Notes from a Summer League Thursday: Patrick Ewing talks Noah Vonleh, P.J. Hairston, Lance Stephenson

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LAS VEGAS — Things are quieting down in Las Vegas… well, at Summer League. Vegas itself never quiets down. This is the city where once you’ve been here five days and you get to bed at 2 a.m. and think, “good, I got in early tonight and can get some sleep.”

Here is stuff from my Thursday notebook.

• Charlotte Hornets Summer League coach Patrick Ewing spoke with ProBasketballTalk about the development of a couple key guys. One is Noah Vonleh, who has struggled at points finding an offensive groove — he was 3-of-11 shooting Thursday against New Orleans. There have been flashes but Vonleh is a project.

“I like Noah, I think he has a bright future in this league. He’s a rookie, he’s 19 years old, it’s going to take some time…” Charlotte Summer League coach Patrick Ewing told ProBasketballTalk. “The thing I think he needs to do is: rebound. He has to continue to rebound. His second game in here he had 18 rebounds and it’s not been consistent. Do all the things that he can be consistent with until his offense and all the other parts of his game is able to get going. He has to get stronger. But he’s a talented guy and he’s going to be one of the guys who is going to have a bright future for our team and possibly could be a star in this league.”

• Ewing also talked P.J. Hairston, who is ready to shoot the second he walks in the gym — a player on the opposing Pelicans said to press row at the half “How ‘bout how much P.J. shoots?” That said they were falling for him on Thursday.

“P.J., he had a very good game for us tonight. He shot the ball extremely well,” Ewing said of Hairston’s 8-of-16 overall, 4-of-9 from three night from the floor. “I keep telling him, get back and rebound also. Share the ball, because a lot of the shots are going to him and don’t just put your head down and take it. He should be a rotational player in this league, his future is predicated on how much he wants it and how much he wants to put in the work to get it.”

• P.J. Hairston does this thing where if he feels contact while dribbling he throws his head back to exaggerate it and try and get the call.

• While we were at it, I asked Ewing (also a Hornets assistant during the regular season) about the chances for the Hornets next season with the addition of Lance Stephenson.

“They keep saying the East is wide open, you never know,” Ewing said. We feel that we have a pretty good team. Lance definitely is a great addition to our ball club, he’s a guy that can shoot the basketball, he can handle the basketball, distribute the basketball, and he can get in there and play defense and rebound. He’s a great addition. We had one of the top 10 defenses in the league and with his addition it’s going to be even better.”

• Dontas Motiejunas showed what happened when you put a rotation caliber NBA big man in a Summer League game. He had 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, pulled down 11 rebounds, blocked one shot and altered a bunch more. The Cavs simply could not match up on him with this Summer League roster. Anthony Bennett tried but he’s not big enough to stop a skilled big. The guys big enough were too slow.

• Andrew Wiggins had a showcase game Thursday where he just attacked the rim — he had 20 free throw attempts on his way to 21 points (on 3-of-5 shooting). He’s still raw in a lot of ways but he has decent handles already and when he attacks good things happen.

• Here is Cavaliers coach Dave Blatt on Wiggins: “You know what you got to like about a kid like that is that it doesn’t matter if it’s the fourth game of Summer League, or the fourth game in seven days or eight days, or if people are keying on him, or if the crowd has funny things to say to him, he just goes out there and really plays and has a nice calm about him. A real good demeanor.” That includes him ignoring the trade rumors swirling around him.

• After seeing him a few times in Vegas I’m not the biggest fan of Zach LaVine’s game, but man can he dunk.

• Utah Jazz rookie Rodney Hood can flat out shoot the ball, and with the dual point-guard role of Trey Burke and Dante Exum there was room for him to shine as a shooter. He summed up the Jazz offense through Summer League:

“I think we did a a great job moving the ball. Some games we became a little stagnant because of the way people were playing, they were real aggressive. We shared the ball a lot, you rarely ever saw Iso ball or stuff like that for the most part, sometimes we didn’t shoot the ball well….

“It’s fun, especially for role players like my self, on the other end you’re that much more engaged if you’re going to touch the ball, playing with unselfish guys.”

• That said, Exum seemed a little frustrated that he got fewer touches on Thursday (Burke got more).

• Forced to do it because of the roster, Russ Smith showed he can create a little offense, putting up 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting Thursday.

• Cody Zeller is solid backup big. Pretty good defender, works hard on the glass, willing to be physical, actually has some handles, can finish through contact. Outplayed Jeff Withey head-to-head Thursday.

• Speaking of bigs who looked solid — Patric Young. A guy who never developed into the star some hoped still has an NBA body and all week has worked hard on the glass, put in the effort on defense. Should get a training camp invite somewhere at least.

• Some team carrying three point guards really should consider Will Cherry for the third spot. Raw on the edges but a ball of energy.

• The Spurs work the ball into the post in the half court more than any other team in Summer League. (This is a league where guards trying to get noticed like to shoot the rock not pass it.)

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.

Report: Momentum building toward ending one-and-done rule

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“My sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that during the NBA Finals last year about the one-and-done rule for players trying to enter the NBA — they can’t be drafted by NBA teams for one season after their high school class graduates, so the best players go to college for one season (and most go to classes for less than that). As Silver said, nobody really likes the system, but it was the compromise struck between the owners (who would like to raise the draft age to 20 or higher) and the players’ union (who want the draft age at 18, as soon as guys come out of high school).

