How Rockets’ Jalen Green turned third-year struggles into the best month of his career

HOUSTON — In an empty Toyota Center, Jalen Green has found calm during his struggles.

The same arena where despite all of his efforts, consistency has evaded him.

The arena where his in-game difficulties resulted in being benched and forced to watch his teammates play without him.

There is peace under the noise for the 22-year-old. Here he can have honest conversations with Mike Hill, his friend, fellow Fresnan and longtime trainer. There are no distractions — such as those found in the negativity of his social media — allowed. Just Green,  the basketball and Mike’s helping hand.

For all the optimism and excitement that preceded the year, inconsistencies had plagued his third season. The bright spots always brought joy, such as the impressive performances in blowout wins over the Kings, Nuggets and Lakers earlier in the year. It showed signs of a player coming into his own and ready for the next steps.

But the other side was present, too. Low-scoring games were becoming more than an anomaly. In December there were two consecutive benchings in the fourth quarter, with one coming after one of his worst games as a pro, scoring five points in 20 minutes in a loss to Indiana. The benchings had become more frequent in the last few months. For most of February, Green averaged 14 points per game, eerily similar to his rookie season.

Green had several discussions with head coach Ime Udoka and Fred VanVleet, his backcourt running mate, trying to work through his struggles but his talks with Hill, who has worked with Green for nearly a decade, were different.

“Just comfortability,” Hill said. “We’ve been in the gym together for a long time. Countless number of workouts together.”

Hill had been with him during his first two seasons playing under former coach Stephen Silas who had given Green the green light to play through everything. Adjusting to Udoka’s opposite mindset is an continual process for Green, who also had to adjust to the arrival of VanVleet and the emergence of starting center Alperen Şengün.

The perspective Hill gave Green during his low moments was crucial. Hill reminded Green that it had been years since he had played alongside a true point guard, Jarrett Jack back with the G League Ignite. It was unlike his tandem with Kevin Porter Jr. where Houston’s half-court offense boiled down to your turn, my turn. Instead, VanVleet would pass up an opportunity to get Green a good shot for a great one somewhere else. This is what Green needed to understand.

So, Hill knew what Green needed to break out of his slump. He needed to simplify his approach, everywhere. Getting reps up multiple times a day — before and after games — allowed him to see the ball go through the net repeatedly. If Green had any uneasiness, he would find his way back to the court to get more shots up.

“Super important,” Green told The Athletic of the practice. “Get in the gym, getting up shots in the morning, being in the gym when we don’t have practice. Just staying true to the gym. That’s the main reason your confidence is built up, because you’re aware that you put in the work.”

Aside from the mechanics of his game, Green needed to rewire his brain and slow the game down. In what has become a daily routine, Hill breaks down game film to give Green a compressed scouting report. On game day around 4:30 p.m., while Green is getting stretched, Hill sends 20-25 clips — showing Green’s last game, his upcoming opponent and how other teams fared against them. This allows Green to digest the opposing team’s schematics on both ends and areas where he can be effective, as well as re-examining his performance from the previous game. On Tuesday afternoon before Houston’s game in Minnesota, Hill illustrated how Cade Cunningham was able to score 32 points on the league’s top defense by consistently attacking the middle of the floor.

The more Green studied the game, the easier he was able to grasp where his struggles were coming from and more importantly, how to avoid them.

“Overthinking,” Hill said. “Not knowing where to get his shots at different spots. Comfortability on the court. Him trying to switch to what’s going on with the team instead of just him.”

It’s taken time for Jalen Green to adapt to new coach Ime Udoka’s mindset. (Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

By late February, Houston looked as if their playoff vision was a mirage, having lost three out of four games coming out of the All-Star break with a record of 25-33. Green’s showings against New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Phoenix had been subpar as well, averaging 11 points over the past five games.

The Rockets’ next two games, a rare pair of road stops against the Suns, provided a sink-or-swim moment, not just for the team but potentially for Green’s confidence.

Phoenix, despite its star power in Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, was beatable. Green historically had played well against Booker, drawing motivation from the ninth-year veteran as the gold standard for shooting guards. And during film sessions with Hill, Green knew where and when he could attack the Suns’ defense, lacking quality ball stoppers outside of the sparingly-used Josh Okogie. He also was able to rewatch his last game against them, scoring 11 points in the first half before fading, and was urged to not take his foot off the gas, even for a second.

Over the next two games, Green looked more aware, more confident, and more aggressive. He picked his spots, took what the defense gave him and his teammates seemed to follow his lead. Houston would leave Phoenix with a split, but Green’s game looked improved. He scored 68 points over those two games, to go along with 13 3s, 14 rebounds, six assists and five steals. Green had never amassed totals like that in consecutive games.

“I think it was just an aggressive game,” Green said. “So that was really it. I’ve been sitting here, learning a lot, and I think it just clicked. The aggressiveness, playing defense, hunting shots and just being aggressive overall. I think it just all clicked together.”

By the time the Rockets flew home, Green’s mentality had shifted, not only with the words he spoke, constantly emphasizing the importance of defense and impacting other areas on the floor but also by his actions. Crashing the Western Conference playoff party still seemed like a distant reality after the .500 road trip but Green was quickly establishing himself as a leader.

Houston’s next road trip through Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio, saw Green continue to assert himself, even if two of the games saw him finish with 16 and 19 points. Defensively, he looked different, chasing ball handlers, protecting the paint and crashing the boards. Making or missing jumpers separates a lot of players in this league, but Green wasn’t going to let that be the reason he was on the bench. He was going to apply himself anywhere he could to make it impossible for Udoka not to play him. The Rockets won all three games.

