Inside Rockets’ draft night, path to Jabari Smith Jr., John Wall’s looming exit

Inside Rockets’ draft night, path to Jabari Smith Jr., John Wall’s looming exit

As key Rockets decision-makers — including GM Rafael Stone, assistant GM Eli Witus, Patrick Fertitta and head coach Stephen Silas — were tucked away in their “war room,” an office located above the Toyota Center practice facility, prior to Thursday’s draft, there was a cornucopia of emotions among the group. Confidence in potentially taking the three best players available at various points, the anticipation of how everything would shake out and excitement over the next big steps in their rebuild.

For as much pre-planning and strategizing as Houston’s basketball operations staff had done leading up to the June 23 draft, there was still no telling what the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City would ultimately do on the clock.

Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s Jabari Smith and Duke’s Paolo Banchero were the names that had been long associated with the top of the incoming draft class since the conclusion of the NCAA Tournament, with the general consensus being those would be the first names to be called.

But despite the dozens of mock drafts and reports that had come out in the days and weeks prior outlining the likely order of the top three, the reality was still relatively unknown. Following the NBA Draft Combine in May, Smith had more or less risen to the top, expected to be the first player off the board, with Holmgren and Banchero to follow, respectively.

The Magic had attempted to keep their plans as private as possible, strategically leaking their interest in Smith early and consistently enough in attempts to control the situation — a somewhat odd approach for a team that had the freedom of choice at No. 1. The same privacy, albeit to a lesser degree, could be attributed to the Thunder, with GM Sam Presti widely known for moving to the beat of his own drum and going against the norm. Holmgren was expected to be taken here, but there were also whispers of Banchero and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey being high on OKC’s list, a clear example of Presti’s mystery.

Late in the pre-draft process, however, Houston’s brass had heard rumors about a potential shakeup at the top, with Smith not necessarily being a lock for the top overall pick. The oddsmakers in Vegas clearly had as well, moving Banchero’s odds up dramatically the night before the draft.

It was yet another reminder of the wild process of the draft and the reality that nothing is certain. The only thing that was certain, based on weeks and months of data accumulation, intel and myriad conversations, was that Houston would be adding one of the three players and was prepared for any and every outcome.

That level of readiness lies in the Rockets’ deep, analytical approach to talent evaluation. In the days of former GM Daryl Morey, a draft matrix was introduced — a ranking system composed of various aspects of a player. The Rockets used this to create their big board. Categories included athleticism, speed, shooting ability, lateral quickness and more. It was an extensive but fulfilling process conducted for each player who was draft eligible, including those playing overseas — an ode to Morey’s thoroughness, even without a high number of draft picks at their disposal. Each staff member would be assigned a handful of players and create their own initial rankings before reconvening. After workout evaluations, deliberation and debate — Zoom was the preferred method of communication — and comparison to other outside rankings, a final big board would be created.

Stone was, of course, involved in that decision-making back then, and that tradition has carried into his tenure. But by the end of this year’s process, two things were clear: Smith was the top prospect on their big board, and regardless, Houston would be pleased with whoever was available to them out of Smith, Holmgren and Banchero.

On Thursday, the Rockets spoke to all three players anticipating all possible outcomes, including the scenario in which Banchero was gone. That contingency plan was necessary, given that Banchero was the most familiar with them, having visited the team in Houston, worked out and had in-person discussions.

 

But even though Smith and Holmgren hadn’t made official visits to Houston — once again reaffirming the consensus that neither would still be on the board at No.3 — the Rockets had engaged in plenty of discussion with both prospects leading up to and including draft night.

The team had called the Thunder and Magic about potentially moving up to No. 2 or even No. 1, but they were more so inquiries to gauge either team’s willingness to even consider trading down. Ultimately, the Rockets didn’t feel a sense of urgency to give up a substantial package or premium asset to make that jump, especially when they were fine picking any of the top three players.

