Coming into the draft, Rockets fans knew 2 things about the team’s plans: That they were going to select Paolo Banchero with the 3rd overall pick, as Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted in the morning of draft day, and that Houston was interested in trading up, unlikely to bring in 3 first round rookies.
The Rockets didn’t end up doing any of these things, and still came out, at least in my eyes, as one of the biggest winners of the draft. Let’s see why.
- 3rd overall pick: Jabari Smith Jr
The player: As I’m writing these words, it still doesn’t feel real. Ever since lottery night, the league-wide expectation has been that the Rockets will draft Paolo Banchero, the most likely of the consensus top 3 to fall. The photoshops and propaganda were in full force, and every mock draft had Jabari Smith Jr going to Orlando, Chet Holmgren to OKC, and Paolo to Houston.
Nevertheless, in a shocking move, the Magic decided to take Paolo Banchero with the first pick, and with OKC being locked on Chet, the Rockets got the prospect who was projected to go #1 all along. It was yet another reminder that unless you’re picking 1st, you really have no control over which players will be available when it’s your turn to make a selection, even if you convince them to not work out for send their medicals to teams picking ahead.
Well, so we did the Rockets actually get with their 3rd overall pick? At 6’10 with a 7 foot wingspan, Jabari Smith’s fluidity, shooting talent, motor and defensive versatility make him a perfect fit in the modern NBA. He’s a player who’s a product of how the game is trending, shooting as well on 3s as he did on 2s over the past season.
Jabari Smith is the best tough-shot maker to come out of the draft in the last couple of years, drawing Kevin Durant comparisons. His high release point makes his jumpshots borderline uncontestable, and once you combine that with his unreal shooting skill from all over the court, and comfort rising up off movement and from each shoulder, you get a player who dominated offensively despite being unable to get to the rim, or finish with any consistency.
While that’s beyond impressive, and a sure bet to translate to the NBA in any setting, I believe the last part if also what will likely hold back from becoming an offensive star. When you struggle to create easy shots for yourself, your efficiency will suffer, and combining that with Jabari’s struggle to create for others, I don’t see him generating much value as an offensive creator, which is the most valuable offensive role, and one the Rockets are still lacking, barring outlier development.
The good thing about Smith? He doesn’t need to become an offensive creator to generate massive value for his team on both ends. I will write about that more in the “fit” portion, but Smith’s ability to space the floor, the shooting gravity he will possess at each moment, and his touch will allow him to press opposing defenses without even dribbling. Run him off screens, the defense will often double. Let him get position and rise up, that’s an easy bucket. Draw the switch and just give him the ball, and he’ll get a shot that’s efficient *for him*, and that’s what matters- because Jabari Smith is no ordinary basketball player. Basketball isn’t play 1-on-1, and Smith flourishes in a team setting.
It’s about time I write about Jabari Smith’s defense, right?
The same unique body that enables Smith to play so fluidly on offense also helps him become a nightmare to deal with on defense. Jabari covers ground on defense extremely well, and his is ability to flip his hips with such ease makes him a prolific switch defender, and an amazing screen navigator for his size. Compound that with his absurd defensive motor and adequate physical tools, and you get someone who will be a defensive stopper at the NBA level, taking on the toughest matchup every night.
I don’t like writing about defense, because I feel like that without flim, my words don’t mean much. It’s hard to get a reader to understand how exactly a defender operates. So enjoy this compilation by Zach Milner on Smith’s defense against Alabama:
Smith has plenty of room to grow as a help defender. Too often, especially at the start of the season, he was too hesitant to use his physical tools and help on drives. You would like to see him to display the same aggressiveness he does when guarding the ball handler as a weak-side rotator, but I believe that will come with time and practice. Jabari Smith is also one of the youngest players in the class, and I trust he possess the work ethic to iron out all the little kinks of his game.
One more area in which Jabari Smith Jr adds value is on the glass. For my money, he’s the best rebounder out of the consensus top 3. He always looks for a body to box out, and is physical, which goes a long way. See, Jabari struggles as a finisher, but he has absolutely no problem dishing out contact and recieving it. His free throw rate of 38.4% is an example of that- for all the talk of him being a limited driver and finisher, he got to the line more than Paolo Banchero, who is praised for his driving ability, and did a lot of that by drawing shooting fouls. Some of Jabari’s detractors believe that NBA-caliber defenders could get into his body and force misses that way, and they’re up for a surprise.
