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As Summer League ends, what are teams taking away from Las Vegas?

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LAS VEGAS — Knicks fans were lined up out the door, literally overflowing the Cox Arena on the UNLV campus to get a glimpse of Kevin Knox, who averaged 21.3 points per game at Summer League and suddenly was seen as the newest star on Broadway — the perfect pairing for Kristaps Porzingis.

Top pick Deandre Ayton filled the building and had Suns’ fans dreaming of rings with his star power. Memphis’ fans were saying they saw the future of the franchise with Jaren Jackson’s combination of shooting and shot blocking. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s looked like a steal and his play gave Clippers’ fans hope. Atlanta’s Trae Young went from “bust” to “future franchise cornerstone” over the course of two weeks as his play improved through July.

As Summer League has grown over the years — all 30 NBA teams were represented in Las Vegas, every game was televised nationally — so has the importance of these July exhibitions in the minds of fans.

But what do teams — their coaches, scouts, and GMs — take away from Las Vegas?

A baseline.

“It’s just benchmarks for the guys,” new Hawks’ coach Lloyd Pierce told NBC Sports in Las Vegas. “I got bear cubs right now. I saw Omari (Spellman) at Villanova, but I hadn’t touched him. I saw Trae (Young) at Oklahoma, but I hadn’t touched him. Kevin (Huerter) I still haven’t touched (hand surgery).

“So we have a couple areas with Trae, and we have a couple areas with John Collins and a couple areas with Tyler Dorsey where we say, ‘you know what, I know what we need to work on.’ More will come, but at least I have a starting point, and we can have a conversation now.”

That conversation is about how much more work needs to be done.

Summer League has become big business for the NBA, it’s marketed and put on a bigger stage, and with that it’s natural that Summer League games have grown in importance in the eyes of fans (and media). But for teams, the purpose hasn’t changed since the games were an almost forgotten part of the NBA season at the Pyramid on the Long Beach State campus.

Multiple NBA coaches and executives told NBC Sports is just the first post-draft step in evaluation, and where a player is on the scale right now is not nearly as important as where he goes from here. Those decision makers know that 90 percent of the players in Las Vegas will not even be invited to an NBA training camp, then combine that with limited practices and there is only so much big-picture evaluation that can take place.

“I don’t get wrapped up into the rookies, as far as being discouraged with what you see here,” said Bobby Marks, former assistant general manager with the Brooklyn Nets and current ESPN analyst. “I think I’m more discouraged if I have a second- or third-year player who does not play well here…

“You take gradual steps. You look at where you were when you first get to Vegas, where they were at the end of June or early July, then you see where they are in the middle of July.”

A lot of the evaluation from teams is not in those televised Las Vegas games, but rather on the practice court.

“The first thing is you evaluate how coachable they are, because you don’t have a lot of time, but there’s a few things you emphasize just to see if they do it,” said Utah Jazz Summer League coach Alex Jensen. “Summer League is one of those things where they are always trying to showcase themselves, so sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to do, but we want to see how coachable they are.”

For those first-round and high second-round picks, it’s also a chance to put players in NBA situations. For example, Portland Summer League coach Jim Moran said they run a lot of the same sets in Las Vegas they will run come the fall, with the goal of getting guys like Gary Trent Jr. or Anfernee Simons shots they will see come the games that matter.

“We’re trying to put them in situations they’ll be put in the regular season,” Moran said. “So whether it be defensively having our bigs switch out on smaller guys, or learning how to move and keep smaller guys in front of them, or offensively just getting them a feel for where their shots are going to come from in certain plays, we want to see it.”

For a first-round pick such as Portland’s Simons or the Knicks’ Knox or Atlanta’s Young, Summer League is a showcase. Every first-round pick has a guaranteed NBA contract — they are going to get paid come the fall. That’s not to say they don’t play hard or take it seriously, but no matter what happens in Las Vegas they will be on a roster come October.

