HOUSTON - With training camp about a month away, several Rockets players are already back on the Toyota Center practice court, working to get ready for the upcoming season. To find out what they’ve been up to this offseason, Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman will sit down with each player over the next few weeks to discuss what they’re working on, what their goals are, and how they’ve been spending the summer both on and off the court.
Taking his turn in the hot seat today is rookie forward Donatas Motiejunas. What follows is a transcript of their conversation.
JCF: So you’ve been Stateside now for several months – what’s been the biggest adjustment for you so far?
DM: The toughest adjustment is coming from Europe. After summer league, I went straight back to my hometown to get my visa. As soon as I got the visa I was thinking I was set; I would come here, get an apartment and everything was going to be easy. But when I came here everything seemed to become tougher. To get a car you need social security numbers and all those kind of things, so I was literally two months without TV and internet because there are just so many small things that go into signing up for this sort of stuff. But it’s a new experience so it’s fun.
JCF: So your fellow Lithuanian (and Rockets Director of Scouting) Arturas Karnisovas didn’t prepare you for all that?
DM: (laughs) He’s got an entire family of his own to prepare for. I’m not his kid or anything. But he’s helping a lot. He’s got me in touch with people who can help. But a lot of these are things I prefer to do myself just to have the experience so that I can handle it all on my own in the future.
JCF: So no TV, no internet for two months – that would probably drive most 20-year-olds insane. What on earth were you doing with yourself during that time?
DM: It was actually perfect. It was perfect because it gave me all that time to concentrate on practice. So I would just eat, sleep and practice. That’s it. All my focus is just on getting better. Now I’ve got most everything and am all set up. But during that time it was fine because it allowed me to only focus on basketball.
JCF: But there must have been some time when you were at home in the evening sitting in your apartment with nothing to occupy you …
DM: Yeah, but I’m living very close and I have everything available to me. And if you’re on one side of the swimming pool at my apartment complex, when you look up all you see is sky so it feels like vacation. It’s great.
JCF: What about the culture change of moving from Europe to Houston? I’d imagine for many people that would be a massive lifestyle adjustment.
DM: To be honest, it didn’t really affect me that much. There’s a lot of Mexican food places here – that’s obviously not something we had back in Europe. But that’s a good thing because the food is really good.
JCF: So I take it you’re embracing the city’s Tex-Mex scene?
DM: Oh yeah, it’s great. I love it.
JCF: Yeah, the only downside is that it’s not very good for you.
DM: Yeah, now I have to run more than ever before (laughs).
JCF: Well let’s talk about that. How is your on-court transition going? You had a great summer league and now you’re back in the gym working out with some of your fellow bigs. Is there anything at all that has surprised you or made you think, ‘Wow, I really need to get a heck of a lot better in this area if I’m going to be able to contribute?’
DM: Of course. The thing is that every guy here gives their best. Usually practice is one story and then when the game starts it’s another. Here, I try to just increase my game and my level of energy, and try to keep my level of energy as high as possible throughout. But I’m telling you, when the games start it’s a new story and sometimes the guys who are really good on the court during practice aren’t really good in the games. My goal is to be really good in the games and of course that starts with showing the coaches that I can be really good in practice. But they already know that I’m going to work my (butt) off every day and that it’s my goal to be the best that I can be.
JCF: One of the things I learned about Coach McHale last year is that he wanted each player to really only focus on just a few things when they’re out on the court because if you focus on too many things then it’s easy to start thinking too much instead of letting your instincts and muscle memory do the work. Has he had a similar conversation with you yet?
DM: Usually that’s true but right now he’s working with me on everything because I have so much to learn. Offensively, defensively, one-one-one, two-on-two – we’re working on everything. But yes, he asks us to be more simple when we’re out on the court. He’s shown me a couple of simple moves that worked for him – jump-hooks and counters from each side – those are simple things but that’s how you have to start and then build from there. But right now this is the off-season which is when you have time to work on everything so that’s what we’re doing.
JCF: How helpful has it been for you to go up against a defensive monster like Omer Asik every day?
DM: So that’s the thing: When you go up against that kind of player you see really quickly where you are and what you need to work on. He’s already earned his reputation so I need to check myself. I need to learn how to deal with these kinds of players because that’s what I’m going to be facing every day.
JCF: So what have you learned so far?
DM: My quickness is my weapon, but I knew that already. But he’s also fast so I just need to outsmart him. I need to be more consistent and a smarter player. Just coming from Europe, there are things I learn every day about the NBA and I have to work to figure out how to adjust and adapt my game.
JCF: Do you have a personal goal in mind for this coming year?
DM: (Shouts over to Rockets Vice President of Player Personnel Gersson Rosas, who just happens to be walking by: “Hey Gersson, what’s my goal for this year?” Rosas’ response: “Your goal is to improve in every area of your game, improve your body, and to find a way to see if you can get into the rotation.”)
JCF: That’s cheating.
DM: (laughs) No it’s not. That’s the perfect answer. That’s what I hear every day. And that’s all I’m focused on.