Houston Rockets 2022/2023 Season Preview
"Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here..."
The infamous concerned words of Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert that only a short time ago were shared with distraught Houston Rockets fans who were left with a swiftly-delivered sense of malaise.
Yet, less than 24 months after trading franchise cornerstone James Harden, fans of the two-time NBA champion ‘Clutch City’ no longer await the regular season with baited breath. A sentiment not commonly found for a franchise coming off back-to-back years of 17 and 20 wins, respectively.
What was once a franchise condemned and criticised for not acquiring established names like Ben Simmons, Jarrett Allen or Caris Levert, mocked for trading 2x All-Star Victor Oladipo for seemingly pennies on the dollar, they now sit in a coveted position holding a plethora of draft capital and a roster of some of the most exciting young prospects in the league.
Much like other recent lottery-bound teams such as the Detroit Pistons and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets have a ton of prospects to choose from. With an average age of 24 (a statistic offset by recently acquired benchwarmers such as Boban Marjanović, Trey Burke and previous Houston Rocket, Sterling Brown) it seems as if this team is destined for a big future.
It ain't easy being Green
The first, and maybe most awe-inspiring part of Houston’s future is 2021’s number 2 overall pick, Jalen Green. The gravity-defying 20 year old guard started well-below expectations in his 2021-2022 rookie campaign, being unable to avoid the “bust” moniker after just the first 18 games which saw him averaging 14 points (28.2% fg & 27.8% 3pt), 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists; providing a shockingly abysmal +/- of -13.8. However a post All-Star break resurgence of 24 games averaging 22 points (on a greatly improved 48/39/76 split), 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists netted the young gun a NBA All-Rookie First Team selection. A run of games that saw Green join basketball hall of famer Allen Iverson as the only NBA rookie to score 30-plus points in five straight games in more than 40 years.
Jalen Green faces off against the King en route to 32 points in a 130–139 overtime win against the Los Angeles Lakers (March 9, 2022). Credit: 'Jalen Green in 4K' Houston Rockets
With the subtraction of Houston’s leading scorer, Christian Wood, this upcoming season Green will undoubtedly be the true offensive alpha who will take pressure off of rookie wing Jabari Smith Jr., and will begin his rise as one to watch for as a scoring title favourite as his career progresses. Green has shown he has the potential to be something special, in the aforementioned post-All Star break period he shot well over league-average and showcased the ability to hit 3s not only off the catch, but also off screens and off the dribble, it seemed he could have chosen to take a place as a player more than comfortable to hide beyond the arc and shoot at a high volume, fast becoming the norm. However Green's offensive bag does not end at shots taken from range, the athleticism Green showed is, as previously described, gravity-defying; Green's freakish bounce and nimbleness is nothing short of generational, blowing past defenders as if they simply did not exist, or humiliating them with finishes that made them wish they didn't.
Part-time Celtics fan/ part-time Clippers fan Bill Simmons may have dismissed Green with a careless "Fuck Jalen Green" in an April 13th episode of the eponymous Bill Simmons Podcast, however in the coming years basketball fans will do well to keep their eyes on Green who's skill, potential and charisma may see the athletic guard bounce straight through his own ceiling. You have the Hunter Dwyer guarantee that Green will end the Rockets' 2022-23 campaign with at least 20 points per outing.
The other big (literal) piece to keep you eyes on is Green's 20 year old teammate, Turkish centre Alperen Şengün. The 2021 Turkish league MVP took the basketball world by surprise in his first year at the NBA level, immediately capturing adoration from fans for his both unique personality and his phenomenal playstyle. Şengün's presence, body control, and creativity in facilitating playmaking has drawn comparison to reigning 2-time MVP, Nikola Jokic (to the chagrin of some Denver fans). If the last few years have seen the 'resurgence of the big man' in the NBA, then it is not out of the realm of possibility we see Şengün begin a career trajectory as a significant force in the league, a sentiment felt outside the bubble of Houston's fandom with Bleacher Report christening him as the most exciting young centre in the league.
Bleacher Report recently ranked sophomore centre Alperen Şengün as the most exciting young player at his position, beating our promising talents such as Onyeka Okongwu, Isaiah Stewart & James Wiseman.
Credit: ' Ranking the Most Exciting Young NBA Prospects at Every Position' Bleacher Report
While Bleacher Report can definitively be divisive, it cannot be denied that none of Şengün's peers from the 2021 draft class are doing what he is. Şengün was remarkable in the second half of the year, mirroring the post-All Star break success that Green had; Şengün in the final 22 games of his season put up a respectable 11.6 points (46/21/74 split), 7 rebounds and 2.7 assists; this achieved in only 8 starts across the 22 game stretch. With the departure of Christian Wood, the expectation held against coach Stephen Silas is that Şengün has to be giving starting centre responsibilities.
