Summer League players: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly so far

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LAS VEGAS — As we enter the tournament phase of Summer League, it is pretty much the halfway point, which seems a good time to take stock of some of the player evaluation and development that is really the focus out in Las Vegas.

And when you talk player evaluation, you should always try to use a Clint Eastwood movie theme. It’s one of the Web’s golden rules… or it should be. We almost went with “The Bridges of Madison County,” but at the last minute went with “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

THE GOOD

Cody Zeller, Charlotte Bobcats. I’ll admit it, I thought the Bobcats missed on this when they grabbed him at No. 4. Turns out he’s been the best rookie at Summer League (in my estimation, he is at least in the conversation). He played primarily in the post in college but with the Bobcats next season Al Jefferson owns the post, so Zeller has been working to be more of a midrange, stretchy type four — and he’s shown a real skill for it. He’s averaged 15.7 points and 9.3 rebounds a game, has a decent midrange game and is a pretty deft passer.

Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors. He is probably the most improved veteran at the tournament and it’s all about his physique — the skinny kid out of Europe has worked out and filled out his upper body, and with that he’s been a man among boys in the paint at Summer League. He has been a force on both ends of the court. We’ll see how that translates when he starts playing against men again, but Masai Ujiri has got one key piece from the Bryan Colangelo era that can be part of the future here.

Andrew Goudelock, Chicago Bulls. If after three games there was a vote for Summer League MVP, Goudelock would probably get the win. That’s a fairly dubious honor, but Goudelock has a game built for Summer League — he can score. He had a 31-point game to show that off, he is averaging 22.7 points per game and is hitting 60 percent of his three pointers. He can score off the bounce, on the catch-and-shoot, he has crazy range and hasn’t seen a shot he doesn’t like. There’s a reason Lakers fans called him mini-Mamba — he will take shots just like the big Mamba. He is a disinterested defender, but his scoring at Summer League will remind GMs of how he can fill it up and that should get him an NBA contract somewhere.

(Note: There are a lot of other players who could have made the good category such as Dennis Schröder, John Henson and Ray McCallum, but I just pulled out the big three.)

THE BAD

Jan Vesely, Washington Wizards. Maybe bad is too harsh a term here, he has shown improvement on the offensive end. It’s clearly working on his game a little. But his defense is still unimpressive, particularly in transition. As Wizards Summer League coach Sam Cassell told PBT, he just expects more out of Vesely, and I think we all do. He needs to make a jump with his game or the Wizards have to think about what’s next.

Otto Porter, Washington Wizards. His game is just not a good fit with Summer League, on top of that Cassell and the Wizards’ brass want to see what kind of player they have so he has played the one, two, three and four spots. He’s smooth, he makes smart decisions, I think in the season when he gets a more defined role and in a less pickup style 5-on-5 he will look better. But not a great time in Vegas from him.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Bobcats. He has the athleticism and kind of determined game that should show better in Summer League, but if you’re a guy who works off the ball in a showcase league where point guards what to get noticed, you don’t always get the looks you want. The result is he floats through games and just hasn’t impressed.

THE UGLY

Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s shooting 29.5 percent in Summer League and turning the ball over a lot. He’s better than this, he showed it in games that mattered last year, but his Summer League has not been good.

(Summer League is supposed to be a little ugly, so we’re not going to pile on a bunch of guys here.)

LeBron James, Dion Waiters’ son engage in a little trash talk

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“Yeah, right.”

That was Dion Waiters Jr.’s response to pretty much everything LeBron James during the Lakers’ practice on Saturday before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

LeBron was getting up some corner threes and told Waiters Jr. he would make 100 straight.

“Yeah, right.”

When LeBron missed one, “I missed that on purpose.” 

“Yeah, right.”

“I missed that on purpose, so you’d think I’m human,” LeBron joked.

Got to love Dion Waiters Jr. — he’s got some of his dad’s spunk.

Families have been allowed in the bubble for teams for a couple of weeks, although LeBron’s sons are not there, with LeBron saying it’s not a great place for kids (he’s right, for anyone over about 7 or 8, there would be little to do).

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game on Saturday night.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward warming up, available to play in Game 3

Gordon Hayward return
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The Celtics are getting their X-factor back — Gordon Hayward is available for the must-win Game 3 for Boston.

This had been expected, but he was out warming up pregame as reports he would be available started to bounce around the web.

Even 20 minutes of Hayward would be a big boost for the Celtics. Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment.

Hayward’s return gives the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest. He’s the Celtics’ fourth-best scoring option right now, but he’s more dangerous than any other team’s fourth scorer.

Miami leads the series 0-2. If Boston doesn’t find a way to break down Miami’s zone defense and defend the rim better themselves this series is going to be short. Maybe Hayward can help with that on Saturday night.