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)

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.

Suns GM: ‘Overwhelming likelihood’ team keeps No. 1 pick

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It takes a rare kind of courage, an extraordinary level of organizational backing, and a special kind of draft to do what Danny Ainge did a year ago trading the No. 1 pick. While a consensus had formed around Markelle Fultz as the best player in the draft, Ainge was a Jayson Tatum guy. Doubts about the top pick are common, but that alone is far from enough to trade that pick away — most GMs don’t have the job security to know if they miss on moving the pick and sliding down they will not be let go. Ainge had that, and he had his confidence in his scouting, so he made the move to trade the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia. (While it looks good now for Ainge, it’s too early to judge how that pick plays out — Fultz has barely played, we don’t know what extra pick the Celtics will get out of this, it takes time to fully judge these kinds of moves.)

This year is different. DeAndre Ayton is more of a clear No. 1, a guy with franchise changing potential. Plus Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough may not be standing on the kind of bedrock that allows for the trade of a No. 1 pick.

Recently McDonough said he’d listen to trade offers for the pick. That’s very different from trading it, as Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic had the GM saying Friday.

Because they should do their due diligence, the Suns will look at Luka Doncic (who does have a relationship with new coach Igor Kokoskov) and Marvin Bagley III, among others. Rumors may leak, spun by agents or other teams. However, at the end of the day, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Phoenix will not take Ayton — who attended college in Arizona — to be the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside. It’s the smart play.

Kokoskov and the Suns have a lot of work to do to build a foundation for success with this franchise. However, that almost never starts by trading away the top pick in the draft.

Rumor: Paul George’s agent telling people client will re-sign with Thunder

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That rumor Paul George will leave the Thunder?

How about the exact opposite?

Dean Blevins of News 9:

Allegedly, apparently, Paul George plans to stay with the Thunder. I know. It’s not what people believe. But in separate conversations, I’m told P.G.’s agent has told people associated with the NBA that P.G. believes the injury loss of Andre Roberson was huge and he’s staying. Disclaimer, though: Believing everything that agents allegedly say can be dangerous to your health.

This, by Blevins’ own admission, isn’t the staunchest reporting. Nonetheless, I appreciate him sharing and contextualizing it. We can evaluate it for what it’s worth.

George is known to share his plans – though the previous example was him planning to sign with the Lakers. And he might have really believed it at the time, when he was still with the Pacers.

But throughout the season, George seemingly went out of his way to profess his affection for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder. That only raised expectations in Oklahoma City of George staying, and if he leaves after doing that, he’d be inviting even more backlash. I think he’s smart enough to understand that, which is why I thought he made those especially strong pro-Thunder comments only after deciding he’d likely stay.

On the other hand, even if my assessment was correct, conditions change. The Jazz brutally exposed Oklahoma City’s flaws, and if George re-signs and Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have minimal cap flexibility to upgrade the roster. In fact, they might take a step back with the supporting cast to keep the luxury-tax bill manageable. George could see free agency as his chance to escape that mess.

Roberson was a huge loss, and if George is focused on that, that would bode well for Oklahoma City. Though Roberson was just a role player, he was pivotal to the Thunder’s defense. And his teammates had learned how to play around his offensive shortcomings. Oklahoma City didn’t have any good replacements for him on the roster. Roberson getting healthy is the clearest way for the Thunder to improve next season.

Of course, that’s predicated on George returning, too. Will he?

One last note of caution: People often believe what they want to hear. It’s easy to see someone in Oklahoma City hearing George bemoan the loss of Roberson and elevate that to George planning to re-sign, even George wasn’t going that far.

Draymond Green guarantees Warriors will beat Rockets in Western Conference finals

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Warriors coach Steve Kerr is confident despite his team trailing the Rockets 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

Golden State forward Draymond Green goes further.

Green, via Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

“We still winning this,” Draymond Green said. “Book it.”

Of course, Green is confident. He’d never say he expects his team to lose.

But he didn’t need to frame it this way. He could’ve said he was just focused on the next game rather than make such a bold proclamation.

He’s taking pressure upon himself and putting his reputation on the line. If Golden State loses, especially in Game 6 at home with Chris Paul out, Green will be widely mocked.

If he and the Warriors pull through, he’ll probably deserve praise for setting a tone that helped them advance.