EDINBURG — When the Houston Rockets play Orlando at 7 tonight at State Farm Arena, there will be players simply trying to work up a sweat and others going all-out trying to earn a job.
James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ty Lawson, Corey Brewer and Terrence Jones, among others, are set in their roles on the team. But with only 15 of the 19 players in camp assured a roster spot for the regular season, there are plenty more players just trying to find a spot on a team, whether the Rockets or their NBA D-League affiliate Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale said Saturday guard Will Cummings, forwards Chris Walker and Jeremy Tyler, and center Joshua Smith are likely to spend a lot of time in the Valley this year for some seasoning.
“Those are probably guys that will be down here in the Valley for awhile, but they’re solid players,” McHale said. “They all bring something to the game. They’re all at that level below of where they have to be to help an NBA team right now, but that’s what we’ve used the D-League for.”
Tyler, a 6-foot-10 center, is the veteran of the bunch with three years of experience. But Cummings, Walker and Smith are all rookies. Rookie guard Denzel Livingston could also be a candidate to spend time with the Vipers.
“These young guys are coming in with an open mind. It’s all still new to them,” Vipers coach Matt Brase said. “It’s their opportunity and they know it. It can be tough as a rookie for all these guys when you’re not getting as many reps as you’re used to, so you just want to keep them positive. We just want their games at the college level to translate to the NBA.”
In the past, the Rockets have sent young players like Jones to the Vipers for a bigger workload. Jones has emerged as a reliable frontcourt contributor, but early in his career he used his 24 games for the Vipers to find his footing after just two seasons at Kentucky. The Rockets have the Vipers use those players for big minutes during games, with a heavier role in the team’s offensive and defensive responsibilities.
Center Clint Capela and forward/center Donatas Motiejunas have also benefited from Houston’s relationship with the Vipers.
“I’d tell them to take full advantage and come down here with the mindset of getting better,” Jones said. “Prove yourself every day. You have to be aggressive and make a lot of good plays and just help the Vipers get wins.”
The Rockets’ two draft picks this summer, first-rounder Sam Dekker and second-rounder Montrezl Harrell, could also see a lot of time in the D-League. McHale said both are still trying to figure out the system.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Dekker said. “I’m not in the front office. All I worry about is what I can control, and that’s me being on the court. If I play well and prove I belong up here and I can help, they’ll keep me up here. But if I need some fine-tuning or have to get better at a few things, so be it. Many players from our team spent time down here, so no one’s above getting some run in and getting some competitive play in the D-League.
“I’m just trying to get better every day and if they send me down, so be it, but right now I’m on the Rockets.”
Cummings, who has impressed in camp with his ability to penetrate and make plays, is a defensive-minded point guard who knows where he stands. No matter how well he plays while with the Rockets this preseason, playing at a position behind Lawson, Patrick Beverley and Jason Terry means he probably won’t make the Rockets’ roster but is too good to just let loose.
That likely means some time with the Vipers under the Rockets’ watch.
“Whatever they do with me, it’s whatever happens,” Cummings said. “I just like to play basketball. I’m still going to shoot the ball, pass the ball, dribble the ball. As long as they put a basketball in my hands, I’m fine. I just look forward to working hard and competing every day.”