The real business of Summer League is second-round picks, undrafted players, and guys coming back from playing overseas trying to get noticed — by NBA teams, ideally, but at least by European scouts who can land them good paying gigs playing basketball. It’s an on-court job application for almost everyone in uniform. NBA staffs are taking notes on these guys, as well.

“Second-rounders, undrafted guys, guys you might sign to two-ways, guys you might need to call up on a two way, because you don’t really know,” ESPN’s Marks said of who he watched closely at Summer League in his executive days. “There could be guys who were playing in Europe last year, or maybe from lower level schools and you didn’t bring them in for a workout, there’s a newness to this. So I think it benefits them more than your first round picks.”

Put in a good showing and guys can find their way onto a roster — Trevon Bluiett out of Xavier averaged 18.3 points per game for the Pelicans, and they signed him to a two-way contract. A handful of other guys did the same, or will get training camp invites out of Las Vegas.

Because of that those guys are hustling — say what you want about the glorified pick-up game nature of Summer League play, guys go hard because paychecks are on the line.

However, for bigger name, higher drafted players, performance in Las Vegas matters more to fans than it does the franchise.

“There are takeaways, it gives you a baseline for the rest of the summer,” Marks said.

And that’s just the first step. By Halloween, all these games will be a distant memory.

Top 10 standout players from NBA Summer League

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LAS VEGAS — For NBA teams, Summer League is less about whether a young player is good or not, and far more about benchmarking where they are and seeing what areas that player needs to work on going forward. It’s a first step.

But some of those first steps are more impressive than others.

After watching a dozen days of Summer League games — in person in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas — here are 10 players who stood out to me. This list is not all-inclusive by any means — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Grayson Allen, and Trae Young would get an honorable mention here — nor is it just a list of the best players I have seen. Instead, this is a list of players that turned my head, or those of scouts/team executives that I spoke with, because of their success and what they have shown in Summer League. It’s a list of guys who caught my eye.

Here is my Top 10 for 2018:

1) Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies). From the minute he stepped on the court in Salt Lake, he looked like the future of the NBA five — he can drain threes, runs the court, is strong and physical inside, and can get up and block shots. In Utah he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night. Interestingly, through much the summer games the Grizzlies tried to pair him with a true center, seemingly getting him used to playing the four next to Marc Gasol come next season. Jackson looked a little tired and struggled some in Las Vegas — especially the night he battled Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba on his fifth game in seven days — but he worked hard and still made plays. The Grizzlies may have something special with him.

2) John Collins (Atlanta Hawks). Everyone already knew he was  good — he made NBA All-Rookie second team and averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds a game shooting 57.6 percent last season. However, after watching in Las Vegas and Salt Lake, he has shown the potential to be a future star, his game is improving. He’s averaging 24 points and 8 boards a game in Vegas, playing good defense in the paint, but more importantly he has shown improved three-point stroke and handles. He’s done for the summer, but in limited games he showed he should be on this list.

3) Deandre Ayton (Phoenix Suns). Yes, the No. 1 pick should be good, but he has looked like a man among boys going up against some of the other rookie big men in Las Vegas. Ayton pushed Bamba around all game long, for example. He’s averaging 16 points a game on 67 percent shooting, plus 11 boards a contest, and he’s got versatility to his game. There’s work to do on defense and passing, but he has the potential to be special.

4) Kevin Knox (New York Knicks). He’s looked like a rookie at points, he’s blown everyone’s doors off at others. Tuesday’s game against the Lakers was the perfect example: He started 0-of-6 from the floor and finished the night with seven turnovers. He’s got work to do. However, he finished that Laker game with 22 points and was 5-of-7 from three, he’s got the athleticism to get by guys with a first step and he can finish. And he’s just 18. The Knicks may have another crucial rebuilding block with Knox.

