The hometown kid
Danuel House: The most important Rocket that not enough people know about
In the early-2000s, it seemed like every kid who touched a basketball in the city of Houston owned a Steve Francis or a Yao Ming jersey. Francis and Yao represented a new era of Rockets basketball. The Rockets' logo at the time, an angry space shuttle exiting a basketball-shaped globe, pasted onto a navy blue jersey with white pinstripes was candy for 10-year olds wanting to be like them.
However, few 10-year-olds owned both jerseys. And if they did, it was unlikely they would ever grow up to play for the very organization that drafted both players.
"It's a dream come true," says 26-year-old forward Danuel House. "Not too many players get the opportunity to say that they're playing for their hometown. So, I'm grateful for it. I take it with pride and I play with my emotions on my sleeve because I'm representing the culture that I came from."
House wasn't just born in Houston. He grew up here, he went to school at Hightower High School, and he committed to the University of Houston over schools like Ohio State, Texas, Baylor, Kansas, and Georgetown. The longest time he's spent outside of Houston was when he went to Texas A&M his junior and senior years of college - just an hour and a half out of the city. So it's not a surprise that this ended up being his NBA home once he finally found his footing in the league.
It took quite a long time to find that footing, however. House bounced around from teams like Phoenix, Washington, and Golden State before he ended up back with the Rockets' on a partially guaranteed deal. As a guard, it was hard for coaches to justify playing House over some of the players in front of him in the rotation. He hadn't shown the ball-handling prowess he's shown in Houston and was largely unproven as a three-point shooter in the NBA. At 6'6", House didn't seem big enough or good enough defensively to play at the forward positions. House certainly had NBA-level athleticism, but playoff teams like Washington and Golden State at the time often elect to play proven veterans over players with raw talent like House. House needed time and a long leash to be able to develop and make mistakes.
"Fifty percent of me thought that I might not stick [in the league]," says House. "Fifty percent of me knew that I belonged there. I just needed to have an opportunity to go out and showcase why."
Players in that position often need positive affirmation, not only from other players or peers, but from mentors that saw the potential in them from the beginning. For House, that mentor was Rockets player development coach John Lucas. Lucas has known House since he was 13 years old, when House attended Lucas' basketball camp, and has worked with him ever since. Lucas is more than a mentor, as House views him closer to a father figure. So when House was struggling to find a permanent NBA home, it was only natural that he turned to Lucas for counsel.
"He wanted to blame everybody else," said Lucas. "I told him 'Just keep working and you'll find your fit'. And his fit happened to be with us."
And so House was on the Rockets, at a time where they desperately needed healthy and capable bodies.
Considering Houston's injury situation, it came as no surprise that House was regularly playing around 20 minutes per game for the team in the beginning. What did raise eyebrows was just how good House was in the minutes provided to him. From the time he was signed (November 26th) until December 20th, House was averaging a team high plus/minus of +4.4 even though he wasn't shooting the ball particularly well (29.2% from three-point range). The Rockets hit their peaks in offensive rating (117.9) when House was on the floor during this stretch.
So when Chris Paul went down with a brutally timed hamstring injury on December 20th, head coach Mike D'Antoni shocked fans and media when he chose Danuel House to be Paul's replacement in the starting lineup.
Though his starting role may have been temporary at the time, it had become clear that by gaining the trust of D'Antoni, House had finally found an NBA home. House saw his minutes get bumped up to 28.5 minutes per game and became a staple of some of D'Antoni's signature lineups. House was still very raw and was rough defensively on most nights (112.5 defensive rating), but he gave Houston size and a much needed body in the time Paul missed.
And then, the NBA days ran out on Danuel House's contract. The stability that House had wanted his entire career had to be put on pause for what became a very public negotiation battle between Houston's front office and House.
The Rockets were in a precarious situation because while they wanted to keep House, they only had $3.3 million left of their taxpayer mid-level exception at the time. It was also unclear if Houston intended on using this lump sum of cash on buyout candidates that would become available.
