Believe NBA Summer League at your own risk.
It’s easy to get seduced -- plays are simple, guards are in charge, the quality of opponent makes the more talented players (i.e., the Lottery picks who play for their respective teams) stand out. You get all that after having seen years and years worth of the spectacle.
But this year was different. Maybe it’s an auger of seasons to come, of a special Draft last June where five point guards were among the first nine picks. As the league gets smaller and smaller, the guys with the ball in their hands have even more sway.
The quality of play in Las Vegas this year was among the best in recent memory. Almost every team had a breakout performer.
What follows below is by no means a list of the best players, as there were many who played well. And, this was a guards’ tournament as most of these tend to be.
Lottery picks Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox showed what the fuss was about early in their first NBA turns. Guard Quinn Cook was outstanding for the New Orleans Pelicans. Wayne Selden was in a flow and on the attack throughout the Memphis Grizzlies’ run to the tournament quarterfinals. Mike James showed why the Phoenix Suns signed him to a two-way contract out of Greece in June, averaging better than 20 points in a strong Vegas showing. The Houston Rockets’ Isaiah Taylor was an offensive impact study all his own. The Golden State Warriors’ Patrick McCaw picked up right where he left off when he got important minutes during The Finals.
The only order of those listed below is alphabetical.
Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
(No. 2 pick, 2017 Draft)
It showed in the fans who came out in droves to see him, or watched him in numbers on TV that dwarfed last year’s games. It showed in the passes that hit his teammates on the hands, time after time. It showed when he followed a 2 of 15 shooting night with 36, 11 and eight against Philadelphia a few days later.
“He was special tonight,” said Lakers assistant coach Jud Buechler, who’s coaching L.A.’s summer league team.
Ball had two triple-doubles in Vegas, teaming with fellow rookie Kyle Kuzma to lead the Lakers to the championship game tonight (10 ET, ESPN) against Portland. Throughout the tournament, his shot came and went. But the passing was off the charts.
Ball threw consecutive passes from beyond halfcourt in the first quarter Wednesday that were reminiscent of John Stockton’s long pass to Karl Malone in Game 4 of The 1997 Finals against the Bulls -- still, for my money, the greatest and most gutsiest pass that I’ve ever seen. In fact, while so many like to compare Ball with Jason Kidd, there’s a lot in his game that’s, to me, more similar with the former Utah Jazz Hall of Fame point guard.
Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in steals, had much higher defensive credentials than Ball does right now. But Ball’s built a lot like Stockton in the upper body -- long arms, huge hands -- and against the Philadelphia 76ers, he displayed his potential, causing several deflections that led to turnovers and runouts.
Said Ball: “I’ve just got to keep building. I’ve got long arms, quick enough to get over the ball screens. I’ve got to keep learning, working with the coaches and taking it from there.”
You can get wrapped up in what his father, LaVar Ball, says and does. That’s marketing. And you can be a troll every time Lonzo Ball has a bad game. He’s a rookie; he’ll likely have quite a few of them. But don’t get it twisted: Lonzo Ball is going to be a great, great point guard in the NBA.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
(No. 19 pick, 2017 Draft)
John Collins had a simple goal in Vegas.
“I wanted to prove that I should have went higher,” the rookie big man said. “Not to say that I’m not happy with the spot I’ve fallen. I’ve fallen to great spot, a great organization, the fans love me. I have a great opportunity here, which I’m blessed for. But I want to show everybody, I feel like I should have gone number one. Maybe that isn’t realistic. But I want to prove to everybody that I should have went higher. I’ve been overlooked most of my career. So I’m kind of happy, because it gives me that same energy, that same fear and drive.”
Collins is right; he wasn’t on anyone’s radar entering his sophomore season at Wake Forest. But after averaging a near double-double and leading the ACC in field goal percentage (.622), the secret was out. Still, Collins wasn’t just the ninth big man taken in the Draft … he wasn’t even the first Collins -- going after Gonzaga’s Zach Collins, who went 10th to the Portland Trail Blazers.
But John Collins was active and productive in Vegas, a potential bright spot for a rebuilding Hawks team next season. His week (15.4 points, 9.2 rebounds) included this ridiculous bang on the Pelicans’ Cheick Diallo and Keith Benson.
He also showed a facility to step out and shoot, something he’ll have to become consistent doing in Atlanta. Having lost each of their five starters from the 60-win team of just two seasons ago (!), the Hawks are an open book going forward and scoring will be at a premium outside of Dennis Schroeder.
Collins got good coaching and good advice about making the leap to the pros from his college coach at Wake Forest, Danny Manning.
“He told me it’s a huge process,” Collins said. “Obviously, D-Man is one of the guys that have done everything -- won a national championship, super solid pro numbers, number one Draft pick. He’s been in situations that I’m trying to go to. The biggest thing from him to me is that it’s an adjustment period. You go from being the guy in college to being one of the guys -- trying to become one of them. It’s a big process. As a rook, it’s all about development and learning. He said be patient, it’s going to take some time. Obviously you have to put the work into it.”
Bryn Forbes, San Antonio Spurs
(Undrafted in 2016)
Of course they’ve talked about it.
