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Exploring the Houston Rockets’ options with the 4th pick – Part 1

PPotential Houston Rockets draft pick Amen Thompson dunking during an Overtime Elite game

While Victor Wembanyama couldn’t contain his happiness when it was revealed the Houston Rockets will be picking 4th in the 2023 NBA draft, Rockets fans didn’t feel as grateful. They hoped that after their 3rd 60+ loss season, they’ll finally be rewarded with the first overall pick, but fate had other plans.

CHICAGO,IL – MAY 16: Head Coach Ime Udoka of the Houston Rockets accepts the 4th Pick of the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery at McCormick Place on May 16, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/NBAE via Getty Images)

It is far from the end of the world, however. The 2023 draft has been considered a special one for years, and the French Phenom is far from the only reason. Let’s take a look at how the Rockets can make the best of their situation:

part 1- stay put

Back in 2022, there was a clear top 3 at the top of the draft, and the Rockets were content with using their 3rd overall pick to pick whichever big of Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr that was available. It seems like they may be in a similar position this year, as there appears to be a consensus top 4, which consists of Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller and Amen Thompson.

While Victor is a certainty to be selected with the 1st overall pick, I wouldn’t be as confident predicting picks #2 and #3. Since the draft is still over a month away,  I imagine some teams aren’t done evaluating the film from the past season, and interviews + private workouts will shake things up, as always.

Assuming the consensus top 4 holds- It is always possible a team makes a surprise selection, even this high in the draft- the Rockets’ decision shouldn’t be very difficult. In this part, I’ll be breaking down 3 of the top 4 prospects in the draft, to figure out what the Rockets could be getting with their 4th overall selection. So let’s get into it:

1Scoot Henderson.

1. Overall description

Scoot Henderson, drawing comparisons to NBA stars Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, seems to be the complete package for the point guard position.

Standing at 6’2 with a 6’9 wingspan, Henderson’s athleticism is special. His first step is lightning-quick, he has cat-like instincts, excellent body control, and can throw it down with ease. Oh, he’s also built like a tank.

Scoot is able to use his athletic package and his secure handle to constantly pressure the rim, where he likes to use an array of different finishes, such as reverse layups and inside-hand finishes to convert. As a true point guard, Henderson has a good understanding of how he can use his gravity as a driver to create open shots for teammates.

While Scoot Henderson’s shooting is still a work in progress, he’s able to consistently hit the open mid-range jumper, and notably shot 8\19 (42.1%) on catch-and-shoot 3s.

His effort varies on the defensive end, but when locked in, he is a terrifying defender, able to use his athleticism to pressure defenders at the point of attack and hunt steals and blocks off the ball.

2. Special skill

Despite Scoot Henderson’s outlier athletic gifts, he is always under control.

We’ve seen many athletic guards try to take on the world every time they come down the floor, but Scoot is calculated, often displaying the patience and poise you’d expect to see from a veteran point guard.
His ability to alternate between modes at such a young age is very exciting, as it’s a trait usually only shared among star players in the NBA, typically acquired through experience. Here are a couple of examples:

3. Weakness to work on

Shot selection & range as a shooter.

Scoot Henderson only shot 28.6% on 3-pointers off-the-dribble, and 38% from the mid-range area, concerning numbers for someone who projects to play the point guard position in the NBA. When running a high pick and roll, he’s currently unable to punish defenders who choose to go under the screen and dare him to pull up for the 3.

While his struggles from beyond the arc are a result of his lack of an NBA range, his unsatisfactory output derives from his eagerness to hoist them up, often pulling up for contested shots and letting the defense off the hook. These plays were more commonplace than you’d like:

 As a 6’2 guard, he’ll always have to work hard for his buckets in the NBA, and an improvement at scoring effectiveness from outside the paint, and particularly beyond the arc, is pivotal.

Fortunately for Scoot, his jumper is clean, and if there’s one thing NBA teams are great at, it’s maximizing the shot chart of their players. Of all the weaknesses that will be mentioned, this is the one I’m least worried about since Henderson’s foundation as a shooter is good- He simply needs fine-tuning.

4. NBA Outlook

I believe Scoot Henderson will be a star in the NBA, making multiple all-star teams. His ability to alternate between running the ball down the defense’s throat and calmly running a pick-and-roll will be too much for NBA teams to deal with, especially once he acquires NBA range.

I am less keen on him reaching superstar status in the NBA, as his lack of size may prove to be too big an obstacle to deal with, especially as it pertains to his inability to see and pass over the defense, but the Rockets should feel extremely grateful if they get the opportunity to select Scoot Henderson with the 4th overall pick.

2. Brandon Miller

1. Overall description

 Brandon Miller will offer the team drafting him comfort as a relatively low-risk pick of a forward who can shoot, pass and defend at a high level.