The Rockets initially offered House a three-year, non guaranteed deal and then made the offer guaranteed. Both were reportedly rejected by House and his agent, Raymond Brothers. They then asked Houston to convert House to a standard minimum contract for the rest of the season, meaning House would be a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
By doing this, House and his representation were betting on themselves, and for good reason. They had leverage, House showed promise with the team, and it was perfectly reasonable to believe they would receive contract offers in the summer based on that play. They were willing to go along with the stalemate and play the long game, but that didn't make it any easier on his state of mind."
"It was real tough because it was at a standstill and we were doing really good," said House. "We had a little momentum going, chemistry was there."
House was right. The Rockets had won 16 of the 25 games House had been in uniform for the team and 9 out of the 12 games House started. The Rockets were rolling and starting to gain a team identity that they had so desperately lacked earlier in the season. House played a significant role in finding that.
So not being with the Rockets after he had found some consistency with the team was a bitter pill to swallow. House wanted to help Houston, but he also wanted to earn his first real NBA contract. To do that, he had to stand his ground. If there was ever such a thing as being between a rock and a hard place, this was it.
"I talked to him everyday," said Lucas. "I told him what to do, but he wanted to bet on himself and it worked out for him."
House firmly believed that he was worth more than the deal on the table. For a then 25-year-old who hadn't seen significant money in the NBA yet, that was a hell of a gamble and it took a lot of courage.
"I just believe everything works itself out, no matter what," said House. "Once both sides sit down together, there's going to be a mutual motivation to get it done somehow, someway."
While House technically returned to the G League on January 16th, he actually didn't suit up to play a game until February 8th. When he did return, many took it as a sign of goodwill and they weren't wrong as House would be converted to a standard NBA contract about a month later. Half of his had bet paid off. The other half would have to wait until the summer.
This stalemate didn't come without a price though. The Rockets had found chemistry with House and it could be argued that the negotiations slowed Houston's roll.
"It cost us some positions [in the Western Conference] because he went down there and we lost our rhythm," said Lucas. "And he never got back in sync once he came back up at the end of the year. So it's taking him this whole summer to get him back to where he would've been if he hadn't left."
When he returned, the Rockets had already grown accustomed to Eric Gordon in the starting lineup and House would have to take a bench role. House finished the season shooting a strong 44.9% from three-point range on 5.6 attempts per game and the Rockets were 14.9 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor. Houston also went on to win 11 of their last 13 games of the season. Things were clicking at an unbelievable level for the team and it felt like House had arrived just in time.
The playoffs proved to be really bumpy for House, as he finished with a PER of 4.0 and a true shooting percentage of 42.0% (25.8% from three-point range). House could not buy a basket or find a rhythm and subsequently fell out of Mike D'Antoni's rotation. House revealed that this was because he had an inflamed toe.
"That's why Mike [D'Antoni] decided to go with someone else which I respect because I would rather him play someone that's healthy versus someone that's not and hurt the team," House said. "I respect the decision and it just made me better."
Because of his rough playoff performance, it came as a surprise to many how quickly House was retained by the Rockets this summer. House signed a three year, $11.1 million deal to return to Houston 24 minutes into free agency. The other half of House's gamble had paid off. He had secured the largest NBA contract of his life and one that trumped the three-year, minimum contract he was offered in January. House had finally secured himself a permanent NBA home.
"I had confidence that stuff would work itself out for me," House said. "I felt that I had played myself into a good position. All I wanted to do was make the right choice for myself and my career. I just wanted to have a great opportunity to make sure that I'm able to take care of my family and still be able to play my game and have fun."
Because House had his contract situation resolved quickly, he was able to get back to working on his game this offseason. House got with skills trainer Kenny Ellis and Lucas this summer to work on what the Rockets would need from him this season. One of the things was obviously catch-and-shoot situations, where it seems House has become a deadeye shooter. House is shooting 46.0% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers this season on 5.6 attempts per game. House isn't at all afraid to take these shots. Whether it's on the move, stationary, or even contested, House's willingness to take them has been a huge asset to the team.
It's not just the ridiculous clip House is shooting at. House has shown a nice propensity to attacking closeouts this season. Whether it's a pump fake, a drive, a side-step, or a step-back, House has developed counters to when defenders chase him off the three-point line. It's not uncommon for 3-and-D players to try this, but when they do, it often looks robotic and unnatural. House's fluidity and comfort has been what's stood out.
"I've just been working on it because guys were [closing out hard] instead of course letting me get shots up because I was shooting at a high percentage," said House. "Getting better with ball handling and playmaking decisions [is important] especially if someone chases me off my shot and the second line of defense is there and I can't get a shot up."
It's not hard to tell that House worked on ball handling this summer and it's been really impressive. House looks closer to a 10-year veteran with the ball in his hands than a 26-year-old. Lucas says this is because his program this summer was really extensive just in case he didn't end up back on the Rockets.
"He worked on the full part of his game," said Lucas. "He isn't required to do that [here], because of James and Russ handling the ball. So what we ended up doing towards the end is to make sure if it wasn't here, he could play anywhere."
Some of this may also have to do with House being a guard his whole life. It's easy to forget that he originally slated to be a shooting guard in the NBA before transitioning to a small forward. Either way, his ability to be a secondary or tertiary ball handler gives the Rockets a dynamic they haven't had in some time. House may be the best ball handler Houston's had at the small forward position since Chandler Parsons in 2014.
It's great that House has these abilities as a scorer, shooter, and ball handler, but he will ultimately be judged most in Houston for what he does as a defender. House plays small forward - possibly the most important defensive position in basketball today. It's something House acknowledges and insists he's ready for.
"I just think that I've been working really hard," said House. "I've been training really hard this summer to get laterally quicker to guard multiple guys and strong enough to take a beating if I switch on to someone and he does a post move."
By making House their permanent starter moving forward, the Rockets are implicitly banking on House being one of their six most important players come playoff time. Forward P.J. Tucker will obviously guard the toughest perimeter assignments for Houston, but after that, it's on House. This means in a possible series against the Los Angeles Clippers for example, House will be tasked with guarding someone like Paul George. That's a big responsibility for a 26-year-old.
"He will [be up to the task],'' said Lucas. "One of the main things right now is to get him ready. We want him improving in the regular season, but the hope with where we're trying to go, is to get him ready for April, May, and June for our playoff push."
So far, the Rockets are enjoying the early dividends of House's work on defense. Among players who have logged at least 50 minutes for Houston, House is posting the highest defensive rating.
Houston Rockets Defensive RTG:
Danuel House on court: 103.7
Danuel House off court: 117.9
But it's not just secondary opponents House will be asked to guard. Because the Rockets still switch a decent amount on defense, House will see time on forwards like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. House didn't seem to be bothered by that prospect when approached with the possibility.
"It's a test," said House . "I'm only 26 years old so this is fun. A lot of 26 year olds don't have the responsibility of guarding those guys. That shows a lot of trust and it also shows that I've been working really hard to get where I'm at now. So, I just want to make sure that I'm ready when my number is called and the test is at hand."
House is right. The Rockets have a high degree of belief in House, internally and externally. They haven't been given any reason not to. House has been featured in most of Houston's closing lineups and has logged the third most minutes on the team.
"I trust him," said Mike D'Antoni. "Whether he starts or not, he'll always be [one of the most important rotation players]. He's a good player."
It's still early, but nine games into the season, House's three-year, $11.1 million contract looks like an absolute steal for the front office. House is averaging 12.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.1 blocks on 67.2% true shooting. He's also shooting a ridiculous 47.2% from three-point range. Obviously a lot of these numbers will level off, but House's confidence won't and that's what's most important for Houston.
"I'm just grateful that it happened here," said House. "I'm home. Mike [D'Antoni] and the [coaching staff] believe in me."
It's hard to dispute that House still has a lot to prove to people who aren't quite sold yet or would like to see this kind of production and reliability in the postseason. However, he's found the stability he so badly wanted early in his career. He has an organization that believes in him, and more importantly, it all happened in his own backyard.
"When you do the work, you'll get the results," said Lucas, walking away, a proud coach.