5) Jonathan Isaac (Orlando Magic). He was a roll of the dice at No. 6 in the 2017 draft, a guy with a lot of potential but a project, then he missed most of his rookie season with injuries. Nobody seemed exactly sure what Orlando had. In Vegas he has turned heads with his play —14.3 points and 7 boards a game, he’s physically a lot stronger and his shooting stroke is smooth. He has banged inside and held his own with Memphis’ Jackson, and has just been a better athlete than everyone he’s gone up against. Pair him along the front with Bamba and Aaron Gordon, and that is an interesting team in Orlando. And when was the last time we said that?

6) Josh Hart (Los Angeles Lakers). He might be the MVP of Summer League so far, averaging 23.3 points per game and just running the team like a pro. Which he is — he showed he could do this with the Lakers last season, but asked to take on more of a scoring role in Vegas he has stepped up. Bottom line, there’s a reason every time a team talks to the Lakers about a trade they want Hart thrown in the mix. He’s got a lot of fans around the league, and that has only grown this summer.

7) Wendell Carter Jr. (Chicago Bulls). I will own it: I was not high on Carter Jr. coming into the draft, but he has impressed in Las Vegas. As expected, he has a versatile and polished offensive game with a nearly unstoppable turnaround from the post, ability to score with either hand, range on his jumper, plus he is a surprisingly good passer. The book on him coming into the draft was defensive questions, but he has been better on that front than expected — he works hard and is athletic enough to be disruptive. We will see how he fares against NBA-level competition on that end, but the work ethic and tools are there.

8) Harry Giles (Sacramento Kings). He was a low-risk gamble pick by the Kings at No. 20 in 2017, a guy who was maybe the top player in his class as a high school sophomore until the injuries hit (ACL, MCL and a meniscus tear in his left knee, plus another surgery on his right knee). The Kings took him and red-shirted him last season, but in Vegas he has been impressive and solid (12 points and 7 rebounds a game in Sin City). He looks like he could be a rotation NBA big man (at least, the Kings think he can be more than that), someone Sacramento can count on besides Marvin Bagley III. Giles has been a pleasant surprise.

9) Jordan Bell (Golden State Warriors). He’s only on this list for one reason. Yes, he’s looked good in limited Summer League run — the guy was playing serious minutes in the NBA Finals a month ago, of course he looks good going against a bunch of non-NBA players. What got him there was this one moment against the Jazz.

(To be clear, Bell and Donovan Mitchell are tight, and Mitchell thought this was funny.)

10) De'Anthony Melton (Houston Rockets). He could end up being a second-round steal for the Rockets. Melton didn’t play last season at USC (he was the guy at the heart of the FBI probe) so he slid down to 46th overall. In Vegas he has looked like a quality rotation guard, averaging 16.3 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.7 steals a game. Guard minutes are tight to come by on the Rockets this season, but he’s going to make the opening night roster and will get his shot.

Trae Young laid bricks, Jaren Jackson Jr. got buckets in Summer League debuts

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SALT LAKE CITY — Trae Young did not enter the draft NBA ready. He needs space to make mistakes and learn. He can shoot the rock, but the adjustment to the speed and length of the NBA — and how to get his dangerous shot off in that environment — is going to take some time. Atlanta, both as a fanbase and as a rebuilding team, will give him that space. They’re not going to kill Young and his confidence when his shot is off for a night.

Which is good, because in his debut his shot was off.

Way off. Airball off.

Young missed his first 10 shots, including going 0-of-7 from three with a couple of airballs, in his Summer League debut in Utah Monday night, before finishing the game 4-of-20 with 16 points (1-of-11 from three).

And that didn’t bother anybody on the Hawks.

“I don’t know if you guys expected that, but I expected that,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said (the new head coach is taking on Summer League duties for a year). “That’s the beauty of having young guys, I just told them in the locker room, I said ‘I’ve done this 11 years now, you come out for your first Summer League game and everybody thinks it’s going to be a home run, a success. Then you see I’ve got a lot of work to do.’”

