Player grades: 2022-23 Houston Rockets at the All-Star break

At the NBA’s All-Star break for its 2022-23 season, the numbers aren’t pretty for the young and rebuilding Houston Rockets.

Their 13-45 record is worst in the NBA, as is Houston’s offensive rating (110.0). Their defensive rating (118.4) ranks 28th among the league’s 30 teams, and their net rating (-8.4) is No. 29.

Head coach Stephen Silas is in the final fully guaranteed season of his current contract, and questions have been raised as to whether he will be offered a second deal. Many fans have raised questions regarding general manager Rafael Stone, as well.

Yet, it’s not as if the franchise is hopeless. For starters, they will have another high pick in what should be a strong 2023 NBA draft class, and they’re positioned to have the most salary cap space this offseason (up to $60 million, approximately) of any NBA team. That could help them attract marquee veterans, such as James Harden.

In addition, while the sum of the parts clearly hasn’t amounted to much this season — particularly given a void of veterans — there are some individual bright spots among the young prospects.

Among players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, here’s our individual grades. These grades are relative to expectations entering the season, i.e. a high grade for a bench player doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s outplayed a high-profile starter with a worse grade. It’s all relative to where each player began the 2022-23 campaign.

This list is sorted by total minutes, from most to least.

Jalen Green: B-

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Statistics: 21.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.9 turnovers in 33.9 minutes per game; 40.9% shooting, 33.3% on 3-pointers

Age: 21 years old, second NBA season

At face value, Green hasn’t taken the leap forward that many hoped for entering his sophomore season. He’s actually shooting worse from the field and on 3-pointers than as a rookie, and his defense remains a clear liability (not a surprise, given his age and frame).

Yet, if you consider the context, there’s reason for optimism. Unlike his rookie season, Green entered 2022-23 as the undisputed top scoring option for the Rockets. He’s drawing tougher assignments from opposing defenses, and yet his player efficiency rating (PER) has actually jumped from 12.5 as a rookie to 13.9 this year, thanks largely to a higher free-throw rate (from 3.5 to 5.9 on a per-game basis).

In time, to be the top offensive option on a winning team, he’ll need to make more shots and become more efficient as a scorer and playmaker. That’s what Houston believes Green can eventually be after drafting him at No. 2 overall in a strong 2021 draft class. He’s not there yet. While he’s had plenty of highlights and multiple 40-point games where everything is clicking, inconsistency is a major issue. Perhaps adopting more of an off-ball role (next to Harden?) can help.

But overall, there is value in seeing Green’s efficiency hold steady, despite drawing tougher coverages and having fewer veterans (i.e. Christian Wood, Eric Gordon) to help shoulder the load. He’s also continuing to put in work in the weight room, which has helped Green drive inside to earn more free throws. The hope is that as the years progress, it could make him a stronger defender, as well.

Jabari Smith Jr.: C

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Statistics: 12.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.5 turnovers, 1.0 blocks in 29.9 minutes; 38.9% shooting, 30.3% on 3-pointers

Age: 19 years old, first NBA season

The efficiency hasn’t been pretty for Houston’s lanky rookie forward, but there are some extenuating circumstances.

For starters, he’s one of the youngest players in his draft class, and he’s adjusting to a much longer 3-point line. In time, he should revert back to the elite shooting prospect that many around the NBA saw Smith as when he was drafted at No. 3 overall in the 2022 first round.

Want more evidence as to how difficult the transition is? Look no further than a rookie rival in Paolo Banchero, who plays Smith’s same position at power forward and was drafted at No. 1 overall by Orlando last June. Banchero is shooting just 41.9% overall and 28.1% on 3-pointers, and he’s well below 40% since early December. The NBA is a major adjustment for young players with only one season of college basketball experience. The learning curve is steep.

Smith’s defense is hit or miss depending on the matchup, but it’s encouraging that he’s often able to use a long 6-foot-11 frame to contest without fouling, with an average of just 3.0 per game. His instincts are good, and Smith should get more physical over the years as his body fills out and he spends more time in the weight room. That length also offers potential for Smith to thrive in spurts as an agile option at center, particularly once the 3-pointers start falling. That could allow the Rockets to operate as a true five-out offense.

Overall, Smith’s biggest weakness thus far is his shooting, which was projected by experts to be perhaps his biggest strength. Assuming that form eventually reverts back to something closer to the scouting reports and his college data, there’s a clear path for Smith to be a valuable piece for the Rockets as their rebuild continues.