Miller is a true 3-way-scorer at 6’9, leading all freshmen at points per game this year at 18.8 on 43\38\86 splits. He’s a versatile & adaptable offensive weapon, being able to use his size to shoot over his matchup, run pick and rolls, and contribute as a shooter & cutter off screens.

Brandon Miller’s lack of lift off-1-foot caused trouble for him as a slasher, only making 38% of his layups in the half-court and shooting 39.3% at the rim. He did make strides in that area throughout the season, using fakes, push dribbles, and off-hand finishes, but the tough inside buckets you see in highlights reels were the exception, not the norm.

One thing Miller did have going for him as a finisher was hit constant aggression and willingness to hunt contact, finishing the season with a free throw rate of 32.9%, which is a pretty good mark.

What completes Miller’s picture as an elite offensive player is the impressive feel as a passer of his size. As an elite shooter, he found himself drawing extra help on the perimeter quite often, and is adequate at using his size to see over the defense and skip the ball to whoever is open, spot-up shooters in particular.

Opinions on Miller’s defense vary, but I come out on the higher side of it. While he’s not a shut-down defender on the ball, he’s switchable and adequate there, able to guard multiple positions, stay in front and use his length to contest.

His best defensive attribute is his help defense at the rim, particularly in transition. 6’9 players who have a good motor and are capable of guarding multiple positions + offering help at the basket will always be of value on the defensive end.

BIRMINGHAM, AL – MARCH 18: Alabama Crimson Tide forward Brandon Miller (24) during a game between the University of Maryland and Alabama in the 2nd round of the mens NCAA basketball tournament at the Legacy Arena on March 18, 2023 in Birmingham, AL. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

2. Special skill

Brandon Miller’s best skill is by far his elite 3-point shooting at 6’9. As one of the best tall shooting prospects to come out of the draft, Miller is a true movement shooter, capable of rising and hitting out of any situation. This type of shooting versatility and proficiency will make him a great fit wherever he goes in his NBA journey:

3. Weakness to work on

What is likely to hold Miller back from reaching star status in the NBA is the relative lack of juice with the ball in his hands. While he does show off a fancy crossover from time to time, Brandon Miller doesn’t get low enough and is fairly slow as a ball handler. As deadly as his shooting may be, I doubt he’ll be able to consistently create advantages in the league with his poor burst.

When given space to pull up, Miller is lights out. Against solid NBA defenses, however, I have my reservations about his ability to create good looks for himself and others. In addition to that, the release point on Miller’s jumper is low, meaning that, unlike fellow elite shot-makers like Brandon Ingram and Kevin Durant, he won’t be able to just pull up for the jumper, unbothered, whenever he wants. A few examples:

4. NBA outlook

While it’s easy to project how Brandon Miller could contribute to his NBA team from day 1, it gets a lot more difficult when you try to make the case for an apparent star turn in his future

Miller is old for a freshman and will turn 21 in November. While being older doesn’t directly mean you have less of an upside, it does make it less likely a prospect would be able to make a nothing-to-something development, overcoming the significant stumbling blocks he currently faces.

Personally, I see Brandon Miller playing a Tobias Harris, Harrison Barnes-esque role in the league, with better effectiveness due to his decision-making and 3-point effectiveness. A valuable, sought-after starter in the NBA for many years, but not someone you can rely on to lift your offense by himself.

3. Amen Thompson

This section about Amen Thompson will be done a little differently because Amen Thompson is a much more difficult prospect to evaluate.

On one hand, Amen,  currently considered to be the most likely pick for the Rockets at #4, is a generational athlete, which is not a word I use loosely. His first step may even be quicker than Jalen Green’s. His vertical jump is ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as the ease with which he gets off the ground. He can stop and start with ease, change directions effortlessly and contort his body any way he’d like.

In addition to that, Amen is a legitimate 6’7 point guard. We’ve seen a lot of great athletes enter and exit the league without leaving a real mark, but Thompson’s skillset differentiates him from the pack.

He has a very creative handle, constantly using hesitations and changing his pace to get wherever he wants on the court, and is the best passer of the draft, being able to manipulate the defense consistently, make every pass in the book and read the 2nd side in incredibly well. Just sit back and enjoy this masterpiece:

Thompson’s combination of athleticism, handle, and passing acumen is truly one of the best I’ve ever seen, but once you dive into the rest of his offensive game, you may find some skeletons hidden in the closet.

First off, the obvious weakness is the complete lack of shooting. As amazing as Amen is at everything else, his lack of shooting is glaring, and the worst I’ve seen for a point guard since Ben Simmons. He is currently a one-level scorer and has little to build on. His success or failure in the NBA will likely depend on his shooting development.

