Can being too good, too young end up holding a player back?

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Right now, as you read this (well, so long as you read it Saturday afternoon), some of the brightest minds in the NBA are on the campus of MIT. And some bloggers are there, too (including our own Rob Mahoney).

It’s the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, discussing the latest in advanced metrics — that fancy math you think doesn’t tell you about basketball but the best teams in the league disagree with you. And frankly, the fact they all do might make you want to rethink your position. But that’s an argument for another day….

One of the first panels of the weekend was a discussion of talent, of nature vs. nurture applied to athletes, a panel hosted by Malcolm Gladwell, the legendary author (“Blink,” “Outliers”) with the legendary hair.

Gladwell asked the panelists about the most talented player they knew that never lived up to their ability. Rockets GM Daryl Morey told the story of Marcus Banks (as reported over at TrueHoop, which is doing a great job reporting out of this conference):

Morey offered this anecdote from a pre-draft interview with Banks as a reason: (paraphrased)

MOREY: “What do you really want to do with your life?”

BANKS: “Be a male fashion model.”

Banks, the guy that was going to be the Celtics point guard of the future before Rajon Rondo never panned out. This is a glimpse into why. You need a baseline of athletic talent to make it to the NBA, but what separates players with that skill is the level is time put in on practice. Hours in the gym spent honing skills when nobody was around. Define it as love of the game, competitive fire, whatever. What matters is the time. Kobe puts it in, Michael Jordan puts it in, a lot of guys like Shane Battier put in the time to get the most out of their skills.

Then there is Tracy McGrady. We’ll let Dan Devine writing for Ball Don’t Lie explain.

But while McGrady’s abilities were awe-inspiring, his willingness to further cultivate them wasn’t, according to panelist and ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who coached the Florida-born star with the Houston Rockets from 2004 through 2007….

Noting that McGrady was as close to he’s ever seen as a basketball natural, Van Gundy went on to say that T-Mac “should be a Hall of Fame player.”

“His talent was otherworldly,” Van Gundy said.

After praising McGrady’s talents, Morey said, “I do think [that ability] got in the way of Tracy’s development.”

“Much of the game was so easy — you see this in the AAU level, where they have freakishly talented players,” he continued. “When it’s that easy to dominate at that young age because of your physical tools — his wingspan was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ — my sense was, all that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights.”

It’s an interesting discussion — can being so good so early get in the way of really becoming a great player. I have heard this discussed more with big men — athletic 7-footers can almost coast their way through a decent NBA career in a sense. They won the genetic lottery and don’t need to love the game to excel at it. They don’t need to put in as much time as guards, for example. The best do, the best put in the hours to get better. But there are plenty of big men who do not love the game.

But next time you hear about the newest, greatest high school player with that otherworldly athletic talent, remember Tracy McGrady. And wonder where this next one will end up.

Report: Kings get Ben McLemore back in trade with Grizzlies

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Since the NBA instituted a four-year rookie scale for first-rounders in 1998, just 22 top-10 picks spent their entire rookie-scale contract with their original team then left that team in free agency.

Many stayed on their first team long-term. Others got traded while teams were still intrigued by the talent that got the player drafted so high in the first place. Some were signed-and-traded, the threat of restricted free agency giving teams one last chance to recoup value from a high pick.

There’s a certain stagnancy with a player’s development and a team’s decision-making when a team drafts someone high, holds him for his entire rookie-scale contract then just watches him leave in his first free agency.

Former No. 2 pick Jabari Parker is an atypical example of that rare situation, as he was picked especially high before the Bucks let his value drain until he signed with the Bulls last week.

Ben McLemore is far more representative.

The Kings drafted him No. 7 in 2013, and his production oscillated between degrees of poor. Sacramento explored trading him numerous times, but never pulled the trigger. The Kings didn’t even extend him a qualifying offer last summer, and he signed with the Grizzlies.

It was a failure of development by McLemore and foresight by Sacramento. The Kings clearly just never figured what to do with McLemore – which makes this trade, oh, so special.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Chris Herrington of The Daily Memphian:

To be fair to the Kings, maybe this isn’t about McLemore at all. He could just be a salary for matching purposes, the player receiving it completely irrelevant.

All three traded players are on expiring contracts. All three are overpaid based on their production. Temple is the best and highest-paid player in the deal. Davis and McLemore have better chances of helping Sacramento win meaningfully.

The Kings, generously, have minimal chance of winning a satisfactorily next season. Temple wasn’t going to change that, and at 32, he had little chance of helping once Sacramento was ready.

McLemore is a longshot to ever become an effective rotation player, but he has the requisite size and athleticism for an NBA shooting guard, and he’s not old at age 25. The 21-year-old Davis is far more intriguing as a bouncy center, but he must make major strides in effort and awareness.

