RGV Vipers’ forwards highlight groundbreaking system

EDINBURG — When RGV Vipers coach Joseph Blair first spoke to the media, his message was simple.

“I am really excited about this season. And I know I have big shoes to fill,” Blair said. “On the court, we will continue the Vipers style of play — the Rockets style of play — which is fast-paced basketball with a lot of action, energy and enthusiasm.”

The Vipers have long been ahead of the curve, when it comes to analytics and data, and using those numbers to succeed on the court, especially the Vipers’ court. The ‘three true outcome’ style of play — meaning the offense tries to get a three-pointer, a layup/dunk or free throws — which has taken the basketball world by storm, began on the court for the Vipers. The Vipers have been at or near the top of the league in 3-pointers attempted since 2009, back when Stephen Curry was still at Davidson.

Last year, the Vipers were third in the G-League in pace, a stat that quantifies the number of possessions per 48 minutes. The Vipers were second in effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the added value of 3-pointers over twos. They led the league in offensive rating and points scored.

“(Our pace) is one thing we didn’t want to lose,” Blair said. “We still want to be right at the top of pace, lead the league in pace — if we can — even set the record in pace I am happy to do that. And we have the personnel to do it.”

The current roster construction lends credence to that point. The Vipers have two forwards listed on their current roster: Chris Walker (6-foot-10) and Bruno Caboclo (6-9). Everyone else is 6-foot-6 or below, and they will need to be ready to run.

It is always worth noting, the flexibility of a G-League team’s roster means Blair could roll out two entirely new forwards by their second game, but the intent behind the roster design is as much a reflection of what the team looks like now, as it is an indication of what the core philosophies of the 2018-2019 Vipers under Blair might be.

“We are not as big as we were last year, at least not right now,” Blair said. “Who knows what we might get assigned to us. But with what we have right now, I am very excited about the style of play we can utilize. I think we can put up a lot of points. We have a lot of people that can shoot the ball very well. And those that can’t shoot so well, they can get out and run and fill the lanes and be a powerful force in transition.”

Walker played with the Vipers last year and led the team with 48 games played last year. He averaged 10.1 points per game on 16.9 minutes per game. Walker was third on the team with a 16.2 rebounding rate.

“My game is to set screens for the guards, roll to the rim, dunk — finish. On defense, block a lot of shots, get the board and pass out and run and get a dunk or something,” Walker went on to say, as the league has evolved over the last few years, he believes it suits his style of play. “I think I can play just like Clint Capela for the Rockets, down here, just play within that role. Pick, roll and dunk.”

One thing Walker has been working on lines up perfectly with the biggest change Blair hopes to make to the team’s style from last year.

“I’ve been on these guys like crazy. One of the things we want to do is be — at least — Top 10 defensively,” Blair emphatically said. “If we can continue to do what we did offensively, we were at the top in pace and (offensive rating), but we were second to last in (defensive rating). If we can get that up to a top 10 percentage — think of the number of games we could have won, if we had that last year. That is one of the things we are stressing.”

To Blair’s point, the Vipers allowed opponents the second highest effective field goal percentage in the league. The offensive rating was high, but the defensive rating was low, which meant the Vipers were seventh in net rating. The two teams at the top of that category: last year’s finals matchup the Raptors 905 and the Austin Spurs.

So, Walker has devoted a lot of his time to working on his rim protection and defensive rebounding. Walker is referred to by some of his teammates as ‘C-Wall,’ and if he can be that wall in the middle for the Vipers, it will go a long way to reaching Blair’s goal of a top 10 defense.

Another key aspect to Walker’s defensive game is his ability to switch onto perimeter players and guard them effectively.

“On defense this season, we are switching everything,” Walker said. “You will see me guarding the five. You will see me guarding the three. Sometimes you will even see my guarding the point guard.

“Sometimes last year, we switched screens a lot. I was successful at doing that, which is part of the reason we are switching more this year.”

Walker has been working with some of the guards to prep for the added defensive responsibility.

“Corey Sanders is like one of the quickest guys on the team, really shifty,” he said. “So, to guard him, it helps me a lot, because I don’t feel like anybody can be any quicker or shiftier than he is.”

That isn’t the only challenging matchup Walker has drawn this year. Blair said Walker is almost always matched up with Caboclo during training camp to get both reps against big men.

“I’ve been working with him a lot,” Walker said of the Brazilian. “I call him baby Giannis (for the Milwaukee Bucks’ Antetokounmpo). He has a really long wingspan, and I think he will be really good for this team.”

Last year, Caboclo split the season between the Toronto Raptors and the Sacramento Kings, mostly playing for their G-League affiliates the Raptors 905 and the Reno Bighorns. He averaged 14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in the G-League.

“They are both very versatile players,” Blair said. “Chris Walker is a roller, high-energy guy. Bruno has that same high-energy, super athletic, arms are long as all hell. But also he can shoot the ball very well.

“They are both very good players, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I have them both in there at certain points. Chris walker can play the five, and Bruno can get out and shoot at the four.”

What makes the roster construction so intriguing is the amount of shooting the Vipers will be able to put around either of the two big men.

“We put up a lot of threes in practice, and when we have some down time, we come in and we get shots together and talk a little trash about who can make this shot and that shot,” said Vipers rookie Jared Nickens, who played at the University of Maryland last year. “It’s competitive, but it gets us better.”

Nickens has competed with some of the best shooters the Vipers have to offer in their impromptu 3-point contests.

“I shoot with (Stanford Robinson) a lot,” Nickens said. “Sometimes Tim (Bond), Tim likes to talk a lot. (Danuel House) D-House is a little vet. Vets like to talk down to the rookies. They can all shoot, and this team can shoot from top to bottom.”

One shooter Blair has been really captivated by is two-way player Gary Clark, who played at Cincinnati last year before going undrafted and being signed by the Rockets.

“He’s been amazing with the Rockets,” Blair said. “I spent a lot of time with him in the preseason and at summer league. He’s just been a great shooter. Better than expected. He struggled with injury through most of the summer, didn’t get to participate in summer league. So, it was a big question mark of what he was going to do, what he could bring. But you look at the preseason games, he came off the bench and ‘bam’ knocks a three down, knocks another three down. I know that is something that Mike D’Antoni treasures: the fact that he can come in and make those threes like that. You add in the fact that he was defensive player of the year in his conference last year (American Athletic Conference) … I look to see a lot of great things from him.”

With Caboclo and Walker in the middle, shooters all around, and good defense on the other end, the Vipers hope to get back to the finals after missing last year.