HOUSTON (AP)From the outside, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel for a Houston Rockets team that finished with the NBA’s worst record for the past two seasons.

Inside the organization, however, optimism abounds because those last-place finishes have allowed Houston to stockpile talent as the Rockets look ahead.

Jalen Green, the second overall pick in the 2021 draft, is certain this rebuild will lead to success in the future.

”We’ve got a lot of young talent,” he said. ”A lot of guys that want it to be a great team. We’ve all got the mentality to do it. So yeah, it’s going to happen sooner than later.”

Green leads this extraordinarily young team that isn’t predicted to do much this year but is laying the foundation to return to contention.

”I’m super excited about this season,” coach Stephen Silas said. ”I’m excited for a bunch of reasons. I’m excited that we have a group that I’ve been with for a little while and they have more experience than they had in the past.”

The Rockets went 20-62 last season after winning just 17 games the season before. The nosedive came after the team reached the postseason for eight straight seasons before trading away all its stars and most of its veterans, including James Harden.

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. There are 10 players who are 21 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.

And while they likely won’t be very good again this year, their youth and speed could make them a difficult matchup for some teams, Silas said.

”We’re going to use our quickness and athleticism on the offensive end, but we’re going to use it on the defensive end as well,” he said. ”So look for improvement on both ends.”

FITTING IN

Smith is ready to contribute immediately after a freshman year at Auburn where the power forward averaged 16.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and two assists per game to win SEC freshman of the year, All-SEC first-team and second-team All-America honors.

He believes the youth of the team and his skills will allow him to fit in seamlessly.

”With my defense, my versatility, I feel like with me being able to play the five, being able to play four, I feel like I’ll be able to help with spacing for Jalen . to work,” he said. ”Also, just adding that spark on offense. Just overall playing hard and just my will to win will help us tremendously.”

FIRST-ROUNDERS

The Rockets didn’t have a first-round draft pick from 2016-20 but have had six in the last two drafts thanks to their bad finishes and trades.

Smith was one of three first-round picks the Rockets had in this year’s draft. Houston added LSU forward Tari Eason with the 17th pick, which the team received as part of the trade for Harden, and picked up Kentucky’s TyTy Washington at No. 29 in the opening round.

Along with nabbing Green last year, they added Usman Garuba with the 23rd pick and Josh Christopher at No. 24 in the first round.

THE ELDER STATESMAN

The Rockets have just three players over age 30 on their roster and the only one expected to start is 33-year-old Eric Gordon.

Entering his 15th season and seventh in Houston, he’s the only holdover from the team’s years of success. He’s certainly still productive on the court after averaging 13.4 points last season but his greatest value to this team might be his leadership off it.

It’s a role that Gordon has embraced.

”For me is it’s all about setting an example day to day and being consistent,” he said. ”Sometimes talking doesn’t solve it. With so many young guys you need to set that example.”

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