Rockets GM Rafael Stone is cool, calm and ready for the work in choosing the No. 3 pick

CHICAGO — About an hour before the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery, before the Houston Rockets learned of their No. 3 pick, general manager Rafael Stone stood a few feet in front of the main ballroom entrance at the McCormick Place Convention Center with his son. Elsewhere in the room, dozens of media members, NBA personnel and players fraternized as Stone watched.

The look on his face wasn’t exactly stoic. It certainly wasn’t one of anxiety — not this year, at least. All of the sweating and nerves were his modus operandi leading up to the lottery a year ago, when Houston was actually in a state of flux. Back then, Stone almost had to get the pick right, but before that could happen, he needed a lucky bounce — something the city could look forward to after an emotional breakup with a franchise icon.

Despite the fact that members of the Rockets’ brain trust already were present in Chicago Tuesday, they really hadn’t done that much work on the incoming prospects, at least not compared to the work they will do this week. There had been no formal group sessions yet, so all the scouting and evaluating up until that point had been done individually.

Still, Stone’s demeanor early Tuesday evening exuded confidence. Perhaps it stemmed from the season the Rockets just completed, as rookie Jalen Green took notable strides over the last few months and showed glimpses of being a capable torchbearer. Perhaps it was the notion that this 2023 class, though without a notorious heavy hitter like in years past, still was ripe with quality at the top — and Houston was guaranteed at least a top-five selection.

Whatever it was, Stone didn’t seem the least bit apprehensive.

“I think I’ve probably told you this before: If I have a flaw, it’s probably that I’m always pretty confident,” Stone told The Athletic† “So probably, that was just the status quo. From my perspective, the nice thing about this, there’s a little relief now that we have a specific draft spot. We can do more definitive planning, and the league kind of unlocks a little bit. You can have conversations with other teams. So it’s nice, just in terms of giving you a go-forward. But that was going to happen irrespective of position. I think I was looking forward to that, and it’s nice that has now happened.”

Although he seemed unfazed before the doors opened, Stone’s prior confidence was tested once the actual lottery results came through, courtesy of NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum. New league rules give the worst three teams the same odds of landing the No. 1 pick, but there’s always going to be a certain belief that the team with the worst record will be rewarded on lottery night, no matter how realistic it is now. Crazy things tend to happen every year during this showcase, and this year was no different. Shock and murmurs filled the room as the Detroit Pistons wound up with the No. 5 pick and the Sacramento Kings leapfrogged into the top four.

But the Rockets are confident. They are guaranteed one of the triumvirate of Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith and Paolo Banchero. That’s a fine consolidation prize for finishing the year with a 20-62 record. Even beyond just having the privilege of adding one of those players to the roster, there’s a strong internal belief, one strengthened by a positive finish to the 2021-22 campaign, that Houston’s developmental plan is working.

Green got better. Alperen engün got better. Kevin Porter Jr. got better. Josh Christopher, once projected as a late second-rounder, got better. Even the players who have been on the roster longer — Jae’Sean Tate and Kenyon Martin Jr. — have improved in some areas. Whoever ends up joining the rebuilding revolution will be expected to improve — and should improve, nurtured by a patient head coach in Stephen Silas and a fiery old-schooler in lead assistant John Lucas.

“I think we’re very confident in our player development system and staff,” Stone said. “Of all the areas in the NBA, that’s probably the one I’ve spent the most time in. Maybe I go beyond being very confident, I’m not sure. I think that’s an area of ​​strength for us. So, if we end up picking it, I think we’ll get somebody with a lot of talent. We’ll get somebody with a lot of talent at 17 if we pick that one, as well.

“I do think that we’ll be able to add talent, which is really important, and then we have to develop it. And we have to continue to develop the other guys. We have a ton of very young basketball players, and none of them are ready, none of them are done. It’s about developing them and them getting better.”

Now knowing where they’ll be drafting, the real fun begins. Although Houston missed out on the top pick, some of the pressure that comes with that is now off its shoulders. The Rockets truly can honor in the best-player-available approach.

