Through the first four games of the season, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers have gotten off to a 3-0 start and very narrowly lost against the Los Angeles D-Fenders last night, 128-127.
The Vipers won their season opener on a circus, last-minute three by Geron Johnson, then rifled through a thrilling triple-overtime win over the Bakersfield Jam on Tuesday. Needless to say, the early returns have been as interesting as they have been exciting.
First, the development of Clint Capela will be a very slow process. The thing about Capela's injury is that a groin can be especially bothersome considering the track-fast pace the Vipers play. A lot of the Xs and Os and terminology have changed from last season but the plan of attack is still very much the same.
The Vipers are full of tweeners and hybrid guys that run up the court as if they are fleeing from a tsunami. You look over at the opposing team in the fourth quarter, and everyone has their hands on their knees huffing and puffing and hoping to wrap this game up soon. Considering that big men are not especially structurally sound, you don't exactly want your first round pick pulling or even tearing a leg muscle trying to keep up.
Capela sat out the season opener but then looked smooth and lithe running up the court in limited minutes the next day against the Austin Spurs (San Antonio's affiliate) on Nov. 15. He moves rather gracefully for a 6-11, 220-pound guy, yet you could tell that he's not quite going at full speed yet.
You could list some stats and math things here, but this column holds that if you're looking at stats in the D-League then you're kind of missing the point. The numbers around here (just like numbers from college) can be misleading indicators if you're trying to predict future success. What do you think the "D" stands for?
Capela seems to be adept in the post position. He positions his body well defensively and knows how to use his considerable wing span to create difficulties for shooters. In one sequence against the Spurs, he stuck with his man on defense from the corner all the way down to the post ,but he positioned his body to utilize the baseline to limit the shooter's movement on the court the way a cornerback would use a sideline in football.
The Spurs' ball-handler could only really dribble down one direction and by the time the guy tried to put up a shot, he was pretty much under the basket with little room to get momentum for a decent layup.
With every game, Capela looks to be settling in and getting more comfortable. His best game has come against the Bakersfield Jam (Phoenix affiliate) and he's had a number of blocked shots and a few rebounds so far. That's all well and good, but the early look suggests that the Rockets may get some value out of Capela if he's allowed the time to completely heal up and not thrown into the bigs so soon. (Stay healthy Dwight!)
26-year old journey man Earl Clark is a major contributor to the Vipers' good start. You see this guy play and you quickly deduce why so many teams have brought this guy on board... and also why he's been waived or traded as many times as he has been signed.
Clark is one of those CYOS (Create your own shot) guys. He handles the ball well and has surprisingly good shot mechanics even when he attempts an errant shot. His release is fluid and relaxed and stays that way through most of the game when everyone else is tired. He does show a tendency to hold on to the ball too long at times. The Vipers love to whip the ball around the world looking for the guy camping out wide open behind the arc. When Clark doesn't have a shot he'll put his head down and try to force something.
This can be fun as the guy displays a strong step when he gets through the lane. It can work out for him often enough to where he puts up a good shot and it goes in, but that's not how the Vipers do things. I suspect this is just the result of him playing one way for so long and having to adjust to a new scheme.
Clark seems to be pretty open-minded and humble about learning new things and adjusting his game according to what's asked of him. Unfortunately he hurt his ankle in yesterday's game against the L.A. D-Fenders (Lakers affiliate) and his status is unknown at the moment. Assuming the ankle injury isn't serious you can be sure Clark is getting a call-up this season.
"Winning is the first step, I've read and seen guys who come down here and score 50 points and they're still down here. I'm just trying to show teams I can do the little things that can help my team win. Things like defensive stops, guarding multiple positions. Things the big leagues will like what you're doing."
Loose Ball Observations:
- I totally jinxed local kid Brandon Provost. He got cut a few hours after last week's dispatch but there's always a chance he can come back once the roster turns over in a few weeks. It's not uncommon for D-League teams to look completely different by Christmas. Head Coach Nevada Smith told The Monitor that the decision wasn't entirely based on talent. The Vipers just happen to be pretty loaded at the guard position and Provost had to be the odd man out.
- Fun bit of trivia: who won the first coach's challenge in NBA D-League history? Why that would be Vipers Coach Nevada Smith! Smith successfully challenged a charge foul on rookie Chane Behanan with about eleven minutes left in the second quarter of its season opener against the Spurs. The call was overturned and Behanan, who made the basket on the play, was attributed a free throw for a 3-point play.
- Rockets assignee and Summer League stand out Nick Johnson joined the team in time to face the Bakersfield Jam (Pheonix's affiliate) and promptly dropped 39 points in a crazy triple overtime game like it's no big deal. Take a look at this sequence at the end of that Bakersfield game. Incredible.
(That's the aforementioned Earl Clark hitting a three with .9 seconds left to force overtime.)
- Troy Daniels' D-League record for threes made in a single game lasted all of 315 days as Baylor Bears product Brady Heslip of the Reno Bighorns (Sacramento's affiliate) nailed 11 treys in his first D-League game. The Bighorns are of particular interest to the Vipers this season in that they are also infatuated with threes under the Grinnell System. Everyone around the league is eagerly awaiting a potential Western Conference Finals preview on Jan. 8 between these two teams. A few nylon nets should be getting worn out.
- Take a look at shot chart through the first week of the season. Look familiar?
- The Vipers are pretty much a mirror image of their NBA counterparts and are averaging just over 30 threes a game, making around 42 percent of them. It's down a little bit from last year when they shot about 15 more threes a game, but a bit of regression is to be expected considering that only two of the 12 players on the team were here last year. Still it's impressive, if not a bit frightening, that Nevada Smith's coaching philosophies are yielding great results at such a high clip. If the action provided by the first four games is any indicator what's to come, then at some point I think I'm going to start calling them the Trio Grande Valley Vipers.
On Saturday the Vipers return home to play the Oklahoma City Blue (OKC's affiliate) then hit the road again for a back-to-back against the Santa Cruz Warriors (Golden State's affiliate).