Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t exactly known for playing young guys, and with the team in the midst of a several-year championship window, it’s understandable why he usually prefers experienced veterans.
But if the Rockets are going to find the ultimate success this season and even beyond, they should consider finding more playing time for a trio of young players that have showed some promise.
Gary Clark, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Chris Clemons have been seeing some time of late, especially with injuries to Eric Gordon and Danuel House, and Clint Capela missing time with an illness, but their minutes have been mostly limited. When given the opportunity, however, they’ve shown they can produce at a near or better level than some of the current veteran backups.
Though Clemons has played in 12 games, his minutes have been limited to 8.4 per contest. But on the few chances he’s had for extended playing time, he’s shown the fearless shooting that endeared him to Rockets fans during Summer League and had many figuring he could make a run at some legitimate action.
Clemons’ best game came in a 20-point win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 16 in which he went for 19 points on 7-11 shooting from the field and 5-9 from beyond the arc. He played 28 minutes of action because Russell Westbrook was sitting out on load management, but despite his hot shooting performance, he’s failed to play more than 8 minutes in any game since then.
He also played 22 minutes in the infamous shellacking at the hands of the Miami Heat back on November 3, and though its often tough to gather solid information from blow-outs, Clemons still had 16 points on 5-10 from the field and 4-9 from three.
Mike D’Antoni prefers to lean on Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore, but despite fitting into the coach’s plan with their veteran acumen, they’e both off to slow starts with their shooting. Rivers is shooting just 40 percent from the field and 28 percent from deep, while McLemore is putting up 33 percent from the field and 29 percent from deep.
One of the common issues the Rockets have had in the D’Antoni era is that they are primarily a three-point shooting team without any elite three-point shooters. And while Clemons has a ton of work to do to establish himself as an elite shooter, small sample size theater has him currently shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc after lighting it up from deep over the summer as well. It could be just who he is. The Rockets would do well to find out.
And though there are legitimate concerns about his size on the defensive end, Rivers and McLemore are both currently sporting negative defensive plus-minus ratings as well. I was high on McLemore coming into the season, but I wouldn’t mind taking some more of his minutes and giving them to Clemons with the full green light to shoot.
Hartenstein is a curious case. The Rockets have been high on him publicly, often referring to him as “Capela-lite”, and though he’s spent a fair amount time in the G-League in the past, he’s been dominant at that level, winning the G-League Finals MVP last season.
But that hasn’t translated to any extensive playing time at the varsity level, as he appeared in just 28 games last season and in 6 so far this year. But in his only extensive playing time on November 16 against Minnesota, he went for 6 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in 30 minutes of action.
He needs to show more consistency, and he does struggle at times with fouls, as many young big men do, but Tyson Chandler will play limited minutes all season, and despite some solid D, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. Which should leave an opening for Hartenstein to try to prove himself.
He’s still just 21 years old, and big men often take longer to mature than perimeter players, so it would be beneficial for the Rockets to continue to develop him. And the only way to do that is with more court time.
Clark was a big story last season, earning some early playing time with his hustle and defensive prowess, but he tailed off as the season went on and seemed like a forgotten man to start this season, and already has spent time in the G-League. But Clark received his first substantial playing time of the season this week against the Heat, and he responded with 12 points, 8 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block, and suddenly, he’s back on the radar.
The Rockets have mostly been relying on Thabo Sefolosha at the backup forward spot, and though the veteran can still defend, he’s been mostly a black hole on offense. Sefolosha is averaging just 1.9 points per game in 11 minutes per contest, and he’s shooting just 29 percent from both the field and from three.
Clark, on the other hand, went 2-6 from deep on Wednesday night and is shooting 40 percent for the year from range (on admittedly few opportunities). If Clark can keep up any semblance of a three-point shot, he should begin to take minutes from Sefolosha, who’s looked every bit his 35 years of age so far this season. But he can’t do that without the opportunity.
The Rockets have some big decisions coming up. Clark and Hartenstein both have guarantees shortly forthcoming on their personal contract situations, while what the Rockets decide to do with McLemore could signal how they feel about Clemons.
Dates after which Rockets players will out-earn their partial guarantees by still being on the roster (for luxury tax purposes):— Albert Nahmad (@AlbertNahmad) November 24, 2019
- Ben McLemore ($500,000): December 1, 2019
- Gary Clark ($708,746): January 5, 2020
- Isaiah Hartenstein ($708,746): January 7, 2020
In addition, once Eric Gordon returns, the rotation will be clogged up even more, but the Rockets have some young talent on this team. Despite being primarily a veteran squad, these three young guys, in particular, look like they have some potential to contribute. It’d be shame to see it happen with another team.
If you could pick one young Rocket to start getting more playing time immediately, who would it be?
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Why, oh why can’t it be Luka?