Upon getting drafted by the Rockets in the summer of 2017, youngster Isaiah Hartenstein was allocated to NBA G League affiliated Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where he would spend a full season playing with the club and priming himself for the next step of his career. After averaging 9.5 points as a rookie, the big man exploded back on to the minor league as a frequent Rockets assignee in 2018-19, averaging 19.5 points, 14.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and a shade under 2 blocks in 26 regular season contests.
It was quite the evolution for the 20-year old, but it didn’t come without perseverance along the way.
At the Winter Showcase this past December, Hartenstein said that he was feeling the grind of splitting time between RGV and Houston in his second pro season.
“It’s not easy. This is my first year going back and forth. The Rockets want me to get minutes and this is my opportunity to get used to it. I’m feeling it,” he said. “This is what being a professional is about. It’s a huge adjustment and it’s not easy at all. You put in a lot of hours. There are plenty of 6AM flights.”
Even in the thick of daunting competition and endless marathons of travel, Hartenstein could still see that glimmering light at the end of the tunnel. “The Rockets are committed. They’ve been there and by putting me on assignment, I know they want me to get better. We’re constantly talking about what comes next,” he foreshadowed. “I have goals that they’re helping me achieve. It’s a special organization.”
Fast-forward to season’s end, and perhaps one could say some of the initial goals have been met. As the MVP of the 2019 NBA G League Finals, Hartenstein can call himself a champion after averaging 28 points and 15.7 rebounds through the Vipers’ three-game series defeat over the Long Island Nets, earning the affiliate its third title.
At 7’0″ and 250 pounds, Hartenstein looks and often plays the part of burly big man — a bruiser who can muscle his way inside, fight for rebounds, and use his physicality to pester opposing scorers down low. But he’s made improvements and developed even more versatility all the while, most evidenced by an awing 8 of 9 shooting effort from downtown in game two. His sharpshooting sparked a turnaround of sorts for RGV, who clawed their way back to win the final two games of the series and clinch the championship.
More impressive than Hartenstein’s dominant (yet already familiar numbers) was his 52% shooting from long range in the Finals. Up at the NBA level, the Rockets were first in 3PM and %FGA from 3PT, among other similar categories, during the regular season. It’s safe to say that the team likes to run-and-gun and push the pace by letting the rock fly. The 2017 second round NBA Draft pick’s evolution in this area could increase his value, not only as Houston heads into the postseason, but well beyond, as he eyes a steady professional career.
As he basked in the glory of his newfound championship and MVP trophies, Hartenstein suggested that all his hard work had been worth it and said he enjoyed the ride. “It’s a family out here. From the coaches and players, it’s been fun. Most of the time, coming down from the NBA is kind of sad. All of these people have made it really fun. This season has helped me get better and better.
“I’m staying consistent. I’ve been putting in a lot of work and it’s paying off.”
Following his latest accomplishments, the proof of his prowess is in the pudding. Still, those around him also see his potential and the promise of what could follow. Said newly signed Rockets teammate Michael Frazier (also on assignment with the Vipers), “That dude is going to be a beast. He’s a rising star. He’s going to be an incredible player. You see how he can be dominant now, but it’s going to be scary to see where he is in two or three years.”