Through it all, Pierce told him to just keep shooting. Be himself.

“I’m excited for Trae, he got 20 shots up. He can get his shot off,” Pierce said. “He’s gonna make a lot of shots, we’re going to be fine.”

“I definitely didn’t want this, but overall it’s a process,” Young said after the game. “This is just the first one of Summer League, I definitely felt a lot more comfortable in the second half. I guess I can just carry that over to tomorrow, getting better each and every day.”

Young’s slow start was a stark contrast to the No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Grizzlies, who drained two threes in the first 50-seconds on pick-and-pops. He showed it all — a smooth jumper, handles and ability to score inside — on his way to dropping 29 points and hitting 8-of-13 from three in that same game. Jackson also blocked two shots at the rim.

After the game, Jackson was dancing down the corridor out to the bus, belting out some T.I. for all to hear. During the game, he was shimmying on the court.

“I like shooting threes,” Jackson said after the game. “When you’re open, you got to take it. There’s 24 seconds on the clock, you may not get a better shot sometimes. Coach told me, ‘If I get a good look, just shoot it.'”

He did and it was an impressive performance for the former Michigan State star some scouts thought was the big who best fit the modern NBA game in this draft. But it was just one game.

Which is what Young was saying.

“My shot’s going to fall, my shots going to fall eventually,” Young said. “I’m not too worried about it. It’s just one game.”

Young had a better second half and had his moments.

What Pierce wanted to see was getting Young into more playmaking, for him to be a point guard, and from there, his shot will be in the flow of the game.

“We practiced for four days, and the biggest thing his teammates enjoyed with Trae is he’s just finding them, on the pick and roll, rolling to the basket, he found guys behind the three-point line,” Pierce said. “That’s his strength, that’s going to be his blueprint, and we just couldn’t get him in enough pick-and-rolls early on.”

They will try that in Game 2. It’s just Summer League, and it’s all going to take some time.

• Two other guys stood out in this first game. For the Grizzlies, second-round pick Jevon Carter was the guy locking up Young early and causing problems. He is tenacious on defense, has a great motor, and showed potential. Can he do it against the quicker point guards of a regular NBA game remains to be seen, but there was promise there.

For the Hawks, No. 30 pick Omari Spellman moved well, had some buckets (11 points), a couple of blocks, and just seemed to make smart plays. How much time he’s going to get behind John Collins — who was efficient and didn’t get fed the rock enough — is a question for another day. But it was a good debut.

Report: Dewayne Dedmon opts in for $7.2 million with Hawks

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The Hawks’ rebuild got going with big John Collins. Though they’re reportedly eying Luka Doncic with the No. 3 pick, they could easily draft another big – Jaren Jackson Jr., Mohamed Bamba, Marvin Bagley or Wendell Carter.

And then there’s veteran center Dewayne Dedmon.

He no longer fits in Atlanta (never did, really). But he’s not bypassing a chance to earn $7.2 million.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

There just wasn’t going to be that much money for the 28-year-old Dedmon in a tight market this summer.

Dedmon is a good defender, and he developed his ball skills – as a 3-point shooter and passer – in Atlanta last season. The Hawks could look to trade him. Maybe, in a deal primarily about his expiring contract, he adds extra value to the other team due to his playing ability.

If Atlanta doesn’t move him, Dedmon will be a fine player on a likely tanking team. At least he’s not good enough to subvert the Hawks’ tank, especially with the new lottery format.

2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Marvin Bagley III is tweener of modern NBA

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The difference between Marvin Bagley III and DeAndre Ayton in terms of production was marginal.

Bagley shot better from three. Ayton was a better rim protector. Both scored at will, overwhelmed opponents in the paint and on the glass and needed to be graded on a learning curve as passers and positional defenders, particularly against pick-and-rolls.

