13 Biggest Takeaways from 2014 Las Vegas NBA Summer League
For many young NBA prospects, as well as those who are hoping to gain entry to the league by standing out against the crop of top rookies and sophomores, Las Vegas Summer League is a huge opportunity to show off their skills.
The games may often resemble playground contests but everyone is playing their heart out, trying to prove that he either belongs in the Association or deserves a bigger role than he's projected to get. From the top picks of the 2014 NBA draft to the journeymen with one last gasp left in their prospective NBA ventures, that's a statement that applies across the board.
Summer league performances have to be taken with dashes of salt, not just pinches, but we can still learn a lot from paying attention to the players involved. The stars are shining, both from this year's draft class and last year's, and quite a few second-round steals have already emerged.
So, what have we taken away from the action?
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from NBA.com's databases.
The Top Picks Are Impressing
Once Joel Embiid's injury issues flared up, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were in a class of their own. Both have lived up to the billing, even if they haven't exactly been the MVPs of the Las Vegas Summer League.
The No. 1 pick has been at the heart of trade rumors about Kevin Love coming to the Cleveland Cavaliers throughout his time in his new uniform, per Chris Broussard of ESPN The Magazine, but that hasn't been able to distract him. Through his first four appearances with the Cavs, he averaged 15.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per outing, but his performances were more impressive than the numbers would indicate.
Sure, his shot has been inconsistent, but he's also been creating looks for himself and knocking down jumpers from all over the court. Plus, he's put together no shortage of highlights, from his monstrous spin-and-dunk against the Philadelphia 76ers to his thunderous chase-down block of poor Nick Johnson.
Parker hasn't created as many highlights for the Milwaukee Bucks, but he's been similarly impressive, even if he's been overaggressive with his shot. Following his team's Friday afternoon showdown with the Golden State Warriors, the No. 2 pick is averaging 15.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.2 steals per contest.
"The post moves, the step-back jumpers, the ability to take it hard to the basket, or drop in feathery three-pointers. He’s done all of that," wrote Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune before Parker took on the Warriors. "But it’s come in spurts."
All he did against the Dubs was record a cool 20 points and 15 rebounds on 8-of-15 shooting from the field.
Parker has all the offensive tools the Bucks could ask for, and it's looking increasingly likely that he'll play a big role in their offense. As for Wiggins, we have no idea whether he'll be suiting up for the Cavaliers or Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014-15, but it's not particularly difficult to be blown away by his sheer level of all-around talent.
That Applies to Last Year's Top Picks as Well
This year's top picks aren't the only ones who are thriving.
Anthony Bennett endured one of the worst rookie seasons by a No. 1 pick in league history, becoming one of the NBA's biggest punchlines while almost completely failing to make an impact for the Cavs. Well, the impacts he did make were largely negative.
However, everything is turning around for the former UNLV standout. He's no longer hindered by a bum shoulder, he's in better shape—both physically and mentally—than we've seen since he entered the Association, and he's motivated.
Bennett is averaging 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 42.6 percent from the field, and he's actually passing the eye test. All of a sudden, Cleveland's collection of young talent is even more impressive.
However, the most disappointing portion of the lackluster 2013 class isn't just comprised of Bennett. C.J. McCollum, Otto Porter (who finished off his stint with a 27-point outburst in a triple-overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs) and Ben McLemore all failed to meet expectations by a wide margin last year as well, and each has looked quite good in Sin City.
McCollum, the combo guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, has been one of the top scorers in the league, putting up 20.2 points per game. His three-point shot has been inconsistent, but a 6-of-9 outing from downtown against the Atlanta Hawks showed off his perimeter upside.
The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, have to be thrilled with Porter's development. Like Bennett, he was held back by a preseason injury last year, and now that he's healthy, he's justifying his draft slot. At least he's starting to, averaging 17.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the field.
Finally, there's McLemore.
"One thing about Ben, he works his tail off," Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins said during a podcast with Grantland's Bill Simmons. "With that alone, he's gonna be fine. I believe he'll have a better season this year."
So far, so good.
The Kansas product averaged 14.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game while shooting 52.2 percent from the field. And that's without him connecting from downtown with any sort of consistency.
Not Every Big Name Is Ready
Yes, I'm talking about Noah Vonleh.
The Charlotte Hornets selected the big man from Indiana with the No. 9 pick of the 2014 draft, thus ending his draft-day slide. Unfortunately for Michael Jordan and the rest of the Charlotte front office, though, the former Hoosier hasn't been living up to the expectations in Vegas.
