SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA’s official, all 30 teams are there, Summer League kicks off Friday in sweltering Las Vegas. But before that buffet of games, there are a couple appetizer Summer Leagues, ones that are a little smaller but packed with intrigue of their own.
I’ve been in Salt Lake for the Utah Summer League the last few days, here are some of my notes from the previous 48 hours:
• Trae Young has a lot of work in front of him. A lot of development to do. The No. 5 pick came in hyped by fans and some scouts, but just watching him through two games it’s clear he has a lot of fundamental things he needs to do better before he can start to live up to anything near those lofty expectations.
It’s not the 2-of-16 from three for two games that is the most concerning, he’s a better shooter than that, but rather his need overall to adapt to the speed, length and athleticism of the NBA game. His shot seems rushed, and come October the defenders he will see nightly are better than the guys here (with all due respect to Javon Carter and Derrick White). Young has to both get stronger and learn how to better use his body to create space to get off his shot on drives. He needs to find a comfort level with the pace and the pressure.
He can get there, he made adjustments in these games, but after watching his first couple of days it’s clear he has a long way to go.
The Hawks praised his decision making and Young echoed that.
“For me the biggest thing is he’s making the right plays,” coach Lloyd Pierce said. “There were a ton of possessions last night where he made the right play. There were a ton of possessions tonight where he made the right play.”
“My main thing is right now to make the right plays,” Young said. “The rest of the team isn’t knocking down shots that we’re going to eventually hit. I’m excited we’re getting the looks we’re getting, we’re just not knocking down shots right now. Eventually, it will come, and when it does it will come fast.”
The shots will come. The additional games in Las Vegas will help Young. But like the rebuilding Hawks team, there is a lot of development, a lot of work to do before the results they want start to show.
• A year in the Spurs’ development system has been good to Derrick White — the combo guard spent much of last season in the G-League, with some cups of coffee (139 total minutes) with the big club. In Utah he looked like he deserved more, he has improved considerably in the past year. Last summer the speed and athleticism of the other players seemed to have him second-guessing himself. No more.
Tuesday night he was 7-of-15 from the floor with 21 points plus had nine assists. He’s been strong in both of their games in Utah.
“Derrick is a good basketball player,” said Spurs Summer League coach Will Hardy. “We’re trying not to pigeonhole him as a one or a two. He can play off the ball as a two. I think tonight we saw he can handle the ball, Atlanta pressed and trapped for the majority of the second half and Derrick was our primary handler. I think that makes him unique. He’s got sort of an old-school feel to his game in the sense he’s just a good backcourt player, and that gives him some versatility because he can play with a lot of different guys.”
White, the No. 29 pick of the Spurs in the 2017 draft, is a story of overcoming expectations. Out of high school he had no D1 college offers and just one at D2, but he grew five inches at D2 school and eventually transferred to Colorado, only to make first team all Pac-12. As a 23-year-old draftee teams were concerned before the draft about how much he could improve, but this year at Summer League the answer has been “plenty.”
We could be seeing more of him in the fall.
• We had our first coach’s challenge of Summer League — Lloyd Pierce of the Hawks challenged a clear path foul in the first game Tuesday. Sure, his team was down 16 points with 1:31 left, but it was a coach’s challenge.
He lost it. Pierce currently has the worst record in the NBA in coach’s challenges (at 0-1, but still).
• Jaren Jackson Jr. is going to be very good. Yes, it’s two Summer League games and those matter about as much as the points on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” but his shooting stroke, handles, and shot blocking are a great combo in the modern NBA. Through two games he’s scored 39 points, shot 10-of-17 from three, and has been the best rookie in Utah. And it’s not just the threes that impress.
Tuesday’s second game was closer to what we can expect of him most nights — 10 points, eight rebounds and a couple of blocks, including one down the stretch of the game that was athletic and helped preserve the Grizzlies win.
“He’s a defensive-minded player and he’s an extremely talented player,” Grizzlies Summer League Coach J.J. Outlaw said. “Defense travels. You’re not always going to have your jumper, you’re not always going to be able to score points, but he was able to help us out and make some plays defensively.”
Like every rookie, there is a lot of development work ahead for Jackson, but in his case you can quickly see where he fits in the modern NBA.
• Javon Carter is making fans. The hustle guys who defend in Summer League games — which are stylistically glorified pickup games — stand out, and that is what Carter has done. In the first game he was one of the reasons Trae Young started 0-of-10 from three, Carter was in his grill and taking away Young’s air (on some shots, others Young just mixed).
I don’t know how things will work for Carter when the skill and athleticism levels jump in the fall, he struggled at moments down the stretch against Utah when it got tight, but he is going to put in the work and you know Grizzlies coaches will want to keep a guy like that around.
• Great advice from Naz Mitrou-Long, the former Iowa State player who spent most of last season in the G-League (and dropped 19 points with eight assists Tuesday night), had some fantastic advice for other rookies looking to make an impression in Summer League:
“If you come here and take every single shot when the ball touches your hands, it’s not going to benefit you. I know I personally came in here last year thinking ‘I need to average 30 in this thing’ but nobody does that, and it’s for a reason. You’re playing high-level talent. Find out what your organization wants, find out the right way to play basketball and do that. Max out your potential in your role.”
• The Utah Summer League is the kind of experience was old school in a good way. It was small, intimate, with a couple of games a day and a chance for fans to get closer to players — and the NBA guys who show up to watch — than happens in Las Vegas now.
Also a plus: A passionate, loud home crowd. Tickets are cheap ($8 for some in the lower bowl and that is for both games) so people turn out. Tuesday night the Jazz were getting blown out by 26 to the Grizzlies, but battled back to make it a game late (and even took a brief lead). The crowd was large and loud. They cared. That added an energy and passion to the game usually missing in other Summer Leagues.
Throw in that Salt Lake is a great city to visit — walkable downtown, impressive food scene — and I’m going to try to make it back if they keep doing this.