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Sunday December 11, 2011 8:56 PM

Youth Is Served

Young Rockets showing improvement after wrapping up first weekend of camp

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




HOUSTON - Luis Scola and Kevin Martin are back. Again. And, as expected, both players once more exuded nothing but class and professionalism while rapidly re-acclimating themselves with Rockets training camp.

Yes, there was a bit of a Groundhog’s Day feel to Sunday’s post-practice interview session, as reporters sought out reactions from Scola and Martin following their return to action after the on-again, off-again trade winds that forced both players to miss Saturday’s workout. But just as they did Friday when facing similar circumstances, Scola and Martin expressed little more than a desire to move on and happiness to be back on the court with their teammates.

“I just want to play,” said Scola with a smile, handling the circus in stride just as he did two days ago. “Last night I went to bed early so I didn’t know until this morning (that the deal was dead). (General Manager Daryl Morey and Head Coach Kevin McHale) called me, we spoke in the morning and I came to practice. There’s not much we need to talk about. They made a move, it didn’t go through, now I’m back here, and let’s go back to work.”

Added Martin: “You just put it out of your mind. Once you get on the basketball court, that’s the easy part – that’s what comes easiest. We had a good day of training camp and I’m just trying to learn a new system and get better as a team.”

And with that, the focus returned to the practice floor where the Rockets had just put the finishing touches on their third day of training camp. Sunday’s session may well have been their most spirited to date, with the final 60 minutes of the three-hour session featuring a combination of full and half-court 5-on-5 action. Afterward, McHale made mention of the positive performances turned in by Jordan Hill, Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet, the latter of whom enjoyed his best day of camp so far, swatting shots and scoring several times in the low post.

There’s little mystery in what it would mean for the Rockets to see Thabeet start tapping into the reservoir of potential lurking within his massive 7-3 frame. The club needs a dominant defensive rebounder and rim protector, and the 24-year-old Tanzanian-native has the physical tools to fill that role someday. The question, of course, is when? For all involved, the sooner the better, which is why you see Thabeet continuing to work with the Rockets coaching staff after practice as well, sweat pouring down his body, as he bangs down low over and over again, attempting to push through whatever wall stands between the player he is and the player he could soon become.

“It’s just another day for me to get better,” he says, when his work is finally done for the day. “I’m here to learn and it’s working. We have a great coaching staff, very energetic every day, there’s a lot of positive energy from everybody. My teammates are helping me to get better, they want me to be there for them every time and I don’t want to let them down.”

Make no mistake, the improvement Thabeet is seeking is just as much mental as it is physical. In many ways, he is very much still learning the game as he attempts to absorb everything from the basic fundamentals to the subtle nuances of defensive positioning and rotation. These things take time for any aspiring big man, and that is especially true of a player who did not grow up exposed to the game the same way so many of his teammates did. While most NBA players start immersing themselves in basketball as toddlers, Thabeet’s indoctrination to the game did not really take place until his teenage years. So he’s in catch-up mode now, doing everything he can to rise to the challenge and meet the demands of the position. It helps that he’s such a willing student.

“He’s very receptive,” says McHale. “He wants to be good. He wants to improve and wants to do what the coach wants him to do. So when you ask him to do something, he’s going to do it to the best of his ability.

“Hasheem’s getting better all the time. He’s improving every single day so what we need him to do is just keep on working hard because we’re going to work on the same stuff over and over again – he’ll get it.”

The repetition of which McHale speaks is required for the acquisition and cultivation of any skill; the end game in this case arriving when mastery of movement and muscle memory combines with the sort of mental acuity that allows not necessarily freedom of thought, but rather freedom to think of the right things at the right time. If a player is caught contemplating where he’s supposed to be on the floor, he’s most likely already done for. Instinctively glide from spot to spot, however, and suddenly precious fractions of a second are saved, allowing a moment to recall player specific tendencies which can be used against opponents in their attempts to score. It is in such fleeting windows of opportunity that great defenders are made.

“To be instinctive more than thinking about it,” says Thabeet of his goal as a defender. “That’s what I was doing a lot through my career: thinking and then reacting afterward. But once you’re proactive and already in the (proper) position, you make it harder for everybody else who comes in trying to score.

“The coaches want me to be proactive every time I step between the lines. They want me to be proactive and not reactive. A lot of time I was late with the help, so they tell me what I need to do and I work on it … It’s good for me to hear the coaches say, ‘Good job today. Bring some more of it tomorrow.’ So I just have to keep working.”

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