Summer Lovin’ – Early Observations from Las Vegas Summer League

Barely 2 weeks after the glitz and glamour of the 2016 NBA Draft – which you can read all about here in case you missed it – the NBA dove head on into Summer League action. I love Summer League, the time of year where even Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson can be optimistic about the upcoming season (before he has to trot out Bogan Bogdanovic and Trevor Booker for 30+ minutes per night).

While I’m not often aroused at the thought of watching players like JaMychal Green, TJ McConnell and Henry Sims run up and down a basketball court, the prospect of seeing the top ten draft picks in action was too much to turn down.

While Utah and Orlando offer their own slimmed down versions, this is the Rolls Royce of the Summer League schedule with nary a Mormon or gay-club shooting in sight. 23 teams fielded rosters this year (with a D-League select team to make up numbers) as Las Vegas welcomed the NBA for the 13th straight year. What better place than Sin City to host a basketball tournament of young virile athletes, many of whom have just signed multi million dollar contracts? It is, after all, where Lamar Odom first ignited his love affair with cocaine and hookers.

I didn’t get to watch every team first-hand, however with ESPN showing more than 20 games of Summer League this year it gives me the perfect opportunity to make sweeping statements and ill-informed generalisations about the teams and players I did watch based on a very small sample size of basketball for your reading pleasure. But hey, that’s what makes it so fun, right? Here they are in no particular order, as each team played 3 group games before being seeded for the knock-out tournament. Chicago came away with the title, and despite some feeling winning the Summer League is akin to being called the best looking guy in the burns unit, you can see that it means something to the players……

(Sweeping statement #1: Amin Elhassan is a terrible sideline reporter. Just woeful. Craig Sager’s left testicle would have been a more colourful and engaging choice).

New Orleans (Seeded – 21, lost in 1st round)
First Glance at the Roster: Buddy Hield (Pick 6, 2016), Cheick Diallo (Pick 33, 2016)

The Lowdown: This team was horrible, which explains why they limped out of the tournament after a 1st round loss to Miami. New Orleans brass wont care about that though as they were only interested in test driving their draft picks.

Hield wasn’t particularly impressive as he struggled his way to 16.8ppg (0.327 FG, 0.229 3FG), however New Orleans will still be confident he can be the perfect long range foil for Anthony Davis’ interior domination. With Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon leaving in the offseason he’ll get plenty of looks. Diallo is definitely a project, but after playing only 7.5 minutes per game at Kansas looked happy as a pig in shit to be on floor for 29 minutes per game while providing an 11-9 with 2.2 blocks per outing.

The commentators tried to instil interest in the rest of the team but you know they’re struggling when all they have is proclaiming Nick Minnerath, just a white guy with tattoos, the new Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen. I don’t think New Orleans is looking for a career 5ppg scorer with a crack habit….

Boston (Seeded – 19, lost in 1st round)
First Glance at the Roster: Jaylen Brown (Pick 3, 2016), Guerschon Yubusele (Pick 16, 2016), Terry Rozier (Pick 15, 2015)
The Lowdown: First impressions of surprise #3 pick Brown? The kid is an athlete with a capital A. In the two games I watched he put up a 20-10 and a 25-9 while attacking the basket with ferocity at every opportunity (20-28 FT in those 2 games). The outside shot needs work but early signs say Danny Ainge got this pick right.

Boston’s other first rounder, Yabusele, showed flashes of promise with his court IQ and quick feet for a man his size. At 6-7 260 his French nickname roughly translates, very fittingly, to “The Dancing Bear” and he should feel right at home with the Celtics other undersized, overweight frontcourt player….yes, that’s you Kelly Olynyk.

Surprisingly, the best player on this team was little used point guard, 2015 #15 pick Terry Rozier, who’s clearly had enough of the D-League lifestyle if his Summer League performances are anything to go by. A 26-6-2-3 (14-18 FT) along with 24 (7-10 FG, 9-9 FT) as his handle got him anywhere he wanted on the court – and most of the time he wanted to get to the free throw line. You could actually see Ainge and Coach Brad Stevens in the crowd trying to work out how they’re going to get this kid more time this season.

