DimeMag

Josh Christopher’s Rookie Season Laid The Foundation For His Intriguing Two-Way Skill-Set

Between Jalen Green’s hang-gliding finishes and Alperen Şengün’s streetball dimes, widespread fanfare for the Houston Rockets’ other young players was challenging to establish last season.

Green and Şengün rightfully headline conversations of Houston’s future, as does Jabari Smith, who surprisingly fell to the third pick in Thursday night’s draft. Along with that trio, another 2021 first-round pick quietly wrapped up his rookie season maintaining and expanding upon his pre-draft intrigue: Josh Christopher.

In 74 games, playing 18 minutes per contest, the 6’5 guard averaged 7.9 points, 2.5 rebounds, two assists, and 0.9 steals on 53.4 percent true shooting (.448/.296/.735 split). Amid a class stocked with future high-level starters and stars, Christopher did not warrant All-Rookie Team consideration.

Nonetheless, at 20 years old, he flashed an enticing bag of two-way tricks. He remains someone whose development is worth monitoring, both for his league-wide standing and how he fits with the Rockets as they progress toward hopes of immediate winning again.

At this juncture, Christopher is optimized offensively as a second-side option, a powerful wing who feasts attacking off the catch and bulldozing mismatches via the drive. He’s still figuring out the proper utility of his jumper (more on this later) and is rather adept chiseling his way downhill. According to Cleaning The Glass, he shot 62 percent at the rim (64th percentile among combo guards), with 39 percent of his shots coming there (87th percentile). He created more than half of his makes around the basket.

Houston ranked just 26th in offensive rating this past season, lacking cohesion and reliable advantage creators, so Christopher didn’t consistently see opportunities to puncture a tilted defense. When he did, though, his forceful, elongated strides and ability to fashion driving lanes with his East-West handling chops glimmered.

He touts the core strength and balance to overwhelm defenders and shrewdly migrates along the arc to simplify openings to the rim; he’s a shrewd off-ball mover, hence his 1.42 points per possession on cuts (78th percentile), per Synergy. Heightened offensive stability around him in the coming years should only further amplify his slashing and off-ball prowess.

The finishing numbers themselves are impressive and deserving of plaudits, but Christopher also shot 54 percent on two-pointers altogether, slightly above the league average of 53.3 percent. For a 20-year-old rookie guard to achieve that, with nearly 58 percent of those makes coming unassisted, is noteworthy.

Although the depths of Christopher’s creation is still being refined and explored, he displayed encouraging pacing and craft in ball-screens. According to Synergy, he ranked in the 59th percentile in pick-and-rolls and when passes are factored in, that mark rises to the 74th percentile. His passing requires further enhancement, particularly with laydowns on drives and avoiding premeditated decisions, but he’s exhibited serious manipulation using screens to venture downhill.

Despite some struggles with his handle, often against stunts and point-of-attack pressure, I hold confidence that he will blossom into a capable secondary pick-and-roll operator. The handle is a notable problem that limits his volume on the ball, but his strength, cadence, and screen manipulation should fuel his downhill escapades, where his finishing acumen prospers.

A couple notes from that montage: the way he sort of casually bludgeons through Kyle Anderson and Buddy Hield for finishes underlines his functional strength — he’s only 20 years old! His premeditated nature as a facilitator is evident on the feed to Şengün. Kenyon Martin Jr. is open for the pocket pass, yet Christopher lasered in on the pass up top and extinguished a potential bucket at the rim.

Christopher’s quickly established proficiency as an attacker and finisher in the league, so that’s likely to serve as his primary scoring means. The jumper, of course, looms prevalently to determine what level of offensive volume he can reliably shoulder, both on and off the ball.

Beyond short pull-ups and turnarounds (inside the free-throw line), I don’t envision off-the-bounce jumpers being a dependable tool for him. His release is a bit slow to consistently fire against defenders off the dribble and his pull-up numbers the past two seasons aren’t ideal. Per Synergy, at Arizona State, he ranked in 29th percentile on pull-ups in the half-court (0.65 PPP, 54 shots in 15 games). This last year, he ranked in the 30th percentile (0.75 PPP, 109 shots in 74 games). It’s both a low-volume and low-efficiency playtype for him.

