During the Daryl Morey era, the Houston Rockets were obsessed with efficiency. Although they won a lot, these teams were primarily defined by the role they played in emphasizing analytic models and styles of play; all those threes, free throws and shots at the rim weren’t an accident. Now, Morey is in Philadelphia and the Rockets are rebuilding. In Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., Houston has two young players who fit an older mold — more intriguing than good, radically imperfect but still capable of moments of transcendence. It’s unclear whether or not they point to future greatness or are just flashes that will never add up to a cohesive whole. They are very combustible players. Regardless, it looks like the interim is going to be a blast.
Green spent last season in the G League, where he averaged 17 points per game and was the dynamic scorer that analysts expected him to be. He has a ton of athleticism and can create shots anywhere on the floor. In Sunday’s game against the Celtics, he displayed just how lethal he can be, scoring 30 points while making eight three-pointers. In the fourth quarter, he punctuated his performance with two powerful transition dunks and a block on Jayson Tatum, all in just over a minute of game time. There are sure to be a lot of rough games in the future as he acclimates to the NBA (he still has yet to take a free throw despite attempting 43 field goals), but already in only his third game, he gave NBA fans reason to be excited for what may come next.
Green’s backcourt partner, Porter Jr., was acquired for a pittance because the Cavaliers were so eager to trade him that they sent him to the Rockets for a second-round draft pick so heavily protected that it’s not likely to ever be conveyed. After a weapons charge and a locker room outburst after Cleveland traded for Taurean Prince, the team was desperate to cut ties and move on. In his 23 games with Houston, he thrived. He averaged nearly 17 points and six assists while showcasing a savvy ability to create shots for himself and others. There was also a 50-point, 11-assist game against the Bucks, which may, in time, seem more like a strange anomaly — similar to big scoring nights from Brandon Jennings and Corey Brewer — than a legitimate coming-out party. But at least for now, it is easy to believe in it as a sign of things to come. Porter plays so smoothly that it almost looks like he is moving in slow motion, sliding in and through the defense; getting wherever he wants often looks like the easiest thing in the world for him.
Alongside Green and Porter, there is also Alperen Sengun who may end up being the biggest steal of the 2021 draft. Sengun was the Turkish League MVP earlier this year, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game on 62 percent shooting. He shows a lot of skill as a post scorer, and although he is not much of a shooter yet, his high free-throw percentage gives hope that he may be able to become one. Sengun also seems to have legitimate passing skills. Sunday, against the Celtics, when Josh Richardson left Christian Wood to double-team Sengun, he flipped the ball over his shoulder to Wood for an easy dunk. It was lovely, as was the transition touch pass he made to Wood for another effortless slam in the season opener against Minnesota. At 19, Sengun is a project but if the first three games have been any indication he will have plenty of space to develop and explore his nascent abilities, which already appear formidable.
Finally, there’s Wood who is, at this point, the best player on the team. After hopping around the league as a bench player for years, he broke out in Detroit where he showed himself to be a versatile big man who can shoot and score at the rim with equal skill. Last season, his first with Houston, he averaged more than 20 points per game for the first time in his career. It was not simply a matter of a bad player putting up good numbers because someone had to score; he shot more than 50 percent overall and 37 percent from deep. He’s playing even better so far this year. Of these four young players, he’s the closest to a finished project, but that says as much about Green, Porter and Sengun as it does Wood.
The Houston Rockets will not be a good team this year. And I’m not going to write about how bright their future is or how this quartet is set to lead the team back to the postseason in a few years. It’s far too soon to predict anything like that. For now, though, the Rockets are blending throwback ball-dominant scorers with modern big men. With few expectations, they are offering their young players the liberty to play instinctually, free to indulge every one of their gifts without restraint. It may not lead to a lot of victories in the short term, but they are a blast to watch. Who needs wins when Jalen Green is knocking down threes, Alperen Sengun is making touch passes in transition and Kevin Porter Jr. is making defenders look silly?