Lowe: Why the Rockets’ Jalen Green might be the most important swing player in the NBA

AS COACHES AND players trudged into the locker room at halftime of what would become yet another dispiriting loss — one of 62 for the 2021-22 Houston Rockets, a team built to lose in its first full season since the end of the James Harden era — they heard an unusual voice command attention.

“You’re supposed to lead by example,” Jalen Green, then a 19-year-old rookie and No. 2 overall draft pick, chastised one of the few veterans on the team — a player Green and others present won’t identify today. Other players and coaches had noticed that veteran playing with a halfhearted selfishness. Only Green spoke up. “We need you to be better,” Green continued. “You’re supposed to show us how to do this.”

Green was calm and measured, witnesses recall.

“He did it from a place of, ‘I’m seeking knowledge,'” John Lucas, the longtime Rockets assistant coach who now works in the front office, told ESPN. “It made Jalen a leader among the younger guys.”

There was no retort, no heated back-and-forth. “The truth has no feelings,” Lucas said.

“It was about showing everyone needs to be held accountable,” Green told ESPN.

Eighteen months later, Green is the highest draft pick and headliner of one of the NBA’s deepest pools of young talent — the product of three straight losing seasons in which the Rockets won just 59 combined games and prioritized their own first-round picks.

In Green, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., Amen Thompson, Tari Eason, and Cam Whitmore, Houston has six high-wattage prospects — including three top-four picks in Thompson, Smith, and Green. The Rockets have surrounded them with veterans in Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, Jeff Green, and Jock Landale. (They nearly snagged Brook Lopez from the Milwaukee Bucks, sources said.)

The veterans are around to teach habits and help the Rockets win more; Houston owes its 2024 first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder, protected for the top four draft slots — the first of two painful debts stemming from the Daryl Morey regime’s ill-fated 2019 swap of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook in a desperate bid to placate Harden. By the cold reality of incentives, the losing has to stop.

Meanwhile, Houston’s front office already has to look years ahead: Is it even possible to pay all six of those young guys second contracts under this new collective bargaining agreement — even with restricted free agency still a powerful cudgel? If none of those players becomes a No. 1-level superstar, how do the Rockets find one? Or does the talent fit so well as to compensate for the lack of that amorphous “best player on a title team” — becoming (one day) one of those greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts contenders? What Green remains a low-percentage shooter who doesn’t bring enough outside of points? What if the whole thing fizzles?

Right now, Green probably represents their best chance at that superstar — the apex ball handler. He has internal competition. Thompson has star potential. Smith surged last season, blew up in summer league, and seems poised for another leap in Year 2 on both ends. Sengun could be an All-Star-level producer on offense as soon as this season — in part because of his promising two-man game with Green — though Sengun has to reach a passable level on defense.

But Green has tantalizing scoring tools and a willingness, he and his coaches say, to lean into more of a playmaking role and to give more effort on defense. In Year 3, he now has to live the message he delivered to that would-be veteran mentor: play unselfishly, play hard, play defense — always.

VanVleet is the new point guard, but the Rockets still want the ball in Green’s hands. (The Rockets have banished Kevin Porter Jr. from the team as he faces domestic violence charges. The basketball impact — way down the list of what matters in the Porter case — is that Green and the rest of Houston’s young core will have more opportunities to handle the ball.)

VanVleet’s ability to work off the ball is one reason Houston’s decision-makers, including new head coach Ime Udoka, preferred VanVleet over a free agency reunion with Harden.

“Nothing against James,” Udoka told ESPN, “but Fred is just a better fit. I coached James in Brooklyn. He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around. The words ‘Ime doesn’t want James’ never came out of my mouth. It was, ‘Let’s look at the best fit.’ If we want Jalen and the young guys to take the next steps, we need them to have the ball. As for me saying I don’t want James, that was never the case. It was about fit.”

It is on Green to pay off that faith by digging deeper into nonscoring aspects of the game.

“This is a huge year for him,” Rafael Stone, the Rockets general manager, told ESPN. “It’s on him to really put together all the things he’s worked on. You see individual games where he’s locked in — whether it’s on-ball defense, help-side defense, making the right reads in the pick-and-roll. And then there are other games where he just kind of let go of the rope. He’s a bucket. It’s about all the little things.”

A lot of young lottery picks chase points. For some players and their agents, points are the best vehicle to that first big payday. But Houston’s coaches are unanimous that Green can become more well-rounded in a season where winning has suddenly become a priority. And where Green ends up in three, four, five years along an unusually wide possibility of outcomes could make or break this new Houston experiment.

“He’s growing into a pro,” said Lucas, who worked closely with Green during his rookie season, tweaking Green’s jumper and quickening the release. “His savvy is coming. He’s an absolute delight to work with.”

Green said he’s ready.

“I can contribute to winning,” he told ESPN. “I’m an all-around player.”