“We thought about it a lot,” Stone told The Athletic in a recent phone interview. “But it wasn’t clear who we’d be moving up to. You think about moving up in every spot of the draft. You always think about that, that’s part of the job. But one of the nice things — and we knew on lottery night — was that we were going to get somebody that we thought could be part of our organization for a long time and really help us take the next step in this process we’re trying to build. That doesn’t mean you foreclose conversations; you talk to everybody about everything, but we always felt comfortable picking where we were picking and we’re really excited.”

As soon as the Magic and Thunder had made their respective decisions — Orlando opting for Banchero and Oklahoma City taking Holmgren — there was zero doubt in Houston’s mind as to what the Rockets would do.


Shortly after the conclusion of the Rockets’ 2021-22 season, as the team explored avenues to improve, defense rose to the front of the discussion. Houston had finished at the bottom of the league in defensive rating, a good indicator among other advanced statistics of how it ended up with a 20-62 record, but making strides in that department could slowly change the Rockets’ fortunes. It has since been a key component in all of the organization’s offseason endeavors — from the assistant coaching search to roster moves and the draft and soon, free agency.

From the team’s detailed evaluation of Smith, although it’s more difficult to use advanced metrics to gauge one’s impact on that side of the ball — leaving it more to in-person scouting and film work — Smith graded excellently. Houston saw that Smith used his length, lateral quickness and elite positional awareness to routinely keep opposing players in front of him, something that wouldn’t have stood out with a metric that accounts for blocks and steals.

Smith graded out as an elite defender and shooter, with the size at 6-foot-10 to be a potential matchup nightmare and the ability to guard multiple positions, giving Houston some assurance next to new starting center Alperen Sengun. His ability to shoot would also help Sengun on the offensive end, giving him more space to maximize his passing — as well as giving Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. optimal room to operate. From his no-nonsense attitude on defense, the ease at which his shooting would accommodate the team and his overall humble approach to the game, Smith was a coach’s dream.

“He gives us versatility, first and foremost,” Silas told The Athletic. “He can guard multiple positions. He gives us length and athleticism that we needed. But most of all, he gives us a defensive disposition, a mindset. That’s usually the most important part, a guy willing to defend, and is it something that he hangs his hat on — and that’s him. He has a gift as far as being long, athletic and quick and versatile, but he also has the mindset that goes with it. That’s super important.”


Photo of Jabari Smith Jr.: Hakim Wright Sr. / Associated Press

It was a similar line of thinking that ultimately led them to draft LSU’s Tari Eason with the 17th pick. The Rockets were prepared as the draft moved steadily from the end of the lottery to them, having already heard from interested teams during the week and having a good sense of what deals looked like as well as which players would still be on the board. By the time Houston was on the clock, the phone was ringing with teams looking to acquire the pick, but none of the trades proposed were deemed more attractive than adding Eason to the roster.

Selecting Eason was some parts about taking the best player available and some parts about fit. It was clear Houston was looking for wing help as it slowly shaped its roster for the future, and Eason fit the bill of what the Rockets were looking for. Similar to Banchero, Eason (and Kentucky’s TyTy Washington, for that matter) were two of the last players to make visits to the Rockets facilities, yet another indicator that the franchise’s interest was genuine.

Eason’s confidence in his abilities and demeanor during his combine sitdown with the organization resonated. Like Smith, his defense was his calling card, but Eason’s aggressive, active nature with a knack for drawing fouls was also noteworthy. But it was the trip to Houston that really fortified the mutual admiration.

“It was good to see him,” Silas said of the visit. “We got to see his motor, which was very evident on film, but it’s different when you get to see it in person. He’s long, athletic, same thing. But even more, he also brings that defensive disposition where he doesn’t want anybody to score on him — a guard, big, wing, nobody. To talk to him, get to know him and get a chance to draft him was good for us.”

“His workout was late enough that it was pretty clear to us that he was going to be a strategic target for us,” Stone added. “I think both of these guys fit culturally well. The first thing everybody says about both of these guys is they work, and like I said the other day, that’s kind of the most fundamental part of who we are. And his game is dynamic so we’re excited about him.”

