HIDALGO — it was an eventful season down in the Valley for Houston Rockets assignees Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington.
The rookie pair — along with Troy Daniels, who has remained with the Rockets since Game 2 of the first-round series against Iowa — was the core of the Vipers all season and helped lead the franchise to one win away from its fourth D-League finals.
Each was vital in Monday’s Game 3 semifinal loss to Santa Cruz, but it wasn’t enough. Canaan, the Rockets’ second-round draft pick last summer, had a game-high 35 points on 9 for 21 shooting to go with five assists. Covington, the undrafted forward, had 23 points, six rebounds, three blocks and three assists.
It was another stellar effort for the duo in a season full of them, but instead they’ll find themselves back up with the Rockets for good the rest of this season instead of preparing for another Vipers championship run.
“They made strides in terms of leadership and confidence,” Rockets director of player personnel and Vipers general manager Gianluca Pascucci said. “It was definitely good for both of them to play in elimination games and games of meaning. It’s a great growing experience for those guys.”
Covington had a strong season that led to a couple of league honors. He was named the MVP of the D-League All-Star game in New Orleans in February and last week was named the league’s Rookie of the Year.
He tallied a team-high 23.2 points and 9.2 rebounds for the Vipers in 42 games in the regular season, and amassed 17.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Along the way, he dismissed the popular consensus of him as a one-dimensional shooting forward and became more of a versatile talent.
“I embraced the aspect of coming down here and getting better,” Covington said. “Not too many people come down here and embrace that. They see it as a slap in the face. I know I still have to prove myself and I embraced every opportunity I was given.
“I’ve gotten better and everybody here has helped with the process, and that helps kids get through things.”
Canaan spent the most time out of Covington or Daniels up with the Rockets. He averaged 21.8 points, 8.2 assists and four rebounds in 18 games in the regular season and was touted by most as the D-League’s best player.
In the playoffs, he stepped it up another notch, compiling 34.5 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 43.6 percent (24 for 55) from 3.
“Different situations throughout a game, I grew in while I was down here,” Canaan said. “It helped me get better as a player and helped me see a lot of things. I played through a lot of circumstances I may see at the next level.”
Canaan was drafted by the Rockets with the reputation of a scoring point guard. What the Rockets and Vipers higher-ups saw throughout the season was someone who improved considerably as a leader and as a playmaker.
“Being able to run a team and be the vocal leader on and off the court was where I made strides,” Canaan said. “It was important to learn how to be an extension of the coach, and I know I’ll have to be a lead guard at the next level.
“I think I did a good job of being able to do that hands-on this season.”
Canaan has enjoyed time with the Rockets as a third point guard and it’s clear the Rockets have big plans for him. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey remarked earlier this season that the team will likely have to find a spot in the rotation, too, for Covington come next season.
Indeed, Covington and Canaan made first-year Vipers coach Nevada Smith’s life a lot easier. Rio Grande Valley was a young team all the way through this season.
Smith was coaching at NCAA Division III Keystone College at this time last year. Covington was wondering about his future as a pro as a senior at Tennessee State. And Canaan was going relatively unnoticed playing for obscure Murray State.
“They got better doing the things they needed to do, and they worked hard to get there,” Smith said. “They took ownership of our locker room and that was the most important thing. They led these guys and you can’t say enough well about both of them.”
©2014 The Monitor (McAllen, Texas)
Visit The Monitor (McAllen, Texas) at www.themonitor.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services