By KRISTIE RIEKEN
AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Rockets still have a long way to go after finishing with the league’s worst record for the last two seasons as they embarked on a complete rebuild.
This season is likely to be another tough one for this extraordinarily young team, but one of its rising stars issued a guarantee ahead of training camp.
“This year the Houston Rockets will be better than last year,” Jalen Green, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, said Monday. “If we buy and stay together and I think the team will take off.”
These Rockets aren’t banking on winning a lot of games or vying for a playoff spot. What they are focused on is improvement and building toward the future.
General manager Rafael Stone made it clear that this team won’t be one that anyone can take lightly.
“If we are a team that is very hard to play at both ends of the court … I think for a team like us, for a young and up-and-coming team, I think that’s the measure of success,” he said.
The Rockets went 20-62 last season, and just 17 the season before. They aren’t predicted to have a much better record this year, but coach Stephen Silas needs to see growth every time his team takes the court.
“There has to be a level of improvement,” he said. “The team that we see next Sunday against San Antonio and the way that we play is going to be different than the team that we see post-All-Star break. So having some level of patience, obviously. But there has to be steady, marked improving as the season goes on.”
A year after opening the season with four 19-year-olds on the roster, the Rockets will again field one of the youngest teams in the league. Their training camp roster features seven players who are 20 or younger, including three starters in Green and Alperen Sengun — both 20 — and 19-year-old rookie Jabari Smith, Jr., who was the third overall pick in this year’s draft.
Kevin Porter Jr., who at 22 is like a big brother to others, loves the youth on the team.
“Our team is filled with young guys and we’re filled with fire,” he said. “We want to get better and want to be the best. I think that all of us being around the same age and working together is a big part of our chemistry and growth.”
It might take some time for Smith to settle in offensively in the NBA, but the Rockets are convinced he’ll make an immediate impact on defense.
“He is such a gifted defensive player right now … him as a defender is what I’m so, so excited about,” Silas said. “And that’s the thing that I’m going to really hone in on him with because as I said … last year at the end of the season, our defense needs to be better. And he’s a big piece to that.”
Green spent the offseason trying to add some bulk to his slim frame, proudly noting he’s “officially 182 pounds.” The 6-foot-6 guard said he played at just 172 pounds as a rookie, but spent a lot of time in the weight room and hired a personal chef that had him eating four meals a day to beef up.
Smith, meanwhile, believes he might have gotten taller since he was last measured before the draft. Listed as 6-10, Smith said both he and his father, former NBA player Jabari Smith Sr. think he might have added at least an inch.
“I’m really curious to see if I have, but I think I have,” he said. “I feel taller.”
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE
Sengun, who is from Turkey, conducted his interviews in Turkish with a translator during his rookie season. On Monday, he sat down to meet the media and announced that he’d answer questions in English, with his translator there in case he needed a hand.
The center took some classes for a couple of months last year to work on his English, but he said his learning was helped much more by simply practicing with his new friends in Houston.
“I’m not a shy guy,” he said. “I’m always talking, and I can make mistakes. But that’s it doesn’t matter. I don’t care actually.”
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