LAS VEGAS - Perhaps it’s only appropriate that a city which welcomes millions of people each year who arrive with visions of fast fortunes in their head would also play host to hundreds of young hoopsters with similar dreams of achieving immediate success on the basketball court.
Of course the reality is that such instantaneous achievement is rarely ever realized. True mastery always takes time and lots of it, whether your game is poker, blackjack or basketball. If instant gratification is your thing then you’re far more likely to run out of luck and find yourself in a roadside ditch similar to the dude in the DirecTV commercial. But if you’re willing to put in the copious amount of work necessary for excellence, the odds of seeing the fruits of your labor realized one day will gradually and incrementally begin to tilt in your favor.
With that in mind, the Rockets hit the practice floor this afternoon during their lone day off here in Vegas, seeking to dispose of the awful aftertaste left in their mouths after Saturday night’s 76-70 loss at the hands of the Wizards. The players saw their myriad mistakes addressed in no uncertain terms during a 40-minute film session before lacing up and doing drill work on the court for another 45 minutes.
That is the essence of what summer league basketball is about. It is a training ground designed for application and experimentation, but also for establishing the work habits, diligence and mindset mandatory for NBA basketball. Practice hard, do your film study, apply what you know and learn from your mistakes. Lather, rinse, repeat. Welcome to life in the NBA, rook.
In many ways, Houston’s first two games – the first delightful, the second a dud -- served as an ideal microcosm of what these players can expect when experiencing the grind of the regular season for the first time. Ups and downs are inevitable. There’s going to be a learning curve and it’s going to be steep. Prepare to stumble. Learn how to fall (and how to get back up). And, most importantly, maintain a level head.
“I’ve always said that with young guys you worry more about how they’ll handle success than how they’ll handle failure,” said Houston’s summer league head coach Kelvin Sampson after Sunday’s practice. “I was worried about Saturday night’s game because our guys had spent the previous 24 hours hearing from their families, their friends, their loved ones, fans and whoever talking about how good they were. For a young kid in this league, it’s hard to handle that. Learning how to handle that is part of the maturing process they have to go through.
“Last night was good for them. They got humbled a little bit. We lost a game by six when we had 21 turnovers and missed 19 free throws. We went through all the things we have to get better at today. We had a great film session, we called out some guys that needed calling out, and I’ll be shocked if we don’t play much better tomorrow night.”
Something else to keep in mind when dissecting the differences between the Rockets’ superb showing Friday night and their lackluster effort Saturday: the Chandler Parsons effect. Parsons was brought to Vegas to play a leadership role and his mere presence on the floor Friday seemed to bring with it a level of comfort and cohesion that Houston simply never came close to attaining against Washington.
“You could tell last night that a big difference for us was not having Chandler Parsons on the floor,” said Sampson. “He’s a leader and we didn’t have a leader on the court last night. You need that connector, that bridge that brings everything together, and that’s what Chandler is. He does all the little things that can help your team. And last night we had a lot of guys in their individual phone booths with nobody connecting them to each other until Zoran Dragic and Diamon Simpson got on the floor. I have to give those two guys a shout-out for what they did in the second half.”
What else has Sampson seen over the course of Houston’s first two games? Here’s his quick-hit breakdown on some of the Rockets’ high profile summer league players and what he’d like each of them to focus on going forward.
Jeremy Lamb: “He can score. We knew that when we drafted him and he’s shown it here. Where he’s got to improve is just being physical. He’s not a physical defender right now. He allows his man to get where he wants to go. On pick-and-roll defense he’s got to learn to be more physical getting over and around screens.”
Royce White: “He has to learn to adjust to length. Where he could overpower people with his strength in college, he’s struggling with length here. You don’t overpower length; you have to learn to be crafty. The thing he has going for him is he’s a tremendous passer. So when he gets by his man and draws the extra defender, instead of trying to score over a 6-10, 6-11 guy, he needs to kick it to the open man. We’re going to break down tons of film and show him that.”
Donatas Motiejunas: “He has to figure out that when you do something well and you become the focal point of the scouting report, there’s a chance you can’t duplicate success the same way next time. So when that happens, players must measure their success in other ways: rebounding, defense, running the floor, playing in areas where you can help someone else. For instance, if you sprint in front of the rim you may not get the ball, but you’ve occupied a defender who can’t go help someone else. Little things like that, he’ll learn.”
Terrence Jones: “I just like him. I just like his game. He has a lot of old school in him. He’s 6-9, he has a 7-2 wingspan. He’s left-handed and I think that’s an advantage for him as well. Terrence just has to become more vocal. We depend on our bigs to be air traffic controllers in the back of our defense, calling out pick-and-roll coverages; in the middle of the floor, that’s a different coverage than it is on the side of the floor. Listen, we’ve only had 5 days of practice and a couple games. None of these guys is close to a finished product. But I’ll tell you, if he was a stock I’d buy his stock.”
Marcus Morris: “Marcus had to learn a new position last year and I think it’s been a disadvantage for him having played at the four spot in college and now adjusting to playing the three in the NBA. I think where that adjustment is toughest is on the defensive end because now he’s defending quicker guys who can handle the ball on the perimeter. He’s used to side-fronting guys or fronting guys in the post and now all of a sudden he’s out on the wing navigating on-ball screens or defending against the pick-and-roll. But he’s a smart player who is adjusting. I still think his learning curve is continuing to progress but he’s working at it and it’s important to him and those kind of guys always get better.”