Green has reduced his reliance on isolation play and increased his output in other areas on the floor. He continues to trend upwards as a ball handler, improving from the 44th percentile as a rookie to the 62nd this season, scoring .900 points per possession in pick-and-roll scenarios per Synergy. In transition, Green remains a force, scoring an impressive 1.187 points per possession, 65th percentile among players. It’s no surprise that Houston’s half-court offensive efficiency is nearly six points better with Green on the floor, placing him in the 91st percentile according to Cleaning the Glass.

“I want to stay on the floor,” Green said. “I want to be part of the reason why we’re winning the game and how we’re doing it collectively, together as a group. I feel like defense has always been something I was good at. But once I got to the NBA, a lot of people knocked that, saying I’m not a defensive player. It’s really just proving everyone wrong.”

In the final days of March, with the Rockets riding a nine-game winning streak, Green’s rise was given its biggest test to date.

At this point, Green was the focal point of opponents’ scouting reports. Şengün had suffered a Grade 3 right ankle sprain two weeks prior, causing Udoka to move Jabari Smith Jr. to center, inserting rookie Amen Thompson into the starting lineup and pivoting to small ball.

Without Şengün’s low-post scoring and presence as an offensive hub, the Rockets had to find points elsewhere. With an increased emphasis on pace and space, the two areas that suited Green’s style and that he had campaigned for, Green suddenly looked unstoppable with the ball in his hands. Driving lanes opened up, giving Green even more outlets to punish opposing teams that were caught off-guard. Houston’s game sped up, shooting up the pace rankings while Green’s internal clock slowed down.

As a rookie, he would occasionally get flustered when defenders would dare him to beat them with his outside jumper, aware of his athleticism and driving ability. (Green improved as a finisher, going from converting 55 percent of his shots in the restricted area last season to an impressive 71.6 of them in March, per tracking data.) With his game in a rhythm now and able to dictate things, he was in punish mode. It would almost surprise Green that a defender would dare him to shoot, with his pull-up jumper an efficient tool.

“Sometimes it catches me off guard,” Green said. “It’s really just taking what the defense gives me. Being confident and knocking the shot down.”

A March 27 trip to Oklahoma City, however, was a tricky fixture, even without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — especially in a rambunctious environment and a top-10 defense under coach Mark Daigneault. Houston was building momentum in their bid to catch either the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Lakers but had little to no margin for a slip-up.

The Thunder put defender Lu Dort on Green to start things off, hoping his combination of aggressiveness and IQ would throw Green off his game and initially it did — with Green missing four out of his five looks in the first quarter to go along with a turnover. Oklahoma City had several tricks, sending late pressure at Green when he would turn the corner, switching to a zone matchup and toggling through other approaches.

As the game continued and Green understood the mistakes the Thunder defenders were trying to get him to make, he adjusted his reads. Like the other games in March where his talent broke through, Green slowly began to break Oklahoma City down. In the third quarter, Green torched the defense, scoring 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting (four 3s made). Even when the Thunder threatened to pull away in the final frame, Green refused to let go. In what was undoubtedly one of the biggest games of his young career, Green looked every part a star.

Down the stretch, the Rockets trusted him with the ball, much to the chagrin of the home crowd. An arena known for its high volume was suddenly muted as Green dazzled, finishing the game with an efficient 37 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block in an overtime win, having played 46 minutes. He was in the zone.

“When you’re in that mode, it’s different,” Green said. “You see the floor differently, you make reads differently, just a different type of confidence.”

“Man, it feels good,” he added. “Especially knowing that my teammates believe in me to do that and hope that I can do that. I put in the work over time, over the years to get to a point where you can trust me in crunch time. Obviously I’ve had to learn a lot of things to grow, I had some habits and stuff, but that’s what I work for. I want to be one of those guys that you give the ball to in crunch time.”

More than anything, Green wants to get to the playoffs.

The Rockets are still within striking distance, despite having lost two straight to Dallas and Minnesota, all while the Warriors have put together a five-game winning streak. The 38-37 Rockets find themselves three games back of the final Play-In spot. Even with Golden State playing in Houston on Thursday, the Rockets’ playoff hopes continue to dwindle with every Warriors win.

But even if this team fails to make the postseason, it shouldn’t be seen as a letdown. Houston is two wins away from 40 wins, an 18-win jump from last season.

“The main goal is to make the playoffs,” Green said. “Either way it goes, growth is growth. We’ve gotten better as a team and we have the tools to do it.”

For the Rockets to be on the cusp of a winning season is a step in the right direction, considering where the organization was just a few years ago.

“The aggressiveness and confidence is obviously up and that’s due to making shots and reading defenses better,” Udoka said last week. “With Alperen being out, the ball is in (Green’s) hands more and he’s getting more opportunity there. When you’re in that rhythm, and he’s shooting it as well and attacking as well as he is, he’s going to have the ball more.”

Green has certainly had hot months before, but never like this, being a positive presence on both ends of the floor and establishing himself as a dominant force.

“I’m just very happy for him,” general manager Rafael Stone said. “He has put in the work and he’s starting to really see the results. He’s helping the team, the team is believing in him, trusting him and in a virtuous circle there. But also all the work he put in at a time when there was pressure on him and it was tough on him. He kept grinding without making excuses.

“It’s not the end of the journey for him. He’s got a ton of growth yet still to come and he knows that. But I’m happy he’s getting such positive feedback right now.”

(Illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: Tim Warner / Getty Images)

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