With training camp just a few weeks away, several new faces in Houston will be eager to etch out roles for themselves, but there might not be a more polarizing prospect than Rockets rookie Cam Whitmore.
Never mind that the physical 19-year-old Villanova product, who was projected as a lottery pick for months on end, fell to the organization with the 20th pick in June’s draft. The Rockets consider themselves fortunate to have such a talented young player on their hands and have confidence in their revamped coaching staff to mold and develop him into a productive NBA player. The only question is what exactly that plan looks like.
Between players such as Tari Eason, Jabari Smith Jr., Dillon Brooks, Jae’Sean Tate and even Kevin Porter Jr., if you consider Whitmore as a wing now, it’s a pretty crowded department.
Fortunately for Houston, the organization is in a much healthier place than a few years ago, when players like Smith and Jalen Green were thrown to the fire and forced to learn things on the fly. There is a healthy mix of veterans and young players, and there is a staff with exuberance, ambition and intelligence — a conducive working environment.
It would be unfair to place Whitmore on the end of the rotation before a meaningful practice or scrimmage takes place, and training camp is an open competition. There’s always a chance Whitmore can force his way into head coach Ime Udoka’s early plans off the back of his work ethic and performance. But the overarching point of his inclusion on the roster is it’s more of a luxury than a necessity as we’ve seen over the past two seasons. The Rockets don’t have to rush things with Whitmore.
Two months ago, the rookie put on an impressive display at Las Vegas Summer League, taking home MVP honors while showcasing a nice blend of physicality, explosiveness and scoring.
“He was the MVP of summer league,” general manger Rafael Stone told The Athletic. “Obviously he played really well, and we think he’s got a really bright future, and we’re excited for him.”
Still, Whitmore is far from the finished product. As exciting as he is on the open floor, the NBA is different. Things happen faster, reads need to be processed more smoothly and more quickly. There were times when Whitmore’s lack of experience was apparent just as there were moments when his upside left fans in amazement. The NBA is an experience on both sides of the coin, and Whitmore is simply eager to get the chance to flip it.
Recently, the Rockets rookie sat down with The Athletic to discuss his summer league, critiques of his game, his thoughts ahead of training camp and more.
(This interview was edited for style, length and clarity.)
Cam Whitmore at summer league. (Candice Ward/Getty Images)
Naturally, the biggest takeaway from summer league was you winning MVP, but what other parts of the overall experience stuck with you?
I mean, that was the first NBA atmosphere, NBA experience that I ever had. Winning MVP of the whole thing was mind-blowing. It was a surprise for me, also. I never really thought I would just keep excelling at every level I step into. Amazed with myself, I’m just very grateful for it every day, and I thank God and see what else I can do.
The skill level is some ways away from what you’ll see in the NBA, but were there still elements of the games you can take with you in training camp that will translate?
Me looking forward to pushing my playmaking ability to a max level and having that down pat. But other than that, just perfecting everything else with my craft. That’s pretty much it.
It seemed like that was a focus from the coaching staff — putting the ball in your hands to get you more comfortable. We saw some of that at Villanova as well. What’s the situation from your vantage point?
It’s different situations. At the beginning of summer league, I didn’t really have the ball. It was more Jabari (Smith Jr.) and Tari (Eason) kind of running the show, and I had to play off them, and when they needed me to score, I would score. But as time went on and they went out, I had the ball in my hands. Me learning how to have the ball in my hands and make the right decisions, the right reads.
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In college, you were regarded in some aspects as a three-level scorer. Did you see that carry over to summer league, either finding it easy to score or being a bit more difficult?
Even summer league and before, I’ve always felt like I could score in many ways. So it was easy even before then, I thought.
What’s been the focus for you as you prepare for training camp and the preseason?
I’d say the focus for me has been just trying to learn my role. Whatever the coaching staff wants me to do, I’ll do it. If they mention something to me, I’ll make sure it’s taken care of. I’m all ears in training camp.
How has it been spending time with some of the other guys on the roster, getting a feel for them and understanding each other?
It’s definitely early. Then again, not everybody’s back, so I’m still trying to get a feel of the new players and the new team. Just trying to get the new coaching style down pat.
Defensively, your upper body strength gives you an advantage over smaller players. How do you envision your versatility and potential translating to the NBA?
I mean, I’ve had this body since college, so that’s really helped me going on. That’s a real advantage in my eyes. Me having that body, I can use that as a strength. Knowing how to get downhill, make plays. When I get in the paint, defenders collapse, and I can kick it to the opposite end. It can help and can be an advantage for the team.
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Do you watch your own film as far as how you process things at game speed? Do you find yourself going through old tape?
Yeah. I watch the stuff I do badly. Turnovers, mistakes. I watch that after like every game. Every game I play, I watch the mistakes first to see where I can get better. Then after that, I watch the good stuff. The right reads, the ones I could have made. Certain stuff.
Why do you watch the bad stuff first?
For one, I just want to see how I am on the floor. My reactions, what caused turnovers or other bad things. Those don’t help the team at all.
With camp approaching, it’s going to be a pretty fierce battle. How excited are you to go up against your teammates and compete?
I’m getting better at the end of the day. Very excited and looking forward to it.
(Top photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)