Houston had a number of targets it liked with that pick on its board, but similar to Smith, Eason had emerged as the front-runner, with the signals pointing stronger and stronger in his direction shortly before the commencement of the draft. Had Eason been taken off the board by another team, Houston would have been more inclined to trade the pick, moving further back or even out of the first round completely.

The same can be said of Washington, taken with the 29th pick. Having acquired the 26th pick in principle from Dallas by way of the Christian Wood trade, Houston could have simply taken Washington, given that he was the highest-ranked available player on its board (there was some surprise as to why he wasn’t taken higher). But once the Minnesota Timberwolves called offering two additional second-round picks, the Rockets surmised it as a prime opportunity to add to their draft cupboard for the price of moving down three spots.

“That’s just the old adage, take the best player,” Stone said. “We did not expect him to be available at that point of the draft. It’s kind of funny, everyone always says the guy they pick was higher on their board than where they picked him — and it’s actually always true. In our case with him, that’s true. Someone organizationally we know really well. He played in the same AAU organization as my son, so I’ve been watching him play for a long time. He played for Jai Lucas at Kentucky. So we know his game really well, he’s someone who’s been on our radar for a long time. He’s simply very good at basketball. He has good sense at a young age, and we’re excited to have him be part of the group.”

In addition to identifying the young players the Rockets wanted to bring on board, there were a few others already on the roster to sort out. One was Eric Gordon, a player not new to interest from contending teams. There has always been interest in the former Sixth Man of the Year, with various playoff teams monitoring his situation in Houston. The final year of Gordon’s extension, the 2023-24 season, is non-guaranteed.

Teams had made their intentions to acquire him known more fervently over the past two weeks and continued as the draft was ongoing — with teams offering various proposals that included live picks. The Rockets were aware of interest from Philadelphia, the connections obvious with Morey and James Harden, just as they were from Phoenix with Chris Paul’s presence. They listened to the 76ers’ offer, but just as has been the case this time last year and other trade deadlines, his internal value was deemed greater than what was offered. This sentiment has been repeated ad nauseam, but Houston would be open to a deal if the return was deemed appropriate. The Rockets simply aren’t desperate to move Gordon, however.

Teams, including the Portland Trail Blazers and Brooklyn Nets, also inquired about Kenyon Martin Jr. around the draft period. Houston likes Martin and believes he can still have a positive impact on the roster, but the Rockets understand the nature of the available minutes — or potential lack thereof now with an additional three players drafted — as well as the return of Usman Garuba. Should an adequate offer open up, Houston is open to finding a better fit for Martin elsewhere.

There is perhaps no bigger pressing issue, though, than the one concerning former All-Star John Wall. The veteran point guard hasn’t suited up for the Rockets in over two years. Wall is healthy, and his preference has always been a trade to a place he can compete and play key minutes, but due to his gargantuan contract — Wall recently picked up his $47 million player option for the coming season — finding a deal has been difficult. For example, Houston is anticipating nearly $80 million in cap space next summer. For that reason, it would be unwise to trade Wall for players making big money with more than one year left on their deal, thereby eating into that cap space. The Rockets want maximum flexibility to be aggressive in the summer of 2023.

There were some trade talks involving a few teams on draft night, but none of those deals materialized. With the draft now behind them, the Rockets plan to reassess things with Wall. Sources say a breakup between Wall and the franchise is gaining momentum, with both sides expected to meet this week with Wall’s hope of a resolution — a trade or, more likely, a buyout — by the June 30 start of free agency.

Assuming Wall’s future is sorted out sooner rather than later, the young Rockets can smoothly forge ahead with their rebuild, with another pillar in Smith added to Green — and a host of quality, young complementary pieces.

(Top photo of Stephen Silas, TyTy Washington, Tari Eason, Jabari Smith Jr. and Raphael Stone: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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