A San Antonio Spurs future with Bryn Forbes and Dejounte Murray as key pieces, complementing All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, as the Spurs play the way they have for two decades -- just with a new cast of athletic characters.
But Murray was San Antonio’s first-round pick in 2016. His destiny with San Antonio, barring injury or indifference, hasn’t been in much doubt. But Forbes is taking a more circuitous route to playing time. Undrafted, the 23-year-old (he’ll turn 24 this week) is attempting to become the Spurs’ latest development success story. He saw spot minutes in San Antonio last season, but is looking to earn a much bigger role this year.
By filling up the stat sheet in Vegas, finishing second in the Summer League in scoring (26 per game) while playing a lot of point guard for the Spurs’ summer league team, Forbes made a strong case he belongs in the discussion about San Antonio’s upcoming attractions.
“Me and Dejounte talk about that a lot,” Forbes said. “This year, even, during the playoffs and during different times, we talked about it. We were in the D-League together (in Austin). I love playing with Dejounte. He plays hard, he plays defense, is very talented, athletic. I think we both have a really bright future.”
First, though, Forbes will have to improve defensively.
“He continues to show his variety, not just catch-and-shoot, not just three balls,” said Spurs assistant Will Hardy, who coached San Antonio’s team in Vegas. “Bryn just finished his first year, so now he’s seen a full NBA season, and he’s seen a full season with Pop. He understands what’s expected in our program.
“The first year is obviously tough. You’re digesting so much. You’re learning a new program and a new terminology. So this year we look forward, hopefully, to a nice step up for him, knowing what’s expected of him.”
After the Spurs’ season ended in the Western Conference finals, Forbes went back to Michigan State for workouts and when he was in San Antonio he got back in the lab, working with Hardy and assistant coach Chip Engelland on becoming a better ballhandler and decision maker at the point. They ran him through all kinds of paces -- he was picked up full court by two defenders (“two of our video guys, Willis and Cam”) and doubled every time he ran screen and roll.
“I’d get to the gym at 7:30, and by 8:30, we were on the court,” Forbes said. “For 45 minutes, all they’d do is pick me up. And then defensively, I’d have to play defense full-court, and defense for 45 minutes, pick and roll. It was a great summer for me, just my growth as a player.”
Marcus Keene, Washington Wizards
(Undrafted free agent)
The Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas makes the vertically challenged everywhere stand taller. In an NBA that’s forever downsizing these days, the 5-foot-9 Thomas has become a superstar, an All-Star and one of the Celtics’ cornerstones.
Guard Marcus Keene, allegedly 5-foot-9 himself, is just trying to find a home in the NBA. But Keene, who led the nation in scoring last season as a junior at Central Michigan, was impressive for the Wizards in Vegas, looking to stick as Washington’s third guard next season behind John Wall and newly acquired Tim Frazier.
There won’t be a ton of minutes behind Wall, but Keene still thinks he can fit in.
“I liked it because I knew coming in, in that third guard rotation, it seemed like off the bench they need some scoring,” Keene said. “They didn’t have that last year in the playoffs. I feel like I can bring scoring in off the bench if y’all need it here and there. That’s where I think I can fit in with Washington, show them what I can do. If I make the team they know what I can do.”
Despite his numbers in college -- which included five games of 40-plus points and a 41-point effort in his final game for CMU -- Keene wasn’t expecting to be drafted, a prediction that unfortunately for him came true. But he’s studied other small guards who’ve found niches in the NBA. Thomas, of course, is the patron saint of the diminutive baller, but Keene has looked at how Suns guard Tyler Ulis and Cleveland’s Kay Felder have performed in their NBA stints, too.
With Washington, Keene tried to show he’s more than a shoot-first point guard.
“That’s what I was telling people that was talking to me after the game, like, ‘why aren’t you shooting?,’ ” Keene said Wednesday. “I was like, I’m trying to get into the league. So I have to show them the other stuff I can do. I’m not just going to go out and jack shots. Everybody wants to see me score, but I have to show I’m a good, smart basketball player to get into the league. And then, when I get the shots, just knock them down when I get ‘em.”
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
(No. 13 pick, 2017 Draft)
If there was one guy who turned heads over and over in Vegas, it was Mitchell, who dropped 37 with eight steals in his final game last week against Memphis. He played both guard spots and defended -- and in Summer League, anyone who plays defense stands out.
“What he does that a lot of guys don’t do is, as you cut through on the defense to the weak side, he maintains vision of the ball,” said Jazz Summer League coach Zach Guthrie. “A lot of guys are so man dependent they go like a lost puppy following their man. But he turns, has vision, and is able to make plays on the ball.”
Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks
(No. 9 pick, 2017 Draft)
Dennis Smith Jr.’s luck in Las Vegas has not run out. Yet.
“Every time I’ve been to Vegas, we’ve won a lot of games,” he said last week. “It’s my fourth time. So I’m hoping to keep it going. I came here for Adidas Super 64, I think it’s three times. And I’ve been rolling.”
