By Bryan Ramos
A year after falling one game short of an NBA G League Championship, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers are back in action and ready for their 2017-2018 home opener against the Wisconsin Herd at 7 p.m. at State Farm Arena in Hidalgo.
Third-year Head Coach Matt Brase returns to lead RGV in the pursuit of another successful season and says to expect the same fast-paced, high-scoring style Vipers’ fans have grown accustomed to seeing.
“We’ll be up and down, we’ll score a lot of points; we just gotta wrap up the defensive end,” Brase said. “Same system, everything like that, just different personnel this year.”
Three returners from last season’s G-League Finals team is center Chinanu Onuaku and forwards Chris Walker and Troy Williams will be leaned upon to lead the way for the Vipers squad.
Walker, a University of Florida product, has been putting in the work off the court in hopes of having a breakout season in his third year in the Valley.
“It’s gotta be the season. Third-year, third time’s a charm,” Walker said. “I’m looking forward to a breakout-year. I really like the guys that we have on the team this year, y’all are going to enjoy it. I’m trying to take the leader role and work on that,”
A new addition to this team who is already being relied upon heavily is point guard Briante Weber, who signed a two-way contract with the Rockets in October. Weber was a first-team all-defense selection a year ago while playing for Sioux Falls and is looking to continue his Pitbull style of play at the point like a former Houston Rocket.
“It was a process for me waiting and seeing where I wanted to go and where best fits,” Weber said about joining the Vipers. “That was going to get me an opportunity to stick around and something that they like is a Pat Bev type of point guard, so I figured that’s a role I could play.”
Brase said he expects big things from Weber in his first year with the Vipers.
“He’s a very, very high level basketball player; he’s an NBA player in my opinion,” Brase said. “Briante’s just a stud, he’s an all-star in this league, he fills up the box score.
This year’s Vipers squad has already seen its first action on the hardwood, as they opened their regular season Friday on the road in a three-point loss to the Oklahoma City Blue 112-109. Williams led the Vipers with 20 points, seven rebounds, and three steals. First-year Viper and former first-round pick of the Boston Celtics, R.J. Hunter, added 17 points while Weber added 15 of his own.
The first home test for the Vipers is the Wisconsin Herd, an expansion team in its first year of existence making its debut in the NBA G League.
Leading the Herd into State Farm Arena is a familiar face to Vipers fans in point guard Gary Payton II, who played for RGV last year before being called up to the NBA by the Milwaukee Bucks, where he signed a two-year deal with this season partially guaranteed.
Payton II averaged 14.1 points, six rebounds and three assists in 49 games with the Vipers a season ago and has appeared in one game with the Bucks thus far.
This year’s Vipers team currently features three Houston Rockets in Onuaku, Williams and Weber, and two Denver Nuggets in guard Monte Morris and forward Tyler Lydon, both rookies.
Lydon was the 24th overall selection in last year’s NBA Draft. Another addition in a big role is big-man Isaiah Hartenstein, the 43rd overall pick in 2017 who spent last season playing professionally in Lithuania.
Hartenstein said while there may be differences between play in the G League and NBA as opposed to the European game, at the end of the day, it’s still basketball.
“It’s a little different; probably the only big difference is the speed of the game,” the seven foot one inch center said. “In general, Europe is more of a mental game, it’s more of a thinking, more of a team-game, a little bit harder defense, but at the end of the day it’s still basketball and its fun for me.”
Tip-off between the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Wisconsin Herd is scheduled for 7 p.m. at State Farm Arena. Tickets can be purchased at the State Farm Arena box office or online through Ticketmaster.com
The Vipers will also host the Austin Spurs at 7 p.m. Wednesday at State Farm Arena to close out their two-game homestand before heading on the road.