KJ Martin: B+

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Statistics: 11.6 points (56.0% FG, 32.7% on 3-pointers), 5.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 turnovers in 26.3 minutes

Age: 22 years old, third NBA season

With Eric Gordon traded to the Clippers at this February’s deadline, the starting small forward job is Martin’s for the foreseeable future. That’s not a bad thing. The third-year prospect is an athletic high flier who makes plays in transition and provides plenty of off-ball value, which is important for a Houston team that has plenty of shot creators in its starting lineup between Green, Kevin Porter Jr. (when healthy), and Alperen Sengun. Defensively, he’s athletic and physical enough to capably guard multiple positions.

The only thing keeping Martin from an A grade is a slight regression in his 3-point shooting, which has dipped from nearly 36% over his first two seasons to below 33% this year. As it stands, that makes him somewhat of a spacing liability in halfcourt settings. If Martin get his shooting back over the 35% mark, that would make him an ideal role player for the Rockets as they sort out formulas for the future.

Alperen Sengun: A-

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Statistics: 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.5 turnovers, 1.0 blocks in 28.3 minutes; 56.2% FG, 31.6% on 3-pointers

Age: 20 years old, second NBA season

First, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Sengun isn’t a two-way big man. He doesn’t have the quick burst to be an elite rim protector, and that’s potentially puts a cap on his upside (though in theory, the frontcourt fit alongside Smith could be a good one, since Smith has the type of length and instincts to perhaps offset that).

But in terms of what the second-year Turkish big can fully control, it’s been a terrific sophomore season. His efficiency and playmaking were strong as a rookie, but the question was whether that could scale to more minutes and playing against starters, as opposed to backups. It absolutely has. In fact, Sengun’s true shooting percentage (TS%) has jumped to 61.4% this year from 55.2% as a rookie.

Right now, Sengun is hands down Houston’s most valuable offensive player. He’s only 20 years old. For a player drafted at No. 16 overall in the 2021 first round, that’s outstanding production, even if there are fair concerns regarding his long-term defensive potential.

Kevin Porter Jr.: B-

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Statistics: 19.2 points, 5.6 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 3.6 turnovers in 34.0 minutes; 43.7% FG, 34.6% on 3-pointers

Age: 22 years old, fourth NBA season

Injury status: Out since early January (left foot contusion)

Statistically, Porter has played well, and he’s avoided any concerning off-court incidents like those that defined his initial years in the NBA. By all accounts, he’s been a good leader and a valued presence in the locker room. He’s well liked by his teammates.

The modest grade is simply due to questions over durability and his long-term trajectory. While Porter has bumped his efficiency a bit, from 53.1% TS and 13.5 PER last season to 55.1% and 15.4, respectively, it’s certainly not a dramatic rise. And unlike Green, Porter is at a stage in a typical NBA player’s development where he’s less likely to have significant room for further growth.

The injury history is somewhat concerning, as well, since Porter has yet to play more than 61 games through four NBA seasons.

If this is who Porter is as an NBA player, there’s certainly rotation value. He’s also on a team-friendly contract. But any case for Porter having star upside appears to be fading, and the assist-to-turnover ratio suggests that he’s probably not a long-term point guard. After all, there’s a reason why there are so many Harden rumors.

For the Rockets specifically, the question is over Porter’s fit with Green, who offers a similar profile at present but with more upside. Does it make sense for Houston to have two perimeter starters with such similar skillsets, particularly with another offensive hub like Sengun on the interior? Or, is it better to pair Green with a player who offers more off-ball ability and defensive value?

Perhaps Porter could fit as a sixth man, in such a scenario, and he able to anchor Houston’s bench unit. But is that a role he’d be willing to accept at such an early stage of his career? Porter is a valuable piece, but there are at least some questions regarding the long-term fit.

Tari Eason: B+

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Statistics: 8.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 1.1 turnovers in 19.4 minutes; 44.4% FG, 34.5% on 3-pointers

Age: 21 years old, first NBA season

Eason grades out even more favorably by advanced metrics, with FiveThirtyEight’s overall RAPTOR rating and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) showing the rookie as one of only three Rockets (joining Sengun and Porter) to grade out positively this season.

The only things keeping the No. 17 overall pick in the 2022 draft below an A grade are his inconsistent finishing ability and the question of whether that production is scalable to a larger role.

In time, it should be. But for now, Eason is best against second units, where he’s able to use his relentless motor and nose for the basketball to collect loose balls and feast in transition.

Against starting-caliber players who are better at limiting turnovers and protecting the rim, Eason’s tendency to ball watch on defense and his struggles to finish inside become more of a liability.

But again, he’s a rookie. Eason has overachieved all reasonable expectations, and he looks to have a very bright future in Houston.

