A DEEPER LOOK

Salman Ali: Is James Ennis a Diamond in the Rough for the Rockets?

James Ennis could be a key addition for the Rockets. Leon Halip/Getty Images

Every NBA offseason there are signings made that go under the radar, but end up being very critical during the season. Take for example, Joe Ingles for the Utah Jazz last summer. While Ingles was considered to be a good player, he had only started 58 out of 242 games for the Jazz up to that point and had to fill some pretty big shoes with the departure of Gordon Hayward.

Utah made a gamble that while Joe Ingles was already 29 at the time, there was still some untapped potential to be had. It ultimately ended up paying off big time as Ingles went on to have a career year, averaging highs in points, rebounds, assists, and minutes (11.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, on 31.4 MPG).

It seems the Houston Rockets are making a similar gamble this summer with the signing of 28 year old James Ennis. While it may not cost them as much as Ingles ended up costing Utah (4 years, $52 million), there's a lot riding on Ennis working out for Houston.

It's well noted that the Rockets lost a lot of wing depth this summer with the departures of starting small forward Trevor Ariza and bench swingman Luc Mbah a Moute. Houston's switch-heavy defensive scheme relies on having versatile wings who can defend multiple positions. Without Ariza and Mbah a Moute, Ennis will have to fill a huge role right off the bat. Also, with Ennis having the option to opt out of his minimum deal next summer in favor of a bigger deal, it's beneficial for both sides that this gamble work out.

Now it’s not like James Ennis is completely unproven, but he’s never had the chance to establish himself in a team’s consistent rotation. Ennis has been in the league for 4 years but has already bounced around to four different teams. The best season of his career was in 2015-16 when the New Orleans Pelicans were hit with a barrage of injuries and Ennis had to step up and play big minutes (31.3 MPG). However, in those minutes he averaged 15.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, and 1.3 SPG on 64.7% True Shooting. He even shot a ridiculous 48% from 3 on 5.6 attempts per game. While it’s unlikely he’ll ever replicate this kind of season, there’s reason to believe that Ennis can be very productive if he’s given the proper playing time, which he’ll find in droves in Houston.

Ennis certainly fits the mould of a 3 and D wing the Rockets have liked to plug and play in their system over the years. He’s long (6’7 with a 6’11 wingspan) and athletic which translates well to the switching scheme the Rockets have played the last couple of years. It’s also translated to Ennis being an above average defender over the course of his career. Last season, the Memphis Grizzlies were 3.7 points per 100 possessions better when James Ennis was on the court. As a point of comparison, the Rockets were 4.2 points per 100 possessions when Luc Mbah a Moute was on the floor.

Here’s a clip of James Ennis doing a good job to contain James Harden in 2017.

Ennis has also been a capable shooter stretching back to his college days. As a junior and senior, he shot 35.0% and 35.8% respectively. As an NBA player, Ennis is a career 35.9% 3-PT shooter. In comparison, Trevor Ariza shot 35.3% from 3 throughout his career and Luc Mbah a Moute shot 33.6%. Essentially, Ennis is on par, and perhaps a slight notch above the players he will be replacing as a shooter. In Houston, he will have to bump up his attempts per game quite a bit, but that shouldn’t be a problem if his career trends persist.

The Rockets brass seem to have a high level of belief in Ennis. When asked about Houston’s offseason at Texans’ training camp, head coach Mike D’Antoni said “I think James Ennis can be really good. I think people are downplaying him.” General Manager Daryl Morey also had similar things to say on The Herd with Colin Cowherd when asked about the departure of Trevor Ariza, “We feel like James Ennis coming in is someone that can really add a lot.”

Whether or not James Ennis starts or not is irrelevant. What matters is he will have to play a ton more minutes this year and a lot of those minutes will come with closing units and Houston’s most important lineups. Ennis looks like a promising addition, but he will still have to prove his worth in a new role with bigger responsibilities.

It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't ugly either. That just seems par for the course whenever the Rockets play the Pelicans. Regardless of injuries on either side, these two teams just always manage to play each other competitively, whistle to whistle. Houston pulled out ahead tonight, but it wasn't without a fight.

Jrue Holiday and Josh Hart in particular, did an excellent job defending James Harden tonight, forcing him to shoot 3 for 11 from deep. The Pelicans often swarmed Harden and forced him to give up the basketball. It helps the Eric Gordon is starting to find a rhythm from three-point range (4 of 7 tonight and 3 of 7 Saturday against Chicago). Westbrook was also forceful offensively to help pick up for Harden's early struggles.

Clint Capela has really stepped it up for Houston these past four games (11 points, 20 rebounds, and 2 blocks tonight on 5 of 6 shooting). Capela has managed to grab 13 or more rebounds in Houston's last four outings. Capela had struggled greatly to start the season, forcing head coach Mike D'Antoni to rely on smaller units with P.J. Tucker at center. However, the Rockets aren't going to go as far as they want in the postseason if they aren't getting a strong 30 minutes a game from Clint Capela, so it's encouraging that he's starting to play well.

The Rockets took a 7-point lead after a surge from Westbrook to end the first quarter and for the most part, held that lead for the duration of the game. New Orleans made a strong push in the fourth quarter the battle back, but at that point it was too little too late.

Star of the game: James Harden didn't have a the best three-point shooting game, but still managed to log 39 point, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block in the process on 62.6% true shooting. He was effect at driving to the rim, drawing fouls, getting floaters, and finding shooters. Harden scored 19 of his points in the 4th quarter, effectively dragging Houston to victory despite a strong late push by New Orleans that cut the lead from 17 at one point down to as low as 6.

Honorable mention: Russell Westbrook was dialed in from the first quarter, particularly from mid-range where he scored 12 of his points on 6 of 8 shooting. In a night where Harden was really struggling to gain a rhythm, Westbrook really helped pick up the slack for Houston especially in the units without Harden. Westbrook finished the game with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals on an efficient 57.1% true shooting. It's unlikely Westbrook will shoot that well from mid-range this season, but on nights where he's on like this, the Rockets will gladly take it.

Key moment: Russell Westbrook's stretch to end the first quarter gave the Rockets a 7-point lead and the Pelicans were never able to capture the lead from that point forward. Westbrook scored or assisted on the final 6 points of the quarter (within 56.8 seconds) and was forceful defensively.

Up next: The Rockets return to Houston to play the Los Angeles Clippers at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

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