The NBA is built on star power, more so than perhaps any other
sport. The seventh man on most teams has a larger following than
some of the most marketable stars in other sports. Stars bend
defenses, they isolate late in games when it's do-or-die time, and
they're simultaneously the
foundation and roof of a team's winning viability.
Much of what I've written about in regards to the youth
development in the league this season has been tracking what's
happening and why, pinpointing growth areas. I've always been
pretty averse to projection, at least without much concrete
backing; it's so finicky and I don't want to box in what someone
Yet, throughout the season, I keep coming back to one player.
Kenyon Martin Jr, has it.
He's played pretty well recently, averaging 11.7 points, 5.1
rebounds and 1.9 assists on 63.8% True-Shooting in March, but his
future projection fascinates me. No, he's not going to be a
high-usage ball-dominant star, but when I watch him play, I not
only see the outline of one of the most valuable role players in
the league, but an already strong foundation as a pro.
After the Rockets fully guaranteed his contract
for the upcoming season and two-straight starts (due to injury), I
couldn't put off writing about his upside any longer.
Why do I think KJ Martin has this upside? For starters, the game
of basketball continues to adapt. As I wrote about recently when
discussing the importance of screening, the
ability for every player on the court to make positive decisions
with the ball in their hands has become more and more vital over
the past few seasons. While most players won't be relied upon to
cause the initial dent in the offense (KJ among them), can you not
only finish an advantage, but continue it? Can you continue to put
pressure on a defense, exacerbating rotations?
Part of what intrigues me the most about KJ is his elite
potential as a supplementary player in pick-and- roll. Saying he is
one of the best screeners in the NBA is not an overstatement.
He's adept at utilizing angles, re-screening and continually
shifting himself to better adjust for his ball-handler, something
that's been an absolute boon for Jalen Green's development.
His subtle slot screens in early offense or off quick-ball
reversals give Houston some of their best looks.
KJ does everything in his power to get his man open while also
coming dangerously close to getting called for an offensive foul
every time. It's an art form, a Southeastern Texas Van Gogh, not
yet appreciated in his time. It's easy to see the open space, but
it's not always easy to see in-game why the space is open, and so
often it can be attributed to a KJ Martin screen.
Kevin Porter Jr. is rejected harshly by Carmelo Anthony, but
this screen is just breathtaking. The flip and re-screen is just
awesome and totally takes Austin Reaves out of the action.
The screening matters so much, because what makes him such a
useful offensive player is what he can do from it. To thrive and
survive on the margins as an offensive player, the thresholds are
higher for competency, and Martin surpasses them.
He's shooting 62.8% as a pick-and-roll roll man, according to
Second Spectrum Tracking, which is among the top third of qualified
players in the league. Not bad for a 6-foot-6 forward!
He excels flowing from impactful contact screens into rolls that
put pressure on the rim, which is easier said than done.
Martin can struggle a bit with lengthy rim protectors who
possess good timing, but his vertical pop and touch around the rim
allow him to play much bigger than his listed size.
His ability to hit short-roll passes with regularity and in a
timely manner makes it harder to just load up at the rim. His
passing isn't otherworldly, but it's pretty good for his role and
much better than I expected coming into the NBA.
Oh, about that vertical pop — it's absolutely menacing in early
offense. If a defense cannot get set in transition or off of a
make, good lord, batten down the hatches because he is rolling to
the rim ASAP.
He's fantastic at pushing the ball up, kicking it ahead in
transition and then flowing into the offense from there. That's
anther important point, even if he's not involved directly in an
action, he finds ways to make himself felt. His cutting is
fantastic. Lay off him in the slot, and he'll 45 cut or slide in
for an offensive board. Sag off him in the corner and he'll time
his baseline rim runs for lobs or roam to the paint for a quick
touch shot or two-footed dunk without even loading (he's like THAT
as a leaper).
What unlocks everything for KJ is the shot — something that's
fallen for him at an exceptional clip of late: 37.7% on 2.5 per
game in 2022, and 46.7% on 3.3 per game since the All-Star
His shot was a major question coming into the league, and
getting to just under 230 attempts across his two seasons at 35.5%,
it's starting to seem reasonable that the shot is going to at least
be average on volume. I'm not sure he'll ever be able to
incorporate movement (AKA off pin-downs or exit screens), and while
it would be awesome if he could, all he needs is a respectable shot
that he takes with confidence to unlock the rest of his game.
Hitting a relocation three against a closeout is about as much
as you can ask for!
I think he needs to quicken his release over the coming year or
two to make it easier for him to get his shot off on more contested
looks, especially considering he's mostly shooting a set shot. But
the mechanics look good!
