CHICAGO — A lot has happened at the NBA Draft Combine this week. From the scrimmages, to the measurements, to the everyday conversations that take place in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis, the draft combine is a melting pot. Version 1.0 of our notebook was a precursor to this week’s events. In Version 2.0, we take a deeper look at the rocketscurrent situation. Let’s dive in.
• At this stage in the offseason, it’s unclear how the Rockets will proceed with the No. 3 pick – which is understandable. The draft lottery took place less than 48 hours ago. There will be lots of debate among Houston’s decision makers about the coming days and weeks as they weigh the pros, cons and potential fits of each top prospect.
But after spending a week in Chicago, I can say, with absolute certainty, that Duke’s Paolo Banchero has the makings of a star. His on-court persona is well known. He possesses a nice blend of size, ballhandling, playmaking and scoring prowess, all of which help explain why he’s heralded as a top option. But there’s a certain aura to him that you tend to see in budding young stars. When Banchero enters a room, he instantly draws everyone’s attention. Players like Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. also have that effect to some degree, but Banchero’s presence feels important. It’s similar to that of Jalen Green during his rookie season. At some point, the Rockets want to be an attractive option for free agents. Something about Banchero screams “it” factor, and that, in combination with Green, could assist Houston’s push for outside help in the coming years.
The Rockets have a decent feel for Banchero’s game and will be able to paint a clearer picture as their evaluation deepens. The draft is often a crapshoot, and it’s possible one of Holmgren or Smith will remain on the board when Houston is on the clock. But if they’re not, Banchero should be close to a no-brainer.
• We’ll have more on this next week, but the Rockets are focusing a lot on defense for next season. A. Lot. It’s all anyone within the organization talks about now. Head coach Stephen Silas has watched as many playoff games as possible, and he’s been most impressed with the way the best teams in the league clamp down in the postseason, using multiple schemes and executing them to perfection.
It’s a bit ironic for Silas given that one of the reasons he got the job in Houston two years ago was deploying an offensive scheme designed to get the best out of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but things change quickly in the NBA. The Rockets finished the 2021-22 season ranked last in points allowed per 100 possessions (116.4, per Second Spectrum). If you tweak the range to post All-Star break, they ranked 26th, but the actual figure drops to 117.6. No one expected Silas and his staff to turn frail young players into defensive stalwarts in Year 1, but it’s obvious the Rockets will need to generate stops for the style of basketball they want to play. The need for improved defense will impact their offseason moves, from coaching hires to roster construction.
† The Athletic reported this week on a Rockets shakeup, with assistant coaches Will Weaver and Jeff Hornacek not returning for the 2022-23 season. During a rebuild, changes like this are not out of the norm. As of now, there is no immediate rush to fill the positions. There’s enough time to survey the landscape and figure out which candidates best fit the profile the Rockets want. As stated earlier, defense is a priority. Another important determining factor is a commitment to player development. There were some initial whispers of Houston attempting to lure former assistant and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik back, but it’s understood he is no rush to return to the sidelines and is enjoying his time away from the game. Bzdelik last served in the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2020.
One name to watch, however, is Rio Grande Valley Vipers head coach Mahmoud Abdelfattah. Sources told The Athletic that he is considered a strong candidate for one of the open assistant jobs. Abdelfattah is coming off a G League Finals win and has great relationships with Silas and the organization. Thursday’s scene at Wintrust Arena featured Chuck Hayes, Silas, Abdelfattah and Ed Pinckney watching scrimmages, with general manager Rafael Stone and assistant GM Eli Witus making the rounds. Abdelfattah has been with the franchise dating back to the days of Mike D’Antoni and is highly respected by members of the Rockets and Vipers. “There’s great communication between me and the coaching staff up in Houston, between me and the front office,” he told me last month† “And they provide as much support as we need in order to be successful.”
• There’s another name the Rockets should consider: sacramento‘s Stacy Augmon. But it should be noted that this comes with a caveat. (This is also me purely using logic.) The caveat being Houston’s long-term commitment to forward Christian Wood†
Augmon currently works in player development with the Kings, having served under Luke Walton and Alvin Gentry, both of whom are no longer coaching the team. It’s unclear if Mike Brown, the Kings’ newly hired head coach, will retain Augmon.
So why Augmon? And why Houston? There’s an incredible amount of love and respect between Wood and Augmon. It was then-assistant Augmon who recruited Wood to UNLV nearly a decade ago, with Wood from Long Beach, Calif., and Augmon from Pasadena, Calif. One source close to both men stressed Wood’s adoration for Augmon and believes Augmon can help Silas and lead assistant John Lucas get the very best out of him. The Athletic understands Augmon made it a point to speak with Wood some time following the Jan. 1 outburst, where Wood refused to sub into the game against the Denver Nuggets and was subsequently benched. The Rockets were in Sacramento for a pair of road games Jan. 14-16. Again, Augmon’s candidacy depends on if Houston is all in on Wood as part of the team’s long-term core.
