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Rockets 2022-2023 player previews: Jalen Green

Houston Rockets Media Day Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Jalen Green spent most of last season being criticized for what he wasn’t.

Green wasn’t the number one overall pick, so he wasn’t Houston fans’ first choice. He wasn’t a combo guard like Cade Cunningham who could play next to a point guard or a shooting guard. He wasn’t successful immediately like Evan Mobley, a player Houston could have drafted. He didn’t help pull his team up from the grime and into the playoff picture like Scottie Barnes. He wasn’t brilliantly sublime like fellow Houston Rockets rookie Alperen Sengun. He wasn’t efficient early in the year. Then he wasn’t healthy, missing 14 games due to a hamstring injury. He wasn’t the Slam Dunk Contest champion either, putting forth an embarrassing performance that some thought so putrid it would be the only thing people remembered from what would surely be a brief career.

And then something happened on the way to becoming a bust: Jalen Green become good at basketball. Like, really good.

Okay, obviously that’s hyperbole. Green was always good at basketball. He wouldn’t have been drafted if he weren’t, much less taken with the second overall pick in the draft.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that something happened during the All-Star break that unlocked Green. Maybe it was confidence. Maybe it was offensive scheme. Maybe it was more reps. Either way, something happened.

The emergence of Green after the All-Star Break was a franchise-altering development. You’ve probably seen these stats everywhere by now, but it bears repeating.

Jalen Green Pre- and Post- All-Star Break

All-Star Games Minutes USG% FGA FG% 3PT FGA 3PT FG% TS% ORtg PPG
All-Star Games Minutes USG% FGA FG% 3PT FGA 3PT FG% TS% ORtg PPG
Pre 43 30.4 22.8 12.6 38.7 6.2 31.1 51.6 96 14.6
Post 24 34.6 25.3 17.3 47.6 8 38.7 58.9 114 22.1

Green’s shooting numbers and efficiency all improved drastically, while his usage rate increased just a touch. Here’s the stat that feels absolutely bonkers: Green was shooting 38.7% from the field before the All-Star break. After? He shot that exact same percentage from three. An area of weakness suddenly became an area of strength. We’ve seen this before with many players, but rarely do you see such a marked improvement in-season. Usually, players set aside time in the offseason and hire a personal trainer to help them in whatever area they desire. Green was able to do this with just his own will and the coaching staff helping him. As the great tank debate enters Year 3, we’re reminded that most tank enablers agree “Tanking can be productive as long as there is concrete player development.” Houston’s lack of desire to win every game has allowed Green to make mistakes and push his game to the limits. Rather than being forced into a role and mastering it (a la Mobley and the Cavs), Green’s chances of reaching higher heights has increased due to Stephen Silas not putting shackles on the 20-year-old.

Using Basketball Reference’s Game Score metric (chosen for its ease of use and availability for free), seven of Green’s eight best games came after the All-Star break. His best game was in the finale against the Atlanta Hawks, in which he scored 41 points with plus shooting numbers. But that game was relatively meaningless. His second-best game came against the Boston Celtics in his third game of the season, which is surprising. He dropped 30 points in that game, aided by a blistering 8-10 from deep. Boston didn’t have their defense figured out that early, and the Rockets still lost that game by double digits.

No, the game that Rockets fans remember most came in early March.

If it was possible for one game to instill hope in an entire fanbase, this was it. Green was in his bag the entire night, letting loose jump shots with defenders in his face in between drives to the hoop featuring an unfair first step. Obviously, these are highlights so we’re not seeing any mistakes or forced shots, but what stands out here is Green’s “patient aggression.” He’s getting to his spots on his terms. A couple of his dribbling forays appear to be meandering and meaningless, but it’s a gambit to set his defender up for a step back jumper. He doesn’t have James Harden’s ability to create three-pointers out of thin air (yet), but when he’s in position for a catch-and-shoot, he’s loaded up and ready to pull the trigger. That mindset is what separates young wings from successful ones.

I’ve spoken a bit in my game previews about the adjustment period for first round rookies in the NBA, but I’ll reiterate here. If we split NBA players into three umbrellas, it would be point guards, wings, and bigs. New point guards have it easy. They get to handle the ball on every play, and are constantly getting reps in the pick-and-roll, the bread and butter play in the NBA. Every single game gives them upwards of 50 opportunities to learn and grow and improve. No one really cares how they play on defense, which allows them to focus on half of the game. Ditto for bigs, who generally come into the NBA with a simple mandate: work hard on defense and get to your spots on offense. As opposed to point guards, they can focus on defense and clean up on offense when they’re feeling frisky. Again, eliminating half of the game makes life much easier.

Wings don’t have it so easy. They’re expected to learn both sides from the jump. They have to produce on offense even though they aren’t touching the ball on every possession, and they are expected to defend at a high level against difficult assignments that range from point guards to power forwards. And this difficulty doesn’t just hinge on the eye test. In the three drafts before Green was selected (2018-2020), zero wings have made an All-Star team. The Rookie of the Year winner in each of those three seasons was a point guard (Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, LaMelo Ball). The other players to be selected to the All-Star Game from that group: Trae Young (point guard), Zion Williamson (big who handles the ball), and Darius Garland (point guard). The top wings from each of those drafts were Collin Sexton, RJ Barrett, and Anthony Edwards. All are really good players who needed a year to acclimate to their NBA responsibilities. This really gives even more credit to Barnes for having such an incredible rookie season, but also puts Cunningham and Mobley’s rookie years into perspective.

The Rockets will only go as far this year as Green can take them. Most likely, that’s right back to the lottery with hopes and dreams of competing in 2023-24. But this time, we’re not going to measure Jalen Green based on what he isn’t. Because we have to recognize what he is, which is Houston’s best hope.