Rockets should go for local kid

Cougar fans hoping to see one of their own suit up for the Rockets for the first time since Alton Ford played nine games with the club in the 2003-2004 season will probably come away from the NBA Draft disappointed.

The Cougars did not send a single player to the NBA’s pre-draft camp in Orlando. However, there is one local product worthy of the Rockets’ consideration with their first-round pick: Rice guard Morris Almond.

Almond could give the Rockets immediate help from the outside and provide a much-needed third scoring option to complement Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. He was Conference USA’s Player of the Year and was an Associated Press All-American honorable mention after finishing as the nation’s third-leading scorer with 26.4 points per game.

One of the major reasons the Rockets fell to the Utah Jazz in the first-round of this year’s playoffs was the lack of consistent outside shooting to make teams pay for doubling up on Yao and McGrady. Guards Rafer Alston and Luther Head struggled to knock down wide-open three-pointers.

Coincidentally, one of Almond’s best attributes is his three-point shooting. He hit 45.6 percent from beyond the arc this year and hasn’t been below 44 percent since his freshman year at Rice. Almond also managed to make nearly 11 trips to the free-throw line per game as a senior, proving he can drive just as well as he can shoot.

By the numbers, there is no reason Almond should be available when Houston picks at No. 26 overall. But with a historically strong draft buoyed by Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Texas’ Kevin Durant and a devaluation of older NBA prospects, most draft projections have shown him available near the end of the first round.

Almond is not without his weaknesses. For one, his defense has been described as sub-par, especially on rotations off picks. However, he does have a huge wing-span at 6-feet-6 and, with better coaching, will probably develop into an average defender.

Another thing that has held his stock down is his turnover rate, as he averaged 3.4 per game this year. This number can be somewhat discounted due to the sheer volume of possessions he dominated while at Rice, which finished just 16-16 on the season and clearly didn’t surround him with much talent.

He ended up finishing his team’s possession, either by made shot, missed shot or turnover, 35.7 percent of the time, which put him second in the nation among college players. In the NBA, he’ll be stripped of his "Kobe Bryant" duties and his turnovers should come down quite a bit.

With the Rockets transitioning from a defensive-minded coach (Jeff Van Gundy) to an offensive specialist (Rick Adelman), shooting is going to be a much bigger priority for the Rockets. Almond would fill a huge need and, should he be available at No. 26, the Rockets would be foolish to pass on him.

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