I really did not want Summer League to end.
And with good reason. Not just because the week-long event is like the Comic-Con for NBA junkies like myself, but because things could not have gone much better for the Rockets in Las Vegas, and I’m not talking about their 4-1 record. Houston was all the rage at Cox Pavilion this week as the team’s four first round pick rookies (three from this year’s draft and one from 2011) took the league by storm.
I was struck by not just their talent and potential, but by the fact that they quickly came together as a team. Often in Summer League play, players are out to boost their numbers and stats in the hope of making an NBA team, but that wasn’t the case with these Rockets. They shared the ball and passed about as well as any team I’ve seen, and as a result, everyone’s stock soared.
After spending a very fun week in Vegas to watch the squad, here are my thoughts on the Rockets rookies.
One of the big questions I was left with after watching the Rockets play in Vegas – how in the world did Jeremy Lamb fall to the Rockets with the 12th pick?
Lamb is probably the most NBA-ready prospect the Rockets have. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard out of UConn scores seemingly effortlessly and does it in bunches — I’d say he can score in the league right now, no question. He’s got excellent range, unafraid to pull up from deep, and his mid-range game is even better than that. What struck me is his quick release — quicker than I thought — which he uses to catch-and-shoot quickly or take his man off the dribble and get off a pull-up before the defender can recover.
Offensively he’s gifted, scoring with the same sleepy-eyed, “Is he lazy?” kind of vibe you get from Tracy McGrady.
Defensively he’ll have to go to work, and that means getting bigger/stronger and learning to put his near 7-foot wingspan to better use. That’s a major need, but there is a very high upside to Jeremy Lamb and I think that was showcased in Vegas.
I’ve probably gushed about Motiejunas enough as literally a minute into his first game he started to impress me.
There was a play in Game 4 (his last) where Donatas got the ball about 15 feet out just off left baseline, posting up against a defender who had bodied him up. Motiejunas paused briefly, then exploded towards the lane, sweeping past the basket and hooking it from about 5-6 feet as it softly bounced in. The move was so quick and fast that he had completely dusted his defender.
This is his strength — post moves. He is very fundamentally sound there and makes post-moves with both hands with military-like precision.
He’s not a shotblocker, so he doesn’t translate to the ideal five, but he gives McHale a great option at that spot for speed lineups as his combination of size, mobility and quickness is going to be hard for any pivot to contain.
Generally the Rockets organization would welcome their players being hyped, but in the case of Motiejunas, they go out of their way to try to diffuse it. He’s not an elite athlete and he’s not a great shooter (after going 2-2 from distance in Game 1, he missed his next 5). They definitely don’t want the bar of expectations in Houston to damage this kid, but he’s got great size and works as hard as anyone, I’m told.
Personally, I think he’s a hell of a power forward prospect and has a bright future.
I wasn’t thrilled with the Terrence Jones pick at 18, but it wasn’t because I didn’t like him as a player — rather the 6-foot-9 “solid” power forward cupboard at the Toyota Center was plenty stocked already.
Perhaps it was because I had the bar of expectations set lower, but Jones was the one who impressed me the most in Summer League.
First off, he has NBA size – he’s only 20 years old, yet he looks very strong in the upper body area, like he’s trying to smuggle a couple of bowling balls into Mexico. He uses it effectively to get rebounds and to defend in the post, where he looked very good.
In my opinion, Jones has a higher upside than Patrick Patterson does. He’s not a tweener – he looks like a legit hybrid to me. While Patterson is a four that could maybe slide to the three, Jones is a huge three that can legitimately defend fours and maybe even play some center in small lineups.
He passes very well. He’ll also get the board and run the break himself. He looks much more comfortable facing up his man 18-feet out than he does backing him down in the post. He has a very sleepy crossover move that he consistently used to go left on his man and attack the basket. We’ll see how effective that move is when he’s going up against much stronger and quicker players in NBA games, but in Summer League, he was a man among boys.
My hunch is Jones was originally the most likely to be traded, but if not dealt, I have a feeling that one day we’ll look back at the Chase Budinger for Terrence Jones trade and wonder how they were able to pull it off.
After struggling for the first two games, the Iowa State version of Royce White made an appearance starting in Game 3, and was it ever fun to watch. He started hitting the glass, running the break and showcasing his terrific passing skills. “Ooohs” and “ahhs” rained down from the stands every time he made a play. He’s going to be exciting.
I think he’s got a high basketball IQ. He’s also an emotional player. If he doesn’t get a call when he thinks he’s fouled, something is triggered and you can see it. His nostrils flare and his eyes widen a bit… and he’s going to do something. In fact, when I would see this I would often say to the media member next to me, “Here we go.” Sacramento’s Thomas Robinson and Chicago’s Jamie Skeen know that look well. White abused both players in the same fashion — faced them up from beyond the three-point line, went right at them, crossed them over and darted to the hoop, launching 260+ pounds into the air for a thunderous jam.
He’s got huge hands too. Trust me… I shook one of them, and I don’t know where my hand went. I know it was in there somewhere, but it was swallowed, like a Q-Tip falling into a baseball glove.
Now before I rave too much, I have to point out that White has serious flaws. He can’t shoot a lick, and that includes unguarded shots from the free throw line. He’s turnover-prone and his defense in the post needs more work than I thought (he had 8 fouls in the last game). One individual there told me his footwork on defense will need some help. Those aren’t small things… they’re big.
But his strength and unique skillset, combined with his Charles Barkley-like charisma (check out him talking about coming to the defense of Zoran Dragic after a small altercation), is going to make him a huge fan favorite in Houston. Right now, if I was considering buying a Rockets jersey, I’d want White’s.
I had high hopes for Machado coming in as it was both a shock to me that he 1) went undrafted and 2) chose the Rockets (Machado would admit he was tipped off that Kyle Lowry was going to be traded).
Having said that, I think he was a bit of a disappointment early, then came on strong late, eventually replacing Courtney Fortson as the starter. In his final game, he scored 20 to go with 6 dimes and 4 steals.
He’s in excellent shape and I think he’s got good point guard skills. He did not shoot very effectively (38.9% in 5 games), but I think he’s got a real chance at being an NBA backup or third string somewhere right now.
Will that be in Houston? With Jeremy Lin locked in as the starter and Toney Douglas having a guaranteed contract and Shaun Livingston partially guaranteed, there may not be room outside of a training camp invite. I don’t think the Rockets will be able to “Rio Grande” Machado — someone might be able to give him a better look. He does strike me as the type of undrafted point guard the Rockets like to invite to camp, cut, watch succeed somewhere else then bring back seven months later for $25 million.
Credit Daryl Morey, Sam Hinkie, Gersson Rosas and the Rockets scouting staff — they have had outstandings drafts the past two seasons. The key rookies all nailed it and while the odds are that not all will be major successes at the NBA level, it’s a good roll of the dice that one or more in that group will really pan out. All in all, unless you’re Marcus Morris, you have to be more excited about the Rockets’ future than you were a week ago.