Jalen Green’s defensive improvement is more than just hot streak: The IkoSystem

By now, most NBA observers are hip to the ongoing Jalen Green renaissance in Houston — the monthlong transformation from a talented scorer searching for consistency into a bonafide offensive force. He’s strung together some All-NBA-worthy performances that have vaulted the 22-year-old guard into “legitimate star” conversations and kept the Rockets’ playoff hopes alive.

“He’s been on a tear,” Jazz guard Colin Sexton said following Saturday’s 147-119 loss to the Rockets. “He’s coming into his own. He had a few ups and downs but you can tell Fred (VanVleet) is doing a great job mentoring and helping him out. Just keeping the game simple.”

(While we’re here, the notion Green does this every year is a bit misleading. He’s had hot scoring months in the past, including April 2022, when he averaged 28.6 points over the final five games of his rookie season. But Houston lost all of those contests. What we’re seeing now are well-rounded two-way performances that are impacting winning, with the Rockets a 10-1 in March.)

With social media and #NBATwitter prevalent in today’s game, it’s easy to get swept up in eye-catching content, and Green’s highlights this month certainly fit the bill — Steph Curry-esque triples, poster dunks and a nice array of handles putting defenders on their behinds.

But his offensive package isn’t the only aspect of his game that has improved. Defensively, Green has grown considerably from his rookie season, both as an individual and team defender. And that might be more impressive than the offensive stats he’s accumulated recently — and more important for his future.

When Green first entered the league, the defensive leash he was afforded was substantial. His inexperience coupled with his wiry frame presented a difficult challenge, but then-head coach Stephen Silas understood the season’s objectives: get Green minutes, even through the mistakes. The Rockets were the worst team in the league but Green’s three-level scoring ability at least gave them a floor to work with, even if the overall efficiency was less than desired.

By the time Ime Udoka was hired as head coach and Houston reshaped its roster, it was made clear that whatever prior leeway Green had been given was no more. Mistakes, or a series of them, are an easy one-way ticket to the bench. Just take a look at the Rockets’ bench the next time Udoka gets angry in-game and jumps to call a timeout.

Surrounding Green and starting center Alperen Şengün with respected defenders such as VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, along with Udoka, is the sort of product-of-your-environment approach that might be understated in team and player development. If you’re constantly around successful individuals, chances are you’ll pick up on things they do and apply them to your own life. You want to turn a negative defender into a positive? Put him in a locker room with folks who take defense seriously.

During Green’s scoring slump, the young guard searched for ways to ensure he stayed on the floor even if his shot wasn’t falling. Naturally, the answer came on the other end of the floor. Since the calendar flipped to March, Green has led the team in net rating, a whopping plus-17.8, but his defensive rating of 110.8 is nothing to scoff at either. (For the season, that figure is 113.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.) It’s on par with notable defenders on the roster such as Brooks (109.2) and Amen Thompson (108.1).

Typically, individual defensive ratings can be misleading and require more context to grasp a player’s capabilities on that side of the floor, but in Green’s case, the eye test — and more importantly, the Udoka test — match.

“Other than a lot of film work, and that’s with the team and individually, the main thing is accountability,” Udoka said recently. “You don’t like seeing mistakes over and over on film, you’re going to improve in those areas. A little bit of that as well as the other guys that do it naturally — Dillon, Fred and our group in general — seeing where we’re ranked and try not to have any weak links. You don’t want to be that guy, so he’s improved in those areas. The competitiveness is there and less mistakes in the rotations, schemes and coverages.”

When opponents do their homework on the Rockets, Green is perceived as the target. He might not shake that thought process for a while. So understandably, when teams are faced with late-clock scenarios against a Rockets switch-heavy scheme, teams will hunt for mismatches.

That’s exactly what Houston wants you to do. Green is allowing just .840 points per isolation possession, good for the 70th percentile — a better mark than Timberwolves ball-stopper Jaden McDaniels. Watch how Green guides Garland to where he wants to go and uses his length to strip the ball at the precise moment the Cavs guard wants to attack. VanVleet has made millions doing this.

Teams often attempt to set the tone from the first possession. The Bulls run a series of dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls on their opening set, which the Rockets switch, with the ball starting on the left wing and ending up in the hands of DeMar DeRozan on the right block, his sweet spot, with Green. This makes sense, given that a VanVleet-Brooks switch isn’t ideal to attack, neither is a Brooks-Jabari Smith Jr. tandem or going at Thompson. DeRozan thinks this is an easy bucket, but Green has other plans.


Elsewhere, Green’s versatility has improved. He’s continuing to learn the craft of navigating pick-and-rolls, chasing ballhandlers and deterring action, but the third-year guard is allowing 0.858 points on such actions, better than All-Star guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jimmy Butler. When Green ends up in the post and can’t switch out, he’s giving up 0.868 points per possession, better than Alex Caruso. When you factor in his improvement as a rebounder as well, Green’s development is proof defense can be taught.

And at the same time, Green’s presence on the floor hasn’t cost the Rockets their team efficiency. According to Cleaning the Glass, Houston is holding opponents to a sturdy 112.4 points per 100 possessions this season, the sixth-best in the league. When Green is on the floor, that figure drops to 114.7, which would still place the Rockets just outside the top 10 (12th to be exact). Over the past two weeks that Şengün has been out, not only are the Rockets running teams off the floor, scoring 127.0 points per 100 possessions, but also their defensive rating is a tidy 109.6. Houston’s new small-ball unit can trust Green to be involved in several switched matchups and still hold his own when the time comes for a stop.

Green is still young, still learning and not yet the finished product — you’ll see that from time to time with occasional concentration breakdowns. But his overall body of work points to a versatile individual, an improved defensive player and the Rockets’ best chance of crashing the Western Conference playoff party.

(Photo: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

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