Jabari’s strong rebounding at the 4, averaging over 10 per 40 minutes despite sharing majority of his minutes with Walker Kesser, should help him play small ball 5 in the future, making his offensive skillset even more lethal, and that brings us to…
The fit: When you’re talking about fit, you’re talking about Jabari Smith Jr. If you were to build the perfect forward in a lab to fit with any creator type, you’d get Jabari Smith. The Rockets could do a million of things with the starting lineup, and they’d still have 2 guys who are going to bring massive value and fit everywhere in Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr.
As I wrote a couple paragraphs ago, Smith isn’t a creator- he needs guys who can put him in ideal spots for him to succeed. And while the Rockets don’t have a Luka Doncic type to do that, I have trust in their current personnel to create an ideal environment for Jabari.
Jalen Green is one of the league’s best at generating rim touches and putting pressure on the basket. Kevin Porter Jr’s playmaking has improved over the past season, especially when he’s passing to knockdown shooters. Alperen Sengun was remarkably efficient as a creator in year 1, and his dynamic passing will create open looks for Jabari at will.
Prior to the draft, I do think the Rockets were missing the “true point guard type”, who could calm everybody down, run a set play when they need to, and direct traffic well to maximize the offense, and they got him with TyTy Washington. More on him later, but the main point is that Jabari Smith won’t be over-extended as an on-ball creator, playing a role suited to his skillset.
That’s not to say Jabari won’t be a volume scorer one day- he absolutely could be, and his ability to get his shot off with such ease leads to a level of comfort in iso. But if he proves to not be capable of making such drastic improvements with his handle, passing, and slashing, the Rockets will be able to make up for his limitations.
How much does Jabari rely on good guard play, exactly? Here’s a stat which demonstrates it:
When playing with Wendell Green, a point guard who’s an advantage creator, Jabari Smith shot 47% on 2s (including 63% at the rim), 42.6% from 3.
When Jabari played without Green, he shot 37.8% on 2s (58.3%), and 40.9% from deep.
The Rockets should make sure Jabari Smith maximizes his 3 point volume and that his mid range attempts are as close to the basket as possible, by running him off screens and setting him some deep ones, letting him get position beforehand. There are so many different ways to utilize Jabari Smith off the ball, including in pick and roll, and I’m excited to see what Stephen Silas has in his bag for him.
2. 17th overall pick: Tari Eason
While no Rockets fans expected Jabari Smith Jr to end the night in a Rockets jersey, Tari Eason has been a part of so many Rockets photoshops, there’s no point in counting. Ever since he said that he “had a very interesting conversation with the Rockets” at the combine, and he started falling in mock drafts, Rockets fans were determined- and apparently, the Rockets were as well.
I had Tari Eason 11th on my board, so safe to say I’m a fan of the selection. Eason is a 6’8 forward with a 7’2 wingspan and Kawhi-like hands who, simply put, is an agent of chaos. His steal + block numbers are only rivaled by Matisse Thybulle from the last couple of drafts, and he’s extremely versatile and physical as an on ball defender. The Rockets may have fixed their defense in a 40 minutes stretch by taking Jabari Smith Jr and this dude back to back:
Eason is prone to making bad decision, and overly gambling. He averaged 5 steals + blocks per 40 minute, and 4.5 fouls. While he’s excellent at wreaking havoc and being physical, he sometimes overdoes it, and isn’t technically sound. I’m a firm believer that once he gets used to the NBA game, he’ll be an excellent defender- but that could take a while.
Offensively, Tari Eason was, once again, absurdly dominant and productive, averaging a preposterous 27.7 points per 40 on 61.5 TS%. A trend across Eason’s game is that despite his very real flaws, he still found a way to make a significant impact on the game, which instills hope that once he improves upon these flaws, he may become a whole lot better than anyone thought.
Tari is a magnet for contact, and the most relentless player in the class. He will come at you, again, again, and again, until you’re forced to foul him, where he shot 80% on over 5 attempts per game (51.5 fTR%). He mostly dominated when facing smaller players, bullying them on drives, and finishing with the right.