• Members of the Rockets’ brass met with combine participants Thursday before making their way to Wintrust Arena to watch the first of the day’s scrimmages. Think of these team interviews as speed dating in a way. There isn’t a whole lot of time to get to know these players individually in the period allotted because of the players’ many commitments and the large pool of interviewees, but teams try to make the best of it.
Malaki Branham was one such player who made an impression. The 6-foot-5 wing out of Ohio State has been projected to go anywhere from just outside the lottery to the lower end of the first round. But it’s not his play style that impressed me, it was his demeanor. Branham is a pure scorer — he impressed in the NCAA Tournament and proved he can knock down perimeter shots consistently — but nothing about him screams cocky. He speaks with confidence, humility and honesty. “It was good,” Branham said of his interview with Houston. “Great energy, young players. We’re gonna get out and run. It’s gonna be fun if I get drafted there.”
The message Branham wanted to communicate is that his work ethic goes way beyond his scoring ability. Branham studied a lot of Caris LeVert tape, citing similarities with his movement and scoring.
• Houston also spoke with Patrick Baldwin Jr., the 6-foot-9 forward who played one season at Milwaukee. The big question about Baldwin has been if he’ll stick around for the entire draft process. He seemed a bit uneasy when asked if he’d stay in the draft or returning to college. His season was more on the underwhelming side, as he shot a mere 26 percent from 3. But he has the size and skill set to at least be intriguing.
Baldwin said his conversation with the Rockets was great. “They had some really good questions, but overall, just getting to know me and me just getting to know them.”
In an attempt to get a glimpse into how these team interview sessions go, I asked Baldwin about what stood out to him with Houston. He said the Rockets asked him what basketball advice he would give to his hypothetical son. His answer: no matter how tall you think your kid is going to be, develop his game as a guard. Reason being, if you’re one of those individuals who is taller at a young age but caps out at around 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3, you’re doing yourself a disservice without those guard skills. “You might be a 6-2 center, which limits your potential,” Baldwin said. “Always have those guard skills, passing skills, feel for the game, which makes the transition easier at the next level.”
• Kentucky’s TyTy Washington Jr. hasn’t talked to Houston yet, but he spoke to John Wall on Thursday. The former All-Star guard and fellow Wildcat has a good relationship with Washington. I’ve thought Washington is a potential Rockets target at No. 17, especially if there’s a sudden burning hole at backup point guard (assuming Dennis Schroeder leaves).
Wall first spoke with Washington in October, before the NCAA season. After the Nov. 9 showdown with Duke, a 79-71 loss in which Washington scored just nine points on 3-for-14 shooting, Wall entered the locker room after the game and had an emergency sit-down with both Washington and coach John Calipari in his office . Washington described it as a “serious talk,” in which Wall stressed to Washington that he couldn’t have any performances like that if Kentucky wanted to go far.
Washington played more of an off-ball role this past season, saying Calipari wanted to feature him more as a scorer to help the team. One area in which he improved was his operation of pick-and-rolls. Washington said that earlier in the year, he wasn’t running his man into the screens properly, rendering them ineffective. Now, he’s comfortable making advanced reads, whether they are pocket passes, lift passes, or others. In regards to a prior ankle injury, Washington said he’s now 100 percent and feels the difference.
• LSU’s Tari Eason said his conversation with Houston was great, and the team is eager to get him in for a workout. Eason said he watches tape of two-way players like the Pelicans’ Herb Jones and Detroit‘s Saddiq Beyas well as veteran stars like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard† He leans a lot on his versatility and believes he is positionless. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine … wherever you put me, I’ll make something happen,” Eason said.
G League Ignite’s MarJon Beauchamp also has a workout scheduled in Houston — his first one — sources told The Athletic. We’ll have more on him in the coming days. Be on the lookout for that.
• Thursday’s scrimmages didn’t have the same pop as last year’s, but I thought Terquavion Smith out of North Carolina State played well. He finished with 17 points, six rebounds and two assists, but it was more how he handled the ball driving downhill and made simple reads to unlock the defense in tight spaces. I also was impressed with Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr., who finished the day with 11 points and six assists. He rushed some of his shots, but as a playmaker, he looked poised with the ball and confident in his passes.
† Usman Garuba has been said to look “fantastic” in workouts at Houston’s facilities. The same goes for Kevin Porter Jr., who has been in town for nearly three weeks working on his body and preparing for another physical campaign. Another frequent visitor to the Toyota Center: Eric Gordonwho has been getting shots up and working on his strength and conditioning while being an example for the young players to follow.
(Photo of Paolo Banchero: Bob Donnan / USA Today)