The Houston Rockets are closing in on a third straight underwhelming NBA season since James Harden’s departure. Aside from several bright spots, this season is just like the last two; full of multiple losing streaks, poor coaching, inexperience, and growing pains. On the bright side, this comes with another crack at the NBA Draft.
The Rockets are on a collision course to getting the highest odds of the number-one overall pick with only the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons as serious challengers. If awarded first overall, many Rockets fans along with analysts believe taking Victor Wembanyama is the only option, no matter what the team’s situation is. But should the Rockets look elsewhere? The other top prospects are G-League Ignite star Scoot Henderson, University of Alabama’s Brandon Miller, or City Reapers of Overtime Elite player Amen Thompson.
Let’s make a case for all four prospects and decide what realistic moves the Rockets will likely make. After all, this will be the most important draft pick the team has made since they chose Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick in 1984.
The Case For Wembanyama
It’s clear that Wembanyama is top two but not two in the upcoming NBA Draft. This French 7’2 specimen is already competing against grown men in the National Basketball League of France (LBN). Wembanyama is averaging 21.4 points on 46.6% shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks in 31.8 minutes playing for the Metropolitans 92.
Let’s not forget this kid is only nineteen years old and is performing like an All-Star on the professional level. Wembanyama has been dubbed the most anticipated prospect since LeBron James. What’s even crazier is that he was projected as the first pick in the 2023 NBA draft long before entering it. While Wembanyama will be one of the tallest players in the NBA, including a ludicrous wingspan at 7’8 when he debuts, there’s been a long history of injuries with players over seven feet that have a high usage rate.
Nevertheless, he frequently plays on the wing and, despite his size, is incredibly agile and skilled, having the capacity to handle and shoot the ball like a guard. Wembanyama’s length makes it challenging to block his jump shot. He has a delicate touch, a wide range of post moves, and is an effective scorer in the paint. He also does well in pick-and-roll situations.
Wembanyama’s opponents are more likely to play physically against him because of his frail build and lack of power in the post. This makes him susceptible to over the back and loose ball fouls, as he may have trouble boxing out while rebounding.
Victor Wembanyama just blocked a shot, recovered the rebound, and pushed it up the court to hit a stepback three…
— Bradeaux (@BradeauxNBA) March 24, 2023
Although Wembanyama is capable of making three-pointers, it’s only at 29.8% on 5.9 attempts per game in the LBN. There is definitive hope he will improve his three-point shooting when he transitions to the NBA.
Trade Şengün Or Jabari?
Should the Rockets get lucky and receive the first overall pick, choosing Wembanyama will cause an overflow on the four/five starting spots. Currently, those spots are taken by Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Şengün.
This season, Şengün has blossomed offensively in his role as a forward facilitator. Smith, who started his NBA season slowly, has picked up his offense in March, and has huge upside as a potential two-way player. There’s also no ideal scenario that Wembanyama will get benched in his first season. Realistically, the Rockets will need to involve a trade centering around Şengün or Smith Jr.
The Rockets best move is to trade Şengün for veterans or a star. Considering their only real winning stretch of the season came when Sengün was injured and Bari started at center, moving Sengün makes a lot of sense. Bari at center with Wemby at the four would be lethal. Wemby and Sengün together would be a disaster.
It’s possible, considering his trade value and versatility on the offensive end. If the Rockets receive a quality guard that can facilitate from this trade, it’ll make them more formidable as a complete team. There’s been talk that Harden is interested in returning to the Rockets. Getting Harden on the team along with Wemby does make the Rockets better, but is it going to improve them long term?
Next on the list is another prospect who’s not playing for a college. A five-star recruit in high school, Henderson decided to forgo his senior year and immediately signed with the G-League Ignite for 2 years and $1 million. Still at only 17 years old, the small 6’2 guard was the youngest player in the G-League. In his second season, Henderson has played in 19 games, averaging 16.5 points. 5.4 rebounds, and 6.5 assists across 30.7 minutes.
