Rockets

Rockets Looking for Lottery Luck

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The Houston Rockets likely never dreamt they would find themselves with a shot at picking first overall in the 2021 NBA Draft.

It’s not like the team never had much of a choice, either. James Harden forcing his way out of town and an unfortunate string of injuries resulted in a disastrous season for the team. The Rockets embraced the tank and finished with the league’s worst record at 17-55.

After a brutal season of tanking, the Rockets find themselves on the brink of a franchise-altering moment. Since they finished dead last in the NBA, Houston has a 52.1% chance to land a top-four selection in the draft lottery. While the odds are essentially a coin flip, the Rockets have a real chance to acquire top-tier young talent in a particularly strong draft class– especially at the top. With lottery night less than 12 hours away, the time to catch up on scouting reports is now.

The Dream Scenario

If the Rockets win the lottery then the front office shouldn’t waste any time- they may as well finalize the pick on lottery night. Cade Cunningham absolutely should, and likely will, be the selection. The Oklahoma State point guard is the clear-cut top pick in this class for a reason:

  • Standing 6’8 with a 7’0 wingspan, Cade possesses the physical tools to hold his own against NBA athletes and create favorable mismatches against opposing point guards. He averaged 20.1 PTS, 6.2 REB and 3.5 AST in college, so production should translate.
  • He’s a talented three-level scorer who averaged shooting splits of 43.8%/40.0%/84.6%. He creates his own shot with ease, an incredibly impressive skill for a player as young as he is. He’s also an effective isolation player.
  • Cade is an amazing playmaker whose stats don’t tell the whole story. While he only averaged 3.5 assists/game in college, this can be attributed to the poor shot-making provided by his college teammates. Cade has a high basketball IQ and will be a premier playmaker in the NBA sooner rather than later. Turnovers are the only real concern in his draft profile, but young players often iron these issues out given experience in the league.
  • Cunningham has potential on the defensive end as well. He’s a good defender who shows some flashes of great defensive ability. He averaged 1.6 steals/game in college, plus his build and wingspan will help him succeed defensively at the next level.

Cade Cunningham is the most NBA-ready prospect to enter the draft in years. With his rare blend of size and skill at the guard spot, the 19-year-old has ‘future star’ and ‘franchise-altering talent’ written all over him. Although John Wall is still taking up the starting point-guard spot, the Rockets should take Cade and worry about the fit later. It never hurts to have extra playmakers in the lineup, so Houston could start Cade at small forward until they’re able to move on from Wall in the future.

If they happen to luck into the first-overall selection, the Rockets will have their franchise guy to build around for years to come.

Who at Pick Two?

If the Rockets land the second-overall pick, the selection should still be a fairly easy choice to make. Evan Mobley has already established himself as the second-best guy in the draft class, and is just a step below Cunningham.

  • Mobley measures at 7’0 tall with a 7’4 wingspan. While the center weighs in at just 210 pounds, he’s still strong and will be able to add more weight and muscle to his frame with an NBA training staff. He posted averages of 16.4 PTS, 8.7 REB, 2.4 AST in college.
  • He has a unique combination of size and athleticism for a big man, and is incredibly quick and agile for a 7-footer. He’ll be able to outrun most NBA big men and should find success even in switch-heavy defensive schemes due to this athleticism.
  • The USC big man is an absolute force in the paint. He’s an outstanding rim protector averaging 2.9 blocks/game. He also possesses great defensive instincts and crashes the glass with conviction, so he could be a defensive anchor one day for a team. On the other end of the floor, he’s a natural finisher around the rim and shot 61.5% on 2-point shots.
  • Mobley is one of the more skilled big men in the draft; he plays with a splash of guard skills. He averaged 2.4 assists/game and sees the floor well, and his playmaking is an underrated part of his game. Plus, he’s developing a three-point shot and should find himself more comfortable outside the arc given a bit of time.

As mentioned above, Mobley is an elite big man and certainly the best at his position in the draft class. Given the recent revolution of skilled centers ruling the NBA (Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid both have strong cases for MVP), teams should be looking to add a game-changing big man to their rosters. While the Rockets already have Christian Wood, he could shift back to power forward alongside Evan Mobley at center. A frontcourt pairing of these two could arguably become one of the league’s best, even in their first year together.

The Plan at Pick Three

In the case that Houston’s pick lands third overall, the assumption should be made that Cunningham and Mobley will be off the board. Fortunately for Houston, the top of this draft is loaded and there’s plenty of talent left at pick number three. The Rockets’ front office should have their eyes on Jalen Green here.

