At long last, the NBA Draft happens tonight. The mock drafts are written, the handwringing over who deserves to be a Lottery selection is done and NBA fans everywhere will be glued to their TV screens to see how it unfolds.
The Rockets, barring a trade up in the Draft, will have a long and tedious wait before finally getting to make a selection. The Rockets have picks #37 and #43, where diamonds in the rough can be found. General consensus among draftniks is that talent really drops off in most years beyond the top 45. If you have a second round pick in the top 45, you have a lottery ticket and a chance to strike gold. Second round picks that make the roster are signed to dirt-cheap contracts, usually non guaranteed. Before Draymond Green signed his big extension last summer, his minuscule cap hold allowed the Warriors to sign an expensive free agent like Andre Iguodala. Draymond is the most famous (and tough to replicate) example of second round draft success, but the following players were also taken in the second round in the past five drafts: Isaiah Thomas, Will Barton, Jae Crowder, Khris Middleton, Nikola Jokic, Allen Crabbe, Josh Richardson and Norman Powell.
The Rockets chose Chandler Parsons with the 38th pick in 2011 and grabbed Montrezl Harrell in the second round last season. Parsons is an impact starter (albeit for Dallas) and Harrell has some potential.
Knowing Houston and GM Daryl Morey, the bulk of their mini-rebuild will come via trade and free agency. With Dwight Howard opting out of his contract this week, the Rockets are flush with cap space and will be targeting all the big fish. While the draft may be a distant third in Morey's mind in the plan to make the Rockets a contender again, it can bear significant fruit if he strikes gold on a second round flyer. With that in mind, here's a breakdown of some dark horse prospects Houston can target.
Team needs: When drafting in the second round, a team is rarely drafting for need. Instead, they're targeting late bloomers and undervalued guys that have the potential to at least become role players. But just for clarity's sake, the Rockets are in need of improvement in three major areas:
1. Wing defense - Trevor Ariza runs hot and cold depending on whether he's bought in to a team's chances. He's also getting up in age and just completed a pretty miserable season. With James Harden occupying one of the backcourt positions, the Rockets will need a bevy of wings that can compensate for Harden's poor defense by locking down in one-on-one situations, fighting through screens and being able to switch when necessary.
2. Shooting - Everyone thinks of the Rockets as a good 3-point shooting team. But don't mistake volume for proficiency. If the Rockets continue to play Moreyball with a Mike D'Antoni slant to it, they desperately need more reliable 3-point shooters. They were 19th in 3-point percentage last season with just one player (Patrick Beverley) reaching 40 percent from beyond the arc.
3. Rim protection - One thing the diminished Howard can still do better than most is guard the rim. With the big man gone, the Rockets will lean heavily on Clint Capela to keep their defensive integrity intact down low. Capela is a strong prospect but it's not clear he's ready for such a big role and he lacks Howard's height. The cupboard is pretty bare beyond Capela.
There are two tacks the Rockets can take with these picks tonight: shoot for immediate impact or invest in international, draft-and-stash options. Since we live in a world of instant gratification, it's always more fun to imagine a guy making the team and playing a role right away. But as the Nuggets proved with Jokic, sometimes grabbing a young Euro a year before he'd be a first round pick and keeping him overseas for a year can pay off big time.
(Relative) immediate impact prospects
AJ Hammons, C, Purdue - A massive body at 7-feet and 278 pounds, Hammond is also one of the older players in the draft (he'll be 24 in August). He should be able to contribute right away as a rebounder and shot blocker (2.5 blocks per game his senior season). Hammons could find an important niche backing up Capela. He can score in the post some, but may get worn out in D'Antoni's up-tempo offense.
Stephen Zimmerman, C, UNLV - The 7-foot Zimmerman won't give you quite the rim protection that Hammons will, but he's definitely more suited for the way the NBA is evolving. He can make plays out of the pick and roll / pick and pop, has a decent jumper and a strong left hand hook. He'll need to get stronger and his overall defensive potential is limited due to lack of explosion/leaping ability.
