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NBA scouts evaluate potential Rockets’ draft targets, concerns, fit and upside

By the time an NBA team drafts a player Thursday night, understand the amount of work it took to get to that point.

We’re talking about weeks of background operations — in-person scouting, extensive film work, interviews, intel collection and more. And that’s just for one player. The Houston Rockets have the opportunity to take as many as three in the first round, a year after they drafted an unprecedented four.

Taking that many young players in a two-year span sounds crazy at first listen, but when you’re in a rebuild and trying to figure out the pieces that fit, all methods should be exhausted. After all, there’s no one right way to rebuild.

Evaluating talent often is a thankless, tiresome job. It’s one of the few lines of work where everyone remembers when you’re wrong. You’ve often heard that this incoming draft class doesn’t have a clear-cut talent — our Sam Vecenie withheld a Tier 1 grade for any of the top 100 prospects in his latest deep draft guide. But there are still a host of interesting names in this class outside of the Paolo Bancheros and Jabari Smiths of the world. Should the Rockets land their hands on anyone like Tari Eason, Ochai Agbaji or Malaki Branham (or the host of others on their big board), draft night will be considered a success.

The Athletic asked two high-ranking NBA scouts, one from the Eastern Conference and one from the Western Conference, about 10 players on Houston’s board. Here’s what they said:

Ochai Agbaji | 6-5 wing | Kansas | Vecenie’s prospect rank: 19

Agbaji enters Thursday’s draft as one of the older prospects at 22, having spent four seasons at Kansas, but no one can deny his year-over-year growth. Agbaji’s senior season saw career highs across the board, including an eye-popping 40.7 percent from 3. Could his additional experience at the college level help his NBA prospects?

Eastern Conference scout: He’s like a classic example of a guy going back to school, and it works out. I think the consensus last year was if he was to come out, he would have been a mid-first to late-first (round pick). But now, here he is — went back to school and won a championship, and now is in the green room. He has a grown-man body for a college senior, big-time athlete. A lot of wings these days are doing a lot of playmaking and ballhandling. He’ll make some surprising passes. I thought his passing was an area of improvement, and he showed me some flashes this season. I still think he can get better there. If anything’s going to limit him at the next level, it’s going to be his ballhandling. But his role and fit — he’s that classic, 3-and-D type of guy. That was the hot thing a couple of years ago, and it’s still a hard thing to find. But there’s a lot of people under the belief that wings are doing more playmaking these days, and you don’t really need a true point guard. He can make a shot, he’s gonna defend his ass off, and he’s a good athlete. I think his shooting has improved over the years.

Western Conference scout: He’s a 3-and-D wing with very good athleticism. Capable of defending multiple spots on the perimeter. Danny Green type of role. Improved each season and was the best player for the national champions. Limited ballhandling and playmaking skills.

Malaki Branham | 6-5 wing | Ohio State Vecenie’s prospect rank: 21

Branham’s 6-10 wingspan immediately jumps off the page and should serve him well defensively at the next level, even if he has room to improve. He’s a confident scorer and moves well with and without the ball, but how much stock are teams putting in his offense? Branham says all the right things and the Rockets enjoyed his interview, but word from his pro day wasn’t great. Could that hurt him on Thursday? 

Eastern Conference scout (attended Branham’s pro day): I went in and kind of knew nothing about his game, right? His agents, or his workout guys, just had him shooting a ton of 3s, which I don’t know if that’s his strength or not, but he couldn’t make a shot. He was really struggling, I think he got tired because in those situations, it’s just one-on-zero. It’s sometimes good to be out there with another guy or two so they can take some reps from you. You’re the only dude launching shot after shot after shot. His release was really, really low, but everyone said that this really wasn’t a good representation of him. And I just had to take their word for it, because like I said, I hadn’t seen him, and I don’t know much about his game. I think that was just a tough showing for him. But he’s got a body of work of all season to go off, and I don’t think that’s gonna hurt him.

Western Conference scout: Smooth scoring SG (shooting guard). Three-level scorer who has a very efficient offensive package. Came on late this season and became Ohio State’s best player. Ballhandling and playmaking are emerging. Has a chance to be a very good offensive player in this league. Defensively he’s sound, but I think he needs to improve his toughness.

