HOUSTON - This is it. The long, slow grind of August and September has nearly come to an end. Media day is tomorrow. Training camp begins in less than 48 hours. Basketball is back. Hallelujah.
So to get you ready for the onslaught of news and coverage that is about to flow forth through the electronic ether and onto your screen, here are a handful of observations culled from having spent a healthy portion of the summer months watching the Rockets players work out on their own and play pick-up ball on the club’s practice court:
-- James Harden will always be known more for his otherworldly efficient scoring prowess and overall basketball IQ than for high-flying dunks or other aerial acrobatics, but the 24-year-old enters this year’s camp with noticeably more bounce than we’ve previously seen from him. That’s not to say he’s suddenly morphed into the second coming of Dominique Wilkins, but there’s certainly more spring in his step when he does lift off to throw one down. But forget leaping ability – it’s his remarkable core strength that gives him the necessary body control to perform that balletic Euro step or bully his way past defenders on those unstoppable forays into the lane, and he's stronger than ever in that area, too. Perhaps the most important takeaway, however: Harden is clearly on a mission, showing absolutely zero signs of contentment after turning in the best season of his career a year ago. He's in great shape both physically and mentally, incorporating a businesslike approach to ensure that he and his teammates are on the same page and taking this title contention stuff seriously. Hard as it may be to believe after watching his breakout season with the Rockets, the best is still yet to come from Houston’s All-Star two-guard.
-- Speaking of All-Stars arriving in phenomenal shape, Dwight Howard still looks like he walked straight out of a superhero comic book. That’s no newsflash, of course – Howard has been a physical freak since the moment he entered the league. Also not at all surprising: He’s been unstoppable when running the pick-and-roll with Houston’s perimeter players – but hey, what else would you expect in pick-up situations when combining the league’s preeminent roll man with the likes of Harden and Jeremy Lin? More meaningful is this subtle but massively important potential development: Howard has done a superb job this week recognizing double-teams and hitting the open man along the perimeter for unobstructed 3s – that’s the kind of oft-overlooked skill that can pay enormous dividends for Houston this season. Last but not least: it will truly be fascinating to watch the big man battles that will ensue when Howard and Omer Asik get to go toe-to-toe when camp begins. That sort of elite competition should only serve to bring out the best in both of these behemoths.
-- Chandler Parsons made a concerted effort this summer to get more arc on his jump shot and the early returns are definitely positive in that regard. As he conceded in this Q&A, the key will be ensuring his shot doesn’t flatten out when the grind of the season produces weary legs. It’s worth remembering, however, that Parsons isn’t attempting to overcome a weakness; he’s merely trying to shore up an area of strength. The 24-year-old hit 38.5 percent of his shots from downtown a season ago, including an absurd mark of 50 percent from the corners.
-- There’s nothing quite like watching NBA players diligently and tirelessly working to master their craft. Tuesday afternoon found Jeremy Lin in the gym accompanied by a pair of individuals whose only job was to rebound and pass the ball as he launched shots from seven different locations beyond the 3-point line. He had to work his way around the arc by hitting seven shots from each station without missing two in a row, and any time he failed to do so he had to work his way back from the location before. Bear in mind; this marathon drill took place after Lin had already gone through a full workout, weights included. By now the theme should be clear to all: for NBA players, the goal isn’t just getting into great shape; it’s being able to perform at or near peak levels even after fatigue, wear and tear set in. Few approach that task with more zeal and tenacity than does Lin.
-- Appropriately enough, go ahead and throw Patrick Beverley in that group with Lin as well. Monday was supposed to be his day off. But as he’s done for the vast majority of the summer, he showed up to take shots and lift anyway. Similarly to the way we’re looking forward to watching Howard and Asik battle in camp, it’s going to be a treat to see Lin and Beverley push each other to greater heights, especially given the amount of offseason work each has put into improving their respective games.
-- Last month we mentioned Robert Covington as a player to keep your eyes on and absolutely nothing has changed on that front after watching him workout at Toyota Center these past two months and then seeing him take part in pick-up games with the big boys this week. He just belongs. He can obviously effortlessly stroke it from long range, but his overall feel belies his experience level (not to mention his undrafted status) as well. He can defend, hit the glass, run the floor like a gazelle, and the coaches love him, too.
-- In a similar vein, it's going to be fun to watch the progression and development of rookie Isaiah Canaan. His shooting stroke is as quick and deadly as advertised which, given this team’s weapons and the way it values the 3-point shot, will make him an intriguing option for the coaching staff to consider as he accrues additional experience.
-- Is this were high school and an award for “most popular” were handed out, Francisco Garcia would likely win in a landslide. His teammates love him. His coaches love him. He just has an innate gift for keeping things loose and making everyone around him feel comfortable. That affable attitude played a large part in his ability to seamlessly transition from bit player to essential playoff performer at the end of last season, and now that he’s firmly entrenched in Houston his leadership, versatility and intangibles may very well prove to be more valuable than ever.
-- Last but not least, a keen observation from Rockets Director of Broadcasting and radio announcer, Joel Blank: He picked up on the fact that every player at the facility, regardless of whether or not they were taking part or had already finished their workouts, stayed to watch every single pick-up game that took place on the practice court this week. These guys are absolutely chomping at the bit to get going. Then again, aren't we all?