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Friday June 5, 2009 9:44 AM

Growing By Leaps And Bounds

Examining the Rockets' summer plans for player development

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Houston - Over the next two weeks, Rockets.com will be taking a detailed look at the team’s end of season evaluation process and the plans in place to ensure its players continue to improve over the summer. Our guide along the way will be Rockets’ Director of Player Programs Shawn Respert, a former NBA player himself and someone well-versed in the art of player development and progression.

Shawn Respert can still ball. The smooth jumper, quick crossover and finely-tuned instincts which once helped him become Big-10 Player of the Year can all be seen when he puts various Rockets’ players through their paces before games and after practice. At 37 years old, he’ll tell you he’s lost a step (or two) from his playing days, but you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of any such fast-twitch erosion with nothing but the naked eye to guide you. In fact, watching him on the court simply serves as a stark reminder to all weekend warriors that NBA players – active or otherwise - are just wired differently than us mere mortals.

As a member of that exclusive fraternity, Respert automatically receives a certain amount of respect from the players he now mentors. They recognize his experience and appreciate the fact he can relate to their unique lives both on and off the court. But that alone is not nearly enough to help him carry out his duties effectively. To do so, he has also needed to master the skills of an expert communicator, exhibit the trustworthiness of a confidant and develop the delicate discernment necessary when handling sensitive situations. It’s a daily balancing act to be sure; for while the Michigan State product cultivates these close relationships with players he must also be mindful of his role as the eyes and ears of the Rockets’ organization.

“The opportunity I have to work with these guys every single day,” begins Respert, “You see little things that I’m sure as a coaching staff or front office management, they’re not going to get an opportunity to see. So, in that role, I have to be gentle in responding to the players because I want them to trust me."

Having been allowed such privileged access to both a player’s mental and physical approach, Respert - along with Rockets' Director of Player Development Brett Gunning - is thus armed with a unique perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the men who make up the Rockets’ roster. It should come as no surprise then that his insight proves invaluable when the team conducts its end of season reviews; a process which includes a highly-detailed breakdown of each player’s progress, goals, shortcomings and plans for improvement.

“What really helps me is the ability to think as a former player,” says Respert. “I ask: How can somebody improve me; how can I get better? I don’t just look at the physical things a player has done or accomplished during the year; a lot of it pertains to a mentality.

“For instance, the end of the season review is a summation of all the things they’ve accomplished on the court – their shooting ability, ball-handling ability, passing, defense, rebounding – but just as equally important is the mentality. I want to know: Has this guy really pushed himself or worked as hard as he could have in preparing himself? Has he become a smarter player? Has he understood the mistakes that he’s made and made the effort to fix them in an urgent way versus saying, ‘Ah, I’ll take care of that later in the off-season?’”

Respert then emphasizes his point by citing Aaron Brooks as a perfect example of a player whose development hinged largely on his mental, rather than physical, progression.

“Here was a guy who mentally came into the season with a little bit of a comfort level understanding that he was coming into the season as a backup. There’s not a ton of pressure that comes along with that - there’s still pressure to come into the game and have an impact right away - but it’s not the same as a starter who has to get the team off to the right start every day.

“Then all of a sudden things changed [after the trade deadline deal which sent Rafer Alston to Orlando] and he had to become a different character in the middle of the season. I thought he handled it very well. I know he had some struggles – like anyone does when their role changes – but I thought he was brilliant by the time we finished the season. He understood what he was and what his role was as a starter. There’s still room for improvement. Now that he knows what his role is, he needs to keep gaining confidence so he can feel comfortable commanding guys to do certain things. And as long as he continues to stay on track with what he’s doing, he’ll lead the other guys in the right direction.”

The same, of course, can be said of Shawn Respert. It’s his job to lead, listen and show his guys the proper path. Yes, he absolutely can still play the game. But of far more importance today is his ability to teach others to do so – be it slow and steady, or by leaps and bounds.

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