“No, no, we don’t need to do that,” VanVleet said, laughing. “We know what it was.”
The Rockets spent three seasons in, depending on your feelings on rebuilding, a vicious or virtuous cycle: They accumulated young talent and losses, which beget more young talent and losses. Having arrived in Houston and learned “a little bit more about what all that entailed,” VanVleet isn’t worried about how any of his teammates performed in the environment that produced the worst turnover percentage and second-worst defense in the NBA.
“You just wipe it clean, understanding what it was but understanding that it’s going to be totally different and we’re really not going to do any of that going forward,” VanVleet said.
Entering his eighth year in the NBA, VanVleet is a Rocket because the franchise wanted more structure, discipline, professionalism, defense and wins. He joined the team on a three-year, $129 million contract (with a team option on the final season), and he’s not the only adult in the room: Fellow free-agent additions Dillon Brooks, Jeff Green, Reggie Bullock and Jock Landale will allow new coach Ime Udoka to put the youth crew — which now includes gravity-defying rookies Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore — in lineups that can compete on both ends.
In an interview over the phone, hours before Houston’s preseason finale, VanVleet sounded encouraged by what he’s seen, without diminishing the challenges that lie ahead. After seven seasons with the Toronto Raptors, during which he went from an undrafted benchwarmer to an NBA champion and All-Star, he is ready for something different, with a team that is ready to get serious.
“It’s the perfect time for me to be here in this situation after the last three years that this organization has had,” he said. “Hiring Ime here, bringing a couple more vets with the young guys that they have, I think it’s just a perfect fit and it’s perfect timing.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
How would you describe this moment of your career?
It feels like a new chapter, a new beginning. The way I was just grinding and trying to make my way and then that turned into a championship and an All-Star and all of those things, an incredible seven years that I had in Toronto. But this league and the way it’s going, it’s rare for people to stay on the same team for their whole career. So here I am, going into my eighth season in a completely new environment. It just feels like a fresh start.
You’ve not shied away from the fact that part of your job here is to help the young guys grow. Will you judge the season you have based on not only how you play individually but how certain players develop and how the team comes together?
Yeah, absolutely. Part of the reason why I am here is to raise the level. And just me being here and my competitive spirit and the way I approach things every day is going to raise the level in the gym. But it’s also my job to try to get the best out of these guys individually in their own right, so I’m definitely looking to see how I can help certain guys. I still have to go play and perform well myself, but, ultimately, being here as a guy who can raise the level and push a little bit.
You’ve called yourself a confidence giver and an energy giver. You’ve also said you shoot straight and you cuss a lot. I actually don’t think these things are mutually exclusive, but, like, what’s the balance there?
We’re still people at the end of the day, so every personality, every person, every individual guy is going to respond to things differently — different triggers, different ways to motivate, to influence, to give confidence. And so for me it’s just learning these guys as people and then seeing which ways I can be most effective. But, normally, the guys that are hungry and that want to win and that really are dedicated to this, we usually keep in good stride. So it’s kind of the other ones that you gotta bring along slowly that you get most of the trouble with. But so far, so good here.
You’re trying to build a foundation on defense, and everyone knows Ime is very serious about defense. During training camp and these practices leading up to the season, what does that actually look like?
Well, firstly, just you set the precedent of just playing as hard as you can every play, every possession. That’ll do most of the job. And then you get your principles in, you get your foundations in and the things that Coach is asking us to do. And you get five guys out there at once that’s committed to it and you fly around, you try to figure it out. It’s definitely not gonna be perfect. There are really young guys on his team and they’ve developed some habits over the last couple years that need to be corrected and changed going forward. But, for the most part, these guys are really physical and they fly around, they play hard as well. So I think you could take that as your foundation and kind of shift it and mold it to what’s effective on the court.
Jalen Green recently said, “I can contribute to winning, I’m an all-around player.” Based on what you’ve seen from him or talked to him about, what are the kind of things he’s focused on improving and showing people he can do?
I think just being more intentional, having more focus and just not having the lapses. But he’s a perfect example of a guy who really knows how to play. He understands the game, he’s a natural scorer. And so you give him kind of that narrative when he’s on a bad team of “he’s playing bad basketball.” But it’s really just the situation that they were in. So I’m looking forward to us playing a better brand of basketball with the team that we have, as a better team, and him getting some of that limelight as well. Because it goes both ways: Certain guys are going to perform better on better teams. And as much as we can help him and the team’s level rises, I think that his play, his performance will rise as well.
A few years ago, people were having big debates about Devin Booker when he was on a rebuilding team.
I wasn’t going to say that, I’ll let you say that. But he’s a perfect example of a guy who was labeled as a guy who didn’t know how to play and was just trying to score, but, I mean, that’s just the situation he was in.
