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How the young Rockets core developed in the G-League under Mahmoud Abdelfattah

In an exclusive one-on-one with TDS, Vipers’ head coach Mahmoud Abdelfattah discusses the development of three of the Houston Rockets’ young players.

Rio Grande Valley Vipers v G League Ignite Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Houston Rockets opened their 2021 season against the Portland Trail Blazers last December, three players were an afterthought for the organization. Armoni Brooks (free-agent) and Kevin Porter Jr. (Cavaliers) were not a part of the team. And due to a violation of the league’s health and safety protocols, Kenyon Martin Jr. was in isolation amid the Rockets’ 128-126 overtime loss to the Blazers.

By the time the Rockets concluded their season in Atlanta, the trio was a silver lining for a team that finished with the league’s worst record at 17-55. After the game, Stephen Silas said he was proud of their mid-season development and campaign for Martin to receive Most Improved Player of the Year honors — given his three-point shooting and defensive improvements.

The emergence of Brooks, Martin and Porter is another testament to why the Rockets have one of the NBA’s best player development systems in the league. Not only did they have the opportunity to work daily with assistant coach John Lucas — who has established himself as one of the most skillful and best basketball minds of his generation — but a chance to learn the Rockets’ system playing for Houston’s G-League affiliated team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

As the Vipers’ head coach, Mahmoud Abdelfattah gave them confidence and laid the foundation to the young core that would witness Porter become the youngest player in history to amass a 50-point, 10-assists double-double. Brooks passed the likes of future Hall-Of-Famers Steph Curry and Damian Lillard by connecting on the most three-point field goals by a rookie in his first 20 games (47). And Martin went from just a high-flying dunker to a player averaging 17.0 points while shooting 39.3 percent from deep during Houston’s final 12 games of the year.

Brooks, Martin, and Porter spent nearly two months inside the G-League bubble while appearing in a combined average of 32.7 minutes across the Vipers’ 15-game season. The time in Orlando learning under coach Abdelfattah could prompt the trio into having a successful career on an NBA level.

Abdelfattah joined The DreamShake via Zoom to discuss his time coaching Brooks, Martin, and Porter in the G-League, his experience watching the trio’s progression with the Rockets during the second half of the NBA season, and how more young players should take advantage of the G-League during their rookie season.

What was it like to coach Armoni Brooks, Kenyon Martin Jr. and Kevin Porter Jr. during the G-League season earlier this year?

“It was phenomenal. We were able to see how talented they are as basketball players, but they are also great people. We have a great relationship with one another, and they have a great relationship with each other. I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with them for those two months.”

How did the conversation between you and coach Silas go when the Rockets assigned Porter to the G-League? And can you speak on his growth from Porter’s first practice to where he was by the end of the season?

“Once we got Kevin, the plan was for him to come down to the G-League. Obviously, it was different this year with the way the G-League was set up. But it was a good opportunity because we played so many games in so little days. He played well for us and made the game easy for himself and his teammates. Coach [Silas] and I stayed in contact throughout the bubble to touch base on the progress we wanted from Kevin — like making sure we kept the ball in his hands. He has all of the talent in the world, and being around him for two months showed me that he is an unbelievable young man. He is a guy who could help an organization be successful for years and the next decade to come.”

We all know about Porter’s talents on the court, but can you talk about his growth as a leader in the locker room?

“Whatever happened in Cleveland, he put that behind him and moved forward. I did not ask about it — nor did I care. I have my perception of Kevin. And after being around him for two months and spending five to six hours a day with him, that’s my guy. He’s grown. During his time in Orlando, he was helping other guys be successful, which is part of the reason why I believe we had so many call-ups. He knew he had to get other guys involved and wanted them to be successful. It was very fun to coach him down there in the bubble.”

Rio Grande Valley Vipers v Agua Caliente Clippers Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images
Can you talk about Kenyon Martin Jr.’s progression from the G-League Bubble to the NBA?

“I remember having him in training camp. And remember, he is coming from High School. Everything was new to him. But right before he went down to the bubble, he was starting to get comfortable and scratch the surface of his potential with plays like the block on Boban [Marjanović]. Coach Silas did a great job letting those guys know what the plan was before they went to the bubble. And they took it and ran with it. Martin was in there every day and played whatever was asked and did not complain. The more minutes he got, the better he played. Kudos to his work ethic.”

This was Porter’s and Martin’s first time playing in the G-League, but the same cannot be said for Armoni Brooks. As his head coach, how were you able to build Brooks’ confidence as a second-year G-League player?

“I was familiar with him playing in the G-League last year. All I remember was Armoni scoring 27 points against us while hitting three big-time threes in the fourth quarter. When it came time to draft him this year, I was like ‘yeah, we need that guy!’ I told Armoni from day one that if he passed up a shot or gets frustrated after a miss, I was going to take him out. I told him he was the best shooter in the G-League, and all of his teammates kept instilling that in him. Armoni is the best shooter there is, and that’s why he led the league in three-point shooting.”

What was it like for you as their former coach to watch what Brooks, Martin, and Porter were able to accomplish with the Rockets after the G-League season ended?

“It’s been fun. They got their opportunity and ran with it. Their willingness to be coached. Their willingness to work. If you do that, you’ll be successful in whatever you do in life. It was fun to be around the guys. They made me a better coach and I’m thankful for all of them.”

Due to injuries, the Rockets had to call up several players who developed under you during the G-League Bubble. Who else do you believe made an impact for the Rockets once they received their opportunity similar to Brooks, Martin and Porter?

“Anthony Lamb. When he first came up, he was playing a good amount of minutes, but they started to go down once several guys came back from injury. When his minutes began to decrease, he handled it like a pro and continued to work just as hard as everyone else. His work ethic never declined. When his minutes started to rise again, he was ready to take advantage of the opportunity once again.”

After witnessing the success of Brooks, Martin, and Porter, do you feel it should be the league’s blueprint to have younger players go down to the G-League and develop before playing in the NBA?

“I do. I think it is very beneficial. There are only a handful of players that can come into the NBA and produce right away. I think that there are a lot of guys that could use Summer League and the G-League as an opportunity to get their feet wet. When you are playing major minutes, you can make mistakes. You can take a number of shots. You can run the offense and execute the defensive concepts. It’s a lot different in practice than it is in the game. I think that’s why RGV and Houston have had the most successful team in the history of the league.” — Abdelfattah