho” of Clutch City.

But the extension proved unwise and foolish. Porter Jr. never even made it to the first year of it. With over $80 million on the line, he snapped again. The Rockets signed him to one of the team-friendliest deals ever and still managed to both overcommit and overpay as Stone now scrambles to attach real assets to it to get another team to take it off his books.

Is it fair to question the judgment of the Rockets front office? Absolutely and without question. Whether you look at their ability to value character, evaluate risk, scout basketball, build culture, manage assets or allocate development resources, they failed at every level here. Why didn’t they act sooner? Why did they double down? Why didn’t they hold him accountable? Why did everybody in the league see it but them?

“We value the player and the person that [Kevin Porter Jr.] is becoming and are eager to invest in him and his journey,” said Stone after rewarding him with the extension less than a year ago.

The question you have to ask yourself now is, with all they knew and witnessed about Porter Jr. both on and off the court — why were they eager at all?

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