GREEN’S COMBINATION OF speed, burst, and leaping ability is rare even among players toward the top of the draft. During his 1-on-0 pre-draft workout with the Rockets, Green lost the ball on the way up during a layup drill, reached out in midair to snare it, and dunked with power. “It was like, ‘Holy s—, I haven’t seen that one before,'” Stone recalled. “His athleticism popped. He has one of the highest ceilings of any player that has been drafted recently, and we are in the business of drafting for upside.”

One executive from another team drafting around Green’s range told his front office that Green could lead the league in scoring one day.

“I have never coached anyone like him,” Brad Roznovsky, who coached Green for three years at San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, California, told ESPN. “And I never will again.”

At age 20 on a rebuilding Rockets team — facing elite defenders almost every game — Green averaged 22 points and almost four assists. He knifed his way to six free throws per game. Some high-usage ball handlers never average that many free throws. Green was inefficient, but he is on a clear All-Star trajectory.

Rival executives often project his potential peak as similar to those of Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine, and some statistical models suggest those as decent comparisons. They are also close to Green’s height (6-foot-4), a tick shorter than the big wing ball-handlers who often rule the league.

Beal and LaVine have made five combined All-Star teams, and that number should jump. Beal made one All-NBA team. Those are objectively good outcomes, even for a much-hyped No. 2 pick with Green’s scoring chops.

But neither has ever been the No. 1 option on a dangerous postseason team. Beal is now the third option on a contender in the Phoenix Suns. LaVine’s Chicago Bulls have flatlined in mediocrity. The Rockets aren’t putting any ceiling on Green yet, and they shouldn’t.

Still, there is an enormous gap between where Green is now and All-Star-level efficiency. Green shot 41.6% last season — 33.8% on 3s, 47.1% on 2s. He converted just 55% at the rim.

There is low-hanging fruit to pluck. Green chucks up a lot of low-chance jumpers early in the clock when one pass or dribble would keep the offense chugging toward something better.

Green has taken (by a hair) more pull-up 3s than catch-and-shoot treys in his career, per NBA.com. He’s capable of hitting those shots, but too many come early in possessions. Some are off-balance, over multiple defenders.

“There were just too many possessions where he took poor shots with three guys on him,” Udoka said.

Almost one-third of Green’s shots in 2022-23 were midrangers, a ton by the standards of the analytics-heavy Rockets. The team is fine with those looks late in the shot clock. They know elite defenses sometimes snuff everything else. Green hit 42% on long 2s last season, and has a knack for stopping on a dime, rising into the clouds, and generating clean on-balance looks. With more judiciousness, that percentage could climb into the high-40s.

But the team would like Green to bag contested pull-up 2s that come with time left to explore.

“What’s important for Jalen is making sure he takes virtually none of those,” Stone said. “If that shot [a long 2] is contested, there has to be a better shot for someone else.”

On some of those plays, the right pass is in front of him:

Watch Sengun roll free then turn his palms to the sky in exasperation after Green jacks a long 2 with 12 seconds on the shot clock instead of threading the pocket pass.

What’s both encouraging and frustrating is that Green has those passes in his bag. When trapped, Green is happy to slip the ball to an open teammate immediately.

There are plenty of instances of Green making the basic pocket pass as soon as it opens:

Then just a minute later — as in that game against the Bulls — Green might ignore that identical pocket pass in favor of a wayward drive, or toss it too late:

Green attempted shots on about 47% of his pick-and-rolls that resulted in the end of possessions — 43rd among 174 ball handlers who ran at least 200 such plays, per Second Spectrum. Green dished assists on only 9.8% of those actions — 163rd among that 174-player sample.

Green is determined to find a better pass-or-shoot balance.

“It’s simple reads,” Green said. “The pocket pass to Alpie [Sengun], or if the low man helps over, hitting that shooter in the corner.”

GREEN SPENT MUCH of the summer in Los Angeles, training with a personal coach — Adam Harrington, a former assistant for both the Thunder and the Nets — and participating in 5-on-5 runs with Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and other NBA stars. Udoka watched a lot of those pickup games, including one in which Green and Smith were on the same team — facing a squad that included both Durant and Booker.

“In my mind, it was Houston against Phoenix,” Udoka said. He saw progress in Green’s passing.

“He has the ability to make the right play,” Udoka continued. “You don’t always see it on a young team where it’s your turn, my turn, and guys are taking poor shots at times. But when the level of talent is raised around him, he makes the right reads. Now there are no excuses. I’ve seen you do it.”

Observing those pickup games, Udoka would sometimes shout for Green to set a flare screen or cut to the rim. Green has flashed some instincts to cut back door when Sengun — a clever passer — has the ball at the elbow. Those plays hint at a decent feel — something that should translate to passing.

But they were mere flashes. Houston’s offense last season was stagnant. Porter and Green pounded the air out of the ball. On some possessions, they had to wait several seconds before a Houston big man realized he should run up to set a screen. There was no structure, no pace. Spacing was cluttered.

