Five players who impressed in Las Vegas at NBA Summer League

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Summer League is over. Finally everyone can head home from Las Vegas. The San Antonio Spurs won there just like they have been winning all offseason.

Summer League isn’t about wins and losses; it’s about development, and a status check on players. With the rookies, we see where they really stand right now. For returning players, it’s a chance to benchmark their development.

These are five players that stood out to the PBT crew in Las Vegas (myself and Sean Highkin were there). This is not a list of the best players at the event, if so guys like Seth Curry and T.J. Warren would have been here. This is also not a complete list of guys who looked good or that we liked, otherwise Jahlil Okafor of the Sixers or Kyle Anderson of the Spurs would be on the list (among others). Bottom line, this could be a lot longer list.

But here are the five that turned our heads.

1) Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets). He has an incredible maturity to his game for a rookie. While other players struggled to adjust to the increased athleticism in Las Vegas and defensive pressure that can bring, he was calm and making the right decisions. Mudiay would recognize what defenses were trying to do then quickly worked to exploit a weakness. He can step in right now and be a starting point guard in the NBA (while there still will be rookie bumps along that road, he is far more prepared than most).

“I feel like playing overseas professionally, that really helped me,” Mudiay said of the patience in his game. “Coming from high school to pro ball, in high school I was rushing everything. Straight out to China I was rushing everything. But I’ve got to let the game come to me.”

“When things are chaotic he remains calm, he’s very comfortable with his abilities, and he’s able to make pretty much any pass at any time, which is big time,”Denver Nuggets Summer League coach Micah Nori told PBT. “And I think the one thing about Emmanuel that allows him to do that is his skill level with his ball handling. And the other thing is he’s a big kid, a big strong kid. Some guys, when they get pressure, turn their back to the floor, the one thing he’s able to do is be facing forward, facing that rim, and that’s why he can make any pass at any time. He finds guys that are open and hits them on time and on target.”

Nuggets fans are going to love the flair he has in his game — he pushes the pace, and he’s fond of behind-the-back and jump passes. He’s got a great change of pace dribble and has shown some real explosion to the rim.

“The first thing you see is he is a true point guard…”  said. “Guys are going to love to play with him, they are going to continue to run for him because he is a pass-first point guard…. And I see him being able to lead. With his ability to pass and his unselfishness, guys are going to want to follow him.” (KH)

2) Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves). We knew the No. 1 overall pick had physical talent, but what we really liked was the high basketball IQ he showed. He does well recognizing the double teams being thrown at him, he was patient and made clever passes out of them. His game also grew quickly as he adjusted to Summer League defenses — he showed an ability to score a variety of ways, from back-to-the-basket to 18-foot jumpers. He cuts and moves well off the ball. Like every other rookie there is plenty of work to do — he picked up fouls at an alarming rate, and he needs a diversity of post moves — but there is a lot to like there for Timberwolves fans dreaming of a bright future. (KH)

3) Bobby Portis (Chicago Bulls). The Bulls were surprised on draft night when Portis was still available at No. 22, and they have to be pleased with his Summer League showing. In his Vegas debut, Portis had 23 points and 7 rebounds playing against No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns. His later games weren’t as impressive statistically, but new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg raved about his motor and intensity. The Bulls’ frontcourt is crowded, but Taj Gibson is coming off recent ankle surgery, Pau Gasol is 35 and Joakim Noah looked like a shell of himself last year, so it’s easy to see a scenario where Portis plays significant minutes this season. He looks ready. (SH)

4) Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks). After all the questions pre-draft and the boos on draft night, here is the simple assessment of Porzingis:

He belongs.

He belongs at the top of the draft board; he deserves to be mentioned with Okafor and Towns. Make no mistake, he is still a project that will take a couple of years to develop, but he has the potential to be that good. Porzingis showed a raw game but one that could be efficient and smooth — he averaged just more than 10 touches a game at Summer League but was efficient with them, scoring 1.024 points per possession (much better than Towns or Okafor did). Porzingis showed a high basketball IQ, good passing skills, and while he can shoot the three he showed off an ability to get inside and make plays off the bounce as well. He was better on the defensive end than expected because of his crazy length.