Milwaukee (Seeded – 18, lost in 1st round)
First Glance at the Roster: Thon Maker (Pick 10, 2016), who cares about anyone else?
The Lowdown: The sooner the Bucks game-night entertainment team turn Sisqo’s 1999 hit “Thong Song” into “Thon Song” the better (….that Thon, Thon Thon Thon Thon!). Seriously, it’s going to happen. On the court, Thon attacked Summer League head-on as he threw up a 15-13 and 17-17 in his first two outings as he just plain outworked everyone else on the court. While he cooled off in the remaining games he still managed to make the ‘All-Summer League 1st Team’ for whatever that’s worth. For a kid that played exactly 0 minutes of college ball he looked very comfortable against NBA calibre talent. He runs fast, he jumps high and he doesn’t stop doing those things until the game ends. He still needs to make adjustments for the pro-game, demonstrated by fouling out of one game, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that the foul limit in Summer League group games was 10! The Bucks played ‘The Greek freak’ 25mpg in his rookie season and there’s no reason to think Thon won’t get close to that time this season. He’ll contribute this season, in fact, I’m calling it…..he makes ‘All-Rookie 1st Team’. Write that shit down.

A quick shout-out to Joshua Smith, who at 6-10 350, had every buffet restaurant in town one sitting away from financial ruin.

San Antonio (Seeded – 9, lost in 1st round)
First Glance at the Roster: Kyle Anderson (2015 Summer League MVP), Jonathon Simmons (2015 Summer League Championship Game MVP), DeJounte Murray (Pick 29, 2016), Ryan Arcidiacono (undrafted Dunkyard favourite)
The Lowdown: The 2015 champs returned Summer Leagues Batman & Robin, ‘Slow-Mo’ Anderson and Simmons, to this years squad as they chased back-to-back titles. Simmons was the success story of the 2015 event as his strong performances caught the eye of Coach Pop and a place in the Spurs rotation. Despite only playing 2 games this year, Anderson was the best player on the court when he was out there and will no doubt fill the shoes of the departed Boris Diaw with the same lethargic effectiveness that made Boris a fan favourite.

The Spurs have a history of polishing draft turds into diamonds (Manu Ginobili #57, Tony Parker #28, Luis Scola #55, Tiago Splitter #28, Goran Dragic #45 ) and DeJounte Murray should be no exception. He showed enough to vindicate the Spurs decision to nab him at #29. 21 pts vs Boston, 10 reb & 3 blk vs Golden State, 9 ast & 4 stl vs Sacramento, he can do a little bit of everything and there’s no better place than San Antonio to learn to put it all together.

The undrafted Arcidiacono is a favourite around the Dunkyard offices, his best case scenario is becoming Matthew Dellvedova 2.0, a third string point guard who can run an NBA offence, not make mistakes and defend like his life depended on it. If he catches on with a team we’ll have to get used to watching season 2016-17 with an erection.

Despite rarely hitting the heights of last years title run the Spurs did leave us with one of the plays of the tournament courtesy of Jonathon Simmons:

Philadelphia (Seeded – 22, lost in 2nd round)
First Glance at the Roster: Ben Simmons (Pick 1, 2016), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (Pick 24, 2016), Nik Stauskas (Pick 8, 2014)
The Lowdown: “Trust the Process”. That’s been the message out of Philly for the last 3 seasons before this years Ben Simmons climax, and with the architect of the process, Sam Hinkie, now gone, it’s time for the 76’ers to start winning some games. Ben Simmons should help with that sooner rather than later. His all-round game was on display in Las Vegas with an 8-10-8-3-2 against the Lakers and a 15-10-6 in his last game before Brett Brown realised he should be put in cotton wool for opening day. While the usual knocks are still there (not least aggressiveness and shooting) the just-turned-20 year old looks every bit the saviour the Philly fans have been praying for. Hopefully his 76er teammates will do a better job of capitalising on his passing ability than their Summer League counterparts or Ben will be more likely to be passing a kidney stone than the ball come season end.

I’m not sure Luwawu-Cabarrot will be enjoying the same success this year unless he starts training with the Russian Olympic team. He’ll stand a chance if he bulks up and shortens his name because, with the exception of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, players with hyphenated names don’t succeed in the NBA. It’s true, I checked.

