NBA Training Camp Progress Report: Five Houston Rockets Who Have Impressed
The 2010-2011 season may go down as one of the most important seasons in recent memory for the Houston Rockets. Other than in 2008 after the Ron Artest acquisition, there has not been this much excitement and anxiety about a basketball season in a very long time.
With Yao Ming coming back, Trevor Ariza out of town, and Kevin Martin beginning his first full season as a Houston Rocket, there are many story-lines for fans to follow this year.
Given that the Rockets are returning all of their key contributors save Ariza from last year, and have added Courtney Lee, Yao Ming, and Brad Miller into the fold, there certainly are grounds for excitement.
However, with the new faces comes one of the head coach's biggest duties: deciding the fate of his players. Who will start? Who will be on the bench? Who will be cut?
Pre-season is the perfect time to resolve those questions. Playing in games that matter for little other than fan enjoyment and team evaluations, coaches are able to put players in different situations to see how they react.
So, for the Rockets, who is impressing Coach Adelman? Who is moving up the depth chart and showing the team something they did not think they had?
Without further ado, I give you the five Rockets who have done the most this pre-season to impress the coach.
Acquired for unpopular wing-man Trevor Ariza, Courtney Lee seemed to be merely a small piece of a deal that saved the Rockets nearly $10 million. Deep into the luxury tax, the deal appeared to be a "salary dump" that was motivated by fiscal concerns rather than basketball issues.
However, Courtney Lee seems to be eager to prove people wrong, flashing an all-around game that has impressed coaches and fans alike. Before training camp, Lee remarked to Rockets.com writer Jason Friedman that he was the fastest player on the Rockets. With players like Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry on the roster, most were eager to dismiss this remark as nothing more than typical bravado from an athlete.
However, through four games, it would be very difficult to refute his assertion that he is the fastest player on the team. He absolutely explodes off the ball and is nearly impossible to stay in front of in the open court. With a nice jump shot to complement his athleticism, Lee's upside seems tremendous.
Most importantly, unlike Ariza who had a tendency to pound the ball even when he struggled to get a good shot, Lee appears to have bought into the Rockets ball-movement based offensive schemes. He is a willing passer and has even gotten some time at point guard. While his point guard skills are suspect, there is no doubt that at the shooting guard Lee looks to be a solid contributor for years to come in Clutch City.
Has Daryl Morey uncovered his latest diamond in the rough in Ishmael Smith?
The star of the Wakeforest Deacons last year, Smith went undrafted last summer but has impressed Rockets fans and staff with his excellent athleticism and play-making ability, netting him consistent playing time in the pre-season.
Although his shooting is not up to NBA standards, his passing has kept him in the hunt for the final roster spot on the team. Whether it is extra effort, a hot streak, lack of effort from the other point guards, or true ability, Smith has looked as good as any point guard in camp.
It is said that some people play point guard while others are point guards and it is clear that Smith is a point guard. His ability to create for others has made Coach Rick Adelman into a believer quickly, and Adelman even remarked that Smith is "probably the best passer on the team."
Adelman's high praise for Smith illustrates how far he has come since draft night, where few teams had him rated in their top 100 and Smith probably was looking at a career playing basketball in Europe. The Rockets and Smith hope that he can continue his strong play and keep the stranglehold he has on the final roster spot. His presence would make a point guard injury a lot easier to stomach.
Coming over in a mid-season trade, Kevin Martin joined the Rockets with the reputation as one of the sweetest shooting guards in the league. Before the 2009-10 season, Kevin Martin carried a career 39% mark from three point range and seemingly poured it in from the outside at will.
However, after a shooting slump and a shoulder injury, Martin's shooting from outside fell to just 33% as he struggled to hit shot after shot. Over the summer, Martin reportedly worked harder than ever on all facets of his game, none more than three point shooting, where he is eager to regain his mojo from outside.
So far in the pre-season, the work appears to have paid off. Through four games, Martin has hit 42 percent of three point shots and has been scoring very effectively. In just 21 minutes a game, Martin has poured in fifteen points a game and looks as fluid as ever.
Most importantly, he has appeared to have gotten much more comfortable with the team. It was a struggle at times last season, but Martin and Brooks worked on their chemistry together. This year he seems to be more in-tune with the teammates around him. He has passed the ball into Yao effectively, has gotten in the right positions for passes from Brooks, and seems to be playing better team defense.
As the team's second injury-prone star, Martin could be the difference between respectability and contention if Yao stays healthy. Early on, he looks like he could be the difference maker.
After a difficult year in, which he was forced into emergency starting center duty, Chuck Hayes has returned to his role as defensive ace off the bench this year and has looked tremendous. Last year, Hayes showed some major strides towards offensive respectability after a 2008-2009 season during, which he seemingly lost all offensive confidence and was relegated to a lesser role.
Last year, Hayes at least showed improved shooting on open layups, consistently making them instead of missing a good number as he had in the past. However, other than the occasional right handed hook shot against weak defenders, that was the extent of his offensive arsenal.
One of the league's hardest workers, Hayes has clearly put in lots of work both in the weight room and on the court, as he looks slimmer and more skilled early on in the preseason. He has flashed a vastly improved off the dribble offensive attack, which has gotten him easy looks in the paint.
He remains one of the best passing big men in the league. His incredible court vision coupled with his tremendous chemistry with Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin, has made for some impressive assists early on in the year.
He's never going to be a go-to scorer, but his improved offense makes it a lot easier to put him on the floor consistently, as his defense is some of the league's best.
Yes, the man who has averaged 6.0 points and 4.7 rebounds a game while being limited to 12 minutes of play per game has been very impressive in the first three games of pre-season play.
Yes, the man who struggled to get rebounds over an opponent almost a foot shorter than him has been very impressive in the first three games of pre-season play.
And yes, the man who has made 2 turnovers a game despite only playing a quarter's worth has been very impressive in the first three games of pre-season play.
If you haven't realized, the man I was referring to is Yao Ming, the star center who had not played competitive basketball for 18 months before rejoining the Rockets in training camp. While he still remains a shell of his former self, his remarkable improvement may be the single most important development for the Rockets this pre-season.
Against the Orlando Magic in his first game of the pre-season, Yao looked like a man who had not played competitive basketball for 18 months and was now faced up against the league's best center, Dwight Howard. Understandably, he struggled, missing his only field goal attempt and finishing with only three points and three rebounds.
However, against San Antonio and Indiana, Yao began to show signs of his old self. He showed off a bit more of his offensive arsenal, making hook shots, jump shots, and going to the basket with more aggressiveness. Defensively, he appeared to be even slower and less mobile than he was in the past, but Rockets fans may just have to accept that that is what he may be for the rest of his career.
Most importantly, he showed little to no signs of injury. He was achy each game, but that is to be expected after such a long layoff. However, while he was achy, he had no problems with his feet and looked like he was enjoying the game again. If the Rockets want to go anywhere this year, they'd better hope that he continues to improve and stay healthy, as there truly is no substitute for a highly skilled, 7'6" center.