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8 tidbits from Rockets training camp
Getting back into full swing
We’re almost there! As the Rockets kick off training camp, here are eight observations, thoughts, and questions from the first couple days.
Jabari Smith’s defense
Third overall pick Jabari Smith had a less-than-stellar offensive showing at NBA Summer League. The already-apparent shot creation concerns were only exasperated by a poor shooting performance. However, on the other end of the floor, Smith looked unbelievable. The awesome motor and lateral quickness were not surprising attributes, but his intelligence and help-side defense certainly were.
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“I think the main thing about Jabari that everybody needs to know is that he is such a gifted defender now,” said head coach Stephen Silas at Rockets Media Day, with an emphasis on ‘now’. “Harping on what he does offensively - we’ll teach him that and he’ll grow. Him as a defender is what I’m so excited about.”
As someone who’s been critical of Smith’s offensive game, I think Silas actually raises a great point here. If Smith is a game-changing defensive talent, it matters less if he’s not a game-changing offensive talent. And the way he played at Summer League combined with how the Rockets spoke about him at media day leads one to believe he could be more NBA-ready defensively than previously expected. It’s definitely going to be something to watch for his rookie season.
“On a very specific level, Jabari Smith can really play defense,” said GM Rafael Stone when asked about his takeaways from Rockets' offseason workouts. “He should be very special on the defensive end in time. But leaving that aside, he should be very good right away.”
Also, if Smith actually got taller over the summer, that’s hilarious.
Which non-2nd-year-player will take the biggest leap?
While it’s very hard for second year NBA players to make leaps after impressive rookie year showings, it’s not unheard of. Third year players have historically been the ones to take those leaps, but the Rockets don’t have any of those players beyond K.J. Martin. When you get beyond 21-years-old, the data tells us that a drastic jump in talent grows increasingly unlikely. With that said, the Rockets have three players in this category so it’s possible that one of them can beat these odds: Kevin Porter, Jae’Sean Tate, and Garrison Matthews.
The most intriguing of these three players are obviously Porter and Tate, both being possible long-term core pieces. Tate is 26-years-old, a very hard age to improve from. He also signed a new long-term contract with the Rockets, taking away some of his incentive to improve. Even so, the 6’5” forward has put in a ton of work with trainer Stephon Martinez on his shooting this summer - an area where he is just 31% for his NBA career.
Porter is different in that he’s significantly younger (22-years-old), starting from a higher skill baseline, and is entering a contract season. This means there is a very clear incentive to improve - an opportunity at generational wealth. And it shows as by all accounts, he’s been among Houston’s hardest workers this summer. If Porter can translate that work and prove himself to be a reliable starting point guard in the NBA, he could secure that wealth before the season closes.
“I was really gifted at finishing the ball and I steered away from that because I put so [much attention] on my three-point shooting,” said Porter on his offseason workouts. “This season I kind of balanced it out. I know what I can do when it comes to the perimeter now. I’m comfortable with catch-and-shoot 3s.”
KJ Martin doesn’t look or sound like a disgruntled player
We’re entering the dangerous territory of reckless speculation here.
However, after seeing many disgruntled NBA players at press conferences over the years (some very recently), KJ Martin behaved like an outlier. When players speak to the media after verbalizing unhappiness to the organization about their situation, it doesn’t look or sound like this. There’s obviously not a handbook for this stuff, but it almost looked like KJ Martin was doing his best to appear like an unhappy player rather than actually being one.
Four things to note:
Martin was smiling whenever he got asked uncomfortable questions about his future. That’s not exactly something players who requested trades under their own volition do.
When Martin was asked if he sees himself as part of the Rockets’ future, he responds “Yeah” before quickly reverting to his obviously prepared line, “I’m just here to do my job”.
Players who want out of their situation don’t reference team goals as often as Martin did in this press conference.
Martin starts the availability slouched back in his seat, almost as if to look disinterested. He maintained that position for about three seconds. For the rest of the presser, he was engaged in the questioning, making eye contact with reporters, and leaning forward while speaking directly into the microphone.
I don’t doubt that Martin has grown a little frustrated about his place on the team long-term, especially after Houston drafted two forwards in this year’s draft. However, I strongly suspect Martin was not driven to the point of asking for a trade by himself. It’s hard not to believe that someone else is in his ear.
Here are the facts:
Players seldom ask for trades out of their situation in their first NBA contract. The few players that do are usually star prospects.
Martin may not have started for the Rockets, but he averaged a healthy 21 minutes in 79 games last year.