Amen Thompson shot 26.7% from 3 and 69.6% from the line over the past year, despite almost exclusively shooting when open. While Thompson’s touch is apparent with how he passes the ball, and he’s displayed some impressive touch finishes, his shooting form is BROKEN, and he’s yet to reliably add a floater to his game.

When you’re struggling to score from outside the paint, initiating an NBA offense will surely prove to be a challenge.

If you are looking for silver lightning, Amen Thompson did shoot 30% from 3 and 77.6% from the line in the OTE playoffs, which is when he notably stepped his game up.

Amen’s development as a free throw shooter might prove to be more pivotal than his progression as a 3-point shooter. He’ll be able to get to the line plenty, but if NBA teams feel comfortable sending him there every time he drives, Amen would lose a lot of his effectiveness as an offensive player.

Amen Thompson played at Overtime Elite, which is a glorified high school league. We didn’t really get the opportunity to watch him operate against similarly sized players with the mobility to guard at the perimeter due to the poor level of competition. It is fair to consider how dominant he would look in the half-court in a different setting, guarded by NBA-caliber defenders.

Betting on Amen Thompson to be an offensive star requires a belief that he’ll find a way to reliably score against NBA defenses, which currently seems like a project.

Mid-season improvements serve as a great sign to project further improvement, and at least as it comes to Amen’s scoring at the rim, his development there does inspire hope for his future as an NBA scorer.

Amen underwhelmed as a finisher in the first half of OTE’s season. He was often out of control when driving, letting the defense force him into tough angles and fall-away shots, before dominating at the rim in the 2nd half. Amen Thompson shot 27-52 (51.9%) at the rim in the half-court over his first 14 games of the season, and 16-50 (40%) on layups. Over his last 7 games, he shot 15-19 (78.9%) at the rim and 12-16 (75%) on layups in the half-court.

Amen Thompson’s free throw rate coincidentally jumped from 35.2% in the regular season to 50% in the OTE playoffs (final 5 games), indicating he managed to turn the missed layups into free throws (and assists).

 The uncertainty surrounding Amen Thompson’s offensive capabilities carries over to the defensive side, though to a lesser extent. You don’t need to watch much to find multiple occasions of him giving up blowbys, or closing out poorly. However, it takes even less view time to find examples of him making a highlight defensive play you didn’t even think was possible.

Amen competed in a high school league and played defense like it. He has a very good motor on that end, which is key, but the concept of a box out or getting into a stance was foreign for him in some games. Regardless of that, Amen made an incredible impact defensively, using his God-Given gifts, which include a 7-foot wingspan, to fly around and rack up steals and blocks that he was able to turn into easy dunks on the other end.

I suspect it could take Thompson some time until he’s able to consistently contribute as a plus defender in the NBA, but it’s a matter of when not if. Based on every indication I’ve seen, he wants to learn, and it is simply not possible to have those measurements, be that athletic, want to play defense, and not be really freaking good at it.

So, what do we have with Amen Thomspon?

He’s an extremely unique player, as you’ve probably figured out. A tall point guard who’s the fastest player on the court at all times, and is a brilliant decision-maker, but can’t shoot a lick.

In my write-up on Brandon Miller, I mentioned how it is hard to expect a nothing-to-something development from older prospects, and it’s pretty much what Amen Thompson needs to experience in order to live up to his potential. The shooting coach of the team drafting Amen will immediately become one of the most important people in the organization.

Projecting Amen Thompson’s NBA outlook is excruciatingly difficult.

We’ve seen teams completely sag off Ben Simmons, daring him to shoot at every opportunity, which made him unable to play the point guard position during important playoffs games. If Amen Thompson wishes to shoulder a star’s load when it matters most, he has to find a way to be different. And no, initiating handoffs across the 3-point line won’t cut it.

Drafting Amen Thompson as high as #4 is a risk. There’s no way around it. It is possible that almost all of the special plays he made in the half-court at Overtime Elite are fools gold, due to the way he was defended, which is assuredly different from how NBA teams will guard him until he becomes a threat from the 3-point line.

The consensus opinion is that Amen Thompson is a high-ceiling, low-floor prospect, yet I disagree with it. In my opinion, He’s just too smart, and too good at everything that doesn’t have to do with distance shooting to fail to at least be an impact player.

Let’s say Amen Thompson isn’t able to improve as a shooter, and can’t get around it to play the point guard position. That means he’s relegated to only being one of the best transition players in the NBA, a terrifying defender on and off the ball, an amazing short roll playmaker, and an incredible cutter. He would be the best non-shooter in the world.

So yes, if you’ve read up to this point (thank you), there’s a chance you could beat Amen in a 3-point shootout. But Amen Thompson simply has too much special in his game to pass up.

Drafting Amen Thompson would lead to a hell of a roller-coaster ride, which I can’t wait to get on.

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