The difference in what they can be projected doing at the next level, however, is fairly significant, and it’s the reason why you are seeing all the hype for Ayton as a potential No. 1 pick and none of it for Bagley.

That’s because Bagley is the perfect example of a tweener in the modern NBA.

Offensively, he’s everything that you want from a small-ball five. He can dominate in the paint, he can space the floor and he is aggressive and productive on the glass. He was a walking double-double in college and it’s not hard to project him being the same in the NBA.

The problem is that he is not a five on the defensive end of the floor. He’s not a rim protector by any means, and his relatively short wingspan coupled with the fact that his skinny frame makes it easy to overpower him in the paint makes it hard to figure how he can defend that position at the next level.

As the saying goes, you are the position you can guard, so what should NBA teams do with a top four pick that plays the five but will have to guard fours?

HEIGHT: 6-foot-11
WEIGHT: 234
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-0.5 (measured two years ago)
2017-18 STATS: 21.0 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 61.4/39.7/62.7
DRAFT RANGE: Top four

STRENGTHS

We can’t talk about Bagley without first talking about the level of athleticism that he has. He’s at the upper-echelon, even when weighted by NBA standards, and that is integral into the player that he is and what he can be at the NBA level. Bagley is an explosive leaper with a terrific second-jump, which is part of what makes him such an effective rebounder, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. Rebounding translates as well as any ability between levels, and it’s hard to imagine a world where Bagley isn’t able to get on the glass in the league.

Bagley is not just a rebounder, however. He’s a big-time scorer that was utterly dominant for long stretches of his freshman season, and the list of things that he’s able to do on that end of the floor is impressive and versatile. He’s at his best around the bucket — his PPP is 96th percentile nationally scoring at the rim — and while he was very left-hand dominant in the post while at Duke, some of that could simply be the result of opponents being unable to keep him from getting to his right shoulder.

More importantly, Bagley showed the ability to be able to stretch the floor. He shot 39.7 percent from three, and while that was a small sample size (58 attempts) and his free throw shooting was not great (62.7 percent) his stroke makes it possible to project him as a capable three-point shooter from the NBA strip. He can attack a closeout and his handle and mobility make him a threat to go coast-to-coast should he grab a defensive rebound. Throw in his ability in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop actions, and he covers all the bases for what is asked of small-ball fives on the offensive end of the floor. He’s developing enough as a passer that it he is projectable as functional in that area at the next level.

While most everyone agrees that Bagley is a fit offensively for the way the NBA is headed, the defensive side of the ball is a different story.

WEAKNESSES

The crux of the issue for Bagley is that he simply is not built to defend fives at the next level.

He, quite frankly, is not a rim protector. The physical tools back that up. He’s 6-foot-11 but he has just a 7-foot-0.5 wingspan — for comparison’s sake, Ayton’s wingspan is 7-foot-5 — and he weighs at least 25 pounds less than the elite modern fives. He’s not built to block shots and he’s not built to bang.

The numbers back that up. His collegiate block rate, when compared to some other elite big men that have been drafted in recent years, is laughable. It doesn’t even compare with players like Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor, who have proven to be defensive liabilities in the NBA:

Okafor is a dinosaur, a relic of a past area whose skill-set simply does not fit in the modern NBA and is not all that comparable with that of Bagley. He’s probably not worth using in this discussion. Kaminsky is nowhere near the athlete that Bagley is, but he’s super-skilled offensively, which has allowed him to be an effective NBA rotation player.

Which leads me to my next point: Bagley can shoot but he hardly proved himself to be a great shooter. That 39.7 percent he shot looks great from the college line, but free throw shooting has been proven to be a better indicator of potential as an NBA three-point shooter and Bagley, even dating back to his high school days, has been a low-to-mid-60s free throw shooter. He might end up being a good three-point shooter, but that is anything-but a guarantee.

