Friday, July 19, 2013

No Basketball Offseason: #IKnowItsSummerLeagueBut

Summer League has been rolling for weeks (between Orlando and Las Vegas) and I've loved every second of it.  True, Summer League blowouts leading to garbage time have produced a couple epic naps; but still, summertime basketball with lower level NBA talent is better than baseball nothing.  If you’re not familiar with Summer League ball, teams (22 this year) field teams based on draft picks, 2nd year players, and a few free agents that haven’t been picked up by any team.  The Free agents are usually a collection of players that were eligible for the preceding draft who went undrafted, American-born players that have been playing overseas, and D-League players.

The Las Vegas League is also holding an inaugural tournament to see who wins. But honestly, in Summer League isn't everyone a winner (except for the guys that don’t make the roster, they are decidedly not winners)?

Note: As much as I love statistics, they are too odd in Summer League to really take seriously.  The quarters are only 10 minutes; and playing time is allocated more in accordance with seeing the roster’s capabilities than they are about winning. So these assessments were based more on the eye test, than any analytic review.

There are a few players that have stood out thus far, but before I get to them a note. IT’S JUST SUMMER LEAGUE.  Remember that list of players I told comprised the rosters? Dominating there doesn’t mean that they will be breakout stars, or that your particular squad is due for a breakout year.  Case and point, the year before Charlotte’s epic regular season meltdown it had one of the best records in the Vegas league.  The lack of any other basketball and the NBA logo may lead you to believe this is just like regular season. Resist this notion. Summer League tunnel vision has killed several fans, probably.  I’m not saying don’t be excited if your team’s late second round pick plays well, or if your second-year player looks like he has turned the corner; but just temper your enthusiasm with the knowledge that it isn’t the NBA finals.

Players that I've noticed doing work:

CJ McCollum: Portland has done it again; they’ve taken a guard out of an obscure basketball conference and may have simultaneously secured the inside line on back-to-back Rookie of the Year candidates. McCollum joins Patriot League alum Damian Lillard on the Trailblazers.  Both are combo guards that are as comfortable filling up the hoop as they are dishing to teammates.  Don’t be shocked if McCollum supplants current shooting guard, Wes Matthews, in the starting lineup sometime in the season in order to get a dual combo guard backcourt a la Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge.

Ray McCallum: Similar name, similar game to CJ. Another combo guard who is a bit more pass-first than his Portland counterpart.  He’s going to struggle to get significant minutes in the regular season because Sacramento just traded for Greivis Vasquez and already had Isaiah Thomas on the roster.  Still, he has a calmness and intelligence about his game that supersede his age. He also displayed a real chemistry with 1st round pick Ben McLemore (who was simply too streaky to make this list, but provided the highlight of Summer League).

Reggie Bullock surprised those not familiar with his sweet stroke and tenacious defense

Kelly Olynyck: OK, he didn't play in Vegas (Boston didn't send a team to Las Vegas) but still, he was really good when he did play in Orlando Summer League.  He knocked down the long jumper, handled the ball well, and physically handled himself in the low post.  Moreover, he displayed that same soft touch around the rim that led to him being one of the most efficient players in the country for Gonzaga last year.  I know I said McCollum was a ROY candidate, and he is, but Olynyck is my early pick to win the award.  He’ll be featured on a team that isn't overflowing with talent, won’t have a great backup, and will have Rondo to gift-wrap him at least half a dozen points nightly.

Dennis Schröder: He's Rajon Rondo.  Seriously.  I thought he got that label since the Nike Hoop Summit because he was simple built like him physically. Nope. He runs, jumps, and generally carries himself like Rondo.  Even his gait is something out of a Rondo impersonator video.  Moreover, his game reminds me of the All-Star point guard. He defends voraciously and finds teammates as easily in the halfcourt as he does in transition.  Even his pronounced weakness, his jumpshot, is identical to Rondo's Achilles heel. Obviously he isn't as good as the elite point guard yet, but the similarities are downright eerie.  

Tim Hardaway Jr.: he didn't play much because a sprained left wrist has sidelined him (if there is a hint of injury to a player under contract in Vegas they get shut down), but he went for 20+ when he did and showed that penchant for scoring that his skills belied.  Coming into the draft I felt he was the most ready to play day one of the NBA season of all the shooting guard prospects, and the knicks absolutely got a steal with their 25th pick. He’s got the tools; able to create his own shot, a consistent jumper (March Madness be damned), and athleticism to finish at the cup and defend his position. Plus, he’s as polished a rookie as you’ll find because of his pedigree and pick up games vs professionals that he has participated in for years.

