Jalen Green and Cam Whitmore are the Rockets duo waiting on the wings: The IkoSystem

PHOENIX — About 40 minutes had passed since the Rockets lost a wire-to-wire contest to the Suns, but Cam Whitmore remained in his uniform, seated at his locker with both of his feet in a bucket of ice.

The fiery rookie, who got into an altercation with Suns star Devin Booker midway through the fourth quarter — his second of sorts in less than a week — was still full of energy, attempting to decompress. Seated next to him was third-year guard Jalen Green, already showered, dressed and ready for the team bus.

Green, who had scored 34 points that evening in something of a breakthrough performance, has adopted a “next game” mentality since entering the NBA. Never succumb to the lows, never exaggerate the highs. Green conveyed that through his tone and body language in a conversation with Whitmore, reassuring and almost nurturing the 19-year-old.

It’s important,” Green told The Athletic about his responsibility to help his rookie teammate. “I was just in his shoes two years ago. This is my third year. I’m starting to get to that point where I’m looked at as someone who’s been in the league for a little bit, someone who’s respected and learn from. The good, the bad, the ugly. Super important.”

The fact their lockers were beside one another was a deviation from the norm.

In Houston, Green’s station is located at the far end of the locker room closest to the shower entrance, adjacent to veteran point guard Fred VanVleet’s. Whitmore’s is more centralized, grouped with Tari Eason’s and Dillon Brooks’. That layout is intentional at home, and even on the road, Green and Whitmore aren’t typically locker mates.

But part of the Rockets’ wacky post-All-Star break schedule involved two consecutive games against the Suns, meaning four straight days spent in Phoenix. Such an oddity afforded Green and Whitmore more time together. Much like their chemistry on and off the floor, their relationship has been a pleasant surprise.

It first blossomed at the Thomas & Mack Center last July during summer league, when Green showed up to watch the Rockets play. He originally had retreated to the locker room looking for Jabari Smith Jr., his teammate and second-year forward who had decided to play in Vegas. But once Green was back there, he got the opportunity to meet Whitmore for the first time. There could have been some apprehension or anxiety on either side, since they play the same position. But nothing was forced or out of place. It just felt natural.

It was good energy, good vibes,” Green said.  

Their backgrounds are different — Green was raised in Fresno, Calif. and Whitmore an East Coast kid hailing from Odenton, Md. But their similarities are clear: Young, talented athletic players who could jump out of the gym. For each, it was like seeing a mirror image.

It was nothing but love,” Whitmore said. “We just clicked. We’re boys in general when we play basketball, so the chemistry off the court is always there.”

On the court, the Green-Whitmore combination is one head coach Ime Udoka has flirted with, but hasn’t committed to a full-fledged relationship. Considering the Rockets’ offensive woes this season — they’ve been a bottom-10 unit for most of the season and rank 28th in points scored per 100 possessions since the All-Star break — there’s an opportunity to experiment with the duo, especially since Houston’s dreams of making the Play-In Tournament are all but vanquished at this point. (The Rockets entered Friday six games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 10 seed with just 20 games left in the season.)

“They complement each other well, being two wings that attack and are aggressive,” Udoka said. “When they’re both rolling on the wings and guarding at a higher clip, we like to see what they’re doing together. Two dynamic scorers, and we’ve taken a look at that.”

You could attribute the Rockets’ offensive woes to several factors — the gradual implementation of a new system, a lack of practice time, roster construction, poor shooting — but the overarching theme is a considerable amount of untapped potential to explore outside of the VanVleet-Alperen Şengün two-man game.

In Green and Whitmore, the Rockets have, at worst, a pair of 99th percentile athletes who can score at all three levels. Houston’s season hasn’t gone as it’d hoped, but both young wings’ dynamism has led to positive trickle-down effects at various points. They comprise a duo that can change games individually for an offense constantly looking for a spark. Why not play them more together?

We’re one of the best athletes on the team and can arguably be the best in the NBA,” Whitmore said. “When you add two and two together, and at that height, it should be unstoppable in transition. It should work in the long run.”

For what it’s worth, both Green and Whitmore understand their potential. It’s not a topic that dominates daily conversations, although Green has spoken to Whitmore and fellow rookie Amen Thompson about maximizing their deadly combination of size, speed, power and talent, especially in the open court. Udoka, despite using a starting lineup featuring players not known for their speed, has pressed the issue of upping the tempo. Since the All-Star break, the Rockets have registered 102.7 possessions a night, fourth-most in the league.

