Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jack Dempsey/AP/Shutterstock (13641463j) Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) pulls down a rebound against the Denver Nuggets during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game, in Denver Rockets Nuggets Basketball, Denver, United States - 28 Nov 2022

Evaluating the Rockets 2021 draft class

The four members of the Rockets 2021 draft class have entered the second quarter of their second NBA season. Each has gone through highs and lows in their young careers, so let’s take a look at where things are with all four.

Jalen Green

Expectations are always going to be exceptionally high on a guy selected second overall, and so far, Green is exceeding those expectations. He was a First Team All-Rookie selection last season, and he’s built on that success in year two.

Jalen Green per gamePointsReboundsAssistsStealsFT attempts
Last season17.
This season21.

Green added muscle over the summer, and you can see the results both by looking at him and by watching him play. He’s able to take on contact when he drives to the rim, which has led to the increase in free throw attempts. Often times when he had big scoring games as a rookie, it was because he got hot from long distance, but he’s not dependent on that 3-point shot anymore. He scored 20 points in the third quarter of the Rockets’ win over the Suns last week, and 17 of those points came from the paint or the free throw line.

Green’s 3-point shooting is slightly down from the 34.3% number he posted last season, but that can be explained by a 3-for-33 slide over the last five games. He started the season shooting over 36% from long distance.

Still a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday, Green is playing the game with the confidence of an established veteran. After going bucket-for-bucket with Ja Morant in October, Green said he felt he was on the level of the Grizzlies All-Star guard, and all that separated the two was age.

“He’s not only lived up to expectations, but he’s just coming in with that swagger every single game,” James Harden said about Green on Monday night.

Usman Garuba

A myriad of injuries robbed Garuba of a good portion of his rookie season, and a sprained ankle forced him to miss Summer League, but Garuba has remained healthy through the start of his second NBA campaign, and an early season knee injury to Bruno Fernando vaulted him into the Rockets rotation.

After drafting him 23rd overall, Rockets general manager Rafael Stone said Garuba was the world’s best defender not currently in the NBA, and he’s made Stone look very smart for making that declaration. Garuba’s lack of size gives him a little bit of a ceiling at that end of the floor, but his ability to survive isolations against anyone allows the Rockets to switch all five positions when he’s on the court.

The offensive side of the floor is where Garuba is going to have to show more. He’s a good screener and can find open teammates, but he draws no attention from the defense and struggles to handle interior passes. Garuba has worked hard on his 3-point shooting, which has taken a step forward in limited attempts, but he’s confident enough to take those shots and only does so when he’s wide-open. He connected on seven of his first eight chances from long distance this season after making just 5-of-20 as a rookie. Garuba’s best trait is the effort he plays the game with, which is why he’s a force on the offensive glass, and it explains why the Rockets have a 39.5% offensive rebound rate when he’s on the floor and 32.8% when he’s on the bench.

Josh Christopher

Stephen Silas did not expect to have the 24th overall pick in his rotation last season, but Christopher’s play gave him no other choice. He showed an ability to get to the rim and defend at a high level, but his play has taken a step back through the first 24 games of his sophomore season, and he finds himself on the outside of Silas’ rotation.

Christopher’s biggest issue is that he doesn’t seem to have a natural position. He can’t run an offense well enough to play point guard, and he doesn’t shoot the ball well enough to play off the ball; in fact, his 3-point shooting has dropped from 29.6% to 21.4%. Not all is lost, however. Christopher will get opportunities as the Rockets continue to hold Eric Gordon out from both ends of back-to-backs; the key will be making the most out of those chances. He played his best game of the season in San Francisco on Saturday, so that’s something to build on, but he will have to consistently play well in order to have a role moving forward.

Alperen Sengun

The Rockets traded two future first-round picks to acquire Sengun on draft night, and the 19-year-old has made them look very smart for doing so. Sengun’s numbers are up across the board as his role has increased. He started the season on the bench after a shaky training camp but reclaimed the starting center job following Bruno Fernando’s knee injury, and he hasn’t given it back since his return.

Sengun’s fit with the Rockets in the future seems complicated, however. He’s special when the ball is in his hands, but he needs the ball in his hands to be effective. You can use him as an offensive hub, but then you are taking the ball out of the hands of Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. It’s just very rare to see a center in today’s NBA who doesn’t shoot threes or can’t be used as a rim runner. He’s been a very good post player thus far in his NBA career, but that goes against the style of play the Rockets are looking for and having Green and Porter make a dozen entry passes every night doesn’t maximize their talent.

Defensively, Sengun has gotten better, but the floor was quite low. He’s still not a great mover or much of a rim protector, but he’s done a much better job of being in the right spot, and he’s cut down on his fouls. Silas has been hesitant to have Sengun finish games because of the way teams target him, but he trusted him in crunchtime of Monday’s game against the Sixers, and Sengun came through in a double overtime win while playing with five fouls for 12 minutes before fouling out when the game was in hand.

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