Because the devil’s advocate exists, there should be some natural hesitation to fill a roster entirely with young players, and with the Rockets potentially adding two more, questions should arise. However, Stone scoffs at that notion, citing the strong chemistry with the group and the fun environment that Silas has cultivated — a young player’s dream.

The real debates will come internally, about which player Houston should select — and how to rank the top prospects. Stone has said in the past that he welcomes debate and a difference of opinion, that it makes the collective group better. Silas will have his opinions, just like basketball operations members Ed Pinckney, Jimmy Paulis and Eli Witus. Chuck Hayes, assistant director of player personnel, also has his beliefs. And if the debate at No. 3 is tough, the one for No. 17 will be infinitely more complex.

The week in Chicago will accomplish a great deal, and clearing up some of that early murkiness is one objective. Stone is looking forward to arguing.

“Part of the process is to make sure that we challenge one another’s assumptions,” Stone said. “It’s probably not a great sign if everybody thinks alike. We’re dealing with human beings, so there is no right answer. We ought to have real differences of opinion about how good people currently are, how good they will eventually become, and I think that’s part of it.”

Essentially, the Rockets want to continue to flesh out their plan for the future. They already have added a top pick and player in Green. They will add another top pick and hopeful top player in this year’s draft. If you’re a betting person, you can go ahead and pencil them in to add another top pick next year. Although winning is a universal reward, Stone has stressed that he is patient and in no rush.

That would imply taking the best player available every time, right? Wrong.

Simply collecting the best player available won’t get the Rockets back to the top. At some point, a team must be built. A roster must be properly constructed.

“You definitely need some of that,” Stone replied. “You can only play five guys, and the league is moving towards less positionality. It’s fine to have players with redundant strengths. I do think it’s hard if they have redundant weaknesses. And players aren’t perfect, you know, so you’re definitely gonna have players with weaknesses. I think that is something that you have to be careful with.”

This is why scouting and evaluating talent is so crucial. Last season, the Rockets’ front office sat in the stands and watched Christopher, a player who wasn’t as heralded as others, separate himself from his peers with his standout effort and two-way showings. Houston had three picks then — and would eventually get its hands on a fourth — but the same approach remains.

Stone often refers to himself as a basketball junkie, which lends a hand to the Rockets’ all-encompassing approach to picking out talent. The interviews hold weight. The body language matters.

“At least for me, personally, there definitely is no method to my madness,” Stone said. “As much information as I can possibly get of any sort, I think is useful for me. You’re just trying to find good basketball players, and I don’t think they come in one size or shape. You’re checking as much out as you can, and you’re watching as much as you can. You’re comparing them to all these people who might make sense. I’m basically just trying to find each and every way I can to try and figure out whether people can be successful.”

Whoever ends up becoming a Rocket on June 23 — be it Holmgren, Smith, Banchero, Jaden Ivey or someone else — he will be joining an upstart team full of bright-eyed players who want to play fast and explosive. Because of the belief in the development, the internal growth is the fulcrum of the rebuild. Bringing young players in to your system and culture is one thing, but taking the next necessary steps and cultivating talent is what gets you out of the NBA slums.

Year 1 saw a ton of losses but also a ton of lessons and growth. From top to bottom, a hands-on approach has been preached ad nauseam. This team will grow as quickly as it allows itself to.

“That’s the thing we’re banking on,” Stone said. “We have a ton more information about the people on our roster than we do the people in our draft. And so we’re optimistic about our future, not because of some unknown player that has not been drafted yet; we’re optimistic about our future because we really like the guys on our roster. We have really good information about their character and their work ethics.

“All the guys talked about, they’re really good for their age already. We have some people who have shown signs that (they) are really good ones. But we’re extraordinarily young, so it’s going to be incumbent upon them to maintain the work ethic that they’ve shown to date. And to really grow their talents in the way other people have in the past so that they can become really good basketball players.”

Photo: Chris Schwegler / NBAE via Getty Images)

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