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Checking in on the Rockets’ young prospects

Following a lackluster summer league, which of the Rockets’ young prospects showed signs of growth this summer?

NBA: Miami Heat at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Following the release of Chris Chiozza and Deyonte Davis earlier this month, the Rockets’ roster is once again desperately strapped for young upside.

That reality is understandable for a championship-or-bust team such as Houston. But with an ungodly amount of money tied up in their three primary players going forward, a young player on the fringes of the roster “popping” this coming season would make this nucleus seem much more viable long-term.

So as it stands, the only players likely to make the Rockets’ roster under the age of 25 are Isaiah Hartenstein (age 21), Gary Clark (age 24), and Chris Clemons (age 22). Let’s dig in to what each showed this summer:

Isaiah Hartenstein

Two years into his development project and fresh off a G-League Finals MVP award, Las Vegas Summer League was a step back for Hartenstein. Sure, he averaged 16 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game through three games prior to sustaining an ankle injury, but Hartenstein failed to leave much of an impression on viewers.

Offensively, the necessities were there for the former 2018 second-round pick, as he rolled to the rim and crashed the offensive glass well, but none of his newly refined skills translated. Hartenstein failed to register a single assist in three games, he wasn’t efficient around the rim by his standards, and he didn’t make a single spot-up jumper— after attempting almost two per game this season.

What’s more troubling, however, was his defense, as opponents relentlessly went at him in isolation. Per Synergy Sports, through three games, Hartenstein posted one of the worst marks in all of summer league defending switches (albeit, only 15 possessions), finding himself absolutely helpless on numerous occasions, as guards rocked him to sleep before hitting a rhythm jumper. That’s especially disconcerting when one considers that in recent years, Rockets’ bigs have defended more switches than any other team in the league.

The signing of Tyson Chandler delays the need for Hartenstein to contribute in any meaningful way anytime soon, but entering year two of a three-year deal, one would have liked to see more from Hartenstein this summer. Unfortunately, anything he does contribute in the G-League this season is essentially inconsequential. Hartenstein needs to show it against NBA talent, and soon.

Gary Clark

Despite outpacing his G-League scoring average in Las Vegas Summer League, Clark stagnated this summer.

Projecting as a prototypical three-and-D wing based on his frame and instincts, Clark still has yet to show any real consistency in the “three” aspect of that equation outside his brief hot-spurt following Carmelo Anthony’s dismissal last season. Through five games, Clark failed to register even average efficiency spotting up at summer league, continuing the trend he started last season in both Rio Grande Valley and Houston. Surely, Clark isn’t going to become a marksman at any point, but the fact that he still can’t produce consistently on primarily open threes is extremely disheartening for any long-term future with the Rockets. Eventually, defensive wings have to contribute something outside of transition play.

Surprisingly, much like his fellow 2018-19 rookie Hartenstein, Clark was abysmal on defense at summer league. Much of this is surely small sample size theater, but when a player with a stout defensive reputation struggles mightily with defending shooters, pick-and-roll ball handlers, post-up, and isolation play in the span of five games, it’s a reasonable cause for concern. In that type of environment, one would hope Clark’s defensive acumen and ability jump off the screen.

Growth is never linear, but it’s hard not to get discouraged by the play of what was the Rockets’ two main prospects entering this summer. Each had better hope they have a solid showing at training camp and through preseason or they may fall victim to the endless roster cycling that is Daryl Morey’s drive to improve his team.

Chris Clemons

Thankfully, undrafted rookie guard Chris Clemons kept this from being an entirely bleak piece.

Pound-for-pound, Clemons was arguably the most exciting player to appear in all of summer league, posting a team-high 20.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game on 39.5 percent shooting from the field and 41.1 percent from three through five games.

What was especially encouraging was Clemons’ jump shot translating against superior length and athleticism. Through five games, Clemons posted an exceptional 1.125 points per possession (PPP) on his catch-and-shoot attempts and an absolutely ludicrous 1.632 PPP when he shot off the dribble. Additionally, Clemons was efficient in the pick-and-roll all week, manipulating the pace of his defender to his advantage better than he had shown previously.

Sure, the 5’9 scoring machine struggled to shake doubts about his ability to create for others and finish at the rim around NBA bigs, but on a team as talented and simplified as the Rockets, those concerns aren’t as prevalent as showing one can space the floor and run a functional pick-and-roll.

Defensively, Clemons faired about as well as one would have expected going in. He defended pick-and-roll ball handlers well, but failed to contest shooters adequately, all the while being hidden. It’ll be a while before he has to hold his own defensively, but Clemons can likely get by in the Rockets switch-heavy scheme so long as he can force tough shots in the post.

So despite playing the position with the biggest logjam on the roster, Clemons seems the closest of the three to earn meaningful minutes this coming season. If he continues to shoot the ball as well as he has and manages to learn a trick or two from training with James Harden, it’s not impossible he gets serious minutes on a back-to-back or load management game this year.

Otherwise, don’t be surprised if Clemons smashes a bunch of Rio Grande Valley scoring records while he waits for the 2019-20 season. He may have been the least touted of the bunch entering his draft, but make no mistake: Chris Clemons is the best under-25 prospect on this roster.