He was the Giannis Antetokoumnpo of the SEC, and while that’s not a role he’ll play in the NBA, Eason will stand out in the NBA as a slasher. The most important thing for his NBA role is his shot, and despite sporting an unorthodox form, Tari shot 36% from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game. He’s not anything special as a shooter, but all he needs to be is respectable, and that’s a bar he’s likely already reached.
So, Eason is a remarkably versatile defender, relentless and physical, who shot well from 3 and the line and is a terrific slasher? What’s the catch, why was he available at 17?
Truth be told, I’m not sure I know the answer. Eason’s release point is low, but it went in. NBA teams expressed concern regarding Tari’s basketball IQ and feel for the game, though after reviewing the film, I don’t believe that’s a real concern. Sure, like Jabari, I wouldn’t say he has high feel, but I don’t think it’s anything too problematic, and he was an other-worldly defensive playmaker despite those issues.
I will say that Tari Eason is a bit raw for his age (recently turned 21), and too right-hand dominant at the moment for any on-ball NBA role with a respectable usage. His passing isn’t anything special, he’s prone to make mental mistakes, and his motor is a bit inconsistent for my liking. Still, getting a player as talented, versatile and productive at 17 is a massive steal for the Rockets, and I’m hoping we get to see him start next to Jabari Smith at the 4 very soon.
Coming into draft night, there were 4 power forwards who had a chance of playing small ball 5 in the future: Paolo Banchero, Jeremy Sochan, Jabari Smith Jr and Tari Eason. 2 Of these players are now Rockets, and lord, am I excited for the Tari\Bari front court lineups.
While Eason likely lacks the shot versatility and handle to play the 3 long term, he fits well as a 4, and Jabari Smith could easily slot at the 3. I’m salivating thinking about lineups with Jabari Smith and Tari Eason covering for Alperen Sengun on defense, while Sengun is posting up on offense, with Eason cutting and Smith relocating.
The ideal fit for Tari Eason would be playing in a strong defensive infrastructure, where fellow teammates could make up for occasional bad defensive gambles, and let him run wild as a free-safety. The Rockets don’t have that, but playing with Jabari (and KJ Martin, if he stays) goes a long way when it comes to having teammates who could make up for your mistakes.
As a Rookie, Eason should get the opportunity to experiment on both ends, and find his ideal role that way. He’s a bit similar to Usman Garuba, so the 2 will have to battle for minutes, and I hope that competition brings out the best in both.
The Rockets got another versatile wing, and you can’t have enough of those. Well they literally had 0 of those who are 6’8 before the draft.
3. 29th overall pick- TyTy Washington Jr.
The player: According to Sam Vecenie from The Athletic, the 2 names he heard the Rockets were interested in most with the 17th pick were Tari Eason and TyTy Washington Jr- and they managed to get the latter with the 3rd pick.
Not even that, they traded back 3 spots from 26 to 29, picking up 2 second round picks on the way, and still managed to get their guy, who I had pegged as the 15th best prospect in the draft. Phenomenal stuff.
Why am I, and the Rockets, are so high on TyTy Washington?
TyTy is kind of good at everything. I like his shooting, he’s very smart and calculated, sufficient physical tools to make an impact on defense, always in control. But players who are just pretty good at everything rarely actually make an impact in the league. You need an outlier skill, and fortunately, Washington has one.
Aside from being a guard who went to Kentucky, TyTy has arguably the best touch in the draft. His floater is beyond effective, he’s the most prolific mid range shooter in the draft, and all of his passes are extra crispy, with even a little sauce on the side.
That touch led to Washington shooting over 57% on floaters and 46% from the mid range area, on enormous volume. He didn’t leave a mark as a 3 point shooter, shooting 35% on 3+ attempts, yet I’m not worried. Unless your shooting is special special, you’re not going to have the leeway to jack up 3s as you wish in Kentucky, and I see TyTy Washington shooting pull up 3s in the NBA at will with the encouragement of the coaching staff.
