It's not too early to get excited about Tari Eason
A 6'8" freight train
There are no three words more annoying than “It’s just preseason”.
Everyone knows it’s just preseason. Seldom is anyone forming an opinion based on preseason data alone.
Under the right circumstances, preseason is more predictive of regular season outcomes than people give it credit for.
This is basketball. Even if you work in the NBA, allow yourself and others the chance to get excited about it. Otherwise, why are we doing this in the first place?
And in the case of Houston Rockets forward Tari Eason, it’s not just preseason. This is real. When an NBA rookie is more talented than anticipated, this is how it usually looks like. Nobody has deemed Eason a phenomenal draft selection overnight. Like past prospects, there are stages to knowing when someone fell too far on draft night.
A group of people clamor for this player to go higher than consensus.
In the NBA, nobody truly comes “out of nowhere”. Often, there’s at least a vocal minority of people that are able to flag the player’s high ceiling early on. In Tari Eason’s case, this was the analytics community. While many were scared off of Eason’s translatability due to his limited role at Cincinnati, this subset accurately predicted it’s what would make him a diamond in the ruff.
On the defensive end, block and steal rates have been indicators of defensive translation for years. Eason’s rates were off the charts, leading them to believe he could take on a greater defensive role at the NBA level. And because his free throw shooting improved at nearly the same rate as his three-point shooting, skepticism about his drastic shooting improvement was put at bay.
The player shines at NBA Summer League
Tari Eason raised plenty of eyebrows at Summer League, averaging 17.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 1.6 assists, and 1.0 blocks per game. For this, he took home All-Summer League First Team honors. Eason was even voted as the "Steal of the Draft” by the annual NBA.com GM survey. Obviously, this could all be confirmation bias for that players’ most ardent defenders. And that’s why there’s a last step.
3. The player carries his Summer League production into the preseason.
This final step is what usually cements a player’s “draft day steal” status. Tari Eason is absolutely destroying in his preseason bench role for the Rockets, averaging:
71.4% True Shooting
While preseason isn’t the same as the regular season, it’s the greatest predictor of regular season outcomes that’s available to us. The same is true of regular season data in relation to the playoffs. Simply put, when teams take the preseason seriously, the data carries greater weight. And Houston’s doing that, playing all of their healthy and available rotation players around 20-25 minutes per game each.
This isn’t some made up formula. An example of a player who went through all three stages is Rockets center Alperen Sengun last year (2021 NBA Draft - 17th pick). You could also look to Hawks big man John Collins a few years earlier (2017 NBA Draft - 19th pick). It could be ignored if a player went through just one of these stages, but when they’ve gone through all three, the collective NBA probably just made a mistake.
How is Eason doing it?
To be frank, the bulk of Tari Eason’s offensive production is coming at the basket.
Eason’s just barrelling into the lane for dunks and layups at every turn. His ball handling package isn’t flashy, but it’s good enough to let his phisical abilities take over when he has a head of steam. When he’s not slashing to the rim on his own accord, he’s grabbing offensive rebounds for easy put-backs. I should clarify that some of these put-backs are easy for Eason and Eason only.
It can be jarring to hear Rockets coach John Lucas compare Eason to Dennis Rodman, but when you watch him offensive rebound, you can see where this comes from.
Aided by his uber athletic ability, Eason’s an absolute demon in transition. Teammates like Kevin Porter are looking for Eason as a finisher during fast break opportunities. At times he’s even grabbing rebounds and leading the break himself.
And so far, his three-point shooting is translating.
So what’s the takeaway moving forward?
The takeaway here is pretty simple: Tari Eason is really good and has an opportunity to significantly outperform his draft selection. It’s probably too early to make bold proclamations about star potential or anything like that. However, Eason certainly looks like a draft-day steal right now and it’s easy to project him being an NBA starter. If Alperen Sengun’s experience last year is any indication, it’s a virtual lock that Eason will play a significant role in Houston’s regular season rotation this year.
If you had to make a bold prediction, it’s that Eason will force the Rockets make at least one tough decision this season. Eason appears to be a long-term fixture in a front court that already contains Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith, KJ Martin, Usman Garuba, and Jae’Sean Tate. There’s just no way for Houston to accommodate all of these players moving forward. This may necessitate a consolidation style trade to solve.
In the short-term, Eason’s flat-out better than everyone not-named Sengun or Smith.
In fact, he may be worthy of a starting spot right now. However, a nice middle ground could be having Eric Gordon start until the Rockets find him a new home. This gives the coaching staff some breathing room before a major decision and Eason some time to prove that he’s the obvious long-term starter. In the meantime, he’ll be a part of the rotation receiving significant minutes off the bench.
And Eason won’t have a problem with this since he was a sixth man at Cincinnati. He’s got the art of coming off the bench down to a science. It’s almost instinctual for Eason. You’ll see this in his per-minute production.
Tari Eason (per 36 minutes):
71.4% True Shooting
The worst thing head coach Stephen Silas can do right now is start forward Jae’Sean Tate. In addition to Tate being a poor floor spacer, it’ll be very difficult to pull the plug if it’s the wrong long-term lineup. In contrast, nobody on the Rockets roster will bat an eye if Gordon starts, given his stature in the league and on the team.
But if you’re a Rockets fan reading this, you probably don’t need to worry about all this stuff. That’s up to the coaching staff and front office to figure out. Since all of these forwards on long-term contracts, the Rockets are in a no-lose position if they are forced to eventually trade someone. All that really matters is what was said at the top of this answer:
Tari Eason is awesome and the Rockets may have found the steal of the draft - again.
Subscribe to Red Nation Hoops to get full access to premium-Rockets content including weekly articles and podcasts.