“There was a lot of standing around,” Udoka said.

Like a lot of young guards, Green sometimes dribbled around the arc without purpose — bobbing and weaving in the general area of picks without going anywhere. He sometimes rushed through moves, zooming forward before really executing them — before giving defenders a chance to take the bait.

VanVleet should loosen spacing and allow Green to attack more off the catch — with the floor in motion. “We want to use him more off the ball,” Udoka said of Green. “We want him coming off screens and slashing. I don’t know if it’s natural for him, but you’ve seen glimpses.”

Spacing remains a challenge. Defenses will ignore both Brooks and Eason on the perimeter until they prove themselves as shooters; against certain Houston lineups, defenses had centers guard Eason and hang near the paint. (Eason, by the way, has a chance to be a really good two-way player. He seems to have magnets in his hands, sucking up steals and rebounds that appear out of reach. The Rockets are optimistic he can do more with the ball on offense.) With Sengun and Landale, it might be hard for Udoka to get to lineups in which Smith plays small-ball center.

Green oozes ballhandling craft that he is just starting to harness. He can lull defenders to sleep with languid hesitation dribbles toward picks, and then dust them by darting away from those screens. He works nasty in-and-out dribbles with either hand:

Green is slim, but at 6-foot-4 with his speed and leaping ability, he could develop a Westbrook-esque style of turbocharged drives through smaller point guard defenders:

Green can get to the rim almost at will. His approach and judgment once there has been addled. Green has a habit of flying at rim protectors without a plan and throwing up wild, flailing hope shots.

“You have to know where your dump-offs are,” Udoka said. “Jalen is used to being able to finish over anyone, but if you get separation and Joel Embiid is sitting in the paint, you can take the midranger instead of attacking him.”

IN OFFSEASON WORKOUTS, Harrington slowed everything down and had Green walk through the final two or three steps of every typical action over and over: planting to catch the ball running off a pick; rising for a contested layup; leaping for a pull-up 3; loading off one foot to take a Ray Allen-style leaning jumper.

“It was about balance,” Green said. Harrington wanted Green to feel what each foot should be doing — to download the body mechanics so that he is comfortable, strong, and poised in every situation.

That could lead to more plays where it all comes together:

There are not many 20-year-olds who can work all those skills — all those changes of direction and cadence — into one pick-and-roll. Green slithers to his right around that Sengun screen then slows down to pin his defender on his hip — waiting for Sengun to find space. Green veers left, then back right — finally getting Xavier Tillman to commit and unlocking that hook pass.

Green spent a lot of time in L.A. around Durant, watching him work and listening to Durant’s advice. Durant told Green that every practice and drill should mimic game intensity.

“That’s what stuck with me — to really make everything game-like,” Green said.

The harder work comes on defense. Green has been a pretty glaring minus on that end. Bigger opponents have bullied him, and Green has gotten lost now and then in rotation.

But Green can become at least an average defender. He has good length, and he seems to care. His lean frame has its advantages. Harrington developed a mantra for him: Avoid every screen.

“We’ve argued a lot,” Lucas said about Green when the subject turned to defense. “Jalen can guard when he wants to. He just hasn’t been required to yet.”

(Lucas loves needling Green to get under his skin and motivate him. He sometimes asks Green where he was selected in the draft. When Green replies that he was the second pick, Lucas — the top pick in 1976 — boasts that he might have already been at the after party or even asleep by the time the second pick rolled around in his draft. “He gets so mad,” Lucas said, laughing. When Lucas finds out Green admires an opposing player — De’Aaron Fox and Anthony Edwards, as examples — he tells Green that if he is such a fan, Lucas can walk to the opponent locker room and ask for a pair of signed shoes.)

Defense is not optional under Udoka. “Defense is more of a mentality,” the coach said. “He will be challenged a lot more.”

Udoka spares no one in film sessions. “You’ll get called out if you are the weak link,” Udoka said. “I’ll call him out in front of the whole team. I’m equal opportunity in that.”

It is almost impossible to overstate the mental and physical burden of being a true NBA superstar. Entire defenses are designed to stop you. They change schemes several times within quarters, trying to get in your head. Every possession involves a half-dozen small decisions, all made under pressure. You have to at least execute on defense. And you have to do it 82 times — and then 10 or 15 or 20 more times in the postseason, when the talent is better, the coaching is more targeted, and everything is done with more urgency.

Lucas is confident. “In another year, he will really be a professional,” Lucas said of Green. “Next season [2024-25], he is going to take off like Ja Morant and Devin Booker.”

Even optimists know how much distance lies between where Green is now and where those guys — and Beal, even LaVine — have reached. Perhaps it’s best to approach this season with smaller goals.

“I want to be better for my teammates,” Green said. “I’m always going to be able to score. Now, it’s more about contributing to my team in other ways.”

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