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.

Stephen Curry: ‘The West obviously got stronger with LeBron but you’ve still got to beat us’

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The Warriors got better this summer. DeMarcus Cousins is going to be their center (once he gets healthy, probably around Christmas at the earliest), although his real impact will come with the second unit. They added a shooter in Jonas Jerebko. Jordan Bell will be better.

However, probably the thing that helped them the most this summer is LeBron James coming to the West. Coach Steve Kerr talked a lot last season about the challenges of lighting a fire under this team during the regular season after all their success — LeBron in your state and in your conference will do that.

Stephen Curry talked about all of this is a fantastic interview with Sam Amick of the USA Today. He knows the NBA’s title goes through the Bay Area.

There’s a lot that’s been made about the competition in the West and his eight straight Finals appearances and all that, but that just makes everybody raise the antenna up a little bit – including us. It’s going to be fun for fans, playing (more) in the regular season and who knows in the playoffs. So the West obviously got stronger with LeBron but you’ve still got to beat us.

He’s right. And everyone knows it.

As for the Warriors ruining the NBA…

So everybody says how we’re ruining the NBA – I love that phrasing; it’s the dumbest phrase ever. We are always trying to find a way to get better. If we were just happy with winning a championship and staying stagnant, we wouldn’t be doing ourselves justice. Obviously with KD (Kevin Durant signing in 2016), with DeMarcus this summer, with the bench guys that we’ve been able to sign, everybody is trying to get better and we just happen to be the ones who set the pace and set the narrative around how you need to structure your team to beat us. That’s great. I love that vibe, because it keeps us on edge seeing the ripple effect around the NBA and where guys are going and that type of stuff.

I could get into how the NBA has always been at its best and most popular when there were dynasties to chase — Jordan’s Bulls, the Showtime Lakers, the Bill Russell Celtics — but if people have entrenched themselves in a belief, no statement anyone will make will change their mind. The simple fact is NBA popularity and ratings — including ratings at the regional network level — are up (especially once streaming numbers are added into the calculation). The numbers show people are interested. Very interested.

Curry and the Warriors are part of that, although they have reached the point in the popularity arc where they are changing from “everyone’s second favorite team” to the villain. It’s part of the modern sports storyline. The Warriors get that and are embracing it, from the GM on down. A lot of fans want to see the Warriors lose.

It could happen, LeBron might be the guy to do it (once the Lakers upgrade the roster more) but it’s not going to be easy.

 

Kings’ No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III out for Summer League with pelvic bone bruise

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The Kings have gotten a good look at their No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III in July, between the Sacramento and Las Vegas Summer Leagues he played in four game. He has shown a good scoring touch (he had 15 points in his one Vegas game), and flashed his athleticism. However, going up against the Warriors’ Jordan Bell (a good defender) in Sacramento showed Bagley how he’s going to need to add some diversity and unpredictability to his game to reach his potential at the next level.

It’s good he got those games in early because Bagley is done for the Summer League due to a pelvic bone bruise, the team announced Monday.

The injury happened with just a couple of minutes left in the Kings’ game against the Suns in Vegas, when Bagley tried to foul Deandre Ayton. He was subbed out of the game and was trying to stretch out whatever pain he had on the sidelines.

Bagley had an MRI Monday that led to the diagnosis.

This is not a major setback, Bagley will be back on the court in a couple of weeks. But it does mean he is done for Summer League.

Where will Carmelo Anthony play next? Bet on banana boat buddies.

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When you wonder where Carmelo Anthony is going to play next, you need to think back to his buddies on the banana boat.

As had been expected, Anthony and the Oklahoma City Thunder are working toward a parting of the ways — via trade, buyout, stretch or some combination of all of it. This was the right move for both sides: the Thunder will save $80 million to $100 million in luxury tax (depending on how a deal is put together); ‘Melo doesn’t want to play a shrinking role in Oklahoma City, and that’s all that would be available to him.

Once this all gets worked out, where will Anthony sign next? On a veteran minimum deal (most likely, maybe a small exception) he can fit financially on any elite team in the league. Let’s break down the contenders, and it all starts with the teams who have his banana boat buddies.