Ben Bentil, PF, Providence - Bentil is the rare prospect that enters the Draft with powerful frame. At 6'8" and 229 pounds, he won't be pushed around by NBA forwards. He showed vast improvement from his freshman to sophomore year, encouraging for his future growth. Bentil isn't really elite at any one thing, but contributes offensively in a variety of ways. Could be a solid role player if he improves defensively.
Brice Johnson, PF, UNC - A big-name college star that could end up going the first round. He's another skinny guy at 6'11", 209 pounds. He scored 17 points a game for one of the best teams in college basketball. He's uber-athletic and fluid in his movements, but didn't develop much of an outside game in college. He still has room to grow on defense, but has the potential to be a devastating weak-side rim protector.
Gary Payton II, PG, Oregon St - Pat Beverley has lost a step and the Ty Lawson experiment failed miserably. So Houston may want to invest in a point guard in the draft. Much like his dad, Payton II shines brightest as a lockdown defender, which could pair nicely with Harden. However, his shot is below average and is not the most gifted passer.
Malcolm Brogdon, SG, Virginia - Another accomplished senior, the 6'6" Brogdon is a steady if unspectacular player. He averaged 18.2 points and just under 40 percent from three his senior season. He's not much of a threat attacking the rim and projects to be an average defender. But he can provide long-range shooting off the bench in the NBA.
Malachi Richardson. SG/SF, Syracuse - A rising star that came out of nowhere seemingly yet many think should have stayed at Syracuse another year, as chronicled in this excellent Jonathan Abrams piece. He's the kind of pure upside pick that would make a lot of sense for Houston in the second round, if he lasts that long. Recent buzz has him going in the first round. He's an above-average shotmaker and shot creator, though he tends to force bad shots. With the right team, he could be the next second round gem. But he'll need a lot of development and it will take patience.
Investment / International prospects
Zhou Qi, C, China - This almost makes too much sense. The Rockets are still the most popular team in China thanks to the Yao Ming days and Houston has a large Chinese population. Qi is 7'2" and sports an otherworldly 7'7 3/4" wingspan. He's lanky as can be at 218 pounds, but the Yao-like height and reach is tantalizing.
Rade Zagorac, SF, Serbia - Yet another prospect from the newest NBA pipeline, Belgrade's Mega Leks squad. He has great size (6'9") for a wing and can shoot. However his defense needs a lot of work.
Paul Zipser, SF, Germany - Zipser is moving up draft boards and may be gone by #37. But if he slides, he'd be a great choice for Houston. He's a 6'8" wing that has tons of high-level basketball experience with Bayern Munich, Euroleague, EuroCup and the German national team. He looks like a future 3-and-D forward in the NBA, which the Rockets can no doubt use.
Thon Maker, PF, Canada - Fresh out of high school, Maker is the ultimate wild card. He became a beneficiary of the YouTube hype machine early in his high school career, but underwhelmed at many camps. He's 7-feet tall and can shoot a little, but he's skinny especially in the lower body and will be a multi-year project.
Petr Cornelle, PF, France - A 6'11" forward with speed, quickness and tons of energy on the floor. He may never develop into much of a scorer but has a lot of defensive potential.
Morey will have to rely heavily on his scouts for these picks. With no first rounders this year, players were not too eager to come to Houston for pre-draft workouts. Morey mentioned on Adrian Wojnarowski's podcast that agents don't like the optics of working their clients out for teams that are toiling strictly in the second round. It makes sense from a business standpoint, but it leaves a team like the Rockets at a disadvantage. But that's what you pay scouts for, of course.
The Rockets' offseason of intrigue began in earnest with Howard opting out of his deal. It continues tonight with the Draft, the appetizer to free agency/trade season's main course. We'll be back tonight with some thoughts on Houston's taste in hors d'oeuvres.