Usman Garuba: C+

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Statistics: 3.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals; 52.9% FG, 46.9% on 3-pointers

Age: 20 years old, second NBA season

Perhaps the best news for Garuba is that he’s been able to stay healthy after an injury plagued rookie season. As far as production, it’s a mixed bag. His defensive technique and instincts are good, as advertised, but he’s undersized as a center and not agile enough to play as a forward (plus, Houston has several other options there).

Despite an unconventional shooting form, he’s shooting a team-best clip from 3-point range. It would be nice to see him pick up the volume as 2022-23 winds down to see how sustainable it is.

With fellow big man Bruno Fernando traded to Atlanta at the February deadline, the remainder of the season should offer an opportunity to further evaluate Garuba as the backup center and to gauge how his 6-foot-8 frame translates to bigger assignments. As a first-round pick from the 2021 class, expectations are still moderate.

Daishen Nix: D

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Statistics: 3.7 points, 2.5 assists, 1.7 rebounds, 1.4 turnovers in 15.5 minutes; 34.5% FG, 30.9% on 3-pointers

Age: 21 years old, second NBA season

It hasn’t been a good year for Nix, who the Rockets signed as an undrafted free agent in the 2021 offseason.

While he shows capable floor vision as a backup point guard, the shooting percentages reflect that Nix offers neither the requisite athleticism to finish at the rim or the elite shooting to be a threat beyond the 3-point line. Thus, he isn’t able to draw enough attention from defenses to unlock the value of his court vision and passing.

He also has frequent issues with defensive intensity and instincts, including a memorable last-second lowlight in Miami that led to Jimmy Butler’s winning layup off an out-of-bounds lob. Since that game in early February, the Rockets have increasingly turned to rookie TyTy Washington as the primary backup at point guard.

Jae’Sean Tate: C+

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Statistics: 7.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.7 turnovers; 45.2% FG and 30.8% on 3-pointers

Age: 27 years old, third NBA season

Tate has missed most of this season with ongoing ankle issues. When he’s played, Tate has provided a consistent spark and defensive presence off the bench, along with a useful ability to pass and facilitate the offense in the absence of Porter (left foot contusion).

As with Porter, the lower grade is due to questions over durability and role. The Rockets have two promising rookie forwards in Smith and Eason, and Martin has taken advantage of his opportunity to become a starter. He’s not the defender that Tate is, but he’s younger, much more athletic, and a better shooter, and the Rockets should have considerable defensive value already between Eason and Smith.

Long-term, where does that leave Tate? The minutes crunch could become even more problematic if Porter isn’t viewed as a point guard, since that could throw him into the small forward mix.

Tate does have a relatively friendly annual salary, whereas Martin has yet to sign his second NBA deal and could be more expensive. Then again, Tate’s friendly contract terms might make him a more attractive trade asset for general manager Rafael Stone, and his shooting deficiencies may be less detrimental to a contender that is able to slide Tate into a more strictly defensive role.

Josh Christopher: D+

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Statistics: 4.6 points, 1.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.4 steals in 10.2 minutes; 46.0% FG, 23.8% on 3-pointers

Age: 21 years old, second NBA season

In nearly two years since being selected as a first-round draft pick in 2021, Christopher has yet to show enough for even the NBA’s worst team — and one in a clear rebuild while prioritizing youth — to give him consistent rotation minutes. There were some signs prior to the All-Star break that it might be changing, but the sample remains quite small. A strong finish could raise the grade.

Dating back to 2022 summer league, Christopher has shown a penchant for tunnel vision on his drives, and he doesn’t shoot nearly well enough on 3-pointers to be an off-ball threat. It’s far too early to declare Christopher a lost cause, but it’s fair to be disappointed when other guards chosen shortly after him in 2021 (New York’s Quentin Grimes, Brooklyn’s Cam Thomas) are clearly outperforming him.

TyTy Washington: C

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Statistics: 4.1 points, 1.4 assists, 1.3 rebounds, 0.4 turnovers in 12.7 minutes; 36.0% FG, 18.0% on 3-pointers

Age: 21 years old, first NBA season

Unlike Nix, the sample is small enough with Washington’s poor shooting to attribute more of it to randomness. He’s also a rookie, and his shooting in the G League has been much better. Mechanically, it’s not as if there appears to be a glaring flaw with his shot.

That said, in the long run, he clearly needs to shoot better at the NBA level for his gifts as a floor general and passer to fully translate. Washington has an intriguing floater that he can use in mid-range areas and is able to create separation with a smooth handle, so there’s reason for a bad team like the Rockets to continue giving him backup minutes to develop. It’s just a matter of having more shots go in.

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Story originally appeared on Rockets Wire