Rockets draft notebook 2.0: Big board debates, Houston's domino effect and more (2024)

In less than a week, we’ll know the fate of 58 draft hopefuls.

Teams are in the final stages of preparation, having had several players come to their respective facilities for workouts, interviews and additional research. Big boards are being finalized, if they aren’t already cemented. Between now and June 26, the trade talks will heat up and debates will intensify.

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For the Houston Rockets, the next few days are critical. The No. 3 pick is a topic of interest around the league and Houston, in a position where the playoffs are within reach after a 41-41 season, have important decisions to make.

In draft notebook 2.0, we’ll look at big boards coming into focus, the potential domino effect and more.

• As the days until the June 26 draft edge closer, there’s a growing sense among rival teams that the Rockets are in a unique position of strength — a combination of owning the No. 3 pick, its increasing leaguewide interest and the potential domino effect across the rest of the lottery.

The assumption of a team holding leverage, especially in a class without a consensus No. 1 pick and a franchise picking outside the top two, could be seen as exaggerated. But recently, the Rockets brass has been made aware of certain draft-centric aspects: Rapidly growing interest in Connecticut’s Donovan Clingan and Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard and the desire of rival teams to jump ahead of the San Antonio Spurs, who hold the No. 4 and No. 8 picks.

• There have been several teams that have expressed a desire to move to No. 3 but there are three teams, according to team and league sources that have been most vocal: Charlotte, Memphis and Portland. The Grizzlies and Hornets, in particular, have been rather aggressive in their hopes of acquiring the No. 3 pick, sources said.

As mentioned earlier, the focus of those interested parties is centered around Clingan and Sheppard, with all three franchises having high grades on the pair of incoming rookies. Rival teams also have enough reason to believe that assuming no surprises, both Clingan and Sheppard could be among the first four names off the board called by commissioner Adam Silver. This, of course, is a gamble considering Perth’s Alex Sarr and JL Bourg’s Zaccharie Risacher in the top two is less of a certainty as it might have been a few weeks ago with the Atlanta Hawks also linked with Clingan.

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• This is quite different from the position Houston found themselves in during the 2022 draft where they simply hoped to select whoever was left out of Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. The Rockets are prepared to draft at three but continue to express openness in moving the pick. Ideally, Houston would move the selection in a trade that would land a star player — and they have continued to keep tabs around the league, making calls and floating offers — but the reality is there just isn’t a lot of activity or movement on the star market.

For example, Houston would love to add a player like Donovan Mitchell but recent reports suggest the All-NBA guard is likely to sign an extension to stay in Cleveland. In notebook 1.0, New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram was mentioned as a player seen in a lower tier than Mitchell and in recent days, rumors have swirled about the Pelicans dangling Ingram in trade talks and in one iteration, a hypothetical Ingram-for-Alperen Şengün swap was mentioned, but the Rockets have no interest, team sources said. League sources said New Orleans also contacted the Philadelphia 76ers concerning a possible Ingram trade.

• The third draft night possibility involves the Rockets moving back, and collecting additional draft capital, significant enough to warrant Houston relinquishing its top-three selection. In this instance, the Grizzlies pose an interesting option. Both general manager Rafael Stone and head coach Ime Udoka are fans of veteran guard Marcus Smart, league sources said. Is there a possibility Memphis could entice Houston by offering Smart in addition to the No. 9 pick and future assets, to move up and grab Clingan if he isn’t already gone? Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht, who has fans within the Rockets organization, could be available if Houston were to move back.

Rockets draft notebook 2.0: Big board debates, Houston's domino effect and more (1)

Houston GM Rafael Stone will be busy fielding calls for the No. 3 pick. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

• The most intriguing aspect of the Rockets’ predraft planning isn’t so much what other teams are offering or expecting them to do. Houston’s internal debate — especially this year in a wide-open draft — is compelling. Historically, the braintrust goes to great lengths to ensure a thorough process, a period that typically involves debates about individual player rankings before one composite big board is formed. Now, with Udoka’s presence a significant factor in decision-making, various league sources believe Houston’s big board planning involves three branches in addition to the other respected voices in the war room:

  1. The upside and positional versatility angle, spearheaded by Stone.
  2. The analytical angle, courtesy of assistant general manager Eli Witus.
  3. The win-now, defensive-oriented angle, from Udoka.

There are a few prospects who theoretically fit in at least two of these three categories but in recent days, Clingan and Sheppard have separated themselves from the likes of Stephon Castle, Sarr and Risacher on Houston’s big board, league and team sources said. Clingan, the 20-year-old big man, is believed to be the current leader, seen as the only player who fits all three categories.

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• Sheppard will visit the Rockets by the end of the week, team sources said, but up until this point, Houston has encountered some difficulties in scheduling workouts with top prospects. For example, Clingan and Şengün share the same agent, and the expectation for a top prospect being taken is that they will play. On the surface, minutes at center under Udoka appear slim with Şengün and Steven Adams on the roster — which presents a conflict of interest. Another example is Castle, who has been steadfast about his desired point guard position which impacts which teams he chooses to visit.

• Houston’s draft prep has also started debates around players in consideration for the 44th pick, with names like Jonathon Mogbo, Cam Christie, Terrence Shannon Jr., K.J. Simpson, Adem Bona, Oso Ighodaro and more in discussions. However, a decent number of these names may end up in the back portion of the first round. This week, the Rockets will work out Clemson’s PJ Hall, Texas’ Dylan Disu, St. John’s Daniss Jenkins, Washington State’s Jaylen Wells and others.

More notes

• The Spurs, who recently worked out both Castle and Providence’s Devin Carter, have their eyes set on acquiring a guard on draft night, league sources said. Carter, Castle and Sheppard hold strong interest, with Carter’s impressive private showing resonating with Spurs brass.

• With free agency beginning 72 hours after the conclusion of the draft, the Rockets have also begun preparing offseason roster-building plans. Shooting is seen as paramount but simply adding sharpshooters who can’t defend is not ideal. So, a player like Doug McDermott wouldn’t be a fit with Udoka.

Two-way veterans like Alec Burks, Gary Harris, Talen Horton-Tucker and Saddiq Bey (among others) are of interest, but Bey’s restricted free agency makes things difficult. Free agent Eric Gordon is “50-50” on a return to Phoenix, according to a source close to the veteran guard, but is also interested in a Rockets reunion. Other names of interest like Sacramento’s Malik Monk are in line for a substantial payday, and the Rockets only have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($12.8 million) to offer.

(Top photo of Connecticut’s Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Rockets draft notebook 2.0: Big board debates, Houston's domino effect and more (2)Rockets draft notebook 2.0: Big board debates, Houston's domino effect and more (3)

Kelly Iko is a staff writer covering the Houston Rockets and the NBA for The Athletic. The upcoming 2023-24 season will be his eighth following the NBA, having previously worked with USA Today and ESPN Houston. Follow Kelly on Twitter @KellyIko

Rockets draft notebook 2.0: Big board debates, Houston's domino effect and more (2024)
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