ALL-STAR ASPIRATIONS

Here's why Christian Wood should be a lock to win this coveted award

Wood has been a pleasant surprise for Rockets fans. Composite image by Jack Brame

The Houston Rockets are a quarter of the way into the 2020-2021 season and have surprised many around the NBA with lockdown defense and selfless play on offense. It hasn't been a calm year for the Rockets with the departure of its face of the franchise James Harden, and they weren't projected to find an identity this early in the season.

That was until Houston Rockets general manager Rafael Stone's acquisition of center Christian Wood, who showed up firing on all cylinders.

Wood signed a workable 3-year, $41 million dollar deal with the Rockets, and the organization was projecting a huge leap from Wood this season after being slept on for the majority of his five-year NBA career.

Last year, Wood averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds with the Detroit Pistons, and most organizations weren't looking to sign him to a long-term deal. Teams were hesitant because it took him five years to prove he could be a starter in the NBA.

This year, Wood is averaging 23.6 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. He's connecting 55.3 percent of his shots and 37.9 percent from beyond the arc. He is a sure lock for the Most Improved Player Award. With each game he is making his case for a spot on the Western Conference All-Star Team. He is the second leading scorer among centers in the conference. Deandre Ayton and Jonas Valančiūnas are behind Wood with their 14.4 averages.

Seven years ago Wood made a similar improvement between his freshman and sophomore years at UNLV.

“I averaged 4.5 points per game freshman year, and sophomore year I turned 4.5 points into 15.7 points per game and 10 rebounds per game. If that's not work ethic, I don't know what is," Wood told Adrian Wojnarowski on The Woj Pod.

Wood shockingly went undrafted in 2015, and signed with the struggling Philadelphia 76ers as a free agent. It was tough for a young, admittedly immature player to find his role on a team that went 10-72 that year. Wood was waived by the 76ers midway through the season.

He bounced around the G League from the end of 2015 thru 2018. He spent a brief period in the Chinese Basketball Association with the Fujian Sturgeons in 2017. Even they said he wasn't good enough and waived him. Luckily there was still a place for him in the G League with the Delaware 87ers, but time was running out on Wood's window to make it to the NBA.

Teams weren't calling. He could hear the narrative growing around the league. Was Christian Wood not good enough to play in the NBA?

A brief stint during 2018-2019 with the Milwaukee Bucks turned Wood's confidence around. Playing 1-on-1 against MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo every day assured Wood that he could compete with the best talent the NBA had to offer. He thought maybe I can play in this league. Pick-up games aside, the Bucks didn't find Wood worthy enough for a roster spot and waived him in March 2019.

The New Orleans Pelicans signed him two days later and Wood found minutes with Anthony Davis' absences due to trade demands and extended rest. Wood recorded multiple big scoring and rebounding nights with increased minutes. Nevertheless, Wood was waived again in July 2019.

Wood was picked up by the Detroit Pistons for 2019-2020 and finally found success in the league. All that had to happen next was for Wood to find an organization willing to give him a shot to be a key piece.

“I always felt like if I had the opportunity, if a team actually spent the time to invest in me, that I could produce and do what I'm doing now," Wood told Woj.

Enter Rockets GM Rafael Stone who recognized the production Wood would provide with regular starting minutes. And Wood hasn't let Houston down one bit.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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