In more good news for the Sixers Dario Saric, pick 12 in the 2014 Draft, has finally put pen to paper on an NBA contract after being crowned MVP of the recent FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament after an 18-13 in the final against Italy. The bad news for Philadelphia was the continued absence of Joel Embiid (Pick 3, 2014), and while Coach Brown tries to keep up spirits with news of 5-on-5 scrimmages, it seems only a matter of time before he’s discarded to the NBA morgue right on top of Greg Oden’s rotting corpse.

Golden State (Seeded – 16, lost in 2nd Round
First Glance at the Roster: Mamadou Ndiaye (undrafted, 7-6 300)
The Lowdown: Compared to the real Golden State Warriors this team was about as much fun as a prostate exam. Minus their 1st round pick Damian Jones due to a torn pectoral suffered during draft tryouts the only remaining interest was the giant Ndiaye. Unfortunately he only saw 17 total minutes in Golden States 5 games, and while his matchup with Dallas’ own 7-2 290 behemoth Satnam Singh was something to behold, he left me unsatisfied. Easily moved out of post position and not even looking close to blocking any shots Ndiaye will not be joining the list of other circus freaks to earn an NBA contract (Bol, Muresan, Bradley, Ming). Which is a shame, because as good as the Warriors are going to be this season imagine a line-up of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green with Ndiaye planted right square in the middle.

Dallas (Seeded – 15, lost in 2nd round)
First Glance at the Roster: Justin Anderson (Pick 21, 2015), AJ Hammons (Pick 46, 2016)
The Lowdown: This was Anderson’s team as he looked to build on his recent strong play in the Mavs first round playoff loss, where he averaged a 9-4, increased from 4-2 during the season. A 29-11 (6-12 3FG) display vs Boston will certainly make your coaches take notice, as well as some hard fouls that had no place on a prison basketball court let alone at Summer League. However, with the addition of Golden State championship players Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, it will count for squat as he looks to be stashed at the end of the bench for another year.

2nd round pick Hammons looks to see even less time, if he gets signed at all, with some uninspiring performances. Best summed up as Brad Daugherty, who is usually over-complimentary to fellow big men, had the following to say as he searched for positives  “He has good size, good length….uh, runs pretty well”. A glowing endorsement indeed.

One of Las Vegas’ best feel-good stories came in the form of Jonathan Gibson who signed a guaranteed contract with Dallas after performances of 30 (12-19FG, 6-10 3FG) against Miami and 26 (8-18FG, 3-9 3FG) against Boston. The 28 year old spent last season in China where he averaged a gaudy 42.0ppg, which sounds impressive until you find out that he only finished 2nd in scoring behind ex-Wizards/Celtics flop Jordan Crawford (43.1ppg).

Memphis (Seeded – 8, lost in 2nd round)
First Glance at the Roster: Wade Baldwin IV (Pick 17, 2016), either Andrew or Aaron Harrison (I couldn’t tell, but like the Madden brothers or Kylie & Kendall Jenner, neither has anything to offer)
The Lowdown: Considering the Grizzlies just tied up Mike Conley Jr to a 5-yr $153m contract, Baldwin should get used to the idea of being a backup for quite some time, and despite a less than ideal showing in Summer League (11-5-3, 0.286FG, 0-7 3FG) Baldwin should develop into an above average backup given time. Standing a muscular 6-4 with an outrageous 6-11 wingspan he has the tools to become an elite defender while his 3-pt shooting in college (150-344, 0.436) says that Las Vegas was merely a blip on the radar. He should start absorbing all he can from Conley right away as he looked shaky bringing the ball up the floor against the likes of Tyus Jones. He could be in real trouble against real NBA defenders.

With the rest of the roster more of a “Who’s that?” rather than a “Who’s who” of fringe NBA players, the opportunity to impress was there and Levi Randolph was the most impressive of the lot. If Memphis doesn’t sign him then another team should, smooth and under control at all times he had his best game against Minnesota with 26-4-2-4 (9-12FG, 4-4 3FG). Remember the name in early 2017 when NBA teams start handing out 10-day contracts like condoms in the Olympic Village.

