The Houston Rockets had a busy offseason that featured plenty of splashy moves.
Chris Paul was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the L.A. Clippers, PJ Tucker was signed away from the Toronto Raptors and a number of quality role players were added to provide depth such as Luc Mbah a Moute, Zhou Qi and Tarik Black among others.
Lost in the shuffle is a player Houston acquired in late June, who could end up being a surprise contributor: Shawn Long. The 24-year-old, who went undrafted in 2016, is coming off of a rookie year in which he made significant strides with the Philadelphia 76ers and played well every time he was given playing time.
The Rockets acquired Long in exchange for a 2018 second-round pick and cash considerations and initially it seemed like Houston general manager Daryl Morey was just after Long’s $1,312,611 non-guaranteed contract in an effort to make subsequent moves. But with training camp rapidly approaching, it appears Long could have a shot at sticking with the Rockets.
Long admits that the trade caught him by surprise. In fact, prior to being shipped to Houston, he first heard that he was getting dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers.
“When I first heard about it, I was supposed to be traded to the Clippers, but then I ended up getting dealt to Houston,” Long told HoopsHype. “I was actually in the middle of taking a physical when I found out about the trade. It was shocking. On one hand, I had gotten used to Philly. But at the same time, I was excited because the Rockets are a really good team and I knew I’d be closer to my family [in Louisiana]. It was sort of bittersweet.
“It was definitely a surprise, though. It just sort of happened, but I guess that’s the way the business works. I didn’t know about the talks or anything ahead of time.”
A close look at Long’s play as a rookie shows he made the most of every opportunity he was given, whether it was with the Sixers or their D-League-affiliate Delaware 87ers.
Last season, Long was one of the most dominant players in the D-League. In 39 games, he averaged 20.2 points, 11.1 boards and 1.3 blocks in 29.5 minutes while shooting 53.5 percent from the field, earning him a spot on the All-NBDL Second Team.
“Being in the D-League just makes you appreciate the grind and where certain players came from to succeed in the NBA,” Long said. “It’s definitely a grind, a tough grind, but I enjoyed it. The main thing I liked about it was the chance to play a lot. You get to show what you can do.
“Just going through the D-League and getting to play there helped me learn a lot. I think the biggest thing for me throughout the season was getting better on defense and learning how I can make a bigger impact on that end of the court. That was big for me this past year.”
His strong play was rewarded by Sixers head coach Brett Brown, who gave Long significant playing time toward the end of the 2016-17 regular season.
While he appeared in just 18 games with Philadelphia, he made the most of his playing time. He averaged 8.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, .5 blocks and .5 steals in just 13 minutes while shooting 56 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three-point range. Per-36-minutes, that translates to 22.8 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.4 steals. When Long received at least 15 minutes of playing time, he averaged 13.3 points and shot 53.2 percent from the field.
Toward the end of the season, Long managed to carve out a role in Brown’s rotation and he made the most of his opportunity. Here were some of his notable (and very efficient) performances:
- March 22 – 13 points (57.2 percent from the field), 6 boards in 15 minutes vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder.
- March 24 – 18 points (80 percent from the field), 7 boards, 2 steals in 19 minutes vs. the Chicago Bulls.
- March 26 – 15 points (53.9 percent from the field), 10 boards in 23 minutes vs. the Indiana Pacers.
- March 31 – 16 points (70 percent from the field), 4 boards, 1 block in 22 minutes vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.
- April 4 – 18 points (72.7 percent from the field), 6 boards, 2 assists in 17 minutes vs. the Brooklyn Nets.
Advanced stats painted Long in a very positive light too. He posted a PER of 24.1 with the Sixers (which was nearly identical to his D-League PER), tying Joel Embiid for highest on the Sixers. Also, Long led Philadelphia in Box Plus/Minus (+3.4) and recorded the team’s second-highest Offensive Rating (118) and third-highest Defensive Rating (106). Sure, the sample size was small, but there’s no question that the 24-year-old made his presence felt when he saw the floor.
“I think it showed how hard I worked all year,” Long said of his strong play with the 76ers. “That’s probably the biggest thing I took away from that whole experience: when you put in work and dedicate yourself to the grind, you can make big strides and it will pay off.”
After a promising rookie year in which he succeeded whenever given a chance to play, Long hopes he can continue to grow as a player and potentially provide some frontcourt depth for his new team.
“I play really tough and I pride myself on playing hard every single second I’m on the court. I want to be the guy who does the dirty work,” Long said. “I’ll do the stuff that other players may not want to do because I know that stuff has to get done in order for a team to be successful. I’m always willing to do the dirty work. I think I’ll bring a little bit of everything to the table in Houston.”
After the trade, Long started training with some of Houston’s other young players. Recently, the entire team has been working out together in preparation for training camp and the season.
“I’ve just been working on my body, focusing on my conditioning and just getting stronger,” Long said of his training. “And as far as my game goes, I’ve just continued to polish my shot and work on my ball-handling, so I can try to expand my game.”
After grinding through a D-League season and losing many games in Philly, Long is thrilled to be part of a contending Rockets team – even if he’s low on the depth chart.
“It’s exciting just to be on an NBA team. Period. But it’s definitely exciting to be part of a winning program like the Rockets,” Long said. “I just want to continue to expand my game and continue to get better. Playing with guys like Chris Paul and James Harden should only make that easier. They’re definitely going to create opportunities and open things up for everyone.”
Long, like his fellow big man Nenê, can’t wait to see Paul and Harden in action.
“I think they’ll be a good combination and I believe they’ll play really well together,” Long said of Paul and Harden. “I’m really looking forward to seeing it in games.”
Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton is good friends with Paul, as the two have trained together each summer since Payton entered the NBA. Payton played two collegiate seasons alongside Long at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and he raves about his former teammate.
“Shawn is so offensively gifted,” Payton told HoopsHype. “He can shoot it, and he play both the 4 and the 5. He’s a great guy, and he’s definitely going to bring grit to the Rockets.”
Speaking of grit, it’s worth noting that Long’s all-time favorite player is Kevin Garnett. Before games, he watches KG highlight reels and motivational videos “to get pumped up and get blood flowing.” He tries to duplicate Garnett’s energy and intensity in games – diving for loose balls, playing with maximum effort every second and doing whatever it takes to get a win for his team.
It remains to be seen what Long will end up being for the Rockets. Because his contract won’t become guaranteed until January, he could very well be a trade chip that Morey is keeping up his sleeve. He’s one of five Rockets with a non-guaranteed deal (the others are Troy Williams, Tim Quarterman, Isaiah Taylor and Cameron Oliver). At the end of the day, Long was a low-risk, high-reward addition for Morey.
But if given the chance to play, Long could emerge as a pleasant surprise for Houston – just as he did in Philadelphia last year.