  • Green is a 6’6 shooting guard with a 6’8 wingspan. Instead of playing college ball, he played a season with the G-League Ignite, averaging 17.9 PTS, 4.1 REB, and 2.1 AST on the year.
  • He’s a freak athlete with elite explosiveness and an impressive vertical leap. His quick first step means he’ll beat almost any defender off the dribble, and he can get to the hoop with ease.
  • Green is an elite scorer, averaging 17.9 points/game in the G-League. He’s a crafty finisher around the rim, shooting 52.9% on two-pointers. His three-point shot is streaky at times, but his jumper form is pure and he finished the year at 36.5% from three. Out of every player in this draft class, Green is probably the most likely to average 25+ points per game at some point.
  • While his defense and playmaking leave a bit to be desired at times, these facets of his game will only improve as he works with an NBA coaching staff. He shows flashes of both attributes on court though and will hopefully develop with time.
  • After playing a full season in the G-League Bubble, Green has experience against significantly better talent than his peers faced in the NCAA. By going into the G-League and showing out against borderline NBA talent, scouting departments should be confident in his ability to succeed at the NBA level.

All things considered, the third pick is where Houston’s draft choice could become complicated. Green is a very raw talent, but he did gain valuable experience by forgoing college and playing against professionals. His ceiling is among the highest in this class and he possesses serious All-Star potential; he’ll likely be a Zach LaVine-esque player in the league who pours in buckets every night. Because of this high ceiling, Houston should select him to pair with Kevin Porter Jr in the backcourt. After all, the rebuild may take several years– meaning Green will have plenty of time to refine his game before the Rockets are contending again.

Falling to Fourth

Finally, the Rockets pick could always fall to fourth overall. In this case, choosing a player should be relatively easy- there’s only one player left who’s talent truly breaks the top four prospects in this draft. Jalen Suggs should be the pick if Cunningham, Mobley, and Green have all been drafted.

  • Jalen Suggs stands 6’4 with roughly a 6’5 wingspan. As the starting point guard for Gonzaga, he averaged 14.4 PTS, 5.3 REB, and 4.5 AST in his one-and-done season.
  • Suggs’ greatest skill is undoubtedly his playmaking. He displays solid decision-making when running an offense and consistently sets teammates up for success. He held the keys to one of the greatest teams in college hoops history, and yet he chose to get others involved with his selfless and team-friendly style of play.
  • That isn’t to say he can’t take over a game though. Suggs 14.4 points/game doesn’t look all that impressive, but he shot 50.3% from the field last season. His three-ball could use some work as he shot just 33.7 from the arc, but it’s serviceable for the time being. He proved he isn’t scared of the bright lights in the NCAA Tournament as well, hitting an iconic game-winner in the semifinal round.
  • Suggs is definitely one of the best defenders at either guard spot in the draft. Although he isn’t uber-athletic like Jalen Green, he makes up for it with toughness and hustle that every team needs on their roster. He could become a lockdown player one day.

The only reason Suggs drops to fourth overall is because he has the lowest ceiling of the top four prospects. Unlike the first three prospects listed above, he’s not quite showing the same ‘perennial All-Star’ potential as his top-four peers. That isn’t necessarily a dig at Suggs since he looks to have a solid floor as a good role player at worst, but he just doesn’t scream ‘future star’ like the others. However, he will almost certainly be a quality starter in the NBA and will likely produce for his team beginning on day one. Even if Houston falls to the fourth pick, Suggs will still be a great talent to pair with KPJ for the next several years.

Counting Down the Days

Regardless of draft position, Houston should be incredibly thankful if the pick lands in the top four overall slots. As the cliché goes, ‘beggars can’t be choosers,’ so the Rockets will certainly take whatever young talent they can get. The future of the franchise will drastically shift in one direction or the other depending on how the lottery plays out.

With a bit of luck, the team could grab their franchise player for the next decade and truly accelerate the rebuilding timeline by adding them to an already-solid young core. While there are no guarantees when it comes to the NBA (and especially the lottery), the Rockets like their chances of obtaining top-tier talent. With lottery night nearly upon us, just hope that the ping-pong balls land in Houston’s favor.

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About Keagan Smith

avid Houston Rockets fan from the H, writer/social/editor at The Lead Sports Media, sports correspondent at The Orange Leader.

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