Paolo Banchero | 6-10 forward | Duke Vecenie’s prospect rank: 3

With the size of a big man and the handle of a guard, Banchero’s offensive package has teams salivating. His defense, or lack thereof, has been talked about ad nauseam, but with his ability to score at a high level and facilitate, his pros greatly outweigh his cons. Is Houston the best fit for the 19-year-old?

Eastern Conference scout: He’s the biggest grown-man body that I saw in college this year. I saw him at the ACC Tournament, and he just stood out on the floor. He’s physical. I think he can do a little bit of everything. I don’t really think there’s a glaring weakness in his game, but I also don’t really see a guaranteed strength that he’s gonna bring from Day 1. I think you put him with some of the other talented guys that the Rockets have, and he’s gonna make their jobs easier doing a lot of the little stuff. I thought his passing was really good. And obviously, he’s got the height, size and strength to be pretty versatile. He can play three; I think he could play four. He’d be an interesting piece to throw in the mix there and just kind of tinker with as a coach and say, “Hey, what can we do?” There’s a lot of interesting possibilities with him next to Jalen Green and the other guys they have.

Jaden Ivey | 6-4 guard | Purdue Vecenie’s prospect rank: 4

The explosion is there. So is the swagger and the athleticism. But is he a true point guard? Was he put in the best position at Purdue to develop? And what’s with all the Ja Morant comparisons? Ivey’s allure should make front offices ponder — including Houston’s, even with Kevin Porter Jr. already on the roster.

Eastern Conference scout (on whether Houston should consider taking him at No. 3): We haven’t interviewed him, we haven’t talked to him. But, he’s just different. I think that’s a legitimate thing. I think if they’re locking into Banchero, they should think twice. I mean, I like Banchero too, but (Ivey’s) speed and athleticism just looks so different. You see him flying across the court attacking the rim as fast and physically as he does for his size. You see Ja Morant do that in NBA games, and you see (Ivey) do it in college games. And you think, can he be anything like that? He’s just a different breed of speed, quickness and pop off the floor. He’s definitely worth considering at No. 3, but I’m not sure what their thinking is. I think they lean toward Banchero, but they should consider Ivey, for sure.


Purdue’s Jaden Ivey (Mitchell Leff / USA Today)

Chet Holmgren | 7-0 big | Gonzaga Vecenie’s prospect rank: 1

A true unicorn. Holmgren’s uncanny combination of size, skill and potential gives him just as good of a shot as Jabari Smith to be drafted first overall. Swatting four shots a game and shooting 40 percent from 3 is the sort of upside that teams dream for. But where does his fate ultimately lie? What if the Thunder go in a different direction at No. 2? 

Eastern Conference scout: Definitely have concerns about his body. I don’t know if it’s something worth considering if you’re the Thunder — and I think Chet’s talent level is superior to this guy — but they took (Aleksej) Pokuševski much later than that. I’ve never seen a body like (Holmgren’s) in person. When I saw him live, I was just like wow, this guy’s years away. And I think if OKC has issues about Poku … I just wonder if Poku’s body has them leaning away from Chet. You don’t pass on Chet because of Poku, but I’m just talking about the physical attributes and how long they think it would take him. There’s been success stories, too, about guys like (Kristaps) Porziņģis, guys with slight frames, very skinny legs, and it works out fine. But I think he’s an interesting fit. I think obviously, for the Rockets, you don’t worry about fit. That’s my personal take. You don’t pass on Chet because you have (Alperen) Şengün. You take the most talented guy, and you figure it out. That should be their approach. So, I don’t know what they would think there. I think they would take Chet if he was at No. 3 over Banchero and Ivey.

Keegan Murray | 6-8 forward | Iowa Vecenie’s prospect rank: 8

Outside of Smith, there might not be a more trustworthy, ready-now prospect than Murray. He’s going to stay within his skill set at the NBA level, play a smart, efficient brand of basketball and compete. Defensively, he’s shown flashes of versatility, although there still is room to grow there with technique and timing. Murray’s 3-point percentage jumped an incredible 10 percent by his second season at Iowa (39.8 percent). Murray has all the tools; should Houston play it safe? 

