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)

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.