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

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)

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