“Just how it complements so many different players and situations,” Knicks coach Derek Fisher said of how Porzingis’ game fits in New York. “I think defensively he complements guys because of his length and his rim protection. He’s pretty active and can guard multiple guys. I think offensively because of his ability to stretch the floor and do some things around the basket as well. I think he’s a player that fits with just about any lineup, no matter how you’re trying to play. So I think that versatility has been obvious during Summer League.”

5) Noah Vonleh (Portland Trail Blazers). Vonleh, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2014 draft, didn’t play very much in his rookie season in Charlotte, and they gave up on him after one year to trade for Nicolas Batum. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to get minutes at power forward for the Blazers, who just lost LaMarcus Aldridge and are very much in “throw a bunch of young guys with upside out on the floor and see who sticks” mode. The “it’s only Summer League” caveats fully apply here, but Vonleh was impressive in Vegas, showing off an uncommon handle and shooting range for a big man in addition to the explosiveness that made him such a high pick in the first place. He’s still a very raw prospect, but the tools are there, and there’s reason to believe the Blazers got a steal in their rebuilding effort. (SH)

Tristan Thompson on Cavaliers anonymously griping about John Beilein: ‘Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now’

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The Athletic – quoting at least three unnamed players – reported the Cavaliers are rebelling against John Beilein’s collegiate coaching style.

Cleveland big Tristan Thompson, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now,” Thompson said. “You can’t do that s—.

“At the end of the day if you’re going to build a culture and a family, you can’t have that Chatty Patty s— going on. That s— is whack to me. Everyone’s got to look in the mirror, there’s only so much coach can do and there’s only so much we can do. Do we have the best roster in the NBA? No. But we’re going to go out there and compete every night. Guys got to look in the mirror. So I hope whoever reported that was just bulls——g and blamed it on a player.”

That’s quite the rhetoric from Thompson. I wonder whether he has the same energy in the locker room.

Thompson confronting his teammates would certainly raise the stakes. And make no mistake: His teammates are among the unnamed sources. The report not only specifically cited players, it said “Veterans and younger players, from all corners of the roster” are having issues with Beilein.

Even if he supports his coach, that’s a lot for Thompson to take on.

But if he’s looking for a place to start, I have a guess.

Report: Raptors president Masai Ujiri would be intrigued by Knicks

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The Knicks are reportedly “obsessed” with Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

Would he actually leave Toronto?

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Sources also say Ujiri would be intrigued by the challenge of fixing the Knicks, the chance to build something from scratch and, not insignificantly, by the opportunity to elevate his Giants of Africa philanthropy by working in the New York market.

Influential voices in the NBA have strongly advised Ujiri not to take the job, if it’s ever offered, sources say. But those same sources say Ujiri might do it anyway, if the money is right, if he’s granted the necessary autonomy and if Dolan funds Giants of Africa as generously as the Raptors ownership group has.

Ujiri’s contract is believed to run through 2021 but with an out clause under certain circumstances. He turned down a lucrative extension last summer, sources said, leaving the impression that he wants to keep his options open.

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

contrary to a report that Ujiri turned down an extension – there has never been one been offered, according to sources

There’s no good reason to believe one reporter’s unnamed sources over another reporter’s unnamed sources in this case. Maybe the Raptors offered an extension. Maybe they didn’t.

Without knowing the terms, it doesn’t matter much for predicting Ujiri’s future, anyway. If it were truly a “lucrative” offer, that’d indicate Ujiri values flexibility more than staying in Toronto. But if it were a lower offer considering how much time is left on his current deal, that could mean Ujiri is just trying to negotiate more from the Raptors.

Still, even Grange wrote extensively on way Ujiri might go to New York. There’s smoke here.

The upside of running the Knicks is higher than the upside of running the Raptors. That’s just the reality of market, ownership spending and team prestige.

The Knicks also have owner James Dolan and all the complications he brings. He will be New York’s biggest obstacle in any attempt to lure Ujiri. Past dismissive comments can easily get written off to Ujiri having a competitive streak. Dolan – particularly his temperament and insistence on keeping unproductive employees around – is the real challenge.