Athletically, Bagley has the tools to defend on the perimeter and in space. Duke was a disaster defending pick-and-rolls this past season. It’s the major reason they were forced to play zone exclusively. As one Duke staff member told NBC Sports, “we tried a lot of different things in man […] and none of it worked,” but that is something that has to be taken in context.

  • There were a lot of bad individual defenders on Duke’s team, and they all were freshmen — Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr., Bagley.
  • Bagley himself only played three seasons of high school ball and was allowed to do whatever he wanted at every level. His AAU program was run by his father and he never participated in any USA Basketball events. Has he ever truly been coached defensively?

Bagley’s issue on that end of the floor isn’t because he can’t defender but because he doesn’t know how to be a good defender. Ball-screen coverages can be taught, particularly when a player can move the way Bagley moves. Defensive rotations can be taught. His instincts are never going to be great on that end, but there’s no reason that Bagley cannot at the least be an average defender at the NBA level …

… as a four.

In an era where fours in the NBA are just bigger wings — where P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza are squaring off with Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in one conference final while LeBron and is battling with Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown at the four, assuming that those defenses aren’t switching everything — is Bagley really skilled enough to play that role?

I’ll leave you with these facts and figures to chew on:

  • Ben Simmons was the only player 6-foot-10 or taller in the NBA this past season to average at least 15 points without averaging more than 1.0 blocks or 1.0 made threes. Bagley averaged 0.9 blocks and 0.7 threes in college.
  • Since 1996, there have been just five big men selected in the lottery that have averaged less than 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per 40 minutes: Lauri Markkanen, Trey Lyles, Domas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Derrick Williams.

NBA COMPARISON

Earlier on in the season, the comparison that I liked the most was John Collins, the Atlanta Hawks rookie that put together an impressive first season after a super-productive sophomore year at Wake Forest that was plagued by defensive issues. As the season went on, Domas Sabonis started to look like a better comparison as he grew into a contributor for the Pacers. I think Julius Randle and the role that he plays for the Lakers — something of a back-up five — makes a lot of sense now.

Bagley is a better prospect, and athlete, than all three of those players; we can use that as his floor. His ceiling? There’s an element of Amare Stoudamire in his game as well, and I don’t think it’s crazy to think that he could post numbers similar to what Stoudamire put up in his prime; his best season came in 2007 when he averaged 25.2 points, 9.1 boards and 2.1 blocks.

OUTLOOK

I think Bagley is going to end up being a very good NBA player. I think he’ll make some all-star teams, depending on which conference he ends up playing it. I think that he’ll post numbers that will make him a popular fantasy asset.

But I don’t think that he’s ever going to be the cornerstone of a franchise, not without quite a bit of help.

Let’s compare him to Deandre Ayton, because it’s easy and relevant and the two of them are dueling for a spot at the top of this year’s draft. Ayton has a defined skill-set and a defined position on both ends of the floor, one that should allow him to thrive in the modern world of the NBA where bigs are asked to protect the rim, switch onto guards, catch jobs and make threes. You take Ayton and figure the rest out because there are no requirements for who you need to put around him.

With Bagley, that’s not the case.

At the NBA level, for a team that he is featured on to win, he’s going to have to play alongside someone that can protect the rim and that can stretch the floor. If he falls to Memphis at No. 4, that might be a perfect situation for him. Marc Gasol is aging, but he’s still a guy that makes threes, can pass the ball and protects the rim. Bagley is freed up to do what he does best: Overpower people in the paint, use his athleticism to defend those smaller players on the perimeter and catch lobs at the rim. The same thing goes if he ends up on the same team as Kristaps Porzingis. Or Giannis. Or Draymond Green or DeMarcus Cousins or any of those other elite big men. Just about anyone can fit alongside players that can do what they do. That’s what makes them so good and so valuable.

Bagley will thrive if he finds a team with players that he fits alongside.

But he’s a piece to the puzzle, not the anchor you build around.

And there is a difference.