LA Lakers (Seeded – 3, lost in 2nd round)
First Glance at the Roster: Brandon Ingram (Pick 2, 2016), Ivica Zubac (Pick 32, 2016) D’Angelo Russell (Pick 2, 2015), Larry Nance Jr (Pick 27, 2015
The Lowdown: Laker fans descended on Las Vegas for their first taste of Ingram in the purple and gold and had the Thomas & Mack Centre rocking like the Staples Centre in June to create a home stadium atmosphere. They roared every time Ingram made a bucket (which wasn’t often to be fair) and resurrected the “Lar-ree! Lar-ree!” chants for the first time since the early 90’s at Boston Garden as they serenaded Nance Jr during his 13-8-4-7-4 performance against Ben Simmons and the Sixers. All this helped to keep their minds off a poor showing by Ingram whose best game came in a consolation game against Utah after being eliminated from the tournament. That 22-5-4 (9-13 FG) will only mask the stench of the previous offerings for so long: 7-4-1 (3-12 FG) vs PHI, 7-7-1 (0-5 FG) vs GSW, 13-1-2 (4-12 FG, 2-7 3FG) vs CLE. Combining the coathanger physique of a young Kevin Durant and the drowsy-eyed aloofness of Tracy McGrady, there were reports that Ingram is putting away 5000 calories a day in order to bulk up. 5000 calories? I call that lunch. His on court demeanour is so understated that NBA fans may be treated to the first player to be nicknamed “Sleepy” since the immortal Eric ‘Sleepy’ Floyd retired in 1995.

The Lakers other first round pick, Ivica Zubac, showed enough to new coach Luke Walton to earn more than his fair share of backup centre minutes this season. Showing great touch around the basket he produced an 11-7 with 2.6 blocks although he may take some time getting used to the standard of athlete he’s going to see in the NBA. Clearly there are not many black people in Croatia.

The good news for Laker fans came in the performances of D’Angelo Russell, the second year SG who took a break from ruining Nick Young’s engagement long enough to play basketball. Averaging a 22-6-4 and improved leadership over his 4 games the best signs didn’t come from D’Angelo himself but from his teammates reactions after this game winner which shows he may be regaining some of the trust destroyed by last season’s Snapchat scandal:

Washington (Seeded – 7, lost in QF)
First Glance at the Roster: Kelly Oubre Jr (Pick 15, 2015)
The Lowdown: With no picks in this years draft Washington are counting on the development of last years pick Kelly Oubre Jr. New coach Scott Brooks was on hand to watch as Oubre led the team to the quarter finals of the tournament averaging a 19-6-2-2, however his shooting was still well below expectations for a productive NBA player (0.375 FG, 0.250 3FG). Brooks will be working with Wizards staff to get similar improvement out of Oubre as they got out of Otto Porter Jr last year, who went from a 6-3 disappointment to a 12-5-2 starting quality SF.

The second best player on this team was Jarrell Eddie, a 24yr old journeyman who put up games of 19-4 (6-12 FG, 3-6 3FG) and 22-6-4 (7-12 FG, 5-7 3FG). Brooks liked what he saw as the decision on Eddie’s non-guaranteed contract has been pushed back to the start of the season while Eddie attends Wizards training camp. And with Washington needing to find some more 3-point shooting at the SG and SF spots, Eddie could well find himself nestled on the bench come opening night.

Denver (Seeded – 4, lost in QF)
First Glance at the Roster: Jamal Murray (Pick 7, 2016), Juan Hernangomez (Pick 15, 2016), Emmanuel Mudiay (Pick 7, 2015), Gary Harris (Pick 19, 2014)
The Lowdown: It took exactly 1 game of Mudiay (23-8-6) and Harris (22-4-1-2) domination against Minnesota for the Nuggets hierarchy to have the following epiphany, “We already know what these two can do, maybe we should rest them and turn the team over to the draft picks to see if they can play?”. So that’s what they did, and the results vindicated that decision.

