After a recent practice, Rockets players Greg Smith, Thomas Robinson, Dontas Montejunas and James Harden spent a few rare minutes working on their post up games with coach Kevin McHale. While Harden was there just to give the young players a hard time and get in some extra reps, Smith and Thomas spent extended time with the Hall of Fame coach, soaking in the knowledge he gained through years banging on the low block and winning titles with the Celtics.
Robinson was a top 10 draft pick this year and after being traded to the Rockets at the trading deadline, he is hoping to be a long-term starter in the post. The Rockets have high hopes as well believing that his raw athletic skills could translate into success at the power forward position.
Smith was not drafted. He spent his first year playing in Mexico, eventually joining the Rockets last season logging all but 49 minutes in a Rio Grande Valley Vipers uniform, the Rockets D-League affiliate. He has spent most of his time on the Rockets NBA roster this season, but he is still figuring out how to be a big man in the NBA.
"It's great to just learn from [McHale]," Smith told Hair Balls after the aforementioned extra work. "He's played against everybody. It's good to get his insight."
If there is anything Smith has tried to do since coming out of Fresno State as an un-drafted rookie, it's learn the game. He spent his first season playing in Mexico and migrated a bit north to the Rio Grande at the beginning of last year to join the NBA minor leagues. Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who seems to have a knack for pulling players out of thin air (see this year's shocker, backup point guard Patrick Beverley), saw Smith's raw skills and imagined it would be a good fit for last year's height and athletically-challenged roster.
But, while Smith was trying improve his game, he was also learning a more important lesson. "When you go out, you have to be prepared every night for battle," he said of his time in the D-League, "That's one thing I love about playing down there, it taught me to not take this for granted."
And while the level of competition may not be quite the same as the NBA, the intensity is. "It's tough because you're playing against guys who all want to get call ups, all want to play in the NBA," Smith said. "If they have a good game against you, [they'll get] a call up."
He has tried to bring that same focus and intensity to the Rockets. That effort has shown on the court. Smith is averaging 5 points and 4 rebounds in 53 games backing up Omer Asik. He still has a limited offensive game, but his size and athleticism has led to some highlight reel dunks like this one he had against San Antonio, a key play in a big win.
"Every day I come out with high energy and play hard. That shows my teammates that you can't take days off," he said.
Smith is young, eager and inconsistent, a description that fits many of the young players on this roster. His talents, while raw, are evolving, just like many of his teammates, which is why this has been such a fun team to watch this season. That inconsistency can also be frustrating, but as the season has progressed, there have been fewer hair pulling moments and more wins as a result. Because they are all so young, they are learning how to win on the fly, but, more importantly, they are doing it together.
"I think that's why we are having a good year this year because everybody has trust for each other," Smith said, "We like each other, we have fun."
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And among these young players, much like in the D-League, competition is fierce. Whether it is on the floor -- like that after-practice session where Harden (Smith says he is the most competitive guy on the team) hammered the young big men with smacks on the arm and shoves in the back -- or off, to a man, they all want to win every battle.
"Video games, bowling, playing pool, card games, it's going to get competitive because nobody wants to lose," Smith said.
That time spent on and off the court together is helping to forge what Smith calls a "bond of brotherhood" between a bunch of guys, all about the same age, and surprising experts around the league who left the Rockets for dead before the season started. They still have a ways to go to count themselves among the league's best teams, but Smith believes they will get there.
"In two or three years, we're going to be a very, very scary team."