Compared to the likes of Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, Henderson has great potential as a facilitator and scorer. He’s got excellent athleticism and explosiveness, allowing him to attack the rim and finish strong at the basket. With solid ball-handling skills, Henderson is able to create his own shot from both mid-range and three point land while handling pressure from defenders. Henderson’s basketball IQ is impeccable, with strong defensive instincts and quick hands, allowing him to disrupt passing lanes and generate steals
The problems with Henderson is his size, consistency, and on-ball defense. This is especially with bigger opponents in the post or on the glass.
Henderson can also struggle with decision-making during plays, as he surrenders 3.5 turnovers per game. He also tends to make a multitude of ill-advised shots, scoring 42.9% from the field on 14.1 attempts per game and 27.5% from deep, shooting only 2.7 per game.
Henderson needs to not only improve his shot selection but also his three point attempts if he wants to make an impact in today’s NBA.
Having that level of offense alongside Jalen Green could be either lethal or a complete disaster. If Houston were to select him, it would virtually do nothing significant to the team. Henderson would first share the one spot with Kevin Porter Jr. early in the season. Overtime, the head coach would likely decide between the two on who plays better as a starter.
Brandon Miller and Amen Thompson
The consensus third overall pick is a tricky one for the Rockets. Miller had a solid regular season at Alabama. The 6’9 forward was awarded second team All-Conference and both SEC Player and Rookie of the Year.
However, his performance in the latest NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament did draw some concerns. Miller didn’t play like his usual self, shooting only 19% from the field on 35 attempted shots, the worst college performance in nearly 40 years. He was a complete liability on the court. Alabama’s loss against San Diego State in the third round consisted of him going 3-19 from the floor.
Miller’s poor performance in the bright college lights certainly impacts his draft potential.
For Thompson, there’s more upside. Thompson at 6’7 has a more athletic build and can easily create space off the dribble to blow by opponents. Not only that, he has potential to become an extra facilitator on the court. capitalizes with bounce and flexibility or passing vision to set up teammates. Thompson’s wingspan at 6’11 has plenty of defensive potential as well.
Great pass by Amen Thompson to hit the roller. Might be the best passer in the first round in '23 draft pic.twitter.com/EsiNIXuYW9
— Draft Dummies (@DraftDummies) November 4, 2022
Should the Rockets fall to the third pick, drafting either Thompson or Miller would cause the team to make drastic decisions over their roster configuration. More specifically, it would impact forwards KJ Martin, Jae’Sean Tate, and Tari Eason.
There’s no easy scenario in choosing Miller or Thompson
Tate signed a three-year extension last year and has been injured most of this season. Eason has had a solid rookie season as an energy rotational guy off the bench.
Tate would likely be a trade value piece should the Rockets fall to the third pick. At 27 years old, he could be a valuable piece for playoff teams. It’s likely that the Rockets would be dumping his contract instead of getting something decent in return. Their roster has plenty of talent. They just need more veterans.
For Martin, this could break the improved chemistry he has with his teammates and the front office. In the 21-22 season, he requested a trade citing his low minutes.
The Rockets elected to keep him and increase his minutes this year. Overall, this has been a great move. Martin has had a rather impressive year in his third season as a Rocket (76 games, 12.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG on 57.2% shooting in 27.7 MPG). Not only does he have decent size, but also his verticality and athleticism is a necessity on the court.
He has a club option for his final year on his rookie deal. It would be beneficial if the Rockets pick it up and keep him as a solid role player on the roster.
The Best Case Scenario
Each of the bottom three teams (Pistons, Spurs, and Rockets) have a 14% chance of landing the first overall pick. Winning these odds are the Rockets’ top priority in order to be regain their relevance in the league. Drafting Wembanyama will draw interest from All-Star caliber players to play on their roster and start winning games. Although this would segue into fan favorite Şengün’s departure, the Rockets would likely be better off with Wembanyama, as well as leverage Şengün’s trade value in exchange for quality vets.
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