TAKING THE LEAP

Critical factors impacting Jalen Green's path to superstardom for Houston Rockets

Rockets Jalen Green
A lot is expected from Jalen Green this season. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

As we gear up for another year of NBA basketball, the Rockets are on the cusp of turning a page into a new chapter filled with potential, expectation of growth, and exciting changes. Houston enters the new season armed with an array of young talent in the form of six (6) first-round selections over the last three (3) drafts and confident in its strategic shift from Stephen Silas’s inability to hold players accountable to Ime Udoka’s blunt, no-nonsense approach to leadership.

The Rockets have boldly embraced a rebuilding phase, aiming to harness their future potential through the development of young talents. Following a three-year period where Houston was anything but competitive on the court, the Rockets will now focus on nurturing emerging talents in Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Jabari Smith while hoping to build a foundation for sustained success. The upcoming 2023-2024 season offers a prime opportunity for the organization to mold its rising players with newly acquired veterans in Fred Van Vleet and Dillon Brooks to cultivate a cohesive team identity and an advanced on-court basketball product. Let’s take a close look at what I believe to be the most important ongoing development of the season: whether Jalen Green, Jabari Smith, and Alperen Sengun will take the coveted “leap” and transition from young players to rising stars.

Jalen Green:

First things first – Amen Thompson is not on this list for a reason. My personal belief is that Amen Thompson, as a prospect, has a chance to be as good as any young member of this Rockets team. The reality of the situation, however, is that Houston just gave Fred Van Vleet a max-money contract to play the point-guard position, so Amen Thompson will be backing him up. Alas.

Overview: Jalen Green enters the upcoming season with elevated expectations. Known for his scoring ability, elite athleticism, and creative shot-making prowess, he has the makings of a prototypical star NBA shooting guard. Beyond simple scoring ability, Green has the tools to become a well-rounded player and has routinely flashed glimpses of playmaking skills and the ability to create for his teammates. He also seriously increased his free-throw attempts per game last season due to consistently and aggressively attacking the basket, which further indicates he is potentially on a path to becoming one of the best scorers in the NBA. The sky is the proverbial limit for Jalen Green, pending two things: (1) improving offensive efficiency; and (2) improving defensively.

Offensive Efficiency: During his time in Houston thus far, Green has not played with a real point guard, and he has not played in a disciplined offense. It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous. Accordingly, the offense the Rockets ran under Stephen Silas almost exclusively put Green in positions to create off the dribble in isolation situations from behind the three-point line. This offensive approach evidenced a fundamental misunderstanding of Green’s skillset. Even worse – Houston failed to take advantage of Green’s top-notch athleticism and (confusingly) refused to run off-ball screens for him, which would have allowed him to beat defenders with speed, get to his preferred spots with ease, and operate in more comfortable situations on the court.

Isolation basketball is something that Jalen Green is capable of excelling at, but he has struggled to achieve proficiency in isolation at the NBA level so far. There are so many other ways to utilize his gifts that it makes one wonder whether Houston wasted opportunities last season to explore Green’s full range of capabilities. At the end of the day, efficiency improves by taking (and therefore making) easier shots, and that requires playing in a system tailored to players’ strengths that puts them in positions to succeed. The Stephen Silas offense failed to do that.

Regardless, Rockets fans are hopeful that help is on the way with Fred Van Vleet in town. For starters, the good news is that Fred Van Vleet is actually a point guard. The veteran point guard has a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.3 assists per game to 1.7 turnovers per game, and he had seven (7) assists per game to only two (2) turnovers per game last season for Toronto. Both of these marks are excellent and illustrate that Van Vleet clearly knows how to share the ball while also taking care of the ball. One logical conclusion to make in connection with Van Vleet’s arrival is that Jalen Green should only benefit from playing next to him, so this will be incredibly important to monitor with respect to Green developing further and taking a leap.

Supporting Statistics: I am a firm believer in showing your work, so let’s dive deeper into some of Jalen Green’s offensive numbers from the 2022-2023 season (per Synergy). In pick-and-roll situations, Jalen Green scored 1,091 points on 1,177 possessions (including passes), which generated 0.93 points per possession – good for 39th percentile and dead last among the fifteen (15) players in the league to run at least 1,000 such possessions. In isolation situations, Jalen Green scored 247 points on 257 possessions, which generated 1.00 points per possession – good for slightly below league average. He also converted spot-up possessions at the exact same rate, which was also slightly below league average. The most striking statistic by far, and one that supports my claim above about the lack of creativity using Jalen off the ball, is that Jalen Green SCORED ON A CUT ONLY TWELVE (12) TIMES ALL OF LAST SEASON! For the record, this statistic ranks in the 7th percentile in terms of frequency. This is simply inexcusable and perhaps one of the biggest indictments of the way Stephen Silas designed his offense and utilized his personnel.

Defense: There truly is not much to say here other than stating the fact that Jalen Green has not been a good defender at the NBA level so far in his career. He has shown flashes, and those flashes have been encouraging. For example, he seems to excel in man-to-man defense late in close games, as evidenced in matchups against Atlanta and Phoenix last season where Jalen successfully defended both Trae Young and Devin Booker down the stretch to secure wins. This is obviously a good thing. In these moments, he is able to leverage his athletic tools to guard perimeter players and corral their drives while matching them step for step to effectively contest whatever shot they ultimately attempt. Unfortunately, however, his effort has not been consistent, he has not yet provided much physical resistance due to his light frame, and he has been particularly weak and unaware when he is defending off the ball.

It generally only takes one off-ball screen to completely remove Green from a play, so he will have to make a concerted effort to tighten his defensive awareness up. Furthermore, the Rockets are hopeful that adding Dillon Brooks, a 2nd Team All-Defense player last season, will bolster Houston’s perimeter defense. The aforementioned Fred Van Vleet is also a scrappy, hard-nosed team defender who has experience playing in a defensive scheme that won a championship, so the Rockets expect tangible improvement by way of both additions, and they hope the mere presence of Brooks and Van Vleet will force Green to elevate his defensive performance.

The final, and perhaps most important, component of Jalen Green improving defensively this season will be if Ime Udoka can appropriately hold him accountable for defensive mistakes and coach him up both during and between games. Time will tell, and Rockets fans must remember to exercise patience (remember: it took half a season for Udoka’s message to resonate with a very talented Boston Celtics roster).

Part 2: Jabari Smith (coming soon)

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome