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When Kevin Burleson heard that Ray Spalding was going to return to the RGV Vipers, he was excited.

“He’s the glue,” said Burleson, in his second year at the helm of the four-time NBA G League team and affiliates of the Houston Rockets. “In life, if you have a friend or a family member or anybody who can lighten the mood in any situation, whether it’s negative or whatever, you want to be around them. And our team loves to be around.

Rio Grande Valley Vipers’ Ray Spalding during an NBA G League basketball game Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Edinburg, Texas. (Delcia Lopez| [email protected])

“Wins and loses are big and losses are tough – and win or lose Ray tries to bring that mood up and keep us positive. He’s like that on the court and off the court.”

Spalding was a second-round pick – No. 56 overall in the 2018 NBA draft, coming our of Louisville. He was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers and traded to Dallas. HE played one game with the Mavericks, the 13 with the Phoenix Suns. After a year in the G League, he returned to the NBA with the Houston Rockets. During his second game, he tore his Achilles and the Rockets waived him.

Then, on Nov. 3, 2022, Spalding was named to the RGV Vipers opening night roster, still recovering from the injury while getting some minutes in.

It has been a tough road to travel for the 6-foot-10 power forward/center, both physically and mentally. But, if recent weeks have shown anything, it might be the potential that everyone sees in him. Louisville legendary coach Rick Pitino said Spalding had more potential than any player he had coached.

“From the beginning this year I saw his body was good, his mind was good,” Burleson said. “That first year last year coming back from an Achilles is always a year you’re trying to figure things out for your body and mind. He’s our guy. We have to play through him and on any give night he can be the best player on the floor. When he’s moving good and we’re getting him the ball, we’re really good.”

Spalding is averaging  13.6 points, 2.0 blocks, 6.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game during a season in which he’s played 26.6 minutes per game, has dealt with back pain and getting whacked hard in the head during one game.

He’s shooting more than 34% from the 3-point line but, more importantly, he’s finally playing like the big man people expect from an athlete with his size. He’s all smiles and a fun-loving guy pre- and post-game. But he’s an Intimidator – with a finesse touch – come game time.

“My older brother beats my head about that, about being the big guy, Spalding said. “I mean all my life, I’ve been the tallest, but not always the heaviest/ But I like it and sometimes I try to be the toughest guy too.

“I get to step outside and shoot and coaches and my teammates trust me. Yeah, I’m the big guy but I don’t do what all big guys do. I don’t just hang out under the basket. I think it fits the offense well and I think they use me well, too. The NBA is changing and you’ve got to be able to stretch the floor.”

Burleson said Spalding brings a unique and varied set of skills that lets the team use him often an in many different ways. His fouls are down, his assists, scoring and just about every other stat is constantly rising. He’s scored 20 or more points in four of his last five games – tallying 17 during the other game.

“With guys like him that are very skilled, they can lean on their skill, which can be finesse,” Burleson said. “They do finesse things, for big guys in the modern game it’s good to have that skill. But, you’re still very effective if you can play big, banging down low. I think he has learned that and has seen that and he’s doing that for us as well now.”

Spalding has learned a lot about the game, especially now that he feels 100% and doesn’t have to focus every minute on his injury. But his recent return trip to Washington D.C. against the Capital City Go-Go, however, brought back some memories and, maybe, a bit of lost focus. Spalding turned the ball over a season-high seven times in one of those games. It’s the same city he tore his Achilles while playing for the Rockets against the Washington Wizards.

“I talked with the coaches since the beginning that there would be ups and downs, and high s and lows,” Spalding said. “From being healthy to going through injuries, but life is like basketball, there’s going to be ups and downs, trials and tribulations. I’m bless and honored to be here with these coaches, this team and to play in the RGV.”

He’s also learned another key to getting more minutes.

“If I want to stay out there more, I can’t be picking up fouls – that’s big in the NBA,” Spalding said. “You’ve got to play without fouling. I feel that’s a skill as well, to play good defense without fouling.”

For those who have watched Spalding play, his acting skills come forward center stage when he’s called for a foul. His denials are almost believable.

“Oh yeah, for sure, for sure, you just can’t tell the ref that,” Spalding said when jokingly asked if he had ever committed a foul. “You just can’t let the referees know that and admit it. You have to play if off.”

The Vipers (12-6) return to action at 7 p.m. Friday at the Iowa Wolves (5-15). They return home at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 6 and Friday, March 8 to Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg against the Windy City Bulls (6-12).

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