Upon defeating the Long Island Nets 127-116 on Tuesday night, the Vipers forced a winner-take-all game three (to be played Friday night at 8 pm/et on ESPNU) and forged ahead toward the 2019 NBA G League title. Currently competing for a championship in the midst of the franchise’s staggering fifth Finals appearance, the Vipers have undoubtedly embraced a winning culture. Alas, under the tutelage of the Houston Rockets’ organization, the club has managed to keep development right at the forefront of everything they do while rewarding winners.
A 29.9% three-point shooter in 64 minor league regular season games prior, Rockets assignee Isaiah Hartenstein knocked down 8 of 9 shots from deep to score 33 points and lead the Vipers to victory. He’s used his time with RGV to become a more versatile performer, and he’s not the only one who can pinpoint recent improvements in their game.
After starting his professional career with the Vipers back in 2016-17, Gary Payton II has continued to make strides. He spent last season as a Two-Way Player with the Lakers and Bucks before returning to town. In addition to earning an NBA call-up with the Wizards, the guard averaged 2.96 steals and graced the NBA G League All-Defensive Team this season.
“It’s been a big learning tool down here. RGV has supported me since I was a rookie and helped me develop my game. I got my first call-up [with the Lakers] and was able to come back and do it again this year [with Washington]. Since returning, it’s been great. People are working their tails off. We mesh as a group. New guys have been coming in almost weekly, and we’ve been able to grind it out and stick together.
“There’s a lot of trust. It was a big gamble to take an undrafted guard, give him three years, and trust him to develop. I thank Daryl Morey and the Rockets organization for giving me the opportunity up there,” he said. “They’ve continued to give me a shot to show what I can do.”
Currently finishing off the campaign as a Rockets assignee, Michael Frazier appreciates the leap of faith the organization took and relishes the opportunity to see things through and help RGV compete for a title. “This means everything. I’m a competitor, but this is more about what this organization has done for me. Coach Blair and his staff have been so important to my development. The [front office] has believed in me,” he beamed. “From top to bottom, everyone has been great. I’ve had teammates, even guys who aren’t with us at the moment, who have been very supportive. They’ve all been a part of my journey and I’m blessed to have them.”
After scoring 19 points in game 2 and winning the season’s Most Improved Player award, an NBA G League championship would be the icing on the cake of a special campaign. His recent NBA call-up should be considered a reward for these efforts.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” he said of the accomplishment. “The Valley’s been great to me. The time I’ve spent here has given me great memories. But I’m excited to start a new journey in Houston. This opportunity has been given to me because of The Valley, so it’ll always have a special place in my heart.”
The Rockets have made a special effort to provide a stage for youngsters to shine with the Vipers and allow it to serve as an extension of the culture in Houston. After playing sparingly in the early parts of the season, a 33 point effort during the Winter Showcase catapulted Dakarai Tucker into a central role with the club. He shot 38% from deep in the regular season, and added 23 points in the game 2 win. Inching closer to becoming a champion, Tucker says being considered a winner will help everyone continue to rise to new heights. “This win can bring everyone on this team a lot of opportunities. Whether that means playing in the NBA, G League, or beyond, this can be real big for a lot of us.”
Much like Payton II and Frazier, Tucker says he appreciates the way the Vipers have empowered him to emerge as quite the marksmen. They’ve instilled trust and helped him to make improvements along the way. Now, like many teammates, he is ready to pay it forward on the court in exchange for the display of faith.
“There’s a reflection period. I wasn’t always in this position, so it’s up to me to take advantage of it. Every time I step onto the floor, I lean on my fundamentals. I stay calm,” he pointed out. “This is a great group of guys to play with, so I’m able to have fun.”
RGV will seek out more fun, in the form of a potential title celebration, on Friday night.