The Houston Rockets have been ahead of the game with regard to their relationship with their D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Everyone immediately thinks of Troy Daniels when they think Rockets and D-League, however Daryl Morey & Co. have been using the D-League to develop their draft picks since 2010.
In 2010, the Rockets selected Patrick Patterson with the 14th overall pick in the NBA Draft and that season he spent nine games with the Vipers to help his development. Donatas Motiejunas (who they acquired in a trade) spent seven games with the Vipers in the 2012-13 season. That same season Terrence Jones -- who was also a first round draft pick -- spent 24 games in the D-League.
Just last season Houston drafted Isaiah Canaan in the second round and he played 18 games with the Vipers as well. Robert Covington was signed as an undrafted rookie and he played almost the entire season with the D-League's Vipers earning himself Rookie of the Year honors as well.
This year the Rockets selected Clint Capela (who played with Chalon in France last year) 25th overall and Nick Johnson (Pac-12 Player of the Year) with the 42nd overall pick. Recently Kevin McHale made comments regarding their development this season:
"The Vipers have been great for us. We sent guys down here. It helped them. D-Mo was down here. Terrence came down for a while. It really helps their game a lot. I like it. Like this year, will be a huge year for Clint Capela down here. That will be fantastic. Nick Johnson will be able to use this to improve. It's been fantastic for us."
McHale's sentiments show the pure essence of the D-League -- to tap into unknown talent and to develop younger guys for the big club in The Association. Capela is only 20 years old. Johnson is 22 years old and while that may sound a little long in the tooth to give him the "potential" label, it still fits.
Johnson is an explosive athlete that was truly a combo-guard in the college ranks. He played for The University of Arizona -- affectionately known as "point guard U" -- and though he was a three-year-starter there, he never really showed the improvement NBA scouts wanted to see regarding the lead guard aspect of his game. His overall improvement is clear to see as he went from 8.9 points a night as a freshman all the way up to 16.3 and was so influential that he won Player of the Year in the Pac-12 as a junior.
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The knock on Johnson is the lack of three-point shooting and while he isn't Stephen Curry, he certainly has the ability to knock down open looks from distance. His last year in college he had 62 made three-pointers in 38 games, so again, the quantity surely isn't there but he shot a respectable 37% from deep on those attempts.
In NBA Summer League, Johnson showed his worth and led all Rockets' rookies and free agent hopefuls in scoring. The Rockets played in both Orlando and Las Vegas this summer and in those 13 combined contests Johnson averaged 14.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists. The downside -- he shot 25% (12/48) from 3-point range over that span. The silver lining, and one of the huge benefits of his game, is that he got to the line at a very high rate. Johnson averaged 6.8 free throw attempts during summer league and shot 79.6 percent from the stripe as well.
Check out the full-game highlights of Nick dropping a triple-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists against the Nets in Orlando.
Clint Capela is a bit of an unknown. Honestly I think he will benefit even more from time spent in the D-League. He's only 20 years old and he's very, very raw. From all reports, he has a tendency to favor the mid-range to long outside jump shot rather than get in the post. He's 6'10 and has the raw athletic skills that any team could hope for in a budding prospect.
At this point in his young career, time spend on the court can only help. He played last season for Chalon in France's top league starting 20 of 30 games but the time on the court and thus the production, was limited.
It's always dangerous to look at per-36 numbers and get all googly-eyed but I can't resist because Capela's are stellar to say the least.
Neither one of these prospects really fit the mold of Rio Grande Valley as the 3-point bonanza, however both will benefit greatly from time spent in live-game situations rather than simply practicing with the Rockets. The improvements are not a farce for the Rockets, they are factual and have been shown to be so by their past products. The Rockets are getting the most out of their affiliation with the Vipers and they will continue to do so this season.
I leave you with a short video showing off Capela's athleticism at the 2014 Hoop Summit.