Martin has popped as a catch-and-drive player, making lightning
quick decisons to attack off the bounce if given space on the
catch. He's explosive with his first step, and his handle is tight
enough that he can put the ball on the floor a few times before
attacking the rack. He's shooting 48.8% on drives, nothing wild,
but also nothing to scoff at; he's in the same ballpark as Jimmy
Butler, Andew Wiggins and Herb Jones in terms of his field goal
percentage on drives, per Second Spectrum (albeit on lower
He's not ultra crafty and doesn't have much shake, but he has
some verve as a finisher alongside his line-drive juice that makes
The recent game against the Utah Jazz on March 2 was a great
encapsulation of where he's at and the importance of his shot for
establishing himself as an offensive player. He took eight
three-pointers in that game, nearly all of them open. The Jazz
played Rudy Gobert on him for stretches defensively (Terance Mann
vibes ran heavy), and eventually, Gobert had to close on him.
On the surface, these plays are nothing crazy, but being able to
capably take a center (and a pretty mobile one at that) off the
dribble and make a good kick out to keep the offense flowing is
If he does get stonewalled on a drive, which happens mostly when
he gets funneled baseline and has to drive with his left, he
doesn't stop the ball or post up.
This is the good stuff part, which makes him pass the threshold
as a margins-based player.
To create a good look on the quick-pitch impromptu DHO is just
awesome stuff. Again, ideally he's making that drive, but he's
defended by a perennial DPOY, so I'll take this with a grin.
I think the question is: what happens when he gets to a level
where he is demanding consistent closes? Can he add a little more
polish to his handle? As mentioned earlier, can that release
quicken a hair? I certainly lean yes, because those things are
relatively commonplace developments, but it's definitely worth
Earlier this season, we saw this with Myles Turner, who is a
very different player, but it's the same concept. When a player who
gets treated as a non-shooter starts to get treated like a shooter,
the equation changes for them and what their role in the offense
looks like and the space afforded to them. I lean toward KJ having
more that he can lean into, making it more viable for him to handle
being treated as a shooter; he's shown really quality footwork to
shoot off the pop, which is huge when paired alongside a downhill
threat like Jalen Green (have I mentioned how much I love their
two-man game already and its potential?).
Put a perimeter player on him to guard the shot and he could be
called up for a quick screen to take advantage of that or force a
switch that he could slip. Point being, he has a ton of versatility
in how he can be utilized in an offense, and I think that only
increases his value if defenses begin to consistently respect his
I mean, look at what happened when Miami laid off him entirely
in their recent outing when he played the 5 in downsized line-ups
(some of the more effective units in that game).
The defense is where things get even more interesting with
Martin. At the moment, he is not a good defender on balance. He
does things that ARE good, but he has some drawbacks right now that
inhibit him being more valuable on that end. It's also very worth
noting that Houston's team defensive context is uhhh... tough,
ranking 30th in defensive efficiency on the season, per Cleaning
He has some of the young-player-on-a-bad-team tropes: He can get
back cut due to ball watching, his screen navigation can be rough
and while he has some promising flashes, pin-ins can erase him in
the corners. His point-of-attack defense can leave you a bit
Martin can have some really solid moments of riding out his
defender to the rim, keeping his arms up and getting a decent
contest around the basket.
However, he lacks much length; he stands 6-foot-6, but has a
6-foot-7 wingspan, which isn't the end-all be-all, but it certainly
makes an impact. He can have some moments of foul proneness on the
ball, because he often uses his chest to bump off offensive
players, which yeah, that's a way to get a consistent whistle
against heady ball-handlers.
He's a solid lateral athlete, but that limited length makes it
more difficult to crowd offensive players.
Yet, his defensive value comes from what he does that defies
that logic. Martin is a legitimately impactful rim protector! His
timing is fantastic and his verticality (especially for his size)
is among the best in the league.
He's excellent roaming the baseline and playing as the low man
off the weak corner.
I do think there's a ceiling to what he can be as an on-ball
defender, likely a neutral, with some more positive play in the
right match-ups. However, he has the tools and technique to be a
top-notch team defender. In the right scheme and with the right
personnel, I'm pretty confident he'll develop into a plus defensive
Martin's playing time has been confusing this season. He started
out with DNP coach's decisions to open the year in spite of an
awesome closing stretch last season — from when he first began
starting in April to the end of the year (averaging 16.8 points,
7.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 39.3% from deep on 4.7
attempts per game).
I'm not saying he has to start, but I would really
like to see it happen (partially due to my own wanting, but also
because he genuinely seems like he would excel with more minutes).
KJ Martin appears ready for more.