Over the span of roughly six months, the Houston Rockets acquired a bevy of youthful talent. They traded for Kevin Porter Jr. in late January and during July’s draft, spent four first-round picks on Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher. Once a team led by perennial MVP candidate James Harden and flanked by veterans, Houston has now oriented itself toward a rebuild.
Such as last season, Porter will be granted reps as a lead creator. Green, the second overall pick in this year’s draft, surely will too. Maybe even Christopher will work on the ball in spurts. The sustainable utility of Sengun’s post game will be explored. Garuba is heralded as a defensive stalwart whose offensive functionality needs crystalizing.
The Rockets’ hope is that all, or at least some combination, help shape the franchise’s future in coming years. All of them, in varying manners, will benefit from the services of Christian Wood, Houston’s best player and one who seems underappreciated, despite consecutive breakout seasons.
After inking a three-year, $41 million deal prior to 2020-21, he averaged 21.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks on 59.1% True Shooting (.514/.374/.631 split). Had he not sprained his right ankle in early February, there’s a chance he would’ve garnered deserved All-Star buzz. Prior to that injury, he averaged 22.0 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks on 63.4% True Shooting (.558/.421/.688 split). Sprained ankles are quite challenging to fully rehabilitate on the fly midseason, so there’s a chance his production skews closer to pre-injury numbers, although that three-point clip seems like an outlier.
The basis of Wood’s allure, both generally and in the context of accentuating Houston’s young core, is his offensive versatility. He’s a preeminent roller and popper in ball-screens, providing rare duality among big men across the league. According to Cleaning The Glass, he ranked in the 86th percentile at the rim (76%) and 60th percentile on above-the-break triples (37%) last season. A year earlier, he finished in the 89th and 80th percentiles, respectively.
He’s a bouncy, coordinated finisher and keenly spots when to slip screens with the proper angles or cut as an off-ball cog. As one of just five centers (Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Vucevic and Nikola Jokic are the others) to launch at least three long balls and convert them at 37% or better in 2020-21, the threat of Wood’s jumper spurs consistent closeouts from defenses. That provides avenues to leverage his fluidity and slithery, distinguished ball-handling while operating inside the arc.
There might not be a center who covers all three bases in ball-screens – rolling, popping and driving – better than Wood these days (well, perhaps Jokic). He is that valuable offensively, and pick-and-roll acumen is not the extent of his equity. Only Jokic, Towns and Embiid are definitively superior offensive centers. Vucevic has a case, but it is not inarguable by any means. That sort of presence for three 21-and-under creators in Porter, Green and Christopher is such a luxury for their growth. It’s an uncommon windfall in many rebuilding circumstances, especially in what will be Houston’s first full year of its youth movement.
The dude touts legit self-creation chops, parlaying his dexterity and mobility on closeouts into face-up scoring. He’s even netted 20-of-54 (37%) pull-up threes the last two seasons as a periodically mystifying wrinkle for a 6-foot-11 center. Despite a slender 215-pound frame, he’s moderately comfortable playing through contact and converting funky, off-balance shots as a driver with delicate body control and feathery touch. Give him a mismatch and he’ll cook, gliding past plodding bigs or overwhelming smaller, ill-equipped wings.
The ability to generate mismatches, and their frequency, in the pick-and-roll could be central to Houston’s relative offensive success, both for Wood’s individual profits and the signifier it represents for wide-eyed ball-handlers. If Porter and Green (and Christopher) establish the proper cadence and discernment as initiators, they’ll drastically benefit from Wood’s gravity and talents. His rolling and popping will carve openings if applied correctly and a release valve will consistently be available if the set transpires smoothly.
Together, those sorts of actions could induce preferable matchups for the initiator and finisher. Their success, or lack thereof, might help illuminate the developmental progress of Porter and Green’s creation decision-making as it pertains to the manipulation of screens, delivery of passes and balance of shooting vs. facilitating.
Wood serving as a connector doesn’t just have to occur directly with the young guards. He can merely drift into the background to space the floor, firing and slashing when the ball rotates his way or darting in for cuts. The Rockets’ offense will certainly depend on him considerably. Yet empowering the young dudes to gauge their advantage-creation threshold at this juncture and how they’re equipped to set up the big fella as a result seems prudent if the franchise GPS is prioritizing a long-term destination.
Another means of forging their maturation as lead creators is utilizing Wood’s comfort flowing through off-ball screens. Houston drew up a number of flare screens for him last season, which seems likely to continue this year. Rather than largely having Porter, Green or Christopher stand atop the key and await its unfolding, it makes sense to incorporate a counter or weak-side action to let them sift through various options.
This doesn’t have to occur every time, but mixing them in to avoid autopilot decision-making and actually emulate the responsibilities of an offensive engine could prove beneficial. Regardless, though, Wood offers another path to complement Houston’s cornerstones via his versatility, and it further emphasizes his multifaceted scoring package.
An overreliance on Wood will be detrimental to all involved. He is not ready to be some domineering offensive nucleus, nor would that fashion a favorable ecosystem for Porter, Green or Christopher (or Sengun). At the very least, the former two should be thrust into roles that test the depths of their offensive value in differing outlets, both as fire-starters and play-finishers.
Asking Wood to constantly toggle across all those roles would limit their reps and extend him too far. He is not a particularly impactful passer, struggling with processing speed and vision, which leaves him behind the defense and chasing reads no longer available. While he does play through physicality and contact, it’s sometimes too much for his wiry build and stymies his individual scoring. That’d be less of a concern if he was a better passer, but those flashes of intrigue are blanketed by turnovers resulting from delayed court mapping and inhibit the ceiling of his usage load.
One of the more vital dynamics to effectively scale during a rebuild is how much to lean into the youth vs. surrounding them with auxiliary, well-established talent. The Rockets had to navigate that in real-time last season and the same phenomenon confronts them this year. They’re welcoming an assortment of promising players to the Lone Star State, while already rostering the likes of Wood, Jae’Sean Tate, Danuel House, David Nwaba and others (remember: auxiliary).
Some of them will likely have new homes by midseason. Wood, though, should remain around. He is very good, existing on the fringes of All-Star conversations, and offers an assortment of skills to aid those who figure prominently into Houston’s plans. His 2020-21 campaign was overshadowed by the Harden trade and the team’s subsequent struggles. Maybe the latter will bury him in the news cycle again. But there he’ll be, hammering dunks, splashing threes and exemplifying the equity of very good players alongside enticing prospects.