Isaiah Taylor entered July 2016 with an uphill climb ahead of him. The former Longhorn point guard from 2013 through 2016 went undrafted as a rookie, receiving only an invite to the Rockets’ NBA Summer League roster.
Undrafted players who suit up on Summer League teams are not guaranteed contracts from the regular-season club at the end of July. Some find their way onto the deep benches of NBA teams, but a majority of players end up on a D-League roster or abroad with an international club. Taylor’s prospects of playing alongside James Harden and Co. at the Toyota Center were slim at best.
“Going undrafted wasn’t a big surprise to me, it was something I prepared for,” Taylor said. “It was disappointing at the time, but going through that process only made me stronger.”
The 6-foot-3-inch point guard left the Longhorns after his junior season with a slew of accolades to his name. He earned All-Big 12 Third Team honors as a sophomore in 2014–15, and rocketed to All-Big 12 First Team the next season. Taylor was the backbone of the Longhorn attack, a speedy, slithery guard who changed directions with ease. Whenever the burnt orange needed a bucket in crunch time, Taylor could be counted on for a high-quality look near the tin.
But despite Taylor’s effectiveness in college, he was overshadowed as a pro prospect in the lead-up to the NBA draft. Questions persisted regarding Taylor’s propensity to hit three-pointers at the pro level — he shot just 29 percent from deep at Texas — as well as his ability to cover larger guards who could shoot over his slight frame.
With his game less-than-ready for NBA competition, Taylor took the route of heading to the D-League in the fall of 2016, signing with the Rockets’ affiliate in Rio Grande Valley in late October. There, Taylor shined. He appeared in 25 contests for the Vipers, averaging 21 points per game while shooting a blistering 46 percent from three-point land. And at the end of the season, Taylor was named to the D-League All-Rookie Team.
“I shot a lot better from the perimeter at the professional level than in college,” Taylor said. “Being able to hit my jump shots really allowed me to be in attack mode and play my best game.”
Taylor’s success in the D-League was rewarded in late February. He signed a three-year, non-guaranteed contract with Houston, appearing in four regular season games near the end of the season. And while Taylor mainly rode the bench behind Harden and recently traded point guard Patrick Beverley — who was shipped to Los Angeles after the Rockets acquired future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul — Taylor says he learned a bevy of lessons in his first year of professional basketball.
“(Harden) is a master at reading defenses off the pick-and-roll, and I learned a lot from being up close and watching him,” Taylor said. “I was able to adjust my game and make better reads against quality defenders as the season went on.”
The Longhorns’ former floor general is back in Summer League this July, but now, his status is more certain. Taylor doesn’t have to fret about his situation in the fall, a spot with the pro club all but secured heading into next year. The climb to an NBA roster is complete. Now, Taylor is looking to solidify his status as a regular on the Rockets for years to come.
“I’m excited to be on the opening-day roster,” Taylor said. “I proved that I could play at the pro level last year, and I really think I’m ready to take that next step.”