Having compared Hernangomez to Jan Vesely and Adam Morrsion on draft day, it turns out I may already be wrong about this kid. [Ed – I fuckin’ told you so]. He showed a toughness and nose for the ball, especially on the boards, rarely seen in young international players these days. 13-7 vs MIN, 14-12-5 vs MIA and 10-12-4 vs PHO had the Denver coaches and executives salivating over the 20-year olds NBA potential. He should have ample opportunity this season backing up Nikola Jokic and Kenneth Faried, and as a man who petitioned for Okafor over Towns (oops) and Parker over Wiggins (still up for debate) I have no issue admitting when my sweeping statements and Ill-informed generalisations are off the ball.

Jamal Murray also showed good signs as the 19-year old left Vegas averaging a 20-5-2. His lack of elite athleticism, while a concern, hasn’t been a problem yet in his career due to his ability to flat out score the basketball. He had three 20+ point scoring games, including an impressive 29-7-3 (13-26 FG) in the QF loss to Phoenix and, much like Hernangomez, should see plenty of opportunities this season.

Cleveland (Seeded – 14, lost in SF)
First Glance at the Roster: Kay Felder (Pick 54, 2016), Jordan McRae (Pick 58, 2014)
The Lowdown: With back-up PG Matthew Dellevedova the subject of some starting PG free agent contract offers the Cavs were in search of a new back-up who fits in with coach Ty Lue’s increasingly fast paced style of play. So they bought the 54th pick off Atlanta, drafted Peter Dinklage-sized Oakland PG Felder, stuck him in the Summer League and said “Show us what you can do”. What he do was drop 22 (8-17 FG) in eliminating Boston, 20 (9-19 FG) in ending the Lakers run and 22-4-5 (8-14 FG) in a tough SF loss against eventual champions Chicago. Looking every bit the perfect change-of-pace jitterbug Cleveland was looking for they quickly signed him to a guaranteed contract, where he’ll only need to beat out a way-way-past-his-prime Mo Williams for back-up PG minutes this season. I wonder if he needed to ask Eric Snow for permission to wear #20?

Even more impressive than Felder was the play of Jordan McRae, who gained All-Summer League First Team honours averaging a 24-5-2, including back-to-back games of 32-3-2 and 36-9. Unfortunately for McRae any team containing LeBron requires it’s role players to consistently knock down the open 3’s that Lebron’s style inevitably creates. McRae hit just 10-34 (0.294) in Vegas and some of those efforts were Bruce-Jenner-in-a-dress level ugly. That’s the difference between waving his white towel on the bench or becoming a contributing role player.

Phoenix (Seeded – 5, lost in SF)
First Glance at the Roster: Dragan Bender (Pick 4, 2016), Marquese Chriss (Pick 8, 2016), Devin Booker (Pick 13, 2015)
The Lowdown: The anticipation of watching this team faded quicker than Mel Gibson’s acting career after both Booker and Chriss were withdrawn from the team. Continuing to play Booker would have been demoralising to the other teams as he invoked memories of a young Ray Allen in the two games he appeared in, dropping 24-2-7 (3-5 3FG) on Boston and 28-8-6 (3-5 3FG) on Portland before being rested. Chriss succumbed to illness 3 games in as he showed flashes of the athletic superpowers that attracted the Suns on draft day. His best outing came in the form of 15-14 with 2 blocks vs Boston, and looks likely to survive on putbacks and rolls to the basket in his rookie season.

I was also hoping to see more from Bender. ESPN reported scouts raving about how well he moved and carried his weight and executives impressed he knew where the ball was supposed to go and how to get to his spots. I watched a kid average just less than a 9-6 in 32mpg while doing a lot of standing around on the 3-point line. Combine that with his shooting, 0.275 FG (14-51) 0.265 3FG (9-34), and I wonder if these scouts and executives were actually watching the games or became distracted trying to ‘collect them all’ on Pokémon GO. It seems unlikely that the Suns will give both Chriss and Bender big minutes this season so it’s going to be interesting to see how they plan to develop these two potential future all-stars.

