Last July, the Houston Rockets and general manager Rafael Stone opted to use the No. 23 overall selection on Usman Garuba. A 19-year-old power forward listed at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, many scouts saw Garuba having the potential to become a high-level defender in the NBA.
Prior to any US experience, Garuba had developed a reputation as a phenomenal defensive prospect with Spain’s Real Madrid. He averaged only 3.1 shot attempts per game during 38 Euro League games but flashed plenty of athletic potential to justify a dice roll from Houston.
The hope was that Garuba’s 7-foot-3 wingspan could eventually transform into a doable offensive player and elite defender for head coach Stephen Silas, with potential to grow into more on offense.
Not that much is needed from Garuba on that side of the court, since fellow rookies Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun were drafted before him in the 2021 first round to address that part of the equation.
To no surprise, the Rockets’ developmental project played like a project during the 2021 campaign. Garuba saw action in 24 games last season, drawing two total starts while averaging 2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 0.4 steals and 0.5 blocks in 10 minutes per game. He had good defensive numbers on a per-36-minute basis and room for improvement on offense.
The only way forward now for Garuba likely lays in finding his way onto the court for more minutes. The learning curve for young players in today’s NBA, especially with how young they enter the league, requires that they are exposed to the level of physicality and competition that far outpaces their previous level of competition. However, the current frontcourt makes for somewhat of an odd situation in Houston.
At the moment, Christian Wood is planted as an automatic starter and high-volume player, either at power forward or center. Fellow second-year player Alperen Sengun flashed immensely on the offensive side of the ball last year and is expected to see more minutes in 2022-23. Jae’Sean Tate has become a staple of the rotation and has a skillset that closely resembles what Garuba currently offers, albeit with less height.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Rockets are set to pick No. 3 overall in next week’s 2022 NBA draft. Their projected selection, Paolo Banchero, is a 6-foot-10 forward who, despite his gifts from the perimeter, likely projects to play the power forward position in the NBA.
Altogether, this creates an interesting dilemma for Houston. How do they free up minutes for Garuba, who was drafted in the first round less than a year ago? He he will almost certainly need more than 10 minutes per game nex season, if the Rockets want to watch his game evolve.
One strategy they could adopt is just committing more minutes to Garuba. However, it’s unclear how well this would go over with the team.
Silas has said they want to improve defensively, and Garuba would certainly help on that end. The Rockets are likely to be amongst the NBA’s worst teams again in 2022-23, and it would certainly be no harm to allow Garuba to take his lumps and see if he can slowly develop into the Rockets’ own version of Robert Williams in Boston.
However, this might not sit well with the team. Would an established veteran Christian Wood accept a reduced capacity role between the onboarding of Banchero and a further emphasis on Garuba?
Another possible avenue could arrive via trade.
Houston could look to move Tate, who has only played two NBA seasons but will be 27 years old by the time next season begins.
Garuba could be asked to contribute defensively and shoulder a very small scoring load in a similiar capacity to Tate. The downside here, of course, comes in trading a player who started 77 games last season and still has room to improve. Their hope for improvement on Tate’s jump shot and his good chemistry with Green and Kevin Porter Jr. could dissuade the front office from moving forward on that path.
As frequently speculated, Houston could also try to trade Wood. This would open up a large vacuum for frontcourt minutes and allow the scoring burden to transition onto Green, Sengun, Porter Jr., and likely Banchero. The question with Wood involves finding the right trade partner. He’s a very talented player that the front office openly admires. As such, they need the right return to move on from their starting center, who led the Rockets in scoring and rebounding last season.
It’s also possible that Houston is content to let Garuba keep developing in the NBA G League and potentially involve him in future years, although the 20-year-old likely has higher goals in 2022-23 than that.
Regardless, his unique skillset and potential offerings on the defensive side of the ball are such that Houston will have to think long and hard about what to do with the Spanish forward entering next season. Their selection at No. 17 overall and any trades that happen between now and November will likely give fans a strong insight as to those potential plans.