While Houston Rockets fans fret over who will be their selection in the 2023 NBA draft, one rookie is doing everything he can to remind them that this team already has some damn good prospects. No, I’m not talking about Jabari Smith Jr., who just locked up Giannis Antetokounmpo (that deserves its own article as well). I’m talking about his less heralded batterymate, Tari Eason.
Tari Eason: Human Torch
Tari Eason plays basketball in such a combustible fashion that if flames were to follow him as he ran the court, it would somehow make more sense than if they didn’t. His energy is more than contagious; it is engulfing. He is fire incarnate, and he is out to burn the opposition.
Describing Tari Eason as the NBA equivalent of the Human Torch may seem presumptuous for a player averaging 8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 18.6 minutes a game off the bench, but it is far from it. Eason may just be the best rookie in the NBA.
How Tari Eason has been one the best rookies
According to FiveThirtyEight’s Raptor WAR, Eason has been by far the league’s best rookie. But the metrics don’t stop there. He’s second in box plus/minus, third in win shares per 48 minutes, and tied for second in Dunks&Threes estimated plus/minus.
His blazing metrics next to a mundane box score line may raise some suspicions, but it shouldn’t because his excellence is still being captured by it. Eason racks up offensive rebounds and steals in peerless fashion. For players who have played at least 300 minutes, his 3.5 steals per 100 possessions rank second, and his 5.6 offensive rebounds rank 11th and is the best rate for any non-center.
The only other player to reach 3.0 steals and 5.0 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions this season is Thadeus Young, and he comes right in at 3.0 and 5.0. What Tari Eason is doing as a rookie is simply extraordinary. While offensive rebounds and steals aren’t your traditional MVP qualifying statistics, they’re two of the most valuable box score statistics around.
A statistical regression from 2014 found that steals were worth 9.1 points relative to points per game and that they’re the single most difficult stat to replace. When your leading scorer is out, your offense may suffer, but someone else will step into that role and absorb many of those lost points. However, when your leading stealer is out, there’s no guarantee someone can step in and replace them.
Similarly, offensive rebounds are also incredibly valuable. A 2016 study found that each 1% improvement in offensive rebounding rate would generally add 0.62 points per 100 possessions to a team’s offensive rating. While the exact point values have likely changed in that time, it’s highly unlikely that steals and offensive rebounds stopped being highly predictive of team success.
So instead of saying, "Tari Eason is only averaging 8.4 points per game." Say, "Tari Eason is averaging 1.3 steals and 2.2 offensive rebounds." FiveThirtyEight’s accounting values each offensive rebound as worth +1.2 points and steals as +1.49 points. Which adds +4.57 points to Eason’s ledger, and that's without taking his defensive rebounds, blocks, assists, and made baskets into account.
The key to Eason’s excellence is his ability to singlehandedly win the possession battle for his team. Through his steals and offensive rebounding, he is generating 9.1 more offensive possessions and costing them just 2.0 turnovers. His +7.1 net-possessions (offensive rebounds + steals - turnovers) per 100 possessions is by far the best on the Rockets and helps to explain why the Rockets are +10.88 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than when he sits.
Tari Eason: Future Superstar
Tari Eason is far from a perfect player. His 2-point field goal percentage of 45.1% is dismal, he has missed more easy layups this season than any player on the Rockets, he rarely creates his own shot off the dribble, and he hasn’t shown much flair for playmaking. However, that is beside the point.
Tari Eason is a rookie who has two highly-valuable elite traits. He could never improve as a player and would still have a 12-year career. Rookies usually struggle and struggle mightily. The NBA community lost its collective mind over Paolo Banchero being a league-average player because that is an incredible feat for a featured rookie.
The foundation to be a high-level contributor is already there for Tari Eason. How his offensive game develops will determine if he’s a star in the traditional sense, but I think that sells his game short. He’s literally a one-of-a-kind player. If he becomes an average offensive player in the traditional sense, paired with his elite thievery and offensive rebounding, that will have star level impact.
The Rockets landed themselves an impact player in Tari Eason. How he fell to 17th in the draft may one day be the topic of a documentary. Players that are this good, this early, almost always have excellent careers. He has built such a strong statistical platform that even if he is moved into the starting lineup and suffers a bit, he’ll likely end the season as one of the three best rookies in his class. It’s poetic and all too fitting that Tari Eason, future superstar, is the steal of the 2022 draft.