Ujiri has a good thing going in Toronto. I doubt he’s rushing to leave. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if he’s at least willing to hear out the Knicks.

It’s not Showtime 2, but Lakers fast break surprising, running past teams

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LOS ANGELES — Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers ran past the Timberwolves.

Literally.

The Lakers got their first bucket when Anthony Davis got a rebound, pushed the ball up the court himself, and went coast-to-coast for an and-1 lay-up. Soon after LeBron James was throwing look-aheads to a sprinting Davis.

Los Angeles had 17 fast-break points in the first quarter, on their way to 32 for the game. The Lakers kept getting easy buckets in transition, which kept a feisty Timberwolves team in the rear-view mirror.

That happens a lot. Talk to opposing the coaches about the Lakers and you hear about their length defensively, the activity of their big men, and how the LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll leaves defenders with impossible choices.

The fast break points sneak up on teams. These Lakers are not the second coming of Showtime, but the break has become a vital weapon for them.

“The transition game over the past couple of weeks has really picked up,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said.

Los Angeles averages 18.4 fast break points per game, third most in the NBA, but that number doesn’t tell the entire story. The Lakers add as many points per game on transition plays as any team in the league, looking at the advanced stats at Cleaning the Glass (which filters out garbage time in its numbers). The Lakers start 16 percent of possessions in transition, eight highest percentage in the league, and they have a ridiculous 130.8 offensive rating when they do get out and run, third best in the NBA.

Maybe more importantly, the players love it. They want to run. Vogel praised Davis’ “old school, smash mouth” 50 points against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves, but he did that in part by rim-running hard in transition and getting some easy dunks early.

“For me, I like to get out and run, get some easy buckets first, especially on the break get a lob or a lay-up, see the ball go through the basket and go from there,” Davis said of those early transition buckets Sunday.

Transition points have to start with a stop and a rebound, which has been the focal point of Vogel and the coaching staff. Once the break starts it’s much more straightforward —get LeBron the rock and just run.

“Prior to the Denver game (Dec. 3), we had not been rebounding the basketball very well,” Vogel said. “With a strong message delivered that we’re not going to reach our potential if we continue to be poor on the glass and rely on our athleticism to rebound rather than really committing to hitting people — and if we secure the rebound and hold people to one shot — then we’re dealing with live rebounds and we’re able to run.

“We always encourage our guys to run their patterns. LeBron James, he’s just unbelievable with his throw aheads. He’s putting the ball on target in narrow spaces and getting guys easy lay-ups.

“So I think it starts on the defensive end with the defensive glass and then LeBron running the action.”

Those easy transition buckets make it much harder to beat the Lakers and are a key reason they are a West-leading 21-3. Los Angeles is difficult to score against with all its length, and it has the sixth best defense in the NBA. Against teams like that, giving up easy transition buckets almost guarantees a loss. Teams can’t make up the ground.

Which sounds a lot like the Showtime Lakers.

This year’s Lakers’ edition may not be Magic to Worthy for the tomahawk dunk, but it’s closer to it than the Lakers have been in a long time. Even if it’s not what people notice first.

Keep the pace up and these Lakers may be able to run their way to some of the success — and the rings — of those Showtime Lakers.

Derrick Rose during on-court interview after game-winner: ‘Excuse my English, but I’m born to do this s—’ (video)

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Yesterday was a big night for hitting game-winners then cursing in walk-off interviews.

Nemanja Bjelica made the game-winning 3-pointer for the Kings against the Rockets then said, “F— it, we deserved this win, man.”

Derrick Rose also made a game-winning jumper for the Pistons against the Pelicans then said on Fox Sports Detroit:

Excuse my English, but I’m born to do this s—. Dead serious. This is what I do.

Rose spent a large portion of his life as an elite basketball player. Then, he had multiple lost years with the Bulls, slipped with the Knicks and was downright awful with the Cavaliers. It seemed he could fall out of the NBA entirely.

He’s clearly darned proud of persevering.

He also doesn’t always explain that in the most polite language.

Based on the Marc Gasol precedent of saying “f—” in an on-court interview, Bjelica will probably get fined. Is “s—” OK, though? What a fascinating question for the league office.