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Top of the draft board shines at Summer League

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The depth and quality of the 2017 NBA draft had teams tanking at the end of the regular season in hopes of vaulting into the top three picks.

With the huge caveat being that it was only summer league action, those at the top of the draft made quite a first impression.

Summer league play was set to end on Monday night after Portland played the Lakers in the Las Vegas league championship game. Over leagues played in Orlando, Salt Lake City and Vegas, many of the top 10 picks gave their teams plenty to feel good about before heading into the league’s quiet period for the next two months.

No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball owned Vegas with a pair of triple-doubles to help the Los Angeles Lakers reach the title game. Top pick Markelle Fultz showed off his wide array of scoring tricks in Utah before sitting out much of Vegas with an ankle injury and No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum of Boston was drawing comparisons to Paul Pierce while dominating both in Utah and Nevada.

The competition these rookies will face will increase exponentially when training camps open in October. And there is a long list of summer league standouts – Nikoloz Tskitishvili, anyone? – who never amounted to anything in the NBA. But for struggling franchises like the Lakers, Sixers, Suns and Kings, seeing some real promise from their youngsters the first time they step on the court is encouraging.

“Every day, Magic and I say: `How are we pursuing excellence?”‘ Lakers GM Rob Pelinka told reporters in Vegas on Sunday, referring to new Lakers president Magic Johnson. “To win the Summer League (would be) a step in that direction.”

Whether the Lakers achieve that goal or not doesn’t mean the suffering of the last four years is over. Far from it.

The real test awaits in a couple of months. But for several franchises that are in the business of selling hope right now, business is good.

Here are some other takeaways from summer league action:

PACKED HOUSE: Buoyed by Ball and the Lakers, the Vegas Summer League enjoyed record attendance numbers, including multiple sell-outs of Thomas & Mack Center.

What started as a gathering of a few teams 13 years ago has turned into a full-fledged event under the guidance of coaching agent Warren LeGarie and Albert Hall. Sponsors are lining up to get in on the action, fans crowd the concourses looking for autographs of the next big things and established stars like LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall sit courtside to watch the games.

ESPN and NBATV televise the games and over 500 media credentials were given out for the Las Vegas site alone.

The Vegas tournament has grown to include 24 teams and is also home to the league meetings, where owners gather to consider rules changes and other orders of business for the season ahead.

“I told Mayor Goodman that we should get a commission for the NFL and the NHL following in our footsteps,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week. “We were here when some leagues weren’t even taking advertising in Las Vegas, and we’re proud to be here. I feel our Summer League has become a fixture in Las Vegas, part of the permanent summer calendar.”

OTHER STANDOUTS: Fultz, Tatum and Ball weren’t the only youngsters to have strong showings in summer league.

Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick by Dallas, may have been the best player in Las Vegas, averaging 17.3 points and 4.2 assists per game for the Mavericks and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell averaged 28 points per game in just two games for the Jazz.

Sacramento’s De'Aaron Fox, the fifth overall pick out of Kentucky, displayed his athleticism and defensive instincts for the Kings. Josh Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick by Phoenix, averaged 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in Vegas and played with a competitive fire that intrigued many scouts leading up to the draft.

Portland’s Caleb Swanigan was consistent throughout and San Antonio’s Bryn Forbes had a pair of 35-point games to give the Spurs another promising young talent in the pipeline as they wait to hear from Manu Ginobili on his future.

FLIP SIDE: Just as we shouldn’t read too much into the successes of summer league, so to should the struggles be taken with a grain of salt. But Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ No. 7 overall pick who came over in the draft-night trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, shot just 24 percent (6 for 25 on 3-pointers) in Las Vegas, not a great sign for a 7-footer billed as the best shooter in the draft.

Sacramento’s Buddy Hield, the centerpiece of the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans in February, shot just 35 percent in three games in Las Vegas, a mark was aided by a binge of six 3s in his final game against the Lakers. Not what you want to see from a second-year player who will turn 24 in December.

 

Dion Waiters shows off slimmed down physique on Instagram

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Suddenly the annual “he lost/gained 15 points and is in the best shape of his life” portion of the NBA summer is upon us.

The Miami Heat are known around the league for having one of the best conditioning programs, guys who go there almost universally get in better shape. Dion Waiters last season seemed to be the exception to the rule. Waiters wasn’t 50-year-old-suburban-dad-with-a-beer-gut out of shape, but coming off an injury where he didn’t get to train like he wanted, Waiters didn’t look like a guy in NBA shape either. Critics lit Waiters up on social media.

Waiters posted his response — he’s been hitting the gym.

