After drafting prized rookie prospect Jabari Smith Jr., minutes at power forward are suddenly much harder to come by in Houston. That’s why KJ Martin and the Rockets are working on a plan for him to play more at small forward in the upcoming 2022-23 season.
Now 21 years old, Martin was productive over his first two seasons in Houston, averaging 9.0 points (52.4% FG, 36.0% on 3-pointers) and 4.3 rebounds in 22.0 minutes per game. But between the recent first-round selections of Smith and Tari Eason (2022) and Usman Garuba (2021), the landscape for frontcourt minutes has changed relative to when Martin was drafted in the 2020 second round.
At 6-foot-7, 216 pounds, Martin has the agility and athleticism to play more on the perimeter, if needed. While some have questioned his shooting form, a 36.0% clip on 3-pointers should be a sufficient number for floor-spacing purposes, as long as it can be sustained.
“He’s a really good on-ball defender,” assistant coach John Lucas said of Martin after Tuesday’s practice (via Jackson Gatlin). “He does a lot of positive things. With his athleticism, and we are pretty small there, we can switch and do multiple things with him.”
Lucas led Tuesday’s practice since head coach Stephen Silas is currently absent due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Because of Houston’s switching scheme under Silas, Martin feels confident in his ability to play and defend on the perimeter.
“From my first year to now, there’s been a lot of switching defense, so my perimeter defense had to be there,” Martin told reporters. “Obviously, you have to guard on the wing.”
It’s not as if Martin is guaranteed significant minutes at small forward. The Rockets are expected to start veteran Eric Gordon there, and Jae’Sean Tate and Garrison Mathews are viable options, as well. But organizationally, Houston doesn’t have as much invested in their development relative to a trio of very recent first-round picks.
Thus, in what is expected to be another rebuilding season, Martin’s most realistic path to minutes is at small forward. After an offseason in which Martin reportedly was open to a trade due to the minutes crunch, he now appears content to make the most of this situation.
“It’s all basketball at the end of the day,” Martin said. “I go out and try to do as much as I can on offense and defense. Whatever Coach (Silas) needs me to do, I go out and try to do it.”
Martin and the Rockets continue their preseason slate when Toronto visits Toyota Center on Friday. Tipoff is at 7:00 p.m. Central.