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Isaiah Hartenstein should challenge for minutes at center

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Hartenstein is competing with Marquese Chriss for backup center minutes.

NBA: Houston Rockets-Media Day Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most under-the-radar move the Rockets made this offseason was finally signing their 2017 second-round pick, 7’1” Isaiah Hartenstein, to a three-year deal after exiling him to the G-League last season. While conventional wisdom suggests a player of Hartenstein’s inexperience shouldn’t sniff rotation minutes for a team with championship aspirations, the age of Nene Hilario mixed with the uncertainty of Marquese Chriss may fast-track a progression that’s already well ahead of schedule.

After a solid but unspectacular season in Rio Grande Valley last year, Hartenstein came to Las Vegas Summer League with the goal of affirming his place in the Daryl Morey’s plans and succeeded. While his averages of 10 points and 8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting en route to a 4-1 record were impressive, Hartenstein showed his truly translatable skills on the less sexy side of the ball as his 2.3 blocks and a steal per game anchored the summer Rockets’ defense.

Looking slimmed down and with slightly with more pep in his step, Hartenstein showed immense progress in his ability to defend guards on switches— the meat and potatoes of being a Houston big man defensively— erasing any doubts that came from his shortcomings in that regard during the G-League season (he finished in the 49th percentile for isolation defense).

Reports from training camp suggest that Hartenstein’s defensive learning curve hasn’t plateaued either. He supposedly stopped the league’s best isolation player in James Harden on consecutive possessions during one of their scrimmages (Harden scored on the third, but honestly, there mightn’t be a center on earth who could stop the MVP three times in a row, so we’ll take it).

Many (myself included) expect Chriss to find his perfect NBA role with the Rockets as a Clint Capela-lite off the bench, but that’ll almost certainly take time. Schemes, rotations, and effort are hallmarks of being a role player under Mike D’Antoni, and all three have formed a collective Achilles heel for Chriss since entering the league.

In Rio Grande Valley, Hartenstein played a role as close to a Rockets five-man as you’ll find in basketball. Never posting up (only 3 times total!) and rolling to the basket for layups and lobs like his life depended on it. His 80th percentile finish for “roll-man efficiency” suggests he’ll make for a formidable dance partner in pick and roll with either of the Rockets’ star guards.

He even showed the seeds of a reliable floor spacing game, finishing in the 89th percentile for half court jump shooting, despite low volume and the occasional off-putting sidespin on his release.

That developmental year with the Vipers undoubtably gives Hartenstein a leg up on Chriss from a scheme perspective, which likely factors into early reports suggesting he could hold a “decisive lead” in the backup center race. So it’s possible— if not likely, based off last nights performance against the Pacers— that he begins the regular season as Capela’s understudy.

Hartenstein came through with a solid 9 points (on 3-5 shooting), 2 rebounds, and a steal in 12 minutes before turning an ankle in last night’s loss to the Pacers. Meanwhile, Chriss, who drew the start, looked out of sorts after a somewhat promising debut against Memphis, scoring just 5 points on 2-8 shooting in 21 minutes of action. And though he did rack up a game-high four blocks, his issues with hustle and awareness were well on display.

We may yet even hear from Gary Clark as well. The 6’9” big man has spent some time at center with the injuries to Nene and Capela, and has played some pretty good ball. We even got a taste of Carmelo Anthony as a small-ball center against Indiana with some positive results.

Though nothing seems truly settled after just two preseason games, one thing seems for certain: we’re in for a truly tight race for backup center minutes.