Seven standout players from Las Vegas Summer League

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NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is over, the Sacramento Kings are deserving champions with their veteran roster.

But Summer League isn’t about winning teams and a trophy, it’s about player development and guys showcasing their talents to campaign for a bigger role next season (or in some cases to get a contract for next season.

Here are seven guys that caught my eye during my week in Sin City.

• Nerlens Noel (Philadelphia 76ers). He only played twice as the Sixers continue to bring him along slowly, but you can quickly see where this guy could be a force for Philly in future years. He is seven-foot, long and bouncy, all of which combine to make him an intimidating defensive force in the paint. Noel works hard on the glass. He plays with more physicality than you would expect — he’s thin and his center of gravity is too high to do much post damage, but he had the will to mix it up inside. He runs the floor and gets his points. Noel’s second Vegas outing wasn’t as impressive as his first, he needs to slow down and let the game come to him. And he needs to work on his touch around the rim, his running hook and his post moves. That said, he is going to have an impact for the Sixers this season.

• Anthony Bennett (Cleveland Cavaliers). He showed up to Summer League in much better shape (down 20 pounds by his count but but the eyeball test would suggest more) and with that he was able to play with energy and be a beast on the boards and on defense. He will forever be saddled with being the No. 1 overall pick and his terrible rookie season, and there is a lot of work to do on his game still, but he showed in Las Vegas he could be a solid rotation big man in the NBA.

• Glen Rice Jr. (Washington Wizards). The leading scorer in Summer League, he averaged 25 points a game, and he was shooting better than 50 percent up until the last game of the Summer League for the Wizards. Rice and Otto Porter formed a good 1-2 combo with Porter doing more ball handling and Rice as the shooter. Porter is going to get quality minutes behind Paul Pierce and Rice made a good case to get big minutes behind Bradley Beal. The question is how will those two adapt to working more off the ball on a team with quality point guards in John Wall and Andre Miller.

• Doug McDermott (Chicago Bulls). He was the most impressive player in Vegas out of this year’s draft (not saying he will be the best player out of this class, or win Rookie of the Year, but he shone in Vegas). We knew he could shoot the rock and he did shoot 44.4 percent from three in Vegas, but he also showed a more diverse offensive game where he could put the ball on the floor, create space for himself and make some creative plays. We’ve got questions about his defense, and if Tom Thibodeau has questions about his defense that’s bad for McDermott’s minutes. But he’s going to get minutes with the Bulls and has some real potential.

• Donatas Montiejunas (Houston Rockets). The Rockets center plays well in this setting — he is either too strong or too quick for just about anyone trying to guard him, plus his varied offense and crafty game gets him good look buckets. The result was 16.8 points per game on 59.3 percent shooting, plus he pulled down 8.1 rebounds a game. He just went to show what happens when you stick a legitimate, quality NBA rotation big man into Summer League — he owns it. The question is if he will get those midrange jumpers he was knocking down when the games start this fall. If he plays for the Rockets next season like he did in Las Vegas they just got a big boost.

• Dante Exum (Utah Jazz). His numbers were not standout — 7.2 points a game on 30.8 percent shooting — but there were flashes where you realized this guy is going to be very good. He has a real star quality about him. He has a wicked hesitation dribble with a crazy-quick burst. He is tall for a guard and that combined with a fantastic floor vision leads to some very smart passes. He is very quick with the ball and can get into the paint. He has a lot of work to do on his shot and being a floor general, but in a few yeas the Jazz may have a steal here.

• Gorgui Dieng (Minnesota Timberwolves). He averaged a double-double in Vegas of 11.5 points and 10.2 rebounds a game. He uses his athleticism well on the glass and on defense. On offense he worked hard off the ball and when he got the rock near he rim he showed deft footwork. He sets a mean screen. He fiercely protected the rim. Minnesota has an established front line (well, depending on what happens with Kevin Love) but they are going to have to give Dieng more minutes. His play is starting to demand it.

Honorable mention of other guys who caught my eye: T.J. Warren (Phoenix Suns), C.J McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers), Tony Snell (Chicago Bulls), Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Henriquez (New York Knicks), Jarnell Stokes (Grizzlies), Jordan McRae (Philadelphia 76ers), Russ Smith (New Orleans Pelicans), Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz), Dennis Schroder (Atlanta Hawks).

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.