Alperun Sengun is super skilled, Jabari Smith Jr. has improved a ton in the last year and you can use these guys in lots of different ways. How do you envision them growing together?
I think, again, we start with the defensive end. And if we can be sustainable on defense, I think the offense will take care of itself, in terms of just matchups. Different teams that we’re playing on a night-to-night basis, some guys are going to have a better matchup. I think just having Jabari have more of that scorer’s mentality where he knows his spots on the floor where he can get to, and he shoots the 3 better this year. He’s getting to his spots, he’s rising up kind of out of that 4 spot where he’s pretty tall. And then obviously we know Alpie can do a lot on the offensive end. His challenge is going to come on the defensive end and just making winning plays and playing within the system that Coach has put in. Both of those guys are incredibly talented and skilled, and we’ve just gotta go and see how we can put it together.
Cam Whitmore and Tari Eason are both big wings, and they bring different things to the table. Your initial impressions?
Well, Tari is a guy who can play on any team in the NBA. He has incredible hustle, skills, great defender, super long arms. He’s got a knack for scoring the ball and being in the right places and just figuring things out — kind of like the all-purpose guy. And then Cam has definitely got the potential to be a special player in this league. But once he develops more than just the scoring, then he’ll be able to grow and continue to push the envelope. But he does some things on a daily basis that leave everybody just scratching their head at and looking around. He’s definitely one of those guys that you want to see the full potential of down the line.
What was going through your head on that dunk he head the other day that was called a charge?
You’re just speechless. You’re just watching it happen. I’ve seen a lot of those plays in this league, and they’re usually by guys that I grew up watching on TV. But now I’m watching this young, 19-year-old kid who really just doesn’t know anything about anything. And he’s just out there flying around. And without breaking stride, he just takes off like that. It’s incredible. He’s one of the other guys that you just try to find ways to help him because you can see the potential.
Amen Thompson is a real basketball junkie, especially for a 20-year-old Being around him, is that aspect obvious? What have you noticed about him?
He’s refreshing. He’s just a joy to be around and to play with and to practice with and to work with. He’s just a sponge and he asks a ton of questions and he’s just bright-eyed. He’s just a pure, great kid, you know what I mean? Just a pure basketball kid, just loves the game, wants to be better, wants to be great. With that frame and that athleticism that he has, he’s going to have a very, very long, healthy career, so I’m excited for him.
Usually the guys who are making the creative passes that he can make are not the same guys who have the crazy athleticism.
Yeah, he has everything, really, that you can’t teach. He’s got all of the things that you can’t teach and that you really can’t develop or buy or whatever. So all he’s doing now is just repping out shooting, which is not easy to develop but it’s possible. And so his jumper is already looking a lot better than it was when he came in, and it’ll continue to grow. He’s working his butt off, he’s going to be a really, really, really good player — just off of his demeanor and his character and his personality alone.
You see it every day. And my message was just, after seeing certain things, like I watched Pascal, like you said. My message to him is just shoot it. Shoot it every day. Don’t let them put that label on you. If they go under, shoot it. Shoot it every time. Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to get better. And the only guys that really can’t shoot in this league are the ones that either don’t work on it or they just get discouraged by not being a great shooter at the time. You just gotta keep repping it up.
Did you see much of Dillon Brooks at the World Cup this summer?
Oh yeah. Yeah, I watched.
What was going through your mind when you were watching him play the way he did there?
I was happy for him, he was obviously balling. But I’ve seen Dillon do that at Oregon. I’ve seen him do it in the NBA. It’s not surprising to me, I know what type of player he is. Obviously he’s taken on a whole identity and things like that comes with his journey through this league. But he’s a hell of a player and he’s a gamer, so I was happy for him because of his exit in Memphis and the way they kind of flipped on him. And the narrative; everybody turned on him. But I was just happy that he was able to go perform for his country and obviously Coach Nurse coached there. And Coach Nate — both Nate Bjorkgren and Nate Mitchell were both on the staff this summer, so I was definitely tuned in. I still got a lot of love for those guys.
The times were a little f—ed up, so I couldn’t watch all the games. They were like 4 in the morning sometimes. But I watched as much as I could.
One Toronto question: You return February 9; have you memorized the date? What do you think about when you envision going back to that arena?
I haven’t put too much thought into it. I know it’s on the schedule, I definitely know that date, just planning ahead. But we definitely got a lot of work to do between now and then, so I definitely have a lot of things on the list that I want to do for this team. But I’m more of an in-the-moment guy, so that’ll be one of those days where I just enjoy the moment and just try to soak it all up and however it goes, it goes. But you know how I am. I’m definitely going. I’m definitely going, they know that. They know that I’m going. So it’s really only one way that I know how to do it. But that’ll be a special day for me and my family for sure.