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Friday June 12, 2009 11:30 AM

Summer School

Dorsey working hard in attempt to make huge strides in year two

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.

Today the spotlight shines on Joey Dorsey, Houston's second-round pick in the 2008 draft and a player whose development could go a long way in helping to shore up the Rockets' depth at the center position.

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Joey Dorsey is adamant about his 4th of July plans.

The hulking figure of his 6-9, 285 pound body makes it seemingly difficult to argue. He’s standing there with his shirt off and his massive, muscle-bound torso still drenched in sweat from a brutal series of conditioning drills, which just so happened to follow 45 minutes of low-post skills work and an hour-long session in the weight room. He’s adhered to this regimen for three weeks straight and now he’s making holiday plans.

But it’s not what you think. While David Macha, the Rockets’ strength and conditioning coach, and Director of Player Programs Shawn Respert are offering him the option of a four day weekend in early July, Dorsey is having none of it.

“I’ll take two days off,” he says firmly, “But that’s it. I can’t take four days. I have to work.”

And though it goes unsaid, you know that’s exactly what Macha and Respert want to hear.

It’s no secret that Dorsey’s rookie year in the NBA was a disappointment – to the team, the coaches, the fans, but most of all to Dorsey himself. He came to the club having been a big man on campus at the University of Memphis after a year in which the Tigers appeared in the national championship game. He was hailed as one of the best defenders in college basketball, and someone whose superior athletic and physical gifts could help provide the Rockets with some much-needed muscle and explosiveness in the paint. Confident and seemingly carefree, Dorsey couldn’t wait to get started.

Nearly one year later, he’s still waiting.

The problems began during Summer League when Dorsey suffered a nagging ankle injury in just his second game, forcing him to sit out the finale. Seeing the Baltimore native in street clothes due to injury seemed like a fairly benign event at the time. Turns out, it was simply a sign of things to come.

The bum ankle had healed by the time training camp rolled around, but it wasn’t long before something far more debilitating would take its place. That October, Dorsey found himself battling the bane of many a basketball player’s existence, plantar fasciitis. He tried resting his foot. He tried pushing through. Nothing helped. The team had no choice but to forge ahead without him. He fell further and further behind as the injury persisted. And every time it seemed as if he might be on the road to recovery, the fasciitis flared up again.

It soon became evident that Dorsey’s rookie season was destined to be a wash. His final numbers for the 08-09 campaign: Two points, one rebound and one assist in six minutes of action. Adding insult to injury, he was forced to watch from the sideline while his team went on its best postseason run in more than a decade; one which might have extended even further if not for the injuries which befell Dikembe Mutombo and Yao Ming. And in that, too, there was pain. For how much might a healthy Dorsey have helped when those two giants of the game went down? That reality hit Dorsey square in the face when Houston’s season came to an end following the Rockets’ Game 7 loss to Los Angeles.

“It hurt so bad once we lost Game 7,” recalls Dorsey. “We went into the locker room and everybody came together and I was the only one in the locker room that cried. I told coach, ‘I want to come back next year and be a defensive stopper. I want to work on defense in the perimeter and the low-post with Chuck Hayes; he’s one of the great low-post defenders on the team. It just hurt so bad that we didn’t have that size to dominate the glass against the Lakers.

“I started off training camp playing really well and then got injured with my foot. That took a toll on me because I’d never been seriously injured in college. So that was a transition for me, being depressed a lot and not really able to help the team since blocking shots and rebounding was something that we needed this year. [Coach Adelman] told me the season that we just played was my offseason because I was hurt the whole time. So as soon as Game 7 was over and we came back, I started working out.”

The results are already evident - not just physically but mentally, too. Dorsey has already shed more than ten pounds from his chiseled frame, but it’s undoubtedly the weight now off his shoulders which has helped him the most. Watching his team move forward without him was agonizing and the typically jovial 25-year old admits the experience took its toll. But now, having been removed from the daily reminder of being little more than a cheerleader, Dorsey’s smile is back and so is the bounce in his step.

“It’s just not in his face anymore,” says Respert. “Every game that we struggled and didn’t have a defensive presence, the next thing your mind goes to is, ‘Man, if we would have had Joey; we wouldn’t have to be in this situation.’

“I think being away from that part helps him to take steps forward. It’s like being at a party and you know that you can’t dance so you start moving your way to the back. And with Joey, the things he was unable to do were forcing him to keep stepping toward the back as we continued to progress with our season. So he certainly doesn’t have that pressure right now and I’m happy he understands what it is. It’s not, ‘I’m going to pick on you,’ it’s ‘This is your job and let’s try to get you to do your job as well as you can and a lot better than what you did the first time around.’”

In order to make sure that happens, the Rockets asked Dorsey to stay in Houston this summer so he can receive ample one-on-one time with the club’s coaches and staff. And while some players might balk at such a suggestion, Dorsey has embraced it, knowing full well that this is a golden opportunity to play catch-up and put himself in position to start realizing his enormous pro potential.