However, momentum is building to change the rule, something we have written about before and now is gaining more traction, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With momentum gathering to reshape the one-and-done draft entry rule, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts met with the new Commission on College Basketball in Washington on Thursday, league sources told ESPN….

Nevertheless, there’s a growing belief within the league that Silver’s desire to end the one-and-done — the ability of college basketball players to enter the NBA draft after playing one year in college — could be pushing the sport closer to high school players having the opportunity to directly enter the league again. For that change to happen, though, the union would probably need to cede the one-and-done rule and agree to a mandate that players entering college must stay two years before declaring for the draft.

While the NBA and players’ union will talk to the NCAA about their plans, ultimately the college body has no say in what the NBA draft and eligibility rules are.

The best players of their generations came straight to the NBA out of high school — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and others —  however, what bothered owners were the misses in the draft. There were busts, and owners/GMs want to reduce as much risk as they can in the draft (even though there are busts on guys who they saw plenty of in college, hello Michael Olowokandi).

NBA teams are now better suited to develop players than they were a couple of decades ago — every team has an assistant coach focused on just that. The best teams in the NBA right now — Golden State, Boston, San Antonio — are the best at developing players. That’s not a coincidence, and it has teams copying (or attempting to) what the successful ones do. Combine that with the growth of the G-League and teams growing their understanding how to use it, and they are better positioned to draft a player out of high school and develop him over time than they ever have been.

 

There are still a lot of questions and hurdles. If a player declares for the draft and has an agent, but isn’t drafted (or even isn’t drafted in the first round, so no guaranteed contract) will he have the option to come to college for two (or three) years anyway? Will the NCAA allow that? And Silver has talked before about the changes in the draft needing to reflect changes in how we develop players down to the AAU level, which is its own complex set of problems.

It’s not moving quickly, but these are steps in the right direction. One-and-done doesn’t work well for anyone. The college baseball style rule (go straight to the pros or spend three years in college in that sport’s case) isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the system in place. There seems to be momentum toward change. Finally.

Watch James Harden, Rockets drop 90 on Suns — in first half

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This game had all the drama of The Last Airbender. Which is to say none. It was essentially over when the Rockets went on a 21-6 first-quarter run — unlike Boston in the earlier Thursday game, Phoenix isn’t built to come back against elite teams.

When the 15-1 Rockets run came at the end of the first quarter, it was clear Houston could do what it wanted on offense, and by half the Rockets put up 90 points. The Rockets were putting on a show (and eventually won 142-116).

James Harden had 33 points on 12 shots in the first half (he finished with 48 points for the night). Ryan Anderson hit four threes on his way to 18 before the break. Eric Gordon had 10. As a team, Houston shot 62.2 percent, and 60 percent from three in the first half. They got to the line 25 times. I could go on, but you get the picture.

If you want more highlights, here is Harden’s 48 for the night. Enjoy.

 

Paul George getting comfortable with new Thunder teammates

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George couldn’t find a rhythm on offense his first few weeks with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The four-time All-Star struggled to fit in with fellow All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony after he was traded from the Indiana Pacers. He settled for jumpers too often, shot too quickly at times and didn’t get to the free throw line as often as usual. As he adjusted, the Thunder started the season with a 4-7 record.

Once George broke out, the Thunder turned their fortunes. George erupted for 42 points in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers last Friday, then scored 37 points in a victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. He scored just 13 points in a win over Chicago on Monday, but his shots were higher quality and flowed with the offense better.

The Thunder take a three-game win streak into Friday’s game with San Antonio.

“I’m just staying in attack mode, playing downhill, being aggressive when I have the ball, being aggressive off the ball,” George said.

George leads the Thunder with 21.9 points per game. It’s quite a feat to be the top scorer on a team with Westbrook, a two-time scoring champion and the reigning league MVP, and Anthony, the No. 24 scorer in NBA history. But George has that kind of talent, and he gets to play off the other two stars.

“It’s hard because they have so many options,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “A lot of times you have the one-two option, but they have the one-two-three option. It’s tough.”

George said during the preseason that he was adjusting to how fast Westbrook moves in transition. Now, he’s in better position to attack because he is prepared. That has led to easy baskets and more free throws. He has shot 26 free throws the past three games after shooting just 27 in the previous 11 games.

“I think just trying to get out ahead of him as much as possible, I think, is key,” George said. “That way, when he’s making plays in full court, I’m already in position ready to receive the ball instead of catching up, getting my feet ready, trying to decide what to do. I’m ready to shoot or attack at that point.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said George is starting to figure out how to use his shot selection to keep defenses guessing.

“I think he’s just been balanced,” Donovan said. “He’s an elite scorer. He can do it a lot of different ways. He’s done it off the dribble, he’s done it off of catch and shoot, he’s done it off the drive. I think it’s just his balance of getting more comfortable with what we’re doing offensively and trying to figure out spots where he can be aggressive.”

Donovan said the best part of George’s performances against the Clippers and Mavericks was his efficiency – he only took 22 shots in each contest.

Even when George doesn’t shoot well, he’s effective as both an on-ball and off-ball defender. He leads the league with 2.4 steals per game.

“Honestly, defense is the part that I lock in at,” George said. “Offensively it is going to come, defensively is where I like to leave a mark and really try to be special on that end. It’s just sticking to the game plan personally in matchups, sticking to the gifts that God has given me.”