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Q&A With Kelvin Sampson

Rockets assistant coach talks youth, discovery and defense at start of training camp

McALLEN, TEXAS - After a wild, whirlwind offseason, training camp is officially underway for the Houston Rockets. This is the time of year when coaches can truly begin to make their mark upon a team, so to get a feel for what the Rockets' staff has planned for the next few weeks, Rockets.com's Jason Friedman will sit down with each of the club's assistant coaches to find out what they're focusing on with this particular roster.

Taking his turn in the hot seat today is lead assistant Kelvin Sampson. What follows is a transcript of the conversation that ensued.

JCF: With all the young guys on this roster, are you feeling like you’re back coaching in the college ranks again?

KS: Yeah, we were up in the gym just awhile ago and Kevin McHale walked up to me and said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” And I said we have so much work to do that you’re not even sure where to start. With a veteran team coming back, you always kind of know what your identity is. With this team we have no idea. Even the veteran guys we have, we’ve never coached them. We’ve watched a lot of film on Toney Douglas and Shaun Livingston and other guys who came over in trades. And I was with Carlos Delfino in Milwaukee for two years so I know him well.

But these rookies, it’s little things like explaining defensive rules – like what the 2.9 (second) lane rule is; what the nail coverage is; getting them to understand pick-and-roll calls and coverages – there’s so much work to do. And then there’s the element of spacing on offense and all the stuff that we do.

We play our first regular season the game the 31st – from October 2nd to the 30th we’ve got to use every available minute that we have to drill and drill and drill these concepts into these guys. We can’t get too fast with this group; we can’t think we’re behind because we’ve got to make sure we’re good at something as we go along.

JCF: You had Jeremy Lin in for the abbreviated training camp last year, but do you almost have to rediscover his game as well?

KS: Absolutely. I was watching tape on him yesterday – I watched New York and Dallas – and Jeremy had such incredible freedom; he was their offense when he was on the floor. They put him in pick-and-rolls, they’d screen him and then re-screen him. He would attack the rim and if he could get to the rim he did, and if not he’d kick out and they’d play. With us, we’re going to give him some freedom because obviously he’s good at that, but we’re also going to have rules in our transition offense that he’s going to have to learn so it’s going to be interesting to see how he picks those things up.

I think the biggest challenge for Jeremy is going to be taking care of the ball and being able to defend bigger, stronger, quicker, more athletic point guards. He’s got to get tougher in those areas. So Jeremy’s got some work to do but the thing I love about him is you look forward to coming in every day with him. Some guys will work grudgingly but Jeremy is a willing worker. He’s been tremendous to work with.

But all of our guys have. Patrick Patterson has probably been the leader of this team and I don’t know if we’ve had anybody who’s improved from one year to the next as much as Pat has. He’s been consistent and that’s what I think leadership is. You don’t have to say a whole lot but you’ve got to be there everyday and be consistent, and he’s been really good with that.

JCF: Do you have an idea at this point of what your opening night starting five is going to be?

KS: I think we have an idea. I’d rather not say who they are; I’d rather Kevin say that. I think we have an idea, but it’s also open for competition. That’s one of the great about working with Mac is you may have a starting spot but you’ve got to work to keep it. I think he showed that last year with how our lineup would change.

The thing that really encouraged me this summer while coaching these guys was that D-Mo is not a guy you plug into a hole – he’s not a category guy – he’s just a good player. He gets stuff that’s outside the margins. He doesn’t do anything in a box. He runs down loose balls and scores. He runs ahead, you throw it to him and you’ll get a basket. You shoot and miss, he’ll run the ball down at the 3-point line, turn around, take it to the rim and score. He’s not a guy you run a lot of plays for, but he’ll make some plays outside that.

Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White – all those guys have something that they bring to the table, something that they do really well. This is a very unique rookie class. Jeremy Lamb is so gifted offensively. We want him to value defense a little more than he has. Royce, when the ball is in his hands it is happy birthday, Fourth of July and Merry Christmas all rolled into one. Now when the ball is not in his hands, where is he – is he in the witness protection program – I cant even find Royce sometimes when he doesn’t have the ball, so he’s got to learn to play without the ball at a high level. But they’re all good kids and they’re all easy to coach.

JCF: What are your defensive goals for this team?

KS: We want to be a great shot-challenging team. And a huge emphasis this year is keeping the ball out of the paint. I think we were No. 1 this summer of all the teams – and we measure these areas; it’s part of our analytics – in keeping the ball out of the paint in Summer League, and that’s a big point of emphasis. Last year we just weren’t good enough at that, and that’s something that we’ve got to get better at. We’ve studied so much tape and had so many meetings this summer, but the No. 1 thing we’ve got to do better at it keeping the ball out of the paint.

We want to challenge every shot. We want to hold teams to one shot as much as possible. And then we want our defense to start our transition game because we want to play faster and get the ball up the court and attack in transition. But to be a transition offensive team it starts on the defensive end.

JCF: How about offensively? With so many new faces I have to believe that there’s going to be a heavy emphasis on playing uptempo because this team will need to create as many easy baskets as possible since its half-court offense figures to be a work in style. After all, no matter how much work you put it, you can’t just become the Spurs over the course of one summer.

KS: That’s a great point. For us, it is in transition. We feel like we can get better shots in transition than we can in the half-court, but it’s something we have to be relentless with. That’s why there’s such an emphasis with our team of being in the best shape they can be in. That’s why we’re working so hard at running and running and running. A lot of teams that want to be running teams but they’re not in the shape to do it. This is a 48-minute game with four 12-minute quarters – you can’t take any of those minutes or quarters off if you want to be a running team because running teams have to wear teams down. If we run only occasionally then we can’t force our will on anybody. But over the course of 48 minutes, if we just keep pushing it and keep pushing it …

We’ve got guys coming off the bench who can score: Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Toney Douglas – we’ve got guys who can keep the pace up. But the big key is just being consistent with it and, again, it all starts with defense. If we’re taking the ball out of the net most of the game then we’re not going to out-run anybody. But if we’re making teams shoot and miss and we can go secure defensive rebounds and have quick outlets and get guys running to the corners and have proper spacing, then we can force our will on some teams.