EDINBURG — When RGV Vipers forward Isaiah Hartenstein first joined the Rockets organization during the 2017 summer league, Vipers coach Joseph Blair could see the speed of the game was an issue for Hartenstein.
“I remember last year, everything was a little too fast-paced for him,” Blair said. “Quite frankly, I remember last year in summer league, everything was way too fast for him.”
After playing all of last year with the organization, and playing 21 games for the Houston Rockets, the Vipers’ NBA affiliate, this year, Hartenstein is now using the speed of the game to his advantage.
“Now, it is to the point where everything is almost a little slow for him,” Blair continued. “With his athleticism and his cardio, he is just relentless. He is one of those guys that if you don’t put a body on him, he will keep cleaning the glass.”
Hartenstein has scored 20 or more points in all three games with the Vipers this year.
On a special kids day at Bert Ogden Arena, Hartenstein scored a career-high 29 points and hauled in 20 rebounds to lead the Vipers (9-6) past the Delaware Blue Coats (6-9), 104-97, for the Vipers third straight win.
“I think even if you look at last year, the one thing you never doubted was that he would play hard,” Blair said of Hartenstein. “I think that his skill level has caught up with his motor on the court. Especially spending the time he did with the Rockets.”
Six times this year, a G-League player has put up a 20-20 game; Hartenstein has two of the six.
“I’m just getting started,” Hartenstein said. “I am tired, I am so tired, because the last three games have been a lot. Up there (in Houston), I was playing like 10 to 14 minutes a game. Coming here, I had to get used to it. But I am just getting started, because my conditioning is starting to get there, and I will be able to play even more minutes.”
Wednesday morning, Gary Payton II returned to the Rio Grande Valley, just in time to get one practice in with the Vipers, before his season debut Thursday. Payton played 49 games for the Vipers during the 2016-17 season.
With Vipers point guard Angel Rodriguez still dealing with an injury, and unable to play, the Vipers put Payton right into the starting lineup, and allowed him to carry a heavy load with 34 minutes on the court.
“Coach JB told me he was going to throw me into the fire,” Payton said. “I told him, ‘great, because that is the only way I will find my rhythm,’ So, he did that, and it worked out great.”
There were some signs of rust, which is to be expected for the guard who played five-on-five basketball Thursday for the first time since preseason, but Payton made every minute count. He shot 22 of the Vipers’ 80 field goals, netting him 21 points, four assists, seven rebounds and six steals.
“First of all, I have to pick on him and say he has to make those layups and free throws and shoot the ball better, but I think that is all rust,” Blair said. “With that said, he brought a lot to the table outside of that. His defensive presence was always felt there, with those six steals. He can make a big difference for us. Ball pressure is a big key to our defense, and having him there doing that, and also helping to rebound with his athleticism, is just good for us.”
Many of Payton’s assists went to the big man, Hartenstein, a deadly combo that could be a key cog for the Vipers moving forward.
“We have tremendous bigs,” Payton said. “My job is to get down in there and make plays, and if I can’t get it done, we have the big fellas coming in to clean it up. … It’s going to be a fun season. I know (Hartenstein) has my back, and if I just put it up, if it don’t go down, I know he’s got it.”
Hartenstein’s added value goes beyond the box score. His play at the five has allowed forward Bruno Caboclo to shine in a slightly tweaked role. Caboclo played a lot more minutes at the four Thursday, but he was able to come in and relieve Hartenstein for a few stretches, thanks to Blair’s creative substitution rotations.
“Playing the four gets me better looks from 3, because when I play the five, I have to roll every time,” Caboclo said. “So, I don’t get to pop. I only do when I play with (Chris Walker). But, I like playing both positions.”
Caboclo had a double-double of his own, somehow finding 10 more rebounds to go with his 22 points. Caboclo shot 4-of-7 from beyond the arc Thursday, a clear sign of Hartenstein’s impact.
Even with a long five-day break for the Vipers, everything wasn’t as calm as it should have been, given the Vipers’ hectic start to the season. The injuries, which have hampered the Vipers all year, even affect the team’s ability to practice.
“We had five days, but is has been a tough five days for us,” Blair said. “We had some guys dealing with injuries. We didn’t have 10 guys to practice with, one time, during that stretch. We never even got to play five-on-five. It’s been difficult, but that is the way this league is. We just keep going, and pushing on, and hopefully the team that we know that we have, will show up on game night.”
Things won’t get any easier for the Vipers, who will play just one more home game in December. The Vipers are 6-2 at home and 3-4 on the road.
Brandon Sampson added 13 points on Thursday, shooting 3–of- 4 from 3.
Jared Brownridge led the way for the Blue Coats with 26 points on 6-of-16 from deep.
Jonah Bolden added 19 for Delaware, and Haywood Highsmith contributed 16 more.
The Vipers are back in action at 6 p.m. Saturday, when they visit the Lakeland Magic.