Jalen Green is a bust. If you disagree, you are an apologist.
Jalen Green is a star. If you disagree, you are a hater.
What Jalen Green is to me, is a struggling player with talent – and flaws – who is on a team that wants to win games now. I’m someone looking at Houston’s 6-6 record thinking it could be 9-3, and wondering how we turn close losses into wins this season. For the moment I am leaving angst over our future prospects to one side. These debates likely aren’t going anywhere for years, and I anticipate more to come with Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore once they get more minutes. For a team that has been competitive in every single one of their games barring the season opener, there is something far more pressing at hand.
The Houston Rockets have the 5th best defense and the 14th best offense, but there is evidence that after adjusting for their relatively easy schedule their offense is more likely in the low 20s. In their 5 losses since the season opener, they lost by an average margin of 5.4 points. I’m someone who believes in looking at your biggest weaknesses and seeing if there are low hanging fruits to gather, and when margins are this tight such a strategy can be especially fruitful. Jalen Green’s performance, not even for his own sake, but for the team’s W/L record, is one of these problem areas. This is not a manifesto to get him to 25/5/5 on good efficiency. This is not an attempt at absolving him from responsibility. If it were I could write a blog post consisting of three sentences: “Please be better. Please learn how to finish at the rim. Please learn how to make corner skip passes”, but this seems like an exercise in futility. Instead, I will be looking at things I think Jalen can do well, and in some cases already does well, and looking at how doing more of it can be beneficial to the Rockets winning games.
The Rockets are 29th in transition offense frequency. I am not sure how this is even possible with the defensive stops and rebounds Houston gets. With their elite defense, even playing slow would surely garner more transition possessions. Unfortunately not. Nobody does this hurt more than Jalen Green. Green came to basketball late in his teenage years and still looks lost in the halfcourt. He has trouble running the pick n roll, has a sloppy handle and little playmaking skills. The one area he is born to thrive in is the part of the game where you can throw most of that other stuff away and lean more on raw, freakish athleticism. He’s faster than anyone else on the court, can leap higher, and is less encumbered with contests at the rim in open court. In transition, he is averaging 1.241 points per possession, which grades out as ‘Very Good’, per Synergy. The problem? Only 12.6% of his possessions come in transition. This is a remarkably small amount. There are 242 NBA players who have played in 6 games or more so far this season. 206 of those 242 play in transition more than Jalen Green does. To put it simply, the Rockets are just not playing in a way that suits their former number 2 pick, at all. It is akin to playing Alperen Sengun as a corner shooter and never giving him the ball in the post. Green’s life would be made easier with more possessions like this.
Even in early offense, sometimes after a made basket, Jalen can push it from the wings. With the defense still setting up and the big man out of the paint – the luxury of Alperen Sengun’s gravity – Jalen can use a move he may have stolen from ex-teammate John Wall, and fake middle before crossing over and unleashing his explosive burst down the baseline to an unprotected rim.
The Rockets are missing lob passers to hit Jalen in transition. VanVleet is not pushing the ball up, Sengun can throw them but doesn't tend to lead fastbreaks as much under Udoka, who wants to limit turnovers, and this was Jae'Sean Tate's latest offering.
At least in this area, Jalen is suffering from no longer playing alongside Kevin Porter Jr, who despite all his other misgivings as a playmaker had a pretty automatic transition alleyoop pass in his repertoire.
Houston does not have the fast-paced ballhandlers to run with Jalen, and that isn’t drastically turning around overnight. They also don't allow many shots at the rim on defense, where misses seem to lead most often to fast breaks. But that does not mean they can't improve. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Ime Udoka pointed out the win against New Orleans as "…how good we can be playing back with pace. When we turned our defense into offense, that was one that, for me, was like, OK, this is who we can really be if we played defense at a great level and get back and run on the other end.” You don’t have to take my word for it, this is what the head coach wants. And what is especially alarming is this is not just a starting lineup issue. Jalen Green lineups are in the 1st percentile of transition frequency. Take Fred VanVleet and Alperen Sengun off and this falls to 0th percentile. This is not just a VanVleet/Sengun playstyle issue. It’s systemic to the whole team. The only hope for significant turnaround is the impending return of Amen Thompson. Thompson threatens to be one of the best transition playmakers in the NBA, getting him back to run second units with players like Tari Eason and one day Cam Whitmore will turbocharge the Rockets bench, with enough defense to get stops and young athletic players to run alongside Jalen in fast breaks.
