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On KJ Martin, and the value of what you have

KJ Martin is already a useful rotation player at age 21, and the Rockets should treat him as such

Part of what makes the NBA Draft special is how regardless of where you’re picked, if at all, you’ll get a chance to prove yourself. It’s how we see players such as Ben Wallace and Manu Ginobili find their way into multiple all star appearances and championship(s), and how teams with strong scouting and proper development structure stay ahead of the curve.

What’s rarely mentioned, though, is how falling at the draft will often make you fight an uphill battle for the foreseeable future of your NBA career.

While we see top 10 picks such as Stanley Johnson and Elfrid Payton repeatedly get multiple chances despite their lack of success in the league, late 2nd rounders and undrafted players have to prove their worth each time, and likely change teams in the process, in order to secure their place in the rotation of an NBA team.

KJ Martin is yet another example of this phenomenon. After being drafted 52nd overall in 2020, Martin spent most of his time on the bench and in the G League until the all-star break had passed. Then, he was given a prominent role in the rotation and stood out with per-36 averages of 14.3 PTS, 8 REB, 1.6 AST, 1,0 STL, and 1.3 BLK in 1,000 minutes on strong efficiency from inside the arc and beyond. He still had his shortcomings, of course, but looked every part of an NBA rotation player at just 20 years old.

So of course, Martin was out of the rotation to start the next season and had to earn his way back in. If you weren’t valued coming into the draft, life gets quite difficult in the NBA.

Now, the Rockets are at a crossroads — they’ve invested in multiple young forwards, and can’t play them all. To add to that mess, Martin has asked out, hoping to find more playing time somewhere else.

I’m here to make the case that given what he’s shown up to this point, it’s time for the Rockets to treat KJ Martin as the key contributor that he is and prioritize him more in the development of their youthful group.

Kenyon Martin Jr. #6 of the Houston Rockets looks on during the game against the Indiana Pacers on March 18, 2022 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images)

ON KJ MARTIN, THE PLAYER

While Martin’s stats didn’t improve much the past season, he proved that his production at the end of his rookie season wasn’t a fluke, which is quite impressive given the bar that he set for himself. With his athleticism, passing feel, shot and defensive motor, KJ Martin is already an effective role player without the ball in his hands- a much-needed archetype on a team with plenty of ball-dominant, aspiring creators.

Martin is an excellent cutter, screener, and ball mover, making him a valuable complementary piece on the offensive end, particularly when his shot is falling (36 3PT% over the past 2 seasons). He was especially able to put these skills into use when playing with the Houston Rockets’ new starting center Alperen Sengun, as the duo combined for plenty of thrilling highlights:

Before touching a bit on Martin as a passer and shooter, I’d like to show this fabulous table by SIS, which makes explaining KJ’s value much easier. He ranked as one of the league’s best at maintaining advantages last season, meaning he excelled at his role as a non-creator. When Kevin Porter Jr or Jalen Green created an advantage, Martin capitalized, at a terrific rate.

With Martin’s passing chops, it’s easy to envision him as a premier roll man in a 5-out offense that is Coach Silas’s favorite. He’s a terrific lob threat, aggressive as a finisher, and a good decision-maker out of the short roll. His ability to make the right decision *quickly* while on the move is such a valuable component of what makes him a valuable connective tissue in the Rockets’ offense:

I’d like to expand a bit more on KJ Martin as a shooter. As mentioned before, he’s at 36 3PT% over his NBA career, on over 4 attempts per 100 possessions (2 per game). However, to evaluate a player’s shooting ability, percentage and volume aren’t enough. Garrison Mathews shot the same percentage last season, yet it’s obvious he’s a considerably better shooter.  It’s also important to note the shot’s difficulty and the player’s level of comfort as a shooter, which is where Martin lacks behind.

The majority of KJ’s looks were wide-open spot-ups, albeit he mostly shot from above the break and not the corner. Hitting open 3s is arguably the most important skill for an off-ball NBA player to master- and clearly, Martin passes the test there- but to consistently draw the defense out, and therefore increase the effectiveness of his cutting and get more opportunities to attack closeouts, it’s pivotal that he gets more comfortable taking shots that aren’t completely open.

Fortunately, he did take a step forward there over the final 20 games or so, and one can only hope his confidence from beyond the arc increases. There is no way he’d be taking this shot in the first month of the 21-22 season:

Here’s a stat to demonstrate how unique KJ Martin’s skillset is:

Last season, KJ Martin recorded 115 dunks, which ranked 15th in the NBA. Among the 22 players who recorded 100+ dunks individually, only one player matched or exceeded KJ’s volume and 3PT%- His fellow teammate Christian Wood.

Of course, Martin has a few weaknesses in his game that should be mentioned. He lacks finishing craft almost entirely, which is an issue given that he’s just 6’7. He very rarely uses his right hand except for shooting jump shots, peculiarly, and his handle is as poor as it gets for an NBA player, capping his ceiling as an offensive player. Nevertheless, Martin has 2 seasons of evidence to point towards, showing that he is a plus on the offensive end despite his shortcomings.

KJ Martin is a big in a forward’s body. It may not hinder him much offensively, given that his catch radius on lobs is one of a typical near-7 footer, but it’s difficult to play a big man’s role when lacking height, strength, and even a positive wingspan as Martin does.

Do you know what KJ doesn’t lack, though? Athleticism. That, and vertical athleticism, in particular, he’s got for days.