View this post on Instagram

Last year when I came off 1 of the most depressing & frustrating times of my life. Coming off injury & not feeling like myself nor looking like myself I was in a dark place mentally & physically , Because the game I love so much was taken away due to season ending surgery. Now a days with this social media ran world they laughed at me made jokes etc not knowing what I was battling or going through everyday. So instead of me joining the circus I told myself you from (Philly) you’ve been through worst shit in your life than this. So I promise myself I would work my ass off & get back to where I was before the injury. I’m not done yet but I kno somebody in the world prolli needed to hear this. Stay positive block out the outside noise & grind. #Philly🧀 #stayTune

A post shared by 🔥🔥🔥🔥 (@waiters3) on

Good for Waiters.

Let the flood of NBA workout videos and shots of guys with their new physiques begin.

Philly fans will be hoping to see one from Joel Embiid.

Russell Westbrook trade to Houston official, Thunder praise him on way out door

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Whatever their long-term intentions, after Paul George was traded the Oklahoma City Thunder changed focus. General Manager Sam Presti sat down with Russell Westbrook and his agent, talked about the future, what the former MVP wanted, then worked on trading him where he wanted to go.

That was Houston.

The Westbrook to the Rockets trade for Chris Paul — with Oklahoma City picking up two first-round picks and two pick swaps — is now official.

In announcing the trade, the Thunder praised the greatest player in their franchise history on his way out the door.

“Russell Westbrook is the most important player in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has left an indelible mark on this team, city and state,” Presti said in a statement. “None of us could have anticipated the player he has become, and we are all deeply proud of what he has contributed to the success of the franchise and to our community. Russell and his wife Nina, their three children, his brother and his parents will always remain part of the Thunder family. We wish them nothing but happiness and success in the future.”

“I have a great deal of respect for Russell and there is no way to adequately describe our appreciation for what he has meant to Oklahomans,” said Thunder Chairman Clayton I. Bennett. “His legacy here is immense, and he will be honored by the team for all he has done. We wish he and Nina and their family all the best. While this era of Thunder basketball now comes to an end, I’m confident our talented team of people will once again position the Thunder for success in the future.”

While Presti and the OKC front office are still working on a CP3 trade, they are entering a rebuilding phase.

The Rockets are banking on Westbrook and James Harden being able to work out any fit issues — and finding a way to defend with both of them on the court — to keep them as title contenders.

Anthony Davis dances around question about re-signing with Lakers

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After the drama around his push to get to Los Angeles, league executives and other sources around the NBA expect Anthony Davis to re-sign with the Lakers on a max contract next summer.

However, Davis has paired up with LeBron James, and rule one of the LeBron contract playbook (and agent Rich Paul’s, too) is to keep the pressure on a franchise. Make the team improve and keep itself in title contention.

So it’s not a surprise that when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Davis about re-signing with the Lakers, he didn’t answer the question directly.

Nichols: You’re only signed through this season. Do you think you will be a pillar of the Lakers for years and years to come?

Davis: Honestly, Rachel, I’m just focused on this season. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have one year here, so I’m going make the best of this year. And when that time comes around in the summer or, you know, whenever the season’s over — hopefully, around, you know, mid-June, after we just had a parade, and I need a couple days to think — then we can talk about that. But until then, I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team win this year.”

That a well-handled scripted answer hitting all the talking points.

After the NBA summer we have just gone through (and continue to see with Chris Paul), nobody sane will say Davis would never leave the Lakers after one season. Cut to Kevin Garnett screaming “Anything Is Possible.”

However, he came to the Lakers to win rings (now and in the future), to take over as the face of the franchise when LeBron steps away in a few years, to get the kind of recognition and endorsements he felt were not coming his way in New Orleans, and ultimately to have his jersey up in the rafters with Wilt and Kareem and Shaq. That’s the plan. Which means AD will re-sign with the Lakers next summer.

He’s just not going to say that right now.

Kendrick Perkins: ‘Pelicans better lock Zion in the House’ because of great New Orleans food

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Zion Williamson‘s weight became a discussion point during Summer League.

The general consensus going into the draft was that Williamson would ultimately want to play a little lighter in the NBA than he did in college (but without losing his strength). Since then Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came out and said the No. 1 pick was not in Summer League shape and should not have played. Some broadcast analysts said he looked heavy. In the hallways and behind-the-basket defacto meeting space of Summer League there was a lot of talk among league watchers about the Pelicans needing to get Zion with their trainers and dietitians to prepare him for the 82 game grind.

Kendrick Perkins warns that’s not going to be all that easy in the Big Easy.

As a wannabe foodie, let me just say that Perkins is spot on about the food in New Orleans. It may be my favorite food city in America, it is home to the ultimate comfort foods, and the portions are not small. From muffulettas to gumbo to po’ boys to fried every-kind-of-protein-you-can-name, New Orleans cuisine is both undeniably delicious and not the foundation of a healthy diet.

It’s going to take some discipline from Williamson, who also can afford his own chef now to keep the meals at home healthy and tasty. Then gumbo can be a splurge-day treat.