That being said, this thought process doesn’t really extend to my projection of his catch-and-shoot prospects. South of 32 percent on fewer than two spot-up triples per game as a rookie, as well as 0.82 PPP on no-dribble jumpers at Arizona State, don’t portend well for his chances.

However, he’s made significant mechanical strides over the last 15 months. While his release can be slower than preferred, he’s shown a knack for speeding it up against tight closeouts, especially as last season progressed. Defenses didn’t give him the silent treatment in 2021-22, even if hurried closeouts weren’t always the norm. Christopher packages the requisite power, off-ball instincts, and finishing to predominantly subside on drives in spite of a middling jumper, which is the level I deem attainable for him.

Beyond his interior scoring profits, the most surprising component of Christopher’s Year 1 skill-set was his defense. Houston’s defensive cohesion and execution were consistently underwhelming, yet the rookie guard flashed considerable competency on that end.

His communication, positioning, and awareness off the ball, largely when stationed on the weak-side, popped. Conversely, he had a tendency to be caught in no man’s land and tardiness on switches or reacting to movement was a common theme. The entire team made a habit of flubbing switches, so I won’t knock him much there. Given how concerning I deemed the Rockets’ collective defensive approach, Christopher’s broad knowhow for certain off-ball rotations and positioning should be overwhelming points of optimism.

One of the more thought-provoking exercises as it pertains to his development is discerning his ideal defensive role. On and off the ball, he established obvious assets and warts, both of which were often linked in some manner.

As an on-ball defender, he seemed a beat slow processing decisions from his assignment and that left him susceptible to dribble penetration. That often was masked as lateral mobility limitations, but I consider it linked to delayed recognition more than a physical flaw.

Whether it’s more redeemable than movement problems is tough to answer; I lean yes as he continually adapts to NBA speeds and conditions. When that wasn’t plaguing him, his size and pesky hands frustrated ball-handlers, though he’d occasionally overindulge with the pressure and allow assignments to boogie by him. His dexterity is a weapon, evidenced by a 2.1 percent steal rate (84th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass). He’s adept at denying dribble handoffs, pickpocketing dribblers and cutting off drives with disciplined closeouts.

If a screen neutralizes him, which happens a bit too frequently, he’s prone to wandering into purgatory. With his swift hands and strength, peel switches should become integral to his pick-and-roll defense. Ingraining that into his approach would mitigate this specific shortcoming. If or when he assimilates to the speed of initiators, Christopher’s on-ball defense brings significant promise and is worth being rather excited about moving forward.

As I went from curious observer with a general grasp of his game to in-depth connoisseur this past week, a few swing skills and questions populated my thoughts: To what length does the 3-ball influence his scoring ceiling? Teams invited jumpers by playing off of him and his decision-making in those spots fluctuated. How reliant will he be on its development to climb the offensive hierarchy and increase his usage?

Similarly, when operating North-South, his handle poses setbacks, but he knows how to generate horizontal space with it. If the pull-up reaches a certain tier of comfort and impact, his handle could augment that growth and earn him expanded on-ball duties, namely through pick-and-rolls, where he’s already effective.

Although reaction time seems to be his most pressing inhibitor on the ball, he could benefit from improved technique as a lateral mover. Too routinely, his steps are choppy and he’s more running than sliding. Addressing that and growing more comfortable in his processing of on-ball actions could render him a trustworthy point-of-attack menace.

Yet consistency as a low man in conjunction with his weak-side awareness could see that as his foremost defensive responsibilities. How the Rockets determine this answer, especially with their shallow defensive infrastructure, captivates me.

As Houston embarks on the second full year of a rebuild, Christopher will not define its vision. Regardless, his rookie season provided a clear glimpse into his upside, a player whose complementary two-way game may fill the gaps presented by the future stars of this roster.

The 24th pick will rarely headline discussions of a young core, but after one year, Christopher emphasized he’s absolutely not someone to neglect either. He’s got the juice to earn himself a spot in southeastern Texas for a good, long while.

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