The Rio Grande Valley Vipers, D-League affiliate of the Houston Rockets, have announced their roster a couple weeks before the 2016-17 season tips off. They return four players from last year’s playoff team. The season opener roster will fall between 10-13 players, depending on who the Rockets assign. Here’s a breakdown of the 17-man training camp squad, player by player.
Isaiah Taylor: A speedy guard from University of Texas, Taylor left school after his junior year. Unfortunately, he went undrafted, but joined the Rockets for the 2016 Summer League and preseason. He is a good finisher around the basket and has the speed and handles to get there. His main deficiency is lack of a consistent jump shot and NBA size.
Gary Payton II: The Son of The Glove, Payton II has followed in his dad’s footsteps as an elite defender, twice winning Pac-12 Defender of the Year. He is a great athlete, and was known for his high flying dunks while at Oregon State. He rebounds well for a guard, but will need to develop his passing and creativity on offense in his first year.
Antoine Mason: Another son of a former NBA star, Antoine’s father was the late, great Anthony Mason. He was one of the nation’s top scorers in his final year at Niagara, before transferring to Auburn for one season. Last year, he spent the season in Cyprus, scoring 11 points per game for Apollon Limassol.
Paul Jesperson: Jesperson is best known for his half court buzzer beater to beat Texas in last year’s NCAA Tournament. He was a consistent three-point shooter for Northern Iowa, finishing with 82 trifectas made last year.
Shane Richards: The rookie from Manhattan can hit from downtown. He was one of only 5 players in MAAC history to finish their career with more than 300 threes made, including a school single season record 92 as a junior. He’s a tall guard at 6-foot-5’.
Darius Morris: One of the players returning from last year’s squad, Morris is also one of the more experienced players on the team. He has spent times in the NBA with the Lakers, Grizzlies, Clippers, and Nets since his time starring for the University of Michigan. In his first stint with RGV in 2014, he was electric. His best game came in a playoff loss, when he finished with 51 points and 18 assists. Morris is a great all around point guard and will be counted on to be a leader in 2016.
Julien Lewis: “Juice” spent his time in college split between Texas and Fresno State. He is a good defender, and uses his 6-foot-4-inch frame well on both sides of the ball. His scoring isn’t great, but he can create space and hit the occasional jump shot.
Ameen Tanksley: He’s a big, strong left handed guard, hailing from Philadelphia. As is true with most guards from Philly, he is not afraid of using his body on the attack, and he’s also a willing shooter from the perimeter. The Vipers spent one of their two first round picks on the rookie from Hofstra.
Jarvis Threatt: An exciting returning player from last season, Threatt is the reigning D-League Dunk Contest champion. He has averaged just under 13 PPG in his two seasons with RGV, following a tumultuous, three-year career at Delaware.
JP Tokoto: One of the players acquired in a trade in the past week, Tokoto will look to build on his rookie season in the D-League. He averaged 11 points and 4 rebounds per game for the Oklahoma City Blue. The former North Carolina Tar Heel is best known for his athleticism and defensive ability.
PJ Hairston: Like Tokoto, Hairston made his name at UNC. Since then, he has spent time in the D-League, as well as stints with the Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets, averaging 6 points per game in over 100 NBA games. He will look to stay out of trouble off the court, and showcase the skills that made him a first round pick in 2014.
LeBryan Nash: The former Oklahoma State star spent last season dominating the top league in Japan. He was the MVP of the All Star Game, broke the single game scoring record with 54, and averaged 27 per game. He was a top recruit in high school and was a perennial all conference player at Oklahoma State. He is hungry for a chance to show NBA teams what they missed on in the 2015 Draft.
Emmanuel Malou: Malou was a star in junior college, and was expected to join Iowa State. That never happened, and the African-born, Australia-raised 6’9’’ 210-pound athlete entered the 2016 NBA Draft. He’s an intriguing prospect, and will be trying to prove the hype is real in his first professional season.
Jamaal Samuel: Another player that spent time at multiple schools, he began his college career in junior college, then a year at Illinois State, before finishing at Louisiana-Monroe Samuel is a grinder, and the 6’9’’ New Orleans native will be mainly counted on to defend, and rebound, hopefully improving on his 4.7 rebounds a game as a senior.
Joshua Smith: While Smith played for the Vipers last season, fans may have a tough time recognizing him. He lost more than 50 pounds in the offseason after his weight affected his play down the stretch, averaging 8 points and 5 rebounds per game. He has a good skill set in the post, and with the slimmer frame, may add some explosion to the rim.
Chris Walker: The former Florida Gator is back for another season in the Valley. Walker averaged 9 points per game, and provided elite athleticism, mainly off the bench, in 2015. He uses his long frame and leaping ability to both attack the rim for dunks, and protect the rim, averaging over a block per game.
Markus Kennedy: An undersized center, or power forward, Kennedy is an effective scorer around the basket. He was coached by legend Larry Brown in his time at SMU, and finished his senior year averaging 9 points, 6 rebounds and a block. He will need to use good technique against bigger players down low, but his motor and basketball IQ should allow him to be a successful post player for RGV.
The Vipers open their season November 13th at home against Reno. Matt Brase, grandson of Arizona coaching legend Lute Olson, will be entering his second season as Rio Grande Valley’s head coach. The team was eliminated by Austin in the first round of the playoffs in 2015-16.