Where Washington flourishes is in pick and roll, a play type he didn’t get to run nearly as much as he should. Oscar Tshiebwe had a big year, and a lot of it was due to having Washington feed him in pick and roll time and time again. The way TyTy utilizes screens to free either himself or the big repeatedly will make Chris Paul smile:
Through his first 18 games, prior to getting injured against Auburn, Washington averaged 14\4\5 on efficiency splits of 50 FG% (54.4 2PT%), 40.4 3PT%, and 77.4 FT%. He was picking his spots well, and maintaining ludicrous efficiency for a someone who, like Jabari, never actually gets to the rim.
It just so happened that TyTy never recovered well from that injury- and that was exactly when the schedule started getting tougher, and Kentucky was playing teams who were in consideration for the NCAA tournament. His efficiency plummeted, he finished the season with a 52 TS% and a stinker against St. Peter’s of all teams, and fell to pick #29.
It is hard to know how much of Washington’s struggles were injury related, vs competition related. He also reportedly didn’t impress in workouts, and reinjured his ankle, earning the “injury prone” label.
Given that he was put in an unideal role at Kentucky, and that his skills seem very obvious and translatable- smarts, touch, length, craft in pick and roll- I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, but apparently NBA teams disagreed.
Before moving onto the defensive side of the floor, where I believe Washington was undervalued during the draft process, I must stress TyTy Washington’s biggest issue on court- his inability to create separation.
Like Smith, Washington is an elite mid range shooter, partially because he has to be. TyTy does lack Jabari’s absurd release point, so he’s fairly ineffective in iso situations. Washington is elite in pick and roll, partially because he can’t get by his man without a screen. Once teams switch, you better hope TyTy’s big can convert on the mismatch, because it’s unlikely that Washington can, unless the opposing big is truly immobile.
TyTy Washington’s lack of advantage creation led to a very low volume of rim shots attempted and free throws (19%), and caps a ceiling on his scoring potential. TyTy Washington does play like Chris Paul- the 35 year old version.
As mentioned before, the defensive end is another plus for TyTy Washington. at 6’4 with a 6’8 wingspan, his length helps him get his floaters off on offense, and make an impact on defense. He’s strong at the point of attack, getting through screens well and pressuring opposing ball handlers. In addition to that, he’s active in passing lanes, with a 2.6 STL% that’s a great indicator of feel. Here’s a nice compilation of TyTy Washington’s defense below:
Washington is not a lockdown defender, but he’s a firm plus in my eyes, and the Rockets lacked his caliber of defenders last season. TyTy is old for a freshman, and will turn 21 in November, but his all around-skillset at PG and special touch makes him a surefire bet to become a valuable rotation player at the guard spot.
Whether you think Kevin Porter Jr is a point guard or not, it’s impossible to ignore that the role of a PG who’s a game manager is very important, and with Washington, the Rockets have it filled. I wouldn’t bet that he ends up becoming the long term option at PG over KPJ, but his fit with Jalen Green is tremendous, and it’s certainly a possibility
One of the Washington’s best attributes is his versatility, and that comes into effect here. Maybe you don’t want him handling the ball as much if he’s playing with other talented guards, but that’s fine, because TyTy can still make an impact attacking closeouts, shooting and spacing the floor, making smart decisions sporadically and guard the opposing best G. Any way you slice it, he fits- and I’m excited to see him running pick and rolls with Jabari in place of Tshiebwe, getting him the same quality of drives and open mid range shots, and make the best of Sengun’s and Garuba’s massive screens.
The biggest winner of tonight, though, is neither of these 3. It was looking grim for Alperen Sengun, with the Rockets set to select Paolo Banchero at #3- a player who doesn’t fit with him on either end. We will never know what would’ve happened if Banchero fell to the Rockets hands, and Houston tried to pair these 2 together, but my guess is that it would’ve ended in one of them being traded.
Paolo is a big initiator, and so is Sengun, ideally. Paolo needs to play next to a strong defensive partner in the front court, and so does Sengun. Instead, the Rockets draft 2 of the absolute best defenders in the draft, poised to make up for any advantages Sengun gives up on defense, and a point guard who will help get him involved more.
Sengun should now have the freedom to take on a large offensive role, and play with ideal personnel to compliment his skillset. Year 2 is when we’ll see if Alperen Sengun is the real deal, and I can’t wait for it to get there.
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