He just doesn’t profile as someone who would want out, nor does he look or sound like one. I’m not going to speculate as to who may have driven him to ask for a trade, but I’m now convinced he didn’t do it on his own.
Can Jalen Green make the coveted 2nd year jump?
As stated earlier, second year leaps are very hard to make after successful rookie campaigns. Development just isn’t that linear and players often flat-line their sophomore seasons before making another leap. This is why the players who have successfully made second year leaps are often elevating themselves past potential All-Star talents to potential superstar talents.
Here are a few examples that come to mind:
Every one of these players had nice rookie years, but made phenomenal leaps their sophomore seasons. In doing so, they managed to completely change the trajectory of their teams and careers. For example, much like Jalen Green, it was clear Nikola Jokic was going to be an All-Star after his rookie campaign. His second season put him on a path towards superstardom. Can Jalen Green achieve the same thing this year?
That’s to be determined. It certainly helps that he added on some much needed weight and worked on all of the right areas of his game this summer.
Stephen Silas said that playing more downhill and in transition will be of greater emphasis for Green this season. He also added that Green will need to make quicker decisions with the ball in his hands now that the Rockets have better floor spacing.
“The buy-in on defense is going to be big for him because he is so long and quick,” said Silas. “His ability to make multiple efforts has to be at the forefront.”
One of the players I mentioned there was Trae Young. Much like Jalen Green, the first half of Young’s rookie campaign was rough and the Hawks were getting berated every night for passing up on Luka Doncic. Young quickly turned his season around after the All-Star break where he averaged 24.7 points and 9.2 assists on 62.7% true shooting. So Young effectively carried that momentum into his sophomore season.
Green’s post All-Star run bears repeating:
58.9% True Shooting
If Green can follow Young’s lead and carry this momentum into next season, he could potentially put himself into a different stratosphere as a player.
Tari Eason - Man of few words
Forward Tari Eason received some Kawhi Leonard comparisons coming out of LSU. The two had similar measurements and both managed to improve rapidly as shooters before they entered the NBA, but still, it’s quite an ambitious projection. However, there is one other area where Eason is very Kawhi-like: his straight-forward demeanor. It was amusing to watch my colleagues try to get long answers out of Eason only for him to deliver short, business-like responses.
Side note: I’ve grown pretty high on Eason after his Summer League performance. It seems that some of the offensive talent he showed at LSU will actually transfer to the NBA level.
Josh Christopher’s remains the Rocket you’d most like to get dinner with
There’s no doubt in my mind that Josh Christopher is one of the most popular players in the Rockets locker room. He’s radiates a positive energy that’s infectious and on the court, that swagger translates to his teammates. Selfishly, it’s awesome to see him speak with media again as he’s got a hell of a personality. This particular interaction he described with Alperen Sengun was priceless (full video link).
Usman Garuba - Backup center?
It appears sophomore forward Usman Garuba gained 30 pounds since his last training camp! Garuba was projected to be a Swiss-army knife NBA defender coming into the draft last year, but his offensive woes have held him back from receiving serious playing time. It leaves one to wonder:
Did he gain the weight intentionally? And if he did, is this an indication that the Rockets see him as more of a long-term center than a power forward?
This would simplify his role offensively a lot. Modern power forwards have to be able to shoot three-pointers and handle the basketball more than they did in the past. By having him gain weight, it’s possible that Houston intends to make him a screen-and-dive center that can be a useful perimeter defender in spurts.
“The energy and switch-ability that he has [on defense] are things we knew,” said Stephen Silas when asked about Usman Garuba’s EuroBasket performance. “But as far as his offensive game, he really showed a knack for short rolling and making plays for others that I didn’t know he had.”
It’s notable that Garuba was going to start at center for the Summer League Rockets before getting injured.
Alperen Sengun’s English!
When I wrote a story on Alperen Sengun at Rockets training camp last year, questions and answers went directly through his translator. Sengun, having arrived in the United States only a couple months prior, had pretty much no idea what I was saying. My whole life I’ve heard stories of the tough assimilation process from family members who immigrated to the United States at around the same age as Sengun. That experience of navigating your day-to-day life while trying to make friends in unfamiliar territory is incredibly difficult and often isolating for people.
So it was a joy to see Sengun confidently speak English at Media Day without the persistent aide of his translator. It was clear towards the end of last season that he was picking up the language at a rapid pace. For example, Sengun would be asked a question and he would stop referring to his translator before answering in Turkish. Monday was a completely different level though.
And he managed to drop one of the quotes of the day.
If you haven’t joined the Alperen Sengun bandwagon yet, you better hop on quick. This train’s leaving the station pretty soon.
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