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Tuesday September 28, 2010 9:45 PM

A Sort of Homecoming


Kevin Martin feeling right at home in Rockets' system

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

AUSTIN - Home.

It’s a word capable of eliciting intense emotion, while simultaneously meaning so many different things to so many different people.

It can be something as simple as the house in which you live, the city that suits you best or the powerful emotion experienced inside a loved one’s arms.

The common denominator, of course, being that the word home, in its purest sense, conjures feelings of comfort, contentment and warmth.

Perhaps that’s why Kevin Martin has rarely stopped smiling since putting on a Rockets’ uniform last February. After surviving several challenging years in Sacramento – seasons full of transition and trying times – he’s now found himself in a familiar system, surrounded by talented, like-minded teammates who complement each other on and off the floor; players who share the same basketball goals, dreams and aspirations; guys who hang out and get along with one another off the court as well. In other words, the Zanesville, Ohio native has found a sense of home in Houston.

“Yeah, it feels good now,” says Martin. “Last year, coming into a new team, I knew there were going to be eyes on me: people wanted to see if I was going to come in here and jack up every shot or if I was going to act like I was the man.

“But the one thing I wanted to do was get back to trusting the teammates around me and not going out there forcing the issue every night and scoring points for no reason. I respect every guy on this team and it’s much more about a team game than any individual. I love it. I feel like it’s a perfect fit.”

The feeling is mutual. Martin’s integration into the Rockets’ locker room dynamic has been just as seamless as his pairing with new backcourt mate Aaron Brooks. Quiet and unassuming off the court, cold-bloodedly efficient on it, Martin’s presence has been a welcome addition to a team in need of the singular skill set he brings to the table.

And for his part, the 7th-year pro did everything he could this summer to ensure he didn’t disappoint, putting in months of intense work with his longtime trainer, David Thorpe. Together, the two teamed up with the Rockets to put together a program tailored to enhance Martin’s strengths and alleviate his weaknesses.

A career 38 percent shooter from long range, Martin’s connection rate from distance dropped to 31 percent last season, in large part due to a wrist injury he suffered early on in the year. So Martin went back to the basics, found his form, put up a jaw-dropping number of shots, and got to the point where Thorpe says he was draining “80 percent” of the NBA 3s he took in his drills.

And that was just the beginning.

Thorpe also wanted Martin to regain some of the quickness and explosiveness that had led to him earning the nickname ‘Speed Racer’ early on in his career, so drills were designed with that purpose in mind. They also worked on adding a fadeaway to his repertoire and the formation of various plans of attack when sizing up opponent on the wings.

Then came the defensive work: the emphasis on controlled aggression; the importance of proper footwork to prevent the opponent from turning the corner and getting into the lane; being disruptive defensively off the ball; using his natural quickness to generate more steals and transition opportunities; and, perhaps most importantly, contesting every single shot.

“The best teams contest the most shots,” says Thorpe. “I want Kevin to be the best contest guy the Rockets have, which won’t be easy with Shane Battier on his team – but that’s a great guy to shoot for, you know?”

Last but certainly not least, Martin made sure to put in a ton of time in the weight room as well. The results are obvious: with his naturally lean build, Martin is never going to find himself on the cover of Muscle Magazine, but he’s clearly added useful bulk in an effort to do everything he can to ensure his body is ready for the rigors of the NBA regular season. He looks good. He looks strong. Now it’s time to reap the benefits.

“He sees the talent on this team,” says Thorpe. “We would talk after every game in February and March about the amazing talent of Aaron Brooks. And I remember Kevin saying to me at one point, ‘You’re not the only guy who motivates me anymore – Shane Battier is.’ He just thinks the world of Shane. He was also very impressed with the way Yao treated him and Luis Scola, too – you can just go down the line. These are veteran pros and Kevin really wants to be a good player for them.

“I think the trade has dramatically impacted him. He went to a great organization that treated him like gold when he got there, coached him hard and treated him really well, and I think all of that added up to the fact that he realized he had to do more and more was expected of him.

“He hasn’t been to the playoffs in four years. He watched the playoffs every night and he wants to be one of those guys who’s playing into May and June and win a championship. He wants to win and wants to be known as something more than just being a cool success story from a small school and a small hometown. We all know that you have to work to get what you want. You have to always be thinking about tweaking what you’re doing and improving. So I think all of those factors have added up into someone who is very driven and very focused.”

Those attributes have been on display from the moment camp begin. Martin looks confident. He looks poised. He looks comfortable with his surroundings. It's a sure sign that he's right where he's supposed to be: wearing a Rockets' uniform, ready for success, bound and determined to bring a championship home to Houston.

And 1s: After four days of camp, you start to notice a pattern in terms of the words that are used to describe the on-court proceedings. Thus far the Rockets’ buzzwords seem to be “intense” and “competitive” as both participants and onlookers have raved about the energy and passion being displayed on the court.

Given the reputations of the individuals involved, that news probably comes as no surprise since so many of the Rockets’ players are renowned for their work ethic and professionalism. Still, it’s heartening to hear that training camp is off to such a hot start with summer scrimmage sensation Chuck Hayes setting the tone with tremendous work on both ends of the floor. Head Coach Rick Adelman also praised the work put in by Jordan Hill and Alexander Johnson Tuesday, as both big men stepped up their games with Brad Miller still sidelined by a bum ankle and Yao Ming’s availability limited as he continues to recover from the injury which cost him the entirety of the 2009-10 season.

Another early stalwart: free agent rookie point guard Ish Smith, who finds himself in an intense battle for the 15th and final roster spot. The Wake Forest product is putting his blazing speed to good use in both transition and the half-court, where his penetration skills are catching the coaches’ eyes.

"He’s just a solid point guard,” says Adelman. “The one thing he doesn’t do well is he doesn’t shoot the outside shot as well as you’d like but everything else he does – he defends and gets to the middle all the time. He’s probably the best passer on the team as far as the smaller guys. He’s been very impressive and played very well here."

Smith, meanwhile, is far more focused on simply getting better than worrying about whether or not he’ll be on the Rockets’ opening night roster.

“I’m not really worried about that now, I’m just trying to get better for myself and for my team, whatever they need. I’m not too worried about making the team right now. I think if I do what I’m supposed to do, that day will come.”

Last but not least, Shane Battier (food poisoning) and Jermaine Taylor (knee) returned to action Tuesday after recovering from their respective ailments. Kyle Lowry (hyperextended right knee) missed Tuesday’s session and is being listed as day-to-day.

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