NBA

2021 NBA Draft: Jalen Green headlines Rockets’ remarkable night, setting course for post-James Harden era

Six-and-a-half months after the James Harden trade, the Houston Rockets‘ rebuild is taking shape. They drafted a foursome of 19-year-olds on Thursday, headlined by No. 2 pick Jalen Green, a high-flying, high-upside guard known for his short shorts, his scoring ability and his stint as the poster boy for the G League Ignite, the NBA‘s new developmental team. 

The Rockets are also essentially a developmental team, and Green will be given every chance to become the next face of the franchise. It was clear before draft day, though, that he was their guy. The surprise is what the front office pulled off afterward.

Houston managed to land two lottery-caliber big men outside of the lottery. Neither has quite the sizzle of Green, but they, too, have already shown what they can do against grown men. They just happened to do it outside of the United States. 

The first, Alperen Sengun, was the top-ranked prospect in the entire draft in ESPN’s Kevin Pelton’s statistical projections. He dominated the Turkish league last season, scoring every which way and earning MVP honors at just 18 years old. Sengun slipped all the way to No. 16, where the Rockets acquired him in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The cost: a top-16 protected Detroit pick in 2022 and a top-14 protected Washington pick in 2023. 

The second, Usman Garuba, is everything that Sengun isn’t on the defensive end: Long, switchable, adept at guarding perimeter players and protecting the rim. Garuba spent much of last season starting for Real Madrid and came away with both the EuroLeague Rising Star award and the ACB’s Young Player of the Year award. His defense is just as advanced as Sengun’s offense, and he believes that he’s one of the most underrated players in the class offensively. Garuba is not going to school anyone in the post like Sengun does, at least not right away, but he’s a heady short-roll passer and a strong finisher. He fell to No. 23. 

The best part is that, in theory, Sengun and Garuba complement each other. Defensively, Garuba is precisely the type of player who can help Sengun stay on the floor. Offensively, Garuba can play off of Sengun, cutting into open space or occupying a defender in the dunker spot. The fit will be even cleaner if they become reliable 3-point shooters. 

One spot after nabbing Garuba, Houston drafted Josh Christopher, one of Green’s best friends. Like his former AAU teammate, Christopher was a highly touted high schooler, and he also has considerable potential as a bucket-getting wing. This is somewhat of a flier, as he was inefficient in his one season at Arizona State, but the Rockets are betting on his tools and talent. Given how many picks they made on Thursday and how many are coming their way in the coming years, they can afford to do that. 

Houston put itself in a position to get these guys by tearing down a perennial contender. Green was the reward for its 17-55 season. Sengun, Garuba and Christopher were acquired with picks that came from the Robert Covington, Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker trades. The Rockets’ post-Harden pivot hasn’t been perfect — the Victor Oladipo experience did not go as planned — but they still have all of the stuff from the Brooklyn Nets and an increasingly interesting young core. Christian Wood and Jae’Sean Tate are both 25. Kevin Porter Jr. just turned 21. 

Rafael Stone hasn’t completely turned the roster over yet. Eric Gordon still has about $38 million in guaranteed money on the books over the next two seasons. Danuel House has one year left on his team-friendly deal. Both could be moved this offseason, and it’s unlikely that John Wall or D.J. Augustin will be on the team the next time Houston makes the playoffs. Before Thursday’s draft, though, the kind of hope that the Rockets were selling was based almost entirely on flexibility and possibilities. Now, there is a whole crop of young players to get excited about.  



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