Finishing at the Rim
It is well known by now that Green is a poor finisher. He shot 55% at the rim last year which was 20th percentile for a guard, and his 56% so far this season reveals no improvement. His saving grace is the foul drawing on shots, which he is in the 94th percentile at, even with what can charitably be called a tough whistle. Ime Udoka cannot make Jalen a better finisher, certainly not now. That has to come from more offseasons in the gym with skills trainers and lots more work in the weight room. If he never figures it out, his role in the NBA will always be severely diminished. However, there are things that can be done to put him in better positions to succeed.
I tracked all of Jalen’s field goal attempts at the rim on drives where he attacked in isolation or with a simple guard/guard screen or ghost screen, and his % at the rim shot up to 64%. This is significantly better than his traditional pick n roll numbers and suggests attacking 1v1 with a more open floor may make things easier for him. Watch the compilation below. Both Aaron Holiday and Jabari Smith are the ‘screeners’, sometimes making contact to force a switch, otherwise ‘ghosting’ and simply running past Green. The object is not to operate a pick n roll, or even a pick n pop, it’s pure matchup hunting to attack a poorer defender either off a switch or in a bad position. It’s when Jalen looks his best.
And in the compilation below we see the force Jalen has when he is attacking downhill with space. He can attack off the catch from the corner or slot position, on kickouts from pick n rolls or postups. He can feed off the gravity the VanVleet/Sengun two-man game has – which opponents are already sending extra help to. Everything just looks so much more fluid when he is attacking full steam ahead in space. Simplify the game. Let him slash, drive into pockets, play off others.
Putting his general woes at the rim to one side, it doesn’t feel unsustainable to say that the twitchy, bursty guard with a 99th percentile first step doesn’t need a screen, and that if you clear out the paint for him he will do better when he gets there. Any screening action should be done to create an advantage. Too often in the NBA it is done out of habit. The Rockets should ask themselves, does Jalen Green need a screen? Does it help him? Does it help the team?
Catch and Shoot
Over his first two seasons Jalen was a poor catch and shoot threat. However, the Rockets still need to feed him open looks to see if he can improve under the watchful eye of new shooting coach Ben Sullivan. So far this season he is shooting 41%, which is by no means elite, but is good. Yet, Green is 144th among qualifying players in catch and shoot attempts, while hitting them at a higher clip than 94 of those 143 above him. This seems like an imbalance. In preseason Ime Udoka said he wanted Jalen more offball, I presumed this would mean less running pick n roll, more roaming around, getting free, hitting shots or driving off the catch. Unfortunately, we have seen no uptick in catch and shoot shots, and he is still taking as many pullups. Now playing off a new point guard and blossoming offensive hub at center, this felt like something that would improve.
Jalen has been moving offball, and getting himself open. However, so much of the Rockets offense is running through the VanVleet/Sengun pick n roll, and most of the scoring is being done by Sengun. This is not a criticism. Sengun is the number 1 scoring option, he is the Rockets best player, and he is putting the ball in the basket efficiently. Would it help Jalen for the duo to pass to him more? Yes. But this is about the team, not one player, and the pick n roll action has been the only thing the offense has been able to rely on so far (along with Dillon Brooks turning into Steph Curry from deep). However, the pick n roll is now number 1 on defensive scouting reports. Teams are sending lots more help into the middle of the floor. Shooters will be open. Sengun can hit shots over traffic and should continue to do so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if an adjustment is made at some point to start kicking out a little more. This is where Fred being one of the smallest players in the NBA is a clear disadvantage. He has been a wonderful addition to the team, but seeing the whole court and throwing skip passes to the slot and corner are clearly not something in his game. Again, this might be something Amen Thompson can bring to 2nd units once he returns.
Whatever Green’s future may be, I strongly believe he can be better than this. I also strongly believe it would help Houston win games right now if he went out and proved that. He takes responsibility for his own performance and development, as well as Ime Udoka - who is pulling Green to one side multiple times a game for teachable moments in a way we haven’t seen with any other player. There are so many areas he needs to improve at in the halfcourt. The defense and rebounding improvements are real and under-credited, but if he can't get better offensively, Houston will eventually find his replacement.
Every game so far this season there seems to be a 5-minute spell where the Rockets simply cannot score. I am not setting a very high bar, I’m not even asking for league average efficiency. When a team is routinely facing half a quarter without a made basket, an injection of microwave scoring can turn losses into wins. This has to be where Jalen makes his mark. Last year he scored 10 points or fewer in just 3.2% of his games. This year it is 33.3%. Last year he scored 25 points or more (while averaging 62% True Shooting, no less) in 40% of games. This year it is 17%. These are alarming stats, and they show what he needs to get back to, before we even begin talking about long-term development. Whether he is destined for stardom or trade, Green should be able to get buckets, right now, in a Rockets jersey. And right now, Houston needs them. Badly.