Even as low-odds bets, Davis and McLemore offer more to Sacramento than Temple did. The second-rounder and cash only improve the Kings’ return.

Sacramento also opens $995,049 in additional cap space. Could that go toward signing another restricted free agent to an offer sheet after the Bulls matched Zach LaVine‘s? Marcus Smart? Rodney Hood? Clint Capela?

Temple is the biggest winner of the trade. He opted in for $8 million next season, even though that meant committing to the lowly Kings. But now he gets his money and gets to join a better team. He might even start at shooting guard in Memphis. Temple is a fine player and an upgrade for the wing-hungry Grizzlies. But he’s also 32 and showed slippage last year. Memphis hopes a change in scenery will solve that and it wasn’t simply aging.

The Grizzlies were wise to bet on Temple considering the low cost of acquiring him. They’re trying to win now, which isn’t necessarily the wrong move with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley under contract. It’ll still be an uphill battle in the loaded West, but Temple is another helpful addition along with Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Omri Casspi and Jevon Carter this summer.

Report: Nemanja Bjelica backs out of contract agreement with 76ers to return to Europe

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Nemanja Bjelica had his $4,937,499 qualifying offer pulled by the Timberwolves (so they could sign Anthony Tolliver while remaining out of the luxury tax).

Bjelica rebounded with the 76ers, agreeing to take the $4,449,000 room exception for one year.

But…

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

DeAndre Jordan 2.0? Maybe. We don’t know exactly what, if any, contingencies Bjelica and Philadelphia put on the agreement.

A key distinction: Jordan pledged to sign with the Mavericks and reneged all during the July moratorium, when he couldn’t officially sign. Bjelica’s deal with Philadelphia came out a day before the moratorium ended, and he could have signed during the last 11 days.

Teams often delay signing players with the room exception, because they can exceed the cap with it. But the 76ers have long used up their cap space. Unless they have a bigger deal in mind and asked Bjelica to wait just in case, they should have known for a while something might be amiss.

Bjelica is better than any remaining unrestricted free agent, so he won’t be easily replaced. Philadelphia will probably hold its room exception for potential buyout players, as it’s unclear anyone available could command more than a minimum salary.

The 76ers certainly viewed Bjelica as a replacement for Ersan Ilyasova, who left for the Bucks. Depth matters, but at least Philadelphia still has a stretch four in Dario Saric, who improved his range (and a lot more) last season.

Bjelica’s defection will also help, though not solve, the 76ers’ roster crunch. They still have 16 players clearly getting standard contracts – one more than the regular-season limit – and 2017 second-round Jonah Bolden has stated a plan to sign with Philadelphia for next season. So, the 76ers might have to buy out Jerryd Bayless and/or waive players like Justin Anderson and Furkan Korkmaz.

Report: Before trading Jeremy Lin to Hawks, Nets were concerned about his readiness for season

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Jeremy Lin missed 127 games the last two years, including the last 81 last season. And the Nets – before trading Lin to Atlanta – apparently weren’t convinced he’d be fully healthy next season.

Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

there was internal concern about whether he would have been ready for the start of camp

The Hawks had a right to give Lin a physical before finalizing the trade. Every indication is they did and he passed.

So, maybe Brooklyn was overly worried. Or maybe Atlanta looked past concerns to acquire a name player. We’ll probably never know. Sometimes, players with sound bills of health get hurt. Sometimes, players with medical red flags don’t. The outcome for Lin next season won’t necessarily prove anything.

The prevailing opinion is the Hawks acquired Lin as an attention-grabber. They already have their point guard of the future in Trae Young, and Dennis Schroderwho’s firmly on the trade block – could have easily handled remaining minutes at the position. Atlanta could have used its cap space to gain extra picks in a salary dump with the Nuggets, but instead allowed the Nets to make that trade by taking Lin off their hands.

It isn’t necessarily the “wrong” move. I would have rather gotten the picks, but I’m not the one who makes money on Hawks ticket sales and TV ratings. I get the appeal of Lin.

But that works only if he stays healthy.

At least the other element of making Lin the draw – that he isn’t good enough to undermine tanking – would hold up if he gets hurt.

As Summer League ends, what are teams taking away from Las Vegas?

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LAS VEGAS — Knicks fans were lined up out the door, literally overflowing the Cox Arena on the UNLV campus to get a glimpse of Kevin Knox, who averaged 21.3 points per game at Summer League and suddenly was seen as the newest star on Broadway — the perfect pairing for Kristaps Porzingis.