Cody Zeller: I was filled with trepidation when the Bobcats took him. Not because he couldn't play, but because I thought the organization wanted him to be their answer at the Center position.  I audibly exhaled when the team took Al Jefferson, allowing Zeller to play the stretch four that he fancied himself.  He has looked comfortable on the perimeter, putting the ball on the floor and finishing with running baby hooks as well as quick post possessions.  Even more impressively, he has shown and recovered at the perimeter surprisingly well for a guy that spent most of his defensive possessions in college in the paint.

Chicago added another wing scorer to supplant a former glaring roster weakness

Victor Oladipo: The Magic decided to play Oladipo at the point in the Orlando Summer League. Obviously he won’t play there during the year, but it was interesting to see him running the offense and bringing the ball up the court for people who (like me) had questions about his ability to handle the ball and get his own shot.  I still have those concerns.  He had a nearly 1:1 assist to turnover ratio.  Still, he looked comfortable with the ball in his hands; and between his athleticism (which was clear on both sides of the court) and his work ethic, he should be fine.
NBA Experienced  Players

Austin Rivers: I disagreed with a lot of people (some of whom can be found on 620 am the Buzz every Saturday morning at 9-11 am) on Rivers.  No, I don’t think he is Russell Westbrook or Kyrie Irving.  He isn’t an elite athlete and doesn’t possess great court-vision.  Even with what he isn’t, he is still a good backup point guard.  And if you tell me that that isn’t important, then you didn’t watch Jarrett Jack and the Warriors during their playoff run; where Jack was HUGE for them with timely baskets while spelling Curry from his point guard duties.  Rivers can be that guy. He is a shoot first (and second, and third) point guard.  But that’s why he’s perfect to run a second unit where the offensive talent is usually far inferior to the starting lineup.  This Summer League, he has displayed all of his offensive gifts (namely the ability to read pick and rolls well and the ability to pull up off the dribble and make difficult shots) and done so efficiently. The Pelicans have a lot of talent that may play in the backcourt this year (Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans), but Rivers has played well enough to earn relevant minutes next year.

Jonas Valanciunas: The Toronto big man has always shown flashes of talent.  The last month of the regular season, the little-known Center was averaging 15 points 7 rebounds and nearly two blocks a game. Now his notoriety is the only thing little about Valanciunas, the Raptors’ big has added muscle to his frame and ruggedness to his game (I just thought of that line; like right now). He has been a dominant post presence this summer.

Looks like Marquis Teague may be able to fill in for Nate Robinson as the floor general for Chicago's 2nd unit 

Will Barton: After an unremarkable rookie year with the Blazers that included two short stints to the D-League, Barton will be looking to contribute to a much-improved Portland team.  He’s incredibly athletic and is capable of playing the point guard, shooting guard, and small forward positions.  He has a nose for the ball and took full advantage of his Summer League minutes. Barton seems like he could be a good glue guy/bench player that could give a thin Portland roster an added capable body.

PJ Tucker:  Tucker took the long way to get to his current position in the pros.  He was drafted by Toronto in the second round. Then (after not being re-signed) played in Europe, and finally fought his way back to the NBA.  He has transformed himself into a quality perimeter defender due to his strength and dogged determination.  He has always had a physical inside game despite his relative lack of height (6’4”).  His tough-minded approach has impressed the Suns executives and they were extremely pleased that he was amenable to playing in Vegas.  He displayed the defensive tenacity and improved outside game that they were hoping to see from him. Also, HE WENT TO ENLOE HIGH SCHOOL!!

Thomas Robinson: Three teams in two years isn't a good look for anyone that was a lottery pick just last year.  And every time I see him, I wonder what made Sacramento and Houston give up on him so quickly.  He was a terror on the boards in Vegas, gobbling up everything on both the offensive and defensive glass.  He finished around the rim and on the break with his athleticism, and showed that solid big man jumper out to 15-17 feet.  He reminds me of a tougher, if slightly less athletic, Blake Griffin.

Andre Drummond: Another Orlando Summer League player, Drummond really made me question why he was even out there.  Physically, he was the most dominant player I've seen all summer.  He’s 280 pounds, nearly 7 feet, and moves like a small forward.  He is raw offensively around the rim, even with his delicate touch around the cup.  He can show and get back on pick and roll plays, which is huge given the prevalence of that offensive set in the league. I know I said I’d chill with the stats since this is Summer League, but this is technically from the regular season: according to @statcenter out of the 3900+ minutes the Pistons played last year, Drummond and Greg Monroe played together for a total of 452 minutes.  I have no idea what Frank Lawrence was doing, but I’m sure that we will see these two sharing the court much more often this year.

Anyone catch your eye that I miss? Or you disagree with any of my picks? Let me know in the comments

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