Rockets one month short of NBA draft

With no clear top prospect in this year’s NBA draft, it’s up in the air who will be the No. 1 pick in the June 23 draft. Almost every intel I’ve seen suggests Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr., Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren will be the top two in some order. That could obviously change, but it would make Duke’s Paul Banchero the Rockets’ No. 3 player. If you told me in December that the Rockets would be capable of getting Banchero in their frontcourt, I would probably go into cardiac arrest.

Since the beginning of the college season, I’ve been looking everywhere about my draft committee. I started with Banchero as my first choice, spent a few weeks picking Holmgren as my first choice, and ended up with Smith. Smith is still my top pick if you ask me today. I just think the floor (elite 3&D wings) is too much to pass up in a draft like this, every top player has question marks.

I think it would be a mistake to simply rule out the possibility of Rafael Stone being traded from No. 3 to someone like Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and acquiring additional assets in the process. I don’t think it’s likely, but I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility. Remember, Stone avoided an eventual outcome with a clear cap, as any smart general manager would do — even though Simmons was the biggest name among suitors, he was in last season’s James Harden lottery Accepted an unprotected pick offered by Brooklyn instead of Ben Simmons offered by Philadelphia. That’s presumably because teams with Simmons as the main cog will end up having issues in the playoffs because of his shooting issues.

So far, the book about Banchero is his lack of defensive focus — which could be the killer spin on the perimeter for a modern NBA playoff team. But remember — we’re talking about a 19-year-old. The problem can be effort and focus, not ability, and can be corrected in the right environment and with the right guidance.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine a front-office executive with the least faith in Banchero’s prototype. Has a ball-handling forward ever been truly elite despite the need for a very special lineup to surround him? Banchero needs a very unique roster structure, which limits the range of possibilities and the form the team can take.

But at the same time, Banchero is a unique talent, perhaps unlike anyone the league has ever seen, with his size (6-foot-10, 250 pounds), ball handling, passing and grace. For what it’s worth, despite my misgivings, I’ve fully embraced Banchero and found myself awake at night imagining a two-player match between him and Jalen Green. He also has a certain talent, like his expected future running mate Green.

For defensive concerns (which are very legitimate), here’s another sacred fact: The modern NBA also places a lot of emphasis on shot creation and playmaking, with everyone but Dallas among the finalists with multiple dangerous playmakers . A 6-10 forward who can handle and pass the ball like a defender opens up a lot of options. Banchero would instantly become the most versatile forward in Rockets history.

A lottery unlike any other

On Tuesday, ahead of the lottery festivities, I found myself unusually calm. In fact, I was so engrossed in the playoffs that I don’t even remember the lottery being played Tuesday through Sunday night. This year is very different, as the Rockets have the worst record in basketball history. That means in a draft with no clear No. 1 pick and possibly five top prospects, the Rockets probably won’t be any lower than fifth in the draft order. This is a rare comfort for nerves.

In my lifetime — a fan since 1994 — the Rockets have been in the lottery six times before Tuesday night (2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2012, 2021). Last year was by far the most stressful outing, with only the top four picks protected through the Chris Paul/Russell Westbrook trade. Despite finishing 2020 with the worst record in the league, this team could have started its rebuilding project without the No. 1 overall pick.

In 2000, the post-Hakeem Olajuwon era was when the team drafted big man Joel Pryzbilla with the ninth overall pick and then sent him to Milwaukee for the now-departed Jason Collier. Ironically, the following year, I preferred Eddie Griffin to other top rookies, and despite picking the 13th pick, the Rockets managed to get by by packing all three of their first-round picks in the draft ( 13, 18, 23) to sign Griffin – a night market deal.

The team won the gold medal the following year in 2002, earning the right to draft Yao Ming with the No. 1 overall pick. Most people have forgotten it by now, but at the time, it wasn’t clear that Yao Ming would be the No. 1 pick. Many in Houston prefer Duke point guard Jay Williams, looking to pair him with Francis in the backcourt. Some want the team to trade this pick entirely for a young veteran like Lamar Odom.

It was just to salvage a disastrous 2006 season and find a running mate for Tracy McGrady. The team could have done it because big man Rudy Gay at No. 8 fell in their circle, but they traded him to small forward Sean Battier on draft night. It turned out to be the right move, but I was pissed at the time.

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