Top pick Deandre Ayton filled the building and had Suns’ fans dreaming of rings with his star power. Memphis’ fans were saying they saw the future of the franchise with Jaren Jackson’s combination of shooting and shot blocking. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s looked like a steal and his play gave Clippers’ fans hope. Atlanta’s Trae Young went from “bust” to “future franchise cornerstone” over the course of two weeks as his play improved through July.

As Summer League has grown over the years — all 30 NBA teams were represented in Las Vegas, every game was televised nationally — so has the importance of these July exhibitions in the minds of fans.

But what do teams — their coaches, scouts, and GMs — take away from Las Vegas?

A baseline.

“It’s just benchmarks for the guys,” new Hawks’ coach Lloyd Pierce told NBC Sports in Las Vegas. “I got bear cubs right now. I saw Omari (Spellman) at Villanova, but I hadn’t touched him. I saw Trae (Young) at Oklahoma, but I hadn’t touched him. Kevin (Huerter) I still haven’t touched (hand surgery).

“So we have a couple areas with Trae, and we have a couple areas with John Collins and a couple areas with Tyler Dorsey where we say, ‘you know what, I know what we need to work on.’ More will come, but at least I have a starting point, and we can have a conversation now.”

That conversation is about how much more work needs to be done.

Summer League has become big business for the NBA, it’s marketed and put on a bigger stage, and with that it’s natural that Summer League games have grown in importance in the eyes of fans (and media). But for teams, the purpose hasn’t changed since the games were an almost forgotten part of the NBA season at the Pyramid on the Long Beach State campus.

Multiple NBA coaches and executives told NBC Sports is just the first post-draft step in evaluation, and where a player is on the scale right now is not nearly as important as where he goes from here. Those decision makers know that 90 percent of the players in Las Vegas will not even be invited to an NBA training camp, then combine that with limited practices and there is only so much big-picture evaluation that can take place.

“I don’t get wrapped up into the rookies, as far as being discouraged with what you see here,” said Bobby Marks, former assistant general manager with the Brooklyn Nets and current ESPN analyst. “I think I’m more discouraged if I have a second- or third-year player who does not play well here…

“You take gradual steps. You look at where you were when you first get to Vegas, where they were at the end of June or early July, then you see where they are in the middle of July.”

A lot of the evaluation from teams is not in those televised Las Vegas games, but rather on the practice court.

“The first thing is you evaluate how coachable they are, because you don’t have a lot of time, but there’s a few things you emphasize just to see if they do it,” said Utah Jazz Summer League coach Alex Jensen. “Summer League is one of those things where they are always trying to showcase themselves, so sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to do, but we want to see how coachable they are.”

For those first-round and high second-round picks, it’s also a chance to put players in NBA situations. For example, Portland Summer League coach Jim Moran said they run a lot of the same sets in Las Vegas they will run come the fall, with the goal of getting guys like Gary Trent Jr. or Anfernee Simons shots they will see come the games that matter.

“We’re trying to put them in situations they’ll be put in the regular season,” Moran said. “So whether it be defensively having our bigs switch out on smaller guys, or learning how to move and keep smaller guys in front of them, or offensively just getting them a feel for where their shots are going to come from in certain plays, we want to see it.”

For a first-round pick such as Portland’s Simons or the Knicks’ Knox or Atlanta’s Young, Summer League is a showcase. Every first-round pick has a guaranteed NBA contract — they are going to get paid come the fall. That’s not to say they don’t play hard or take it seriously, but no matter what happens in Las Vegas they will be on a roster come October.

The real business of Summer League is second-round picks, undrafted players, and guys coming back from playing overseas trying to get noticed — by NBA teams, ideally, but at least by European scouts who can land them good paying gigs playing basketball. It’s an on-court job application for almost everyone in uniform. NBA staffs are taking notes on these guys, as well.

“Second-rounders, undrafted guys, guys you might sign to two-ways, guys you might need to call up on a two way, because you don’t really know,” ESPN’s Marks said of who he watched closely at Summer League in his executive days. “There could be guys who were playing in Europe last year, or maybe from lower level schools and you didn’t bring them in for a workout, there’s a newness to this. So I think it benefits them more than your first round picks.”

Put in a good showing and guys can find their way onto a roster — Trevon Bluiett out of Xavier averaged 18.3 points per game for the Pelicans, and they signed him to a two-way contract. A handful of other guys did the same, or will get training camp invites out of Las Vegas.

Because of that those guys are hustling — say what you want about the glorified pick-up game nature of Summer League play, guys go hard because paychecks are on the line.

However, for bigger name, higher drafted players, performance in Las Vegas matters more to fans than it does the franchise.

“There are takeaways, it gives you a baseline for the rest of the summer,” Marks said.

And that’s just the first step. By Halloween, all these games will be a distant memory.