How should the Rockets handle Scoot Henderson and Victor Wembanyama?
Two generational prospects
Seldom does an exhibition game live up to the hype quite like last night did.
The end score doesn’t matter and Thursday night’s score won’t either. But the performances from projected top two overall picks Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson certainly will. The last time a game between two basketball prospects received this much national attention may have been when LeBron James faced off against Carmelo Anthony 20 years ago. Over 200 league representatives were in attendance along with multiple NBA and WNBA All-Stars. This was an event unlike anything we’ve seen in quite a long time.
Chatter about this game among NBA talent evaluators has been off the charts this week. As someone who prefers to get to bed at 10 or 11pm nowadays, even I chose to stay up and watch the spectacle. From my limited experience studying prospects and watching exhibition games like this, it’s a hard watch. The NBA product is just way better and the build up to these marquee match-ups typically exceed the actual head-to-head battle.
This was different in three big ways.
Scoot Henderson and Victor Wembanyama appear significantly better than every prospect I’ve seen these past two years.
They leveraged the fact that this game was all about them and successfully attacked each other at every opportunity.
They both had awesome showings and left little room for nit-picking.
After last night, it’s very clear that these are generational prospects that every rebuilding NBA team is salivating to draft next year.
11-21 from the field
2-3 from 3-PT range
11-20 from the field
7-11 from 3-PT range
Fans of every rebuilding team tuned in to watch these two battle it out with high hopes. If “tanking” wasn’t going to be bad enough, these two players may force teams to redefine the very term this season.
That naturally begs the question:
Will the Houston Rockets be among these teams?
Maybe. It really depends on who you ask.
Most seem to believe the Rockets will be at the bottom of the league again this year, as indicated by Draft Kings over/under line being set at 23.5. Even Kevin Pelton’s statistical projection system has Houston at 26.7 wins.
Personally, I contend that they’ll be a significantly better team than last season, perhaps reaching 30 wins. There are four reasons for this: talent, player development, defense, and floor spacing. The Rockets have more of all of this than at this point last year. They drafted more talent, their young players have had more time to develop, they’ve targeted impact defenders, and the floor is less clogged.
And perhaps more importantly, the rest of the NBA is significantly worse. It’s hard to envision the Rockets being worse than Utah or San Antonio. And Detroit and Orlando will be just as bad as Houston. Oklahoma City had a chance of being better, but top prospect Chet Holmgren is out for the season and they were already inclined to rest healthy players.
This is why I believe the Rockets will settle in at the 5th or 6th worst record in basketball this year rather than 1st or 2nd.
The two worst records in the NBA have a 27.5% chance of getting a top two pick, where as the 5th and 6th worst records have a 21% and 18.2% chance respectively.
So they’ll have a chance, but about 20% less of one than the past two seasons if things move in the direction I expect.
I could be wrong. For a minute, let’s say I’m not.
What can Houston do to organically improve their odds?
Trade away good players
So it’s important to differentiate the kind of good players Houston will have next season.
Obviously they’ll have their blue chip prospects like Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith, and Tari Eason.
But they’re also going to have players that may not necessarily be part of their long-term future. These are your obvious veterans like Eric Gordon, Derrick Favors, Boban Marjanovic, and Maurice Harkless.
Then, there are your sneaky, older-than-expected players like Jae’Sean Tate and Garrison Matthews.
If Houston wanted to be bold, they could trade Tate or Matthews. Recent history tells us they might be reluctant to make a move like this, but it’s worth pointing out.
Nevertheless, trading older good players has the added benefits of netting assets and opening up playing time for young players.
Rest healthy players
This style of shameless tanking is going to be ever-present across the NBA next year so be ready for it. Henderson and Wembanyama are simply that good and teams have already done this in the past to secure high lottery odds. It’s technically against league rules, but there are ways around it. For example, sitting a player that’s dealing with a nagging injury.
Kevin Porter dealt with a thigh contusion that wouldn’t seem to go away last season. Instead of allowing him to play through it, what if the Rockets decided to sit him for “an indefinite period of time”? Maybe Player X (don’t want to jinx anyone) takes a week or two longer to return from an injury than expected?
There’s also the method Houston basically invented last season with John Wall: sitting a veteran to “focus on finding him a new home”. What if the Rockets decided to sit Eric Gordon until the trade deadline this year? It lowers Gordon’s risk of injury and keeps him from contributing to winning games.
This is something fans may not know about.
To be clear: NBA head coaches aren’t purposely losing games for draft positioning. However, it’s not unheard of for an organization to hire or stick with a coach they don’t believe in because they know it’ll help their lottery odds. Let’s just say there are a few notable instances from the 2010s that raised eyebrows.
There’s no way to prove that this happens, but people talk and the league can’t really do anything about it.
I’m not suggesting the Rockets don’t believe in Stephen Silas. But Silas hasn’t exactly inspired a lot of league-wide confidence in his abilities. He’s a sharp guy, players like him, his peers like him, but when you post the worst record in basketball for two straight seasons, there are fair criticisms to be had.
Is it possible the Rockets knew Silas wasn’t their long-term guy during his second straight 15-game losing streak? Sure, and it’s not a crime to stick with him to maintain organizational stability.
A bad coach that’s not hurting your culture is also very convenient to have the season before a potentially generational draft. Again, I’m not saying Silas is a bad coach or that the Rockets know that and are sticking by him anyways.
I’m just saying… it’s happened before.
If the Rockets had the choice, who should they pick - Scoot or Victor?
It’s tough to say this early into the process. However, as long as nobody pins me to this answer until the draft, I’m comfortable giving my opinion. If we are to assume:
Both are transformational, Tier 1 talents.
No significant health concerns for either.
Status quo player development for Houston.
I would take Scoot Henderson.
From the limited time I’ve committed to watching these guys, Henderson appears to be a spectacular basketball prospect. There’s no quality he lacks: size, speed, hops, body control, finishing ability, craft, vision, motor, lateral quickness, shooting touch, and intelligence. He simply has it all. There’s nothing holding him back from becoming an elite NBA point guard.
I can’t think of prospect he reminds me of. Derrick Rose has been brought up a lot and after watching some Rose’ college film, I can see where this comes from. They’re both freak athletes with a ton of craft, body control, and maturity. Henderson appears to be a peskier defender with better passing feel though.
And if you were wondering if Henderson’s mid-range jump shooting was an aberration, it wasn’t. He’s always been reliable from that area of the floor, but his ability to stop on a dime to shoot is what makes it impossible to defend (unless you’re 7-foot-4 of course).
Henderson can be the engine for a top NBA offense and it’s really tough to find those guys.
In a vacuum, I probably slightly prefer Victor Wembanyama as a talent because of how rare his combination of size and skillset are. The only good comparison anyone has thought of is Ralph Sampson. It’s hard to put someone with the offense of Paul George and the defense of Rudy Gobert into a box though.
But the Rockets don’t exist in a vacuum. They’ve already started to build their team. If you believe they both belong in the same tier, you have to account for fit. Essentially what you’re really asking yourself is this:
Who do I believe in more as a starter: Kevin Porter or Alperen Sengun?
And I just lean Sengun here. Houston is in dire need of a point guard who can score efficiently, defend competently, and make plays for others. Henderson checks all those boxes in a way Wembanyama can’t.
However, I maintain the freedom the change my mind on this as we get closer to the 2023 NBA Draft. If the top executives in basketball needed this showcase, it’s clear that the league remains undecided, even if Twitter is.
Like last night, Thursday night’s matchup will be can’t miss for NBA fans.
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