• The Houston Rockets (and banana boater Chris Paul). We know the Rockets like Anthony, they worked very hard to get him last summer before a trade with the Knicks just fell apart (because someone in New York sobered up and thought “we don’t want Ryan Anderson and that contract”).

We also know there’s a natural fit in the roster because Trevor Ariza bolted to take Phoenix’s cash. Anthony can space the floor as a shooter, he hit 35.7 percent from three last season and was solid on spot-up jumpers. The Rockets are an isolation heavy team, and isolations/post-ups accounted for 32.5 percent of Anthony’s possessions last season. And he can still get buckets at a fair rate that way.

The problems are Anthony is not a three anymore — he played either no minutes or just 250 there last season for OKC (depending on how your ranked him with certain lineups), he was always a four — and he is a defensive liability, he can be targeted on the switches that are the heart of the Rockets’ defensive strategy (Anthony did better on switches statistically than you would think during the regular season, he wasn’t bad, but in the playoffs the Jazz targeted him and played Anthony off the court.

• The Los Angeles Lakers (and banana boater LeBron James). The Lakers are trying to amass some veterans and playmakers/scorers to go around their young core and LeBron so they can win games this season, yet remain flexible going forward. Anthony could fit in with that, plus the Lakers’ roster is nearly devoid of shooting and Anthony can still do that.

The challenge with the Lakers is fit. The Lakers don’t want to take the ball out of the hands of LeBron or Brandon Ingram or Kyle Kuzma, and those are the guys who will split time at the forward slots for L.A. next season. Put simply, the Lakers would be slowing the development of their best young talent if they bring in and lean on Carmelo, and that is just not smart. Still, never say never to this as a one-year experiment.

• Miami Heat (and banana boater Dwyane Wade). This actually makes some sense on the court, Anthony could step in and fill the shooting big role that Kelly Olynyk filled for the Heat last season. During the regular season the Heat can hide Anthony defensively thanks to the versatility of James Johnson, Josh Richardson, and Justise Winslow.

Miami’s medical staff and conditioning focus have extended the career of many a player, that could be good for the 34-year-old Anthony. But Erik Spoelstra and staff will want to keep Anthony in a specific role and will be blunt with him about it. Is that what Anthony wants to sign up for?

• The Golden State Warriors. If Anthony really wants to ring chase, he can lob them a call. However, talk about a team that wants to play fast, move the ball, defend hard, and put Anthony into a very small role, this would be the pinnacle of that. Golden State can play Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Jordan Bell key minutes at the four, Anthony would be a luxury. After what Anthony said following the playoffs last season when the Thunder shrunk his role during the playoffs (he didn’t like it one bit) it’s hard to imagine he signs up for this.

• Other teams may jump into the mix. The question Anthony needs to ask himself is what he wants most? Touches and a big role? A title? Those two things are not coming in one package, so where is that line? Only Anthony can answer that question.

Report: Warriors loading up super team with DeMarcus Cousins

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The Warriors had All-Stars at four of five positions:

And now Golden State will add an All-Star center in DeMarcus Cousins.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Cousins – recovering from an Achilles tear – wasn’t getting the offers he desired in free agency. The Pelicans are signing Julius Randle. The Mavericks are signing DeAndre Jordan. The Lakers are signing a pu pu platter of players to surround LeBron James. Few other spending teams need centers.

He probably could have gotten more than the $5,337,000 taxpayer mid-level exception Golden State will pay him, but Cousins wasn’t getting a better chance at a ring and environment to prove himself. Remember, Cousins has never played in the playoffs. He can gain so much next season – except a high salary. But, if all goes well, he’ll generate massive demand in 2019 free agency.

This is a low-risk, high-reward swing for the Warriors. Cousins’ attitude could disrupt their ecosystem, but they’ve dealt with difficult personalities before – maybe more than we realize.

Cousins could also clash with Golden State’s up-tempo, quick-decision preferences, but these Warriors can play multiple styles. Especially as their veterans age, they might embrace slowing the pace.

This will be a fascinating experiment, and – chemistry aside – the floor is a championship-caliber team with Jordan Bell at center. The ceiling? It’s a lot higher than Cousins can jump right now.

LeBron and the Lakers’ moment lasted barely a full day. Golden State is staking an even stronger case as the greatest team of all-time.