Lakers’ Josh Hart continues run through Summer League, drops 20 on Clippers

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Last July, Josh Hart was part of the young Laker core that won the Las Vegas Summer League.

The rest of that core — Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, etc. — stayed home from Vegas this year, but the Lakers asked Hart back to put him in a new role, that of scorer and leader. He’s thriving, averaging 23.3 points per game coming into Thursday night and looking like a guy who had steady run against NBA players all season.

Thursday night Hart dropped 20 more points and grabbed six boards in the Lakers win over the Clippers. The Lakers again look like Summer League contenders (whatever that is worth) and if they get there Hart could be your Summer League MVP.

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.

Las Vegas overflowing with Kawhi Leonard speculation, almost no answers

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LAS VEGAS — Everybody is talking about it. Nobody really knows what comes next.

The second topic on everyone’s lips at the NBA Summer League — after complaining about the shocking temperature disparity in the arena vs. the second everyone steps outside into the desert air — is “What is going on with Kawhi Leonard?”

Nobody knows for sure. Ask 10 team executives, you get 10 different answers. Trust me, I’ve tried it.

Everyone involved is waiting for someone else to blink: The Spurs are waiting on the Sixers/Lakers/others to up their offers and throw all (or most of) their best young players in a package; other teams are waiting for the Spurs to stop asking for everything but a bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon in the trade; other teams (Raptors?) want to jump into the mix in a serious way; and everyone is waiting for Leonard’s inexperienced management team to have better communication with teams interested in a trade, to get the best medical info out there and get teams to trust their word.

Yes, that was the Raptors mentioned in the last sentence. Here is what Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote about Toronto (a team looking to shake things up) and Leonard.

The Toronto Raptors also generated buzz as a potential destination for Leonard. With LeBron James out of the Eastern Conference, perhaps Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri is willing to swing for the fences and move DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry in such a deal.

DeRozan’s name has bubbled up in trade rumors all summer, but the Raptors are only going to move him in a trade they think makes them better now. If healthy, Leonard would. But that’s where the questions start: Is Leonard fully healthy? Would he consider re-signing with Toronto? Would Leonard’s uncle/management team squash such a move?

That’s where it is with every team, every rumor. There are more questions than answers.

Does Leonard want to be a Laker or does he not want to play with LeBron? Will the Lakers throw Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma into a deal? Does he want to come to L.A. and be a Clipper, and will he sign there next summer (because the Clips don’t have the pieces for a trade)? Will the Sixers throw in Markelle Fultz to get a deal done? That is just the tip of the iceberg of questions.

The Sixers or Lakers are the most likely destinations for a trade, but the Spurs don’t like either team’s current offer, so this drags out. It could drag out until training camp. Maybe longer, although the Spurs leverage is not growing. Free agency in 2019 looms over everything.

That’s not a definitive answer, but only because right now there isn’t one.

Report: Clippers sign Luc Mbah a Moute for one-year, $4.3 million

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Houston’s defense got a little worse.

Last season they leaned on the versatility and switchability of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute on the wings to counter teams such as the Warriors. In the opening hours of free agency, Ariza grabbed the cash — $15 million worth — and signed with the Phoenix Suns.

Now Mbah-a-Moute is gone, too. He’s going back to the Clippers reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Carmelo Anthony signing with the Rockets is almost a certainty at this point.

The Rockets defense was 4.3 points per 100 possessions better last season when Mbah a Moute was on the court. He also shot 36.4 percent from three on his way to 7.5 points a night, although he did miss 21 regular season games plus some of the playoffs due to injury. He was a good fit as a role player on a contender.

He will be tough to replace.

As for the Clippers, they have some potential at the forward spot. Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris will start, with Mbah a Moute, Montrezl Harrell (once he is re-signed), Wes Johnson, and Sam Dekker off the bench. Overall the Clippers have a roster that can compete for a playoff spot, but it needs to stay healthy (something they could not do last season), and even then it will not be easy in the ring of fire that is the Western Conference.

Report: Dwight Howard finalized buyout with Brooklyn, to sign with Washington

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Get out the popcorn and get comfortable, because it’s really happening: The Washington Wizards, the most dysfunctional locker room in the NBA is about to add Dwight Howard to the mix.

Dwight Howard has been traded from Charlotte to Brooklyn, and the Nets have finalized the buyout that will make Howard a free agent, clearing the way for him to be a Wizards. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story.

This was all reported before but couldn’t become official until the NBA’s signing moratorium was over.

Howard replaces Marcin Gortat, who was traded because he doesn’t get along with John Wall in a salary dump for Austin Rivers. Howard had a solid season last year in Charlotte, averaging 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. Coach Steve Clifford put Howard back in his comfort zones, didn’t ask him to do too much, and while things were inconsistent they were not bad for Howard in Charlotte.

Of course, Howard’s teammates weren’t fond of him in Charlotte. Now he goes to a locker room that may be the most dysfunctional in the NBA (and we can throw in Jeff Green for fun as well). Howard wants to change his reputation, but the rest of us are sitting around with popcorn waiting for the drama to begin.