“It’s been great,” he says. “A lot of attention has been on me. Most of the coaches and the GM are in here watching me work out and I’m just trying to show them that I’m dedicated to the game and I want to be a part of this team.”

That dedication, work ethic and effort have drawn raves so far.

“He’s done a wonderful job in the first three weeks that he’s been back,” says Respert. “I thought he handled the pressure we put on him very well with him not having time off like everyone else. He’s very apologetic about the way the season went. I know he looks back and wants to beat himself up over it. But if he can continue to build upon the foundation we’re laying right now and carry that into the season, I think he’s going to be just fine.”

So Dorsey’s own unique version of summer school continues. He has assistant coach Jack Sikma and former GM Carroll Dawson teaching classes on low-post play. Macha handles the strength and conditioning. And Respert and Director of Player Development Brett Gunning work with him daily as well, lending tips, advice or just a helpful ear for any questions or concerns he might have along the way.

“I think Joey has learned that it’s OK to still be raw,” says Respert. “People have such short term memories, especially as casual fans. They won’t remember what this year entailed for him if he comes back next year and performs at the level he’s supposed to. He’ll be able to move forward then.

“I look at Udonis Haslem in Miami. He has, to me, really carved a niche in the NBA. I view him as a new version of Bo Outlaw. Bo was a guy who came in, wasn’t very skilled, but you knew he was going to work hard every night, prepare himself and be a great teammate. And, eventually, with his hard work, he continued to get better at things he wasn’t very good at. I look at Joey the same way.”

Meanwhile, Dorsey has been taking notes on other players as well, though his focus has centered more on those he’s seen up close and personal. And in that respect, he’s blessed with a virtual treasure-trove of big man knowledge given the guys he gets to observe and learn from on a daily basis during the season.

“I look at [Luis] Scola,” Dorsey says, “Because he’s one of the best low-post players I’ve ever seen; his footwork and everything. I’m waiting for him to get back from Argentina so I can start working out with him. And getting with Chuck Hayes. Chuck is one of the best low-post defenders and when (opponents) go on the pick-and-roll, Chuck is like a guard when he’s out there defending, so I just need to learn from Chuck and learn from Yao and Scola – who better to learn from than from those three?”

Those words are music to the ears of everyone in the Rockets’ organization. Now it’s just a matter of continuing to bring that attitude and approach to the gym every single day which, ultimately, is why Dorsey is so adamant about his 4th of July plans. There will be plenty of time for long weekends and extended holiday celebrations later. Right now, the only fireworks he’s interested in are the ones he produces on the basketball court.

And 1’s: Here, courtesy of Shawn Respert, are the Rockets’ primary points of emphasis regarding Joey Dorsey's development this summer:

“I think the biggest thing is just the work ethic; getting that thing consistent. I want him to know every time he steps on the court, I want the motor to run and run. His gifts are being a tremendous athlete, with tremendous size and strength. I think with those gifts he has the ability to get guys in tough positions offensively by running and getting guys as deep as he can, because once you get that deep with his athleticism it’s hard to not make a good play. And defensively, he has length, speed, agility and the ability to cover vast amounts of space. I want him to feel comfortable helping out on pick-and-roll situations knowing that the guards will not just be able to blow by him in those situations. He can contest shots but, at the same time, he’s a great rotation defender. He’s a guy who can cover other people’s mistakes and get back to the basket to protect the rim, alter shots and rebound the ball.

“I want him to utilize what he has in transition. If it’s defensively, hey, he can crash the offensive rebounds, try to get an opportunity to score and if the [opponent] gets it, he has the ability to get back and shut things down in the paint which is an area that we struggle with a little bit, both in offensive rebounds and stopping transition. But even the other way around, he can be a great defensive rebounder – I think he learned a lot from watching Scola who possesses half the athletic ability that Joey has – but being smart and watching the flight of the ball, I think he can time it go get the rebound. He’s a good enough ball-handler where I think he can take one of two dribbles so that our guards don’t have to come back to the basketball and slow down transition; they can actually turn and go up the floor, he can take one dribble, get it up and put pressure on the other team as a trailer so that the defense is done because you’re not going to stop him once he gets himself motoring down the lane.

“The surprising factor with Joey is I knew he was a good ball-handler but I didn’t know how good. He really is good at finding the passes in the seams within the interior of the paint. So I look at him no different. If he gets guys buried in bad positions, he has the ability that when the pressure comes he can find the shooters or drop it down to Yao or Scola.

“He possesses everything you need to physically. Obviously we just need to continue to get him in better shape but he has the footwork and agility to get out there where we don’t feel like we have to help him. I think he can contain penetration, but he just has to continue to play, get experience and be put in situations to fail so he can try different things to see what works. That’s the beauty of our staff: We have coaches with vast amounts of experience to be able to help give him multiple options and I’m sure one of those will be tailor made for him on how to look at pick-and-rolls, rotations and low-post scoring. It’s just on him to put himself in the position now to accept the program - and that’s my job to get the core of the system ready; it’s re-booting right now and as soon as we can get everything the right way I think he’ll be off and running.”

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