Sports

Four Thoughts on the Growth of the Rockets Young Core

Rockets rookie Jalen Green has started to turn a corner.
Rockets rookie Jalen Green has started to turn a corner. Screenshot
Rockets rookie Jalen Green jabbed one way, faked a drive, then with a wicked crossover lost his defender and took a step back midrange shot that hit nothing but net. Rockets TV announcer Craig Ackerman called it "nasty." It was.

More important than the step back itself was the step taken in the evolution of a young player we have been witnessing over the past month. Green, the hyper athletic wing taken second in the NBA draft, has finally begun to turn a corner in his rookie campaign.

With the team preaching development over wins (even if they could win more than the 16 they have mustered so far) it has been a struggle to watch the turnovers, the missed shots, the lackluster defense and the general confusion that put them in a massive hole after the first month of the season. But, over the last few weeks, Green and some of his young cohorts have begun to show the maturity we were all hoping to see and we are beginning to see the genesis of what we hope will become a legitimate playoff contender.

Not only have they been better and more fluid offensively against the best teams in the league, but their defense has shown marked improvement, ranking ninth in the NBA since the All-Star break. There is still a long road ahead, but that light at the end of the tunnel no longer feels like an oncoming train.

Josh Christopher, while raw, looks like a spark plug.

Admittedly, Christopher has not gotten nearly as much work on the floor as some of his young teammates. That lack of experience still shows at times, but he also has become the de facto leader of the second team, particularly with other players out and that in and of itself has been impressive. He has all the makings of a sixth man spark plug with his high energy and physical gifts. He also has the tools to be a defensive stopper. On a team with the starting backcourt hopefully set for years to come, having a key role filled with yet another rookie is a luxury probably no one expected.

Alperen Sengun remains a work in progress, but his defense is taking a step.

No one came into this rookie class with the low post resume of Sengun. At 18, he was the MVP of one of the best foreign leagues on the planet, mostly because of his advanced footwork, high basketball IQ and absolutely devastating offense close to the basket. Even with bigger, stronger and more athletic defenders, he continues to excel in those areas. What has lacked has been defense, a typical issue for European players when they join the NBA. But, Sengun, along with the rest of the Rockets, has improved significantly. He was always a surprising weak side shot blocker, but his defensive floor positioning and overall defense, which probably kept him off the floor at times earlier in the season, is no longer a liability. If he can even become an average defender at his position, it will be a plus.

The jury is still out on Kevin Porter, Jr. as a point guard, but not as a playmaker.

One of the single biggest questions that had to be answered this year was whether or not KPJ could be trusted to run the show for the Rockets. That seems closer to a resolution if not quite there yet. Porter's assists are up and turnovers are down, but he remains far more of an offensive playmaker than a point guard. Thing is, that might be OK. James Harden under coach Mike D'Antoni played the "points guard" who not only controlled the offense, but scored at will. Porter isn't close to that yet, but his ability to take over a game offensively looks eerily familiar and his defense has grown by leaps and bounds. We really just need to see a consistency in his play on the floor to justify turning over the reins to him in the backcourt, but we aren't far from that.

Touches are the key for Jalen Green.

Among all rookies, Green scores the most per touch of the ball, but he is dead last in touches. Much of that was due to the Rockets not wanting to set the rookie up to fail. Early on, his handles were a bit suspect and he tended to drive into traffic with some questionable decision making. All that has changed over the last month as he has ramped up his scoring thanks to improved shooting percentages and a knack for finding his way inside the defense, adding a midrange game to his arsenal. Turnovers are down for Green and his decision making has improved dramatically. We've begun to see just what all the fuss was about and why many believe he could eventually lead the league in scoring.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke