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Rockets envision being 'best in this league one day'

Houston Chronicle 9/26/2022 Jonathan Feigen, Staff writer
Seemingly ready to shoulder a greater load on Monday's media day, Alperen Sengun goes into his second NBA season as the Rockets' starting center. © Elizabeth Conley, Staff Photographer

Seemingly ready to shoulder a greater load on Monday's media day, Alperen Sengun goes into his second NBA season as the Rockets' starting center.

In a break from the usual media day sessions and proclamations, Rockets guard Jalen Green and Josh Christopher shared a moment to reflect.

A year and one eye-opening NBA season had passed. An understanding of the realities of the NBA had hit home and hit hard. But there also was a clearer sense of what is possible.

“I was just talking to ‘J’ about it,” Christopher said. “When you get to the NBA, it might not be like this for everybody, but you have to really be willing to start over, whether it’s like being a freshman in high school or college. You know, you start over. Whatever you were given in college or high school, however you are being catered to, when you get to the NBA, you must start over and own that.

“So I think when guys do that, it takes pressure off of them. And then they can allow themselves to make mistakes and know that they just have to get better, because the NBA is the best of the best.

“For younger guys, just really own the process and trust it.”

This is where the Rockets have found themselves, where they chose to be.

That sort of conversation was not held with the previous "J" who had been the face of the franchise, as Green is now.

Starting over became part of that process when the Rockets traded James Harden. They sank to the worst record in the NBA in consecutive seasons. But with seven first-round picks in the past two years, with Green displaying rare potential and with similar hopes for this season’s top pick, Jabari Smith Jr., for all that has changed, ambition remains.

“We’re just going to learn, and then we’re going to be (the) best in this league one day,” said Alperen Sengun, who in his second season takes over as the starting center. “I really believe this.”

Until then, the Rockets will not be ready to measure success solely by scoreboards and standings.

The first part of Sengun’s belief, that they will need to "learn," remains the first priority for a team with eight first- or second-year players, nearly all of whom will be in the rotation. Even returning starters Jae’Sean Tate and Kevin Porter Jr. have three seasons of experience, with only 33-year-old, 14-year veteran Eric Gordon considered well past “young.”

When coach Stephen Silas was asked how he balances the goal of developing young players with choosing a mix that would offer the best chance to win, general manager Rafael Stone jumped in to say with the Rockets, those are the same players.

“Our whole team is young,” Stone said. “Other than Eric, our entire team needs (to) and should be improving on a daily basis.”

Stone might have indicated something about the likely Rockets rotation, though nothing will come as a surprise. As Silas pointed out, the Rockets have 14 players with three or fewer seasons of experience. But on a day when every team speaks of its great optimism for the season, he had a broader picture of what success would be.

“We’re going to be super hard to play against on both ends of the floor,” Silas said. “We’re going to use our quickness and athleticism on the offense end, but we’re going to use it on the defensive end as well. There has to be steady, marked improvement as the season goes along.

“It's a fine line to walk for sure. But I believe that if you play in a way that is difficult to play against, then you're building winning habits, right? There are going to be mistakes made. But when it comes to the effort part — as far as being back in transition, sprinting in transition on the offensive end, going to the boards, being a better defensive rebounding team, making multiple efforts on the defensive end — that's not a talent thing. That is a culture thing that we're building, and we have the right guys to do it.”

In those measures, the Rockets did improve last season. They showed that in the final seven games, when the veterans were benched and Green and Porter took off. But the Rockets lost each of those games.

When asked his goals for the season, Green said: “To carry my team to more wins than last year and hopefully get All-Star.”

He showed that potential when he averaged 29.3 points on 47.3 percent shooting and 40 percent 3-point shooting in the final seven games, making 39.3 percent of his 3s from February on. But the Rockets had to like having him refer to “his team” and the responsibility to “carry” it.

He has never shied away from sharing his aspirations. The Rockets’ 20-62 season has not changed them.

Told of Sengun’s “best in the league” prediction, Green said, “That’s a fact.

“We've got a lot of young talent, a lot of guys that want to be a great team,” Green said. “We all have the mentality to do it. Yeah, it’s going to happen sooner than later. The young talent, the young core of the rebuild and where our mindset of where we can be going into the future, I think we can go a long way. We just have to buy in, stay together, and I think the team can take off.”

The realities of the struggle when forced to "start over" have not dimmed that expectation.  

“We’re filled with young guys,” Porter said. “We’re filled with fire. We just want to become better. We want to be the best.”

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