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Friday January 16, 2009 12:44 PM

Carl's In Charge


Rockets forward becoming increasingly important to team's success

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Houston - Few players seem to enjoy the game of basketball more than Carl Landry. Even when he’s not flashing that ubiquitous smile, his joy seems to shine through every dunk he throws down and each 18-footer which blithely slides through the nylon on its way through the hoop.

And why shouldn’t he be having fun? Landry’s progression from second-round afterthought (in the minds of most fans, anyway) to key contributor on a Rockets team with lofty aspirations has been nothing short of stunning.

Even Houston’s brain trust admits they were caught off guard by Landry’s rapid development as a fresh-faced rookie. But just as impressive has been the progress he’s shown during his sophomore season. Rather than rest on the laurels of early success, Landry spent the summer refining his game, adding improved footwork and a midrange jumper to his already strikingly efficient offensive arsenal. The end result: Landry is earning more minutes and more trust from the Rockets coaching staff.

“He’s getting to be a much better player and more confident,” says Coach Rick Adelman. “I think it’s confidence in the post, that’s what it’s all about - using his quickness. We’re trying to go to him and give him his touches as much as we can.”

Adelman’s point was perfectly illustrated during Tuesday night’s game against the Western Conference-leading Lakers. With Houston forced to play without the injured Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest, Landry was asked to become a key cog in the Rockets offense and he came through with flying colors, producing a season-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

But just as impressive was the way in which he collected those points. Landry wasn’t merely a garbage man, content to collect dunks and put-backs. He showed off the full-range of his improved-offensive repertoire against the Lakers, stroking several 18-footers and using those nimble feet to knife past unsuspecting defenders on his way to the basket.

“When you have two key finishers on your team out, you have to find some other places other than just Yao to go to,” says assistant coach Jack Sikma. “So mixing Carl into the post game and some pick-and-pop situations, Rick has shown that he’s comfortable doing that.”

Landry wholeheartedly embraces the responsibility of being a go-to guy and lights up when discussing the increased confidence the coaching staff has shown in him. But he also recognizes he’s still just barely scratching the surface of his potential.

“Sometimes I get too excited,” says a smiling (of course) Landry. “I know a couple times in the Lakers game I got called for a travel just because it was something new and I was overly excited at the same time. But it’s coming and my name’s getting called, so I just need to be patient and effective.

“It’s mental. I’m just as talented and athletic as any player in this league – you don’t make it this far if you’re not talented – but, mentally, I’m still young and learning the game. It’s different than high school or college so I still have to grow. I just now have 82 games under my belt, so I still have a ways to go. But every game, every possession, I’m growing and learning, and I feel like the coaches have confidence in me. And when the coaches have confidence in you, hey, that makes you that much better.”

For Landry to take the next step as an all-around player, there’s no question he’s got to shore up some of his defensive shortcomings. Though the second-year forward from Purdue has shown improvement defensively, he still gets lost too often on that end of the floor.

“He needs to continue to get better conceptually,” says Sikma. If he can understand situations sooner and stay ahead of the game, he’s got the skill to become a really good defender.

"I think it comes from experience; reading situations, understanding what’s coming, just getting your mindset and focus ahead of the play instead of just reacting. Carl gets surprised on the court defensively way too much. If your man goes away from you, you don’t worry about it, but you have to be prepared for when he goes to the ball. And those types of things he’s got to clean up and get better at.”

Still, the Rockets would be hard-pressed to complain about Landry’s development and his place among a fantastic frontcourt. While many have decried Houston’s lack of size behind Yao Ming, the truth is that the Rockets’ bigs have been a strength this season, not a weakness. Sure, players like Landry, Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes may lack the traditional size coveted at the power forward position, but Sikma says the results produced by their quickness, toughness and heady play speak for themselves.

“If you look at the shooting percentages of our bigs – Yao, Luis, Carl – they’re all shooting 52-56%, so let’s give them some more iso stuff and see if they can finish and take a little pressure off of Yao. There are going to be some situations where we have some mismatches, but I think as long as these guys stay efficient, do what they need to do and get extra possessions for us, make the hustle play defensively – and, really, our fours do rebound pretty well for being undersized – we’ll be just fine. They understand the rotation can change every night, but when they’re putting minutes on the floor, they’re very good, hard, hustling, effective, efficient minutes."

For Landry, they’re also extremely joyful minutes. No numbers are needed for proof. Just check out the smile.

Got a question for Rockets.com? Send it to Jason Friedman.