Accompanied with a great technique for vertical contests, KJ Martin is someone who I’d consider a firm plus on the defensive end as a low man & rotator. He truly is one of the quickest leapers in the NBA, and seemingly floats in the air when he has time to load up. With further development as he gains experience, this type of plays will become commonplace:

Your physical gifts are only helpful as you let them be, and I like how Martin actively uses his speed and quick-leaping ability to help more aggressively than others can afford to.

Here is an example: KJ sinks all the way down to fully prevent the pass to Achiuwa, and then covers a large amount of ground in such little time to get a good contest on the Boucher 3. How many NBA players are capable of pulling that off, athletically?

KJ Martin’s technique as a help defender is excellent. His technique when guarding the ball, though, could use some work.

Given that Martin has an ideal height for a wing stopper, and can jump out of the gym, you’d expect him to be a better perimeter defender than he actually is. It’s not that his defense there is poor, it’s just that it could be a whole lot better.

KJ doesn’t move his feet or change directions well. It feels like he relies on his physical tools too much, and lacks the proper physicality and discipline to guard NBA ball-handlers. Here’s an example below:

While Martin’s on-ball defense isn’t ideal, it isn’t a significant flaw, either, which poses the question- if Martin is truly a defensive plus, why do advanced stats hate him on that end?

My guess is that it’s a combination of a few factors:

  • Low steals and blocks numbers. Martin only has a 6’7 wingspan and isn’t the type of defender who thinks ahead of the offense and guards passing lanes. When protecting the rim, he always opts for the fundamental contest rather than the flashy one, leading to fewer amount of blocks.
  • Poor rim deterrence. KJ Martin plays the role of a big and given his lack of size compared to his peers at the position, opposing players aren’t afraid to drive to the rim at will against him, even if he doesn’t actually lack much behind as a helper.
  • Terrible team context. Martin was almost exclusively used as the power forward next to Sengun, and due to the team’s aggressive pick and roll coverage with Alperen, KJ had a significant defensive load. Sharing the court with poor defenders at the point of attack such as DJ Augustin, Garrison Mathews, and Josh Christopher also didn’t help.
  • Rebounding. While I like Martin’s physicality on the boards, and his vertical athleticism makes for some incredible snatches, KJ does naturally lack behind fellow bigs who have a noticeable height, wingspan, and frame advantage. And we know that advanced defensive metrics rely quite a bit on rebounding numbers as they do steals and blocks.

The bottom line? Martin will never be a perfect defender, yet he is already an asset for the Rockets on the defensive end, with plenty of room to grow.

So what did we learn?

At his age 21 season, KJ Martin was already a valued contributor on both ends of the court to a Rockets team lacking 2-way players, and didn’t need the ball to make an impact. He is efficient, excellent at maintaining advantages, and makes life easier on his teammates.

When Garrison Mathews and Jae’Sean Tate turned 21, they were still playing in college, and when Tari Eason did, he had just wrapped up his LSU campaign.

I don’t know enough to comment on Martin’s trade request. If bridges were burned, then perhaps this article is moot, and he’ll be traded before training camp. But if not, the Rockets will have the ability to make Martin a restricted free agent by season’s end, and before having to make a decision on him, I oblige the team to invest in Martin as the exciting and proven young player that he is.

Before selling low on him for a few second-round picks, move him up in the pecking order and start him next to Jabari Smith Jr. Give him more reps with the starting unit and play him 25 minutes per game off the gate, instead of 6. Ramp up the usage of him as a roll man in the Rockets’ 5 out offense. Because if we look at what every Rockets player has done in the NBA for his age, Martin jumps out off the page.

Falling in love with your favorite team’s recent acquisition is one of the best parts of being a fan, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for doing so. I, personally, am a massive fan of Tari Eason, and think he was a steal with the 17th pick of the draft. Looking at the facts, though, the odds he’ll develop into a player who’s better than KJ Martin right now are quite slim.

Here’s a graph from a great article written by Seth Partnow from the Athletic a year ago, showing the expected value from each pick in the draft. I’d consider Martin a “high rotation” caliber player already, an incredibly rare outcome for someone picked in the 50s, and unlikely for every prospect picked outside of the top 10.

KJ Martin’s main competition for minutes will be Jae’Sean Tate, as the latter’s shooting struggles make it difficult for the pairing to share the court. Tate has clearly been Coach Stephen Silas’s preferred pick over the last 2 seasons, starting in 91% of games, a phenomenon that I hope changes this upcoming season.

Tate could probably wipe the floor with KJ Martin in a 1v1 match and is significantly better as a defensive stopper. Yet, with Jabari Smith’s arrival, a stout on-ball defender himself, I’d argue his role isn’t as needed in the starting lineup. Jae’Sean is a proficient scorer against similarily-sized defenders, but does have some ball-stopping tendencies, and is less effective off the ball than KJ due to the shooting & athleticism gap.

My argument for KJ Martin’s minutes bump basically comes down to this: He is either much younger or much more productive at the NBA level than all of his competition.

Coach Silas will have his own reservations, and training camp will likely play a big role. At the end of it all, I’m simply hoping that if it becomes clear once again that Martin deserves a spot among the starting 5, he’ll get his chance to prove he deserves to be treated as a key building block in the Houston Rockets’ rebuild.

For more great coverage on the upcoming Rockets season, be sure to check out the Apollo NBA blog and follow us on Twitter.

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