Barring injures or player movement, The Houston Rockets starting five for the 2022-2023 NBA season is likely going to feature Jabari Smith Jr, Alperen Sengun, Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr. and Eric Gordon. So, the question on everyone’s mind is… who should be the first player off the bench? I’m going to go through the players I think have a chance to be that sixth man off the bench for the Rockets, looking at the pros and cons for each player. Then I will give my selection of who I think deserves that first sub into the game. Let’s get into it!
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Jae’san Tate is a versatile defender who provides the optionality to guard smalls and big men. He has good lateral movement and enough strength to make it hard for opposing players to score. According to Synergy he ranks in the 85th percentile in defending spot ups, 72nd percentile on defending post ups and 72nd percentile on defending handoffs. Another strength of Tate is his playmaking. He has guard like creation skills with the ball in his hand and good on court vision. Synergy has him in the 67th percentile for possessions that end with an assist. He is especially impactful playmaking out of isolation post-ups, where he is rated as “excellent” by Synergy, generating 1.16 points per possession (PPP).
Tate is usually asked to guard other teams power forwards and centers, and despite his heart, his lack of size usually puts him and the team at a disadvantage. Synergy has him rated as “below average” when guarding big men in the pick and roll, and “below average” on all isolations. He especially suffers in isolations where ball handlers drive down the middle of the lane, giving up a whopping 1.54 PPP on such plays. This is likely due to the lack of length to contest at the rim and no true weakside shot blocker on the roster.
The most commonly cited limitation for Tate is his shooting. Tate shot 31% from the field on overall threes, and 31.9% on unguarded threes this past season. For a team that will feature Alperen Sengun as the starting center, a player who isn’t a great shooter, Tate’s lack of shooting could be problematic for team spacing. According to Cleaning the Glass, when he and Sengun are on the court together the Rockets are shooting a feeble 24% on corner threes, the shot most often conceded by defenses to teams with poor spacing.
Kenyon Martin Jr.
When Kenyon Martin Jr. is on the court, he elevates the rockets transition offense by generating 1.25 PPP, the second highest on the roster. The lineup including three of this coming season’s projected starters that featured Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun had a 61% true shooting percentage and 107 pace per 48 minutes when playing with KJ according to Cleaning the Glass. KJ also allows the rockets to space the floor, he is a respectable 35.7% 3-point shooter and in possessions with him on the court the Rockets shot 35% on corner 3s. Outside of the corners he is tied for 2nd best on the team with Garrison Mathews, shooting 38% on non-corner threes, and 38% on unguarded threes.
KJ is one of the Rockets better defenders, that isn’t saying much given the rockets were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. Despite the team’s defensive woes, Synergy rated KJ as a “very good” overall defender, and rates him “good”, “very good” or “excellent” in almost every defensive category they measure. His biggest strengths are guarding players off screens and guarding the big in the pick and roll.
KJ like Tate is undersized for what he is being asked to do. He regularly has to guard power forwards and centers and is usually overmatched in the post. Despite being a better shooter than Tate, defenses still sag off of him to crowd the paint, and he doesn’t always make them pay. More notably his lack of playmaking and offensive creation limits his ability to maximize his athleticism, and a lot of times when he gets to the rim, if it isn’t a dunk, he struggles to finish the possession. He falls in the 19th percentile on layups only shooting 51% because of his inability to finish at the rim.
Garrison Mathews spaces the floor, according to Synergy he is in the 93rd percentile in spot up threes, and 83rd percentile in handoff threes. Despite the questionable shot selection, Mathews generates points for the rockets at an elite rate. He is a good 36% 3-point shooter on 6 attempts per game, which passes the Morey analytics test for volume and efficiency. He also shoots 41% on unguarded threes so defenses cannot afford to help too much of him.
The aforementioned shot selection, Mathews takes some questionable shots that don’t account for time and context during the game. He also has a tendency to attempt contested shots in an attempt to draw fouls, though successful at times, it tends to disrupt the flow of the offense. According to NBA Advanced Stats, on threes considered “tight” with the defender between 2 to 4 feet he is shooting 24.8%, and on those considered “very tight” with the defender between 0-2 feet, he is shooting 21.4%. Another issue is his defense, though he hustles, he lacks the lateral mobility and size to be an effective defender. Synergy rates him “below average” in isolation defense and as a pick and roll defender when guarding the ball, which are the two main ways teams attacked the Rockets.
Honorable Mention: Tari Eason
Tari Eason is an interesting prospect on both ends of the court. He put up MVP level stats at LSU on great efficiency off the bench for the tigers. The pros on Eason right now are his play in transition and defensive upside. It’s hard to project how this translates to the NBA on day one but Rockets fans should be excited about how he and Jabari Smith Jr. the team’s 3rd overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft performed as a duo in this year’s summer league.
Tari was an unreal +35 net rating for the LSU Tigers while having a 31% usage rate. The potential cons may be his ability to impact the game without the ball in his hands. Eason’s ability to get on the court will be based on how quickly he can pick up the playbook and his assignments on defense. It should be exciting to watch, because in my opinion I believe he has the most upside, not only as the first player off the bench but a starter next to Sengun, Smith Jr., Green and Porter Jr.