Eastern Conference scout: I saw (Murray’s) games and obviously watched the Big Ten Tournament leading up to the end of this season. He might be the safest pick. I think Jabari (Smith) is really safe, obviously, but I think Murray is a guy you take and you know what you’re gonna get from Day 1. Rock-solid approach. Like, he’s already a pro. He’s a very low-risk type of prospect. I think his floor is really high. He might not have as much upside as some of these other guys, and that’s probably why he doesn’t go as high as these other guys. I think if you take him, you’re really happy. And whoever’s coaching that team is going to be really happy, because you just know he’s going to be ready to contribute pretty early on. You’re just going to know what you’re gonna get game in and game out with him.

Shaedon Sharpe | 6-5 wing | Kentucky Vecenie’s prospect rank: 9

The mystery man. It’s so difficult to judge Sharpe because of the lack of games and film. When you watch him, though, it’s hard to take your eyes off; his athleticism is next-level. Some have dared to utter comparisons as elite as Tracy McGrady; others are a bit more skeptical. What exactly can Sharpe do? Is he ready for professional basketball, and who’s going to take him? 

Eastern Conference scout: I saw his pro day. I mean, he might be the best athlete (in the draft). His athleticism is crazy, and he shot it really well at his pro day. You look at him and say, man, he’s got this kind of size, and he’s got this kind of balance, and he can shoot it, too? He really showed out at his pro day, and it helped him. He showed how much talent he has, so it makes sense that he’s in the lottery mix, if he’s not top 10. It’s crazy that if there’s ever an example of Kentucky helping a player … like he didn’t even play, but I think the fact that he went to Kentucky still makes front offices and executives think he was talented enough, (John) Calipari liked him. I bet you he’s gonna be a pretty good pro because most of their guys are pretty good pros. I think that it helps a guy like him, too.

Tari Eason | 6-8 forward | LSU Vecenie’s prospect rank: 13

At the draft combine, Eason eluded confidence in his ability to defend multiple positions, and the tape checks out. His 7-2 wingspan is no joke. The questions about Eason lie more in his offensive capabilities — his half-court IQ included. Sometimes suffers from tunnel vision. He has All-Defense in his future with the right development, but will his penchant for forcing the issue cause him to drop on draft night? Is Houston a good spot for him?

Western Conference scout: Impactful defender who can defend all over the floor. Good length and strength even though he has a slender frame. Improved perimeter jump shooter. Good finisher. While he’s improved as a decision-maker, it still can be questionable at times.

TyTy Washington | 6-3 guard | Kentucky Vecenie’s prospect rank: 14

Washington experienced both sides of the Kentucky effect. He wasn’t placed on the ball as a primary creator, telling reporters during the combine that John Calipari preferred to use him as a scorer. But Washington can make all the basic reads and a decent number of high-level ones. Pre-injury and post-injury Washington are two very different players, but front offices will be banking on the latter showing up. His toughness will carry him. Does Houston need another point guard, an actual point guard? 

Western Conference scout: Versatile offensive player who can play on or off the ball. He really doesn’t have a hole offensively outside of a lack of elite athleticism. Smart player who wasn’t afforded to show his entire arsenal due to sharing playmaking responsibilities. Defensively, he is sound and should be fine defending his yard. I wish he were a better athlete.

MarJon Beauchamp | 6-6 wing | G League Ignite Vecenie’s prospect rank: 28

When you talk about people who got where they are by pulling up their bootstraps, Beauchamp is the epitome of that. His defense is aggressive and powerful, able to switch between assignments seamlessly. Offensively, he’s powerful and can score at all three levels. He might be a bit more advanced offensively — or, at least, more confident with the ball in his hands — than some of Houston’s wings right now. The outside shooting wasn’t great at Ignite, but are the Rockets willing to look past that?

Western Conference scout: Lively defensive wing. He has ideal length and athleticism to guard on the perimeter. Improved his shooting as the season progressed. Currently a better slasher/driver than shooter. Shooting will be the swing skill for him, in my opinion. He has limited ball skills and needs to be paired with a playmaker.

(Top photo of Ochai Agbaji:  Robert Deutsch / USA Today)

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