The Rockets came to Las Vegas with four NBA players and a second-round draft pick in tow, and all they got were three losses, a sports hernia to their top point guard prospect and another "playoff" exit at the hand of the Warriors. Here's what we learned:
1. Sam Dekker has his athleticism back
The 6-9 former first round draft pick didn't get to play in Summer League last year because of a back injury that robbed him of his rookie year. But he worked hard on his recovery and looked really, really healthy in four games.
He still has some serious holes in his game. His outside shot looked rushed and hesitant, but he wasn't playing with anyone who could remotely pass. Playing alongside James Harden or, god forbid, Pablo Prigioni, would mean he gets passes on time and wide open. Part of why we hate Corey Brewer so much is because his shots were so open, and he couldn't hit a thing. Dekker doesn't have a consistent stroke, but the form is there.
More importantly, he is a real athlete. Don't let the blinding paleness fool you, he had several dunks in this stretch of games in which it looked like he might have a contested layup or foul, and he just ran right by the defender and beat him to the rim. We still, again, have yet to see him with a real point guard at full speed — in his limited minutes last year, he didn't look 70 percent as athletic as he did in the stretches I saw — but if he can make precise cuts in a D'Antoni scheme, he could help this year. That's a big bonus.
Note: I wrote the above before watching Rockets vs. Bucks on Friday evening. Dekker hit five three-pointers in that game and looked confident and in rhythm doing so. The shots he missed, his elbow flew out. You can see the vase through the ball of clay. I'd bet he hits 35 percent of his threes this year.
2. I was half-wrong about K.J. McDaniels
I wrote that he wasn't impressing just a few days ago. By that point, he had shot poorly, made poor decisions, and looked like he hadn't grown at all as a player since the Rockets signed him to their mid-level exception a year ago.
The last two games were somewhat of a reversal, mainly from the perimeter: he shot 5/10 from deep, looked comfortable taking opponents off the bounce, and, in every game, gave the crowd a dunk to ooh and ahh about. He still is way too mistake-prone — 5 turnovers against the Bucks, many of them avoidable — but he at least showed some growth. That's all we were hoping for, and we've gotten it.
Making shots in Summer League is one thing, making shots in the NBA, against NBA defenses is another. But hopefully this stretch gives him the confidence to attack the rest of his summer and make a big impression on the Rockets' coaching staff in the fall. They should be going in with open eyes, and hopefully that means K.J. gets a fresh start, and capitalizes.
3. When Montrezl Harrell plays, you can't take your eyes off him
The second-year player out of Louisville fell out of the rotation last year as J.B. Bickerstaff tightened ranks with veterans in the hope that changing nothing would change something. The definition of insanity, in other words.
In the process, he deprived Rockets fans of the simple joy of watching Montrezl Harrell on a basketball court. Every moment he spent on the court, there was rarely another topic the announcers could discuss. The coup de grace was the SL finale, when Isiah Thomas was giddy over the rebounds Harrell was skying for, diving on the floor, bouncing up and down, complaining to the referee, all of it. This kid plays so hard, it's intoxicating.
There might not be many minutes for him again this year. Assuming Donatas Motiejunas re-signs, he's probably the fifth big man in the rotation, behind Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson, Nene and Donuts. I could see a scenario in which, by sheer hustle, he supplants an oft-injured Nene, but he just doesn't have much of an avenue for playing time when everyone is active.
He has a short fuse, but the motor is real, his length is real. He had one moment on Friday where he actually split a double-team, off the dribble, and finished with a dunk. He has the beginnings of a multi-faceted game. But he plays with such joie de vivre that any time he gets on the court will be must-see TV.
4. Chinanu Onuaku does not look ready
Last year, Montrezl Harrell kind of took us all by storm with like 70% of the play I just described. No such luck from his Louisville teammate, which isn't a full indictment. Harrell played four years under Rick Pitino, Onuaku left when he was 19. But scoring two points in 20 minutes per game is not the impression you want to leave on your coaching staff.
I love Onuaku's feel for the game and his defensive abilities. He showed a knack for rebounding and had a few blocked shots. But his game is probably best when he knows a system, feels where his teammates will be and deliver timely passes and cuts. He never looked comfortable on the floor. His Summer League ended with an unfortunate bang: he got tripped in the lane against the Bucks, banged his knee on the floor and bruised it, not to return.
He should get ready to ride the bus in the D-League. He has ability, but he's not going to sniff the floor this season.
5. There is no diamond in the rough
Kyle Wiltjer did exactly what he was brought in to do: shoot threes well and nothing more. He hit some impressive shots — he's got a quick release and fantastic size, and he can get that shot off whenever he wants — but looked wooden and stiff in every other aspect of the game. I wouldn't be surprised if he catches on the NBA, because he's got such a clear-cut NBA skill. But the Rockets don't have room for him. He'd be great to have in the RGV, but my guess is he's snatched up like Christian Wood was.
Gary Payton II suffered a sports hernia, and hopefully he's recovered by camp. I didn't get to watch much of him before he went down. Isaiah Taylor is all kinds of quick and athletic, but his lack of size and lack of vision and passing will keep him off the floor. A poor man's Ish Smith doesn't have a place in this league.
Wu Guanxi finally got on the court in the final game and even got a layup! The crowd, and Montrezl Harrell from the bench, chanted "Wuuuuuuuu" and it was fun. Tonye Jekiri has great size but if you ask me for a single memorable play he made, I couldn't give you one. Kenny Gaines is athletic and hit some threes. Chris Walker had another summer of being tall and athletic and not much else.
Summer League is rarely the place where you find guys who surprise enough to make it onto an NBA squad, especlally one like the Rockets that's all booked up. Maybe Wiltjer breaks the mold, but my money remains on the status quo.
The next basketball we get is in the preseason in October. Enjoy the dead period, everyone.