Pace isn’t a catch-all metric and there are different lenses through which coaches view it — Udoka not only looks at how fast his team gets up the floor, but also how quickly it gets into sets and actions in halfcourt situations — but data suggests the Rockets need to run more. Per Cleaning the Glass, Houston is 23rd in transition frequency and 15th in points per possession in those situations. When their aggressive defense presents them with steals, they turn those into transition opportunities at the third-highest rate in the league and score 1.6 points per possession on such plays, which ranks ninth.

There are other areas where the Rockets need to clean up their offensive profile; their scoring efficiency off live rebounds and made shots ranks just 18th and 24th, respectively, according to InPredictable. But playing Green and Whitmore more together should be in the cards, if for no other reason than to collect more data between now and the end of the regular season. It would be one thing if their skill sets were redundant and led to inefficient offense, but it’s been the opposite so far. In 183 minutes, the Rockets outscore opponents by an average of 7.3 points per 100 possessions when both Green and Whitmore are on the floor. It makes you think.

Putting a body in front of one of these athletes is already a challenge in the half court. Try doing that on the open floor when one is running at you. Now, try both at the same time. There’s a reason why both Green and Whitmore encourage running so much: It’s their forte and can be tricky to defend on the back foot.

The benefit of having multiple athletic tools is you can create advantageous situations in more than one way. Everything doesn’t have to be a straight-line slam. Where Whitmore possesses power and force, Green is slithery and wiry. They possess a blend of attributes that gives defenders headaches when used properly. Both are capable of finishing plays consistently.

You got us on the team and we’re considered the most athletic in the league,” Green said. “Running, jumping, stuff like that. So when we’re out there, a lot of teams can’t really keep up with that. We just play to our advantages when we can — rebounding, playing defense and getting stops, that’s when we get out and run.”

As deadly as Green and Whitmore might be in transition, they can be just as effective in the half court by leveraging their skill sets. Green is a decent ball handler and has improved considerably with his reads when the ball is in his hands. A possession like this puts everything to use — Green’s gravity, Whitmore’s spacing, and in instances like this, improved decision-making. As an aside, both young wings are combining for a tidy 3.14 assist-to-turnover ratio when the ball is in their hands. VanVleet should knock this look down.

If I’m on the wing, I’m either going to have a drive or a drive-and-kick,” Green said. “(Whitmore’s) a crazy shooter, you’re going to have to respect his shot and get out there. You can’t really help off him too much.”

The easiest and clearest way for both wings to earn more minutes together under Udoka won’t involve scoring, but how much they impact the game defensively. Because of Whitmore’s size, Udoka likes to move him around the floor and have him match up with small forwards and power forwards. Green’s frame reduces the number of positions he can reasonably defend, but because of his verticality and quickness, there are situations he can take advantage of when he’s fully engaged on that end of the floor. Since play resumed, in 41 minutes together, Green and Whitmore are a whopping plus-28.3 with a stingy defensive rating of 101.1, per NBA.com tracking data. That sort of information is difficult to ignore, especially contextualized with a coach who loves defensive intensity and a system that has progressed since last season.

“If the scoring is there — they’re two of our best wing scorers — the main thing which has been the case with them has been the defensive intensity and focus,” Udoka said. “When they’re locked in and doing it well, they bring different skill sets. Cam is a big body that can duplicate some of the things that Dillon (Brooks) does. If Jalen’s locked in, not only on his matchup, but the help side and being in the proper rotations, their scoring is an added bonus. Really trying to help them improve on the defensive end and not be labeled as offensive only guys.”

Of course, with any young pairing, there are areas for improvement. Both Green and Whitmore are far from finished products, and because they’ve spent less time together than other young perimeter duos leaguewide, some offensive possessions can get clunky and their defensive intensity may wane.

Watch both Green and Whitmore express confusion here at the designated set, looking at Udoka for clarification before reverting to a VanVleet-Şengün action.

Nevertheless, the Green-Whitmore pairing wants and deserves more court time together. Whitmore credits the amount of reps he gets with the coaching staff and the 1-on-5 sessions to work through reads that translate to game action. Similarly, Green has simplified his game recently which has allowed him to grow individually. Development doesn’t always progress in a straight upward trajectory, and because of all the changes the Rockets have gone through this past offseason, the idea of a Green-Whitmore tandem on the wings might not have been that high. But they know the level it can reach — and others do, too.

“T-Mac and Vince Carter when they got to Toronto,” Clippers head coach Ty Lue told The Athletic. “It reminds me a lot of those two guys. Two very athletic guys understanding how to figure it out how to play with one another. Kind of the same duo over here in Houston.”

Green and Whitmore can see it, too.

 “The chemistry is there,” Whitmore said. “It’s the off-the-court stuff that makes us close. Once you have that, it translates to on the court.”

(Photo: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

First appeared on theathletic.com

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