Eventually, everyone who keeps playing here runs into some bad cards. The Mavericks’ 19-year-old, though, is Dallas’ first legit chance to turn the river into a winning hand in some time. It will not happen this season; the Mavs are still way toward the back of a juggernaut Western Conference. But the franchise, finally, has a young player around which it can build a future.
Smith has dominated play in Vegas for the Mavs, who reached the semifinals of the tournament. Yes, summer leagues are guards’ leagues, and all of the guards taken high in the first round played very well here. But Smith -- the fifth point taken, after Markelle Fultz, Ball, Fox and New York’s Frank Ntilikina -- was as impressive as any of them, showing why some scouts think he may well wind up being the best point guard of all of them.
“I had to pick up my effort defensively, learn the rotations, learn how to be a really, really good teammate,” Smith said last week. “I worked a lot on that in college. I think it’s translated well.”
With Dirk Nowitzki in the midst of his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career, the Mavericks were among the league’s elite for most of the last decade, winning it all in 2011. But that led to subprime drafting position, and the Mavericks didn’t rise above their station.
Since hitting on Josh Howard with the 29th pick in the first round in 2003, the Mavs’ first rounds have been a dry hole: Maurice Ager (28th pick, 2006); Byron Mullins (24th pick, 2009); Jordan Hamilton (26th pick, 2011); Tyler Zeller (17th pick, 2012); Kelly Olynyk (13th pick, 2013: Olynyk was traded to Boston on Draft night and had four solid seasons with the Celtics before signing with Miami last week -- while Dallas ultimately wound up with Bebe Nogueira, Cleanthony Early and Russ Smith) and Justin Anderson (21st pick, 2014; Anderson showed flashes but was traded to the 76ers last February).
Smith promises to break that trend. The Mavs have been stagnant the last few years and he is a break of fresh, young air.
“It’s pretty dang good,” said Mavs’ assistant Jamahl Mosely, who’s coaching the Summer League team. “Just to see the way he’s growing. To me, that’s one of the most impressive things, that he’s picking up things extremely fast for a guy who’s just walking into the league. And I think that’s going to get better and better as time goes on.”
Smith picked up the nuances of attacking the pick and roll defense seemingly overnight. In Dallas’ first game in Vegas, he hesitated when he saw a hard show. By the third game, he was splitting the double; by the fifth, he didn’t even ask for a screen, confident he’d figure out what to do. He has to work on deportment and continue to make defense a priority. Most important, playing for a team with a coach in Rick Carlisle who is demanding of point guards of any age, Smith’s learning curve in the fall will be steep and unforgiving. He will have to lead grown men, with families, who know the NBA game better than he does. It will not go easily, for a while.
“That’s something that’s easier to show somebody than to tell them,” Smith said. “I’ve got to feel out exactly how everybody is, how they respond to certain things.”
Caleb Swanigan, Portland Trail Blazers
(No. 26 pick, 2017 Draft)
Biggie Swanigan. The name sounds like the protagonist of an Elmore Leonard novel. It is not, in this case.
The story of how Swanigan, the former Purdue big man who escaped homelessness and made himself into a player through the tough love of his uncle, Roosevelt Barnes, has been well-documented. Now, Swanigan is, literally, playing against men his own size. Yet the consensus first team All-American and Big 10 Player of the Year is creating the same chaos underneath the basket when he starts throwing his weight around.
His is not a natural complement to Jusuf Nurkic, whom Portland acquired from Denver in February and around whom the Blazers hope to assemble their halfcourt attack. But Swanigan could absolutely find a home there. The Blazers know that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can score, but they need someone who can lay the wood on people in the paint.
“I’m ready to play,” Swanigan said. “All my life, it’s been, ‘will it translate to the NBA? He’s undersized; can he play in the NBA?’ Well, once you’re in the NBA, it’s time to produce. It’s not about potential; it’s about production. And that’s what I’ve always done and not gotten any credit for it.”
On Draft night, Swanigan told Barnes, “I’m ready to kill somebody.” Barnes will have an apartment in Portland, just as he did at Purdue while Swanigan was there. He’ll be close, but it will be up to his nephew to take the next steps.
“He’s always said, ‘have a sense of urgency, and you’ve got to be obsessed with it,’ ” Swanigan said. “Early on, I didn’t understand what he meant by you’ve got to be obsessed. It’s got to bother you. It’s got to be everything you think about. Early on I’m thinking it was crazy. But it all worked out. Even when I was young, at my eighth grade games, people think I run well now. But in the eighth grade games, every time there was a possession, he would just scream on the sidelines, ‘run, Biggie,’ over and over. It used to drive me crazy. But now it’s a habit.”
Swanigan can pass out of the post, and he’s got some stuff offensively in the paint, but he’s going to earn his keep in Portland by doing what he does best -- rebound. The Blazers believe he and Nurkic can play together.
“It becomes more about what you can do defensively than offensively,” Blazers Coach Terry Stotts said. “Offensively, you’ll find a way to score. He has a knack. He moves well without the ball in the paint, and he understands spacing. The question in the league today is defending that position. Teams are spacing and playing more perimeter oriented players. Can you do that?”
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