The real spark came in the form of diminutive PG Tyler Ulis, who recently became the 5th Kentucky guard to join the Suns roster. Reminiscent of a taller, skinnier Muggsy Bogues at 5-10 150, his ability to involve his teammates and run the team was a large reason Phoenix made it all the way to the semi-finals as he produced the following pts-ast-stl games: 11-7-1, 19-4-1, 20-8-1, 11-7-3, 10-5-6 and 16-7-5. While his size may eventually derail his NBA success, his game-winner in OT vs Denver, after Bender bricked 2 free throws to win the game in regulation, endeared him to fans, coaches and teammates alike:

Minnesota (Seeded – 24, lost in Final)
First Glance at the Roster: Kris Dunn (Pick 5, 2016), Tyus Jones (Pick 24, 2015), Adreian Payne (Pick 15, 2014)
The Lowdown: Minnesota’s run to the Championship game was highlighted by the performance of the teams PG’s. Before succumbing to concussion Dunn was the most impressive of any draft pick who turned up to Las Vegas as he recorded 27-5-2-3 (10-18 FG) and 21-9-4 (9-17 FG) in his 2 appearances. Reminiscent of a young Dwyane Wade with better potential defensively, look for Dunn to be competing for ‘Rookie of the Year’ honours with Ben Simmons as long as he remains healthy.

Once Dunn went down the team was turned over to Tyus Jones whose performances in the knockout games, 15-3-9-2 vs SA; 26-4-10 vs MEM; 21-3-8-3 vs TOR; 29-3-6 vs PHO; 27-2-10-2 vs CHI earned him Tournament MVP honours and provided the T-Wolves with perhaps one too many options at PG with Jones, Dunn and current starter Ricky Rubio. GM Scott Layden may have already given the Michael Corleone kiss-of-death by stating publicly that Rubio will not be traded, or he may now hold a new potential trade chip with Jones’ performances. Personally, I’d like to see them go all-in on Dunn as the new starting PG and package Rubio with Nikola Pekovic to see what trade moves they can make.

New coach Tom Thibodeau was on hand to get his first look at some of his players and, much like Dunn and Jones, would have been pleased with what he saw from third year player Adreian Payne, who so far in his career has been in and out of the D-League more often than Leonardo Di Caprio has been in and out of supermodels. Proving the perfect foil to Jones, the 6-10 Payne produced 20-7 (8-16 FG), 19-10 (6-11 FG), 18-10 (8-17 FG) and 22-16 (7-16 FG) during the fun to the final, pairing his already solid mid-range game with an improved ability to step out beyond the arc.

Chicago (Seeded – 2, Champions)
First Glance at the Roster: Denzel Valentine (Pick 14, 2016), Bobby Portis (Pick 22, 2015)
The Lowdown: After I recovered from the shock realisation that there was no Doug McBuckets on the Bulls roster there was actually a lot to like about Chicago as they capped off their time in Las Vegas with an entertaining 84-82 OT win against Minnesota in the Championship game.

The team was spearheaded by 2nd year forward Portis who, after a promising rookie year of 7-5 in 18mpg, was Mr Consistent as he averaged 17-9 over 7 games. Looking to have added some muscle to his frame over the off-season, Portis also showed improved 3-point touch (10-24 0.417), and with the Rondo-Wade-Butler combo that figures to spend a lot of time on the floor this season devoid of lone range marksmanship there’s going to be added pressure on players such as Portis to knock down the 3-ball. If he can do that then we may be talking about a possible ‘Most Improved’ candidate by season end.

Bulls GM Gar Forman was on hand to speak about the direction of the team and left many puzzled, including myself, when saying their two goals over the offseason were getting younger and adding veteran players. Wait, what? I’m not sure those two goals are compatible? Perhaps it was just the pressure of the TV cameras getting to him.

While not many teams would use the 14th pick on a 4-year college player with degenerative knees, that’s exactly what Chicago did. So far, so good as Valentine delivered a strong, if not spectacular showing. A lack of elite athleticism (highlighted by some lazy fouls) is overcome by his above average fundamentals, IQ and court vision. Averaging a shade under a 12-7-3 Valentine seems certain to contribute to the Bulls second-unit straight away. As Jerian Grant collected Championship Game MVP honours with 24-10-5 (honestly, between Jerian, Jerai and Jerami I’m getting sick of Harvey Grant’s sons. Does Horace have any kids? Surely they have to be better than these guys?) it was Valentine who hit the two biggest shots of the game……

And this: