HOUSTON There was no misinterpreting Donatas Motiejunas' body language. Before opening his mouth and confirming what was already suspected via a string of responses teeming with bravado, Motiejunas projected a surprising amount of self-assuredness and self-awareness.
Even without standing erect, Motiejunas, reclined against the wall of the Toyota Center practice court adjacent to La Branch Street, towered over the media on Tuesday. He was disarmingly comfortable before his inquisitors, and as he discussed these initial preparations for his maiden foray into the NBA, Motiejunas' Lithuanian accent did little to hinder the ability to decipher his confidence. He appeared undeniably undaunted.
"If you're scared of wolf," Motiejunas said when asked whether he was ready to face the challenge of NBA competition, "don't go to the woods."
He delivered that line, best characterized as a Lithuanian proverb, with unmistakable cool, which is interesting because that description stands in stark contrast to how Rockets coach Kevin McHale later depicted Motiejunas, 21. Tuesday marked the first time Motiejunas practiced in advance of the Rockets' departure for Las Vegas and their NBA Summer League schedule, and even this workout was limited by his cranky back.
So while Motiejunas came off as polished and poised, traits burnished by his leading Asseco Prokom Gdynia to the Polish League championship, McHale saw Motiejunas' first practice steps differently.
"Motiejunas needs to play," McHale said. "It's really a shame that his back has been bothering him. He's got to play a lot (Wednesday) and the next day because he's a high-energy guy who's prone to playing kind of fast. (If) he gets all this energy that first game in Vegas, those guys in the ninth row might have broken noses. He might throw that ball all over the place. He needs to play to get some of that out of him right now. I hope (Wednesday) he can get a couple good practices.
"He's like one of those puppies; you need to run them before putting them in the car and let them sit for a long time. He needs to run."
There is no denying the fact that Motiejunas made strides in the Euroleague last season. The second of the Rockets' two first-round picks in 2011, Motiejunas (7-feet, 222 pounds) was more potential than productivity when selected. But that additional season abroad worked wonders, not only for Motiejunas' physique but also his development.
The numbers 15.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.35 steals per game are noteworthy, but the experience Motiejunas gleaned from taking his team to a championship validated the Rockets' decision to stash him in Europe. He has grown sufficiently enough to provide immediate help.
"The one year before I didn't have a good year," Motiejunas said. "I got drafted by Houston and it was like, 'We will see how you are.' They believe (in) me; the pressure was on me, and I (went) to Poland and to the Euroleague team and I tried to give my best. I had a great coach (Tomas Pacesas) who let me play on the best level a lot of minutes, and I show for everyone that when I play my best game no one can stop me.
"It's given me a lot of confidence. When I came here, I came here with a lot different attitude. I believe myself, I trust myself that I can play."
Confidence isn't in short supply with guard Scott Machado either, despite going undrafted out of Iona. Machado led the nation in assists as a senior and was evaluated as an early- to mid-second-round selection.
Falling completely off the draft board came as a surprise, yet Machado didn't allow that development to prevent him from pushing forward. Success has found undrafted players previously, and with Jeremy Lin (Knicks) and Wesley Matthews (Trail Blazers) serving as examples, and with several NBA teams expressing interest in his services, Machado knew the opportunity to prove himself yet again would soon be at hand.
"It's nothing new to me," Machado said. "Everywhere I've been in my life I've always had to prove myself or always been an underrated player. Nothing ever came easy to me.
"It's just the same approach as always: working hard, making sure that you're doing everything at your hardest, making sure that you're impressing everybody that's watching."
Iona played at such an accelerated pace the Gaels led the nation in scoring at 82.9 points per game in 2011-12 that Machado was routinely showcased as an adept ball-handler in up-tempo situations. Given the controls of a traditional NBA offense, McHale expects Machado to grasp an understanding that the ball cannot stick in half-court sets, that ball movement and distribution are critical to efficiency.
Basketball acumen shouldn't be much of a concern for Machado, and like Motiejunas, he is convinced that he has the goods to thrive. Machado didn't convey his self-reliance with a Queens proverb, but he made his point succinctly nevertheless.
"I feel like my game translates more in the NBA," Machado said. "Even though (going undrafted) happened it's nothing new to me. It's just another barrier that I've got to step over, something that I've got to get over.
"You've got to have confidence in this league. If you don't come into the workouts with confidence, you feel like you're scared of somebody or you feel like you don't have enough talent to be in the league. You've got to have confidence in your game, you've got to believe in yourself and you've got to work hard."
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