The biggest blessing of Şengün's short career for a lot of Houston fans came in late January of 2022, in what has been colloquial dubbed 'The Workout', when fans were treated to footage of then rookie Şengün working out with Houston sporting GOAT, Hakeem 'The Dream' Olajuwon.
Basketball Hall of Famer, Hakeem Olajuwon with newest pupil, Alperen Şengün.
Credit: Houston Rockets
Having Şengün sit under the learning tree of Olajuwon serves to only strengthen the big man's repertoire on both ends of the court. Şengün already possessed what pundits were referring to a 'mini Dream Shake', but under tutelage from Olajuwon the post play techniques can evolve to reflect those of other superstar-level bigs across the league. With an off-season dedicated to working on strength and conditioning, it is hoped you will see Şengün end his sophomore season with just shy of a double-double, I'd happily pencil him in for 17 points and 9 rebounds per contest.
New Kids on the Block
With a new year for a rebuilding team, we come now to the crop of fresh-faced rookies Houston acquired back in June.
L-R: Tari Eason, Jabari Smith Jr., TyTy Washington
Credit: Houston Rockets
With their number 3 pick, gifted by the draft lottery following just 20 regular season wins, Houston drafted 6'10" Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr., the highest draft pick in the Auburn Tiger's illustrious sporting history. Drafted at 17th thanks to the pick sent from Brooklyn, Houston drafted SEC standout from LSU, Tari Eason. Finally with the 26th pick acquired in a trade with Minnesota, Houston left the Barclay Center with Kentucky Wildcat Tyrone "Ty Ty" Washington Jr.
Smith falling to Houston at number 3 is nothing short of a blessing, as arguably Smith poses a better fit for the roster than number 1 pick Paolo Banchero, given Smith's defensive potential. At 6'10" with a 7'2" wingspan, Smith can be a regular on All-Defence teams while also being the second scorer and a great rebounder for this Rockets team. Smith's size, athleticism, and defensive acumen have received a glowing response, however there is glaring holes in Smith's fundamentals, as seen in his Summer League outings, Smith lacks the ball-handling and dribbling skills typically found in a top 3 pick. With depth at the guard positions and time across the season to train, this gap in Smith's skillset can be filled and can set him up for a long career as a productive and efficient superstar.
Tari Eason and Ty Ty Washington have, as to be expected when drafted alongside someone like Smith, fallen under some people's radars, and I would strongly urge people to sit up and take notice as the season goes on.
Eason, despite only starting 4 games as a sophomore for LSU, was easily seen as one of the Tiger's most efficient players, his efforts rewarding him with the SEC Sixth Man of the Year award. Eason's 7'2" length brings a strong defensive skillset and versatility against multiple positions, showing lateral quickness that allowed him to hang with the NCAA's best guards. His ability to switch seamlessly, recover well and donning the number 17 has drawn comparisons to former Rocket, P.J. Tucker. The tendency that best defines Eason is his tenacity, which he has in spades, paired with his outstandingly quick reflexes. In a era where the term 'hustle' is applied almost frivolously, Eason best exemplifies this out of anyone in his draft class.
There’s something about those Kentucky guards. At the 26th pick, Washington was definitely seen by some as a damage product. Washington was not too long ago, on track to be an All-American, before being hampered with injury while playing for Kentucky. Negatives aside, falling to Houston at the late stages of the first round is nothing short of a success for the struggling franchise. A player that had piqued my interest before being drafted, with scouting reports lauding Washington about how good his floater was, there was never a chance I'd look the other way. While in college, Washington set the highest single assist game record for Kentucky, showing throughout the season a sense of maturity not commonly found in 20 year old basketball players. Washington plays with a level of poise & smoothness that the Rockets need at the point guard slot and can easily find a home coming off the bench, with the idea of him leading the charge for the second unit a very real possibility sooner than you may think.
Off the back of a stellar 2021 draft which saw Houston draft Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher; General manager Rafael Stone and his front office have navigated a difficult draft pool and come out with 3 more promising talents. The future in Houston is very bright.
As basketball fans look towards this upcoming 2022-23 season, the final question remains, what will Houston do? Stemming back to the Harden trade of January 2021, Houston now is home to, courtesy of Brooklyn, unprotected pick swaps in 2023, 2025 & 2027 as well as unprotected first round picks in 2024 & 2026, they also look to the 2023 draft with the last of their own 1st round picks, the ball is very much in the Rockets’ court.
With the looming promise of 7'3" Frenchman Victor Wembanyama in the 2023 NBA Draft, it should come as no surprise that the Houston Rockets will very much keep themselves in tanking territory, opting to develop their young core rather than chase a potential play-in seeding. Don't be surprised if you see a player with a minor injury sit out for longer than the precedent dictates.
A season of less than 25 wins is almost destined for this Houston Rockets team as they hope their final 1st round pick will land them, once again, a top 3 lottery pick.
Ceiling: 11th Seed
Floor: 15th Seed