Houston Rockets X-Factor: Can The Kids Prove They Belong?

As the NBA season approaches and training camps get underway, we’ll be taking a look at the player on each team that holds the key to unlocking their full potential.

In Houston, the goal this season isn’t to win a lot or compete for a playoff spot, but simply to lay a foundation with their young guys. John Wall is, effectively, done playing for the team, while Eric Gordon seems primed for a trade. Christian Wood also could be a hot commodity at the trade deadline if the Rockets shift their focus completely to the future. Jalen Green is the expected centerpiece of it all and will have ample opportunity to learn on the job, but more interesting to me are the rest of their first round picks.

Green is the guy Houston is building around, but after taking four players in the first round, they are hoping that at least one of them shows that they belong in that foundational core. Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba, and Josh Christopher all got picked up in the first 24 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft and each showed different flashes in Summer League action, where Green was the unquestionable star.

For Sengun, the question is how he’ll fare on the defensive side of the ball, where he has rim protection ability but has a lot of work to do on being able to function in space when asked to defend the pick-and-roll. The pick-and-roll crazed NBA will be trial by fire for him in that regard, but his offensive skillset is robust for a 19-year-old and the Rockets will get a chance to see how he improves across a full season with what should be considerable minutes.

On the other end of the big man spectrum is Garuba. The Spanish national will immediately be a force on the defensive end, as he showed during Spain’s Olympics run, but it’ll be his offensive development that will be critical. Garuba is an outrageously good defender with size, quickness, and a basketball IQ that allows him to make the right reads and rotations seemingly every time. However, he’s incredibly raw on offense and isn’t going to give Houston any real scoring punch early on, but if he can make strides in simply being a better finisher off the catch, he can play a much larger role.

Then there’s Christopher, who’s value is as a scorer but needs to improve on shot selection and, just generally, being a better jump shooter. Playing on a team with other bucket-getters like Green and Kevin Porter Jr. might require him to be a bit more discerning with what shots he’s taking by sheer force, and the Rockets are hoping he can be a high-upside steal — a bit of balance for the high-floor pick of Garuba one spot ahead of him.

Ideally, all four look the part of quality NBA players, but history tells us that’s unlikely. It would be a win for Houston to have one of these three pop alongside Green, and the good news for all of them is that they should get ample opportunity to work through the highs and lows in their rookie season.