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Usman Garuba’s trip from Tokyo Olympics to Rockets and NBA summer league in Las Vegas – Houston Chronicle

LAS VEGAS — Rockets forward Usman Garuba had spent the day, other than in a layover in Dallas, on one flight or another. By the time he arrived in Las Vegas with his mind and body yearning for sleep and no break in sight in his whirlwind of a summer, jet lag was in charge.

The Rockets offered to let him ease his way onto the court. He could rest, work out, practice with the team, and then play.

Garuba had other ideas.

“I was very, very, very tired but I wanted to play so that’s it,” Garuba said after playing in Houston’s game on Thursday against Toronto. “I missed some games with the team. I know that there’s not much time left. I want to play to know my teammates on the court.”

Garuba, selected by the Rockets with the 23rd pick in last month’s NBA draft, had shown his determination to play long before he opted to play through the travel fatigue and without even one practice with his new team.

His representatives had told NBA teams that he would pay the buyout of his Real Madrid contract, reportedly costing him $3.5 million, to make the jump this season. That would cost Garuba the bulk of his first NBA salary for his first two seasons, though the agreement will allow him to pay the buyout in installments.

“My payout was very high,” Garuba said. “It wasn’t very easy to finalize it and all that stuff. I wanted to play in the NBA. The NBA was my dream since I was a kid. It was the kind of dream that I had almost every day, that I wanted to play basketball. I wanted to be here no matter what.”

Realizing that dream is the culmination of a remarkable few months, from his play with Real Madrid earning recognition as the ACB Best Young Player award in Spain’s Liga ACB and the EuroLeague Rising Star, to play in the Tokyo Olympics with Spain’s national team, the draft, and his arrival to play with he Rockets summer league team.

“It was the most special summer of my life,” Garuba, 19, said. “I was able to play in the Olympics, something that not many people can tell. And to be able to be drafted, that was an amazing feeling also, something I’m very happy for. I’m very excited, very excited.”

There was no way, when given the choice, he would have opted not to play. His struggles under those circumstances were to be expected. Considered a project offensively but with obvious defensive attributes in his great length at 6-foot-8 and quick feet.

He showed some of that in his first game, particularly when the Raptors’ Scottie Barnes went up for what would have been a sensational dunk only to have Garuba meet him above the rim. Garuba got a small piece of the ball and a lot of Barnes for a foul but showed some of his defensive instincts and athleticism.

Offensively, he struggled, missing his four shots, and losing the ball on several possessions, though he did grab six rebounds in 12 minutes.

“If I’m honest with you, I didn’t adjust well because I’m still with the jetlag, very tired because of the flight and all that stuff,” Garuba said. “It was great to be able to be on the court with my teammates.”

Unlike his time with Real Madrid and the national team, those teammates were roughly his age. Some of his teammates in Tokyo were not even the same generation.

“It feels great to see guys, very young, very hungry, ready to work,” Garuba said.

The same was said of Garuba. His delayed arrival in Las Vegas, and the travel it took, brought challenges. But he already had missed the summer league training camp others had after the draft. His summer league experience will likely include just one practice.

Though he will be on a team with four teenaged rookies and six players 21-years-old or younger, Garuba’s circumstances will send him to training camp a bit behind, even if he was determined to catch up.

“We’re hoping to create an environment for all these guys that is best suited for their growth,” Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver, the coach of the summer league team, said. “Each guy is their own particular case. Usman’s got some unique aspects to what his itinerary has looked like over the past month. But maybe the most unique part of him is how he thinks and work.

“He’s like, ‘I want to play. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m a basketball player so I would like to play.’ I was proud of the way he approached the game — super unselfish, talking on defense. But of course, it’s going to be a process for him to overcome jetlag much less catch up on what we’ve been doing.”

For now, Garuba’s first game was a chance to get in a workout as is often prescribed to shake off the jetlag. That, like Garuba’s play, remains a work in progress.

“I came from the plane (Wednesday) and went to sleep,” he said. “Then they put me on the court.

“Very long. Very long trip. Very long trip. I still have the jet lag. A long day.”