"It's definitely challenging being 18 years old and playing against grown men," he told Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star, "but hopefully I adjust to it pretty quick."
So far, he hasn't.
Vonleh opened his campaign in Sin City with a historically awful performance. He went scoreless despite taking 13 shots from the field, as Buckner described:
On Friday night, Vonleh could not have had a more awkward first game. In his debut as a professional, Vonleh missed all 13 shot attempts and also picked up five fouls and three turnovers. Afterwards, Vonleh remembers retreating to his own thoughts and running the game back in his head. That mind excavation could only last so long because by Sunday, his second game, the bark of assistant coach Patrick Ewing snapped Vonleh back to reality.
He followed that up with 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting against the Sacramento Kings. That performance saw him rack up eight fouls as well, making it even worse than it would've been otherwise.
Through six games, the teenager averaged only 9.2 points while shooting 30.8 percent from the field and draining just one of his eight attempts from beyond the arc.
The silver lining: Vonleh's last game, an 82-79 win over the New York Knicks, saw the Indiana University product rack up 12 points and 10 boards on 5-of-11 from the field.
At least he ended on something of a high note.
Nerlens Noel Is Legit
We finally got to see what Nerlens Noel can do on the basketball court.
The presumptive No. 1 pick of the 2013 NBA draft before a torn ACL depressed his stock, Noel missed the entire 2013-14 season—largely for preventative reasons during a tanking season for the Philadelphia 76ers. That kept him shrouded in mystery.
Was Noel going to be a bust? Was he the latest player who would just never be healthy? Was he still the same uber-talented big man who was the object of so much intrigue only a calendar year ago?
So far, it's readily apparent that Noel has the talent.
In addition to boasting one of the league's most eye-popping hairstyles, the former Kentucky big man has been moving quite well in Vegas, with the exception of a brief injury scare. He's only played in two games for the Sixers, but he's averaged 13.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 2.0 blocks per contest while spending just under 27 minutes out on the floor.
There are still offensive limitations, but he's already a franchise-changing defensive talent. Chris Mannix, writing for Sports Illustrated, was one of many who couldn't help but gush about his ability to block and alter shots:
Noel's potential is obvious. His defensive reflexes are superior. In the first quarter against Cleveland, Cavaliers center Jack Cooley thought he had an easy layup. That is until Noel, coming from across the paint, recovered to block his shot. Minutes later, Matthew Dellavedova lofted a floater toward the rim. Nope. Noel, flashing his 7-4 wingspan, was there to redirect it. (He finished with four blocks to go with 12 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes.) Sixers coaches joked that they stopped counting the number of shots that he altered.
And this is only the beginning.
Noel's return from a missed season adds even more flavor to an already competitive Rookie of the Year race. He's one of those potentially transcendent prospects who should make Philadelphia worth a watch night in and night out during the regular season, especially since there's no reason Brett Brown should hold him back this year.
Positions? What Positions?
One of the more interesting non-player trends in Vegas has been the reluctance of new coaches to settle for traditional positions.
The movement was sparked by Erik Spoelstra's positionless system for the Miami Heat, one that obviously worked out rather nicely for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the roster in South Beach, but coaches just starting to make names for themselves are following in these novel footsteps.
Jason Kidd, debuting with the Milwaukee Bucks, has convinced the organization to try Giannis Antetokounmpo out at point guard. Yes, we're going to see a 6'11" player—who's still growing—run the point during the regular season after he's thoroughly impressed against lesser competition in Vegas.
But a couple of shot-callers have taken things even further.
As Peter Novak of SLCDunk.com relayed, Quin Snyder spent one of his summer-league pressers talking about how positions don't really exist in basketball. Apparently, he'd get along with David Blatt.
"I'm not a real big guy for names for positions," Cleveland's first-year head coach explained to CBS Sports' Zach Harper during his time in Vegas. "You know, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or point guard and shooting guard and small forward and power forward. You've got to be a basketball player and he [Andrew Wiggins] is a basketball player."
That's been readily apparent when you watch the Cleveland offense, as there's constant ball movement and switching. Even with little time to prepare, the Cavs have been playing a modified Princeton offense, one that revolves around a scheme where every player can distribute from all areas of the court regardless of position.
The position names that Blatt mentions are still going to be used for the sake of convenience, but they're becoming increasingly antiquated.
Don't Sleep on T.J. Warren
T.J. Warren doesn't make sense.
Somehow, the Phoenix Suns first-round pick has excelled throughout his Vegas experience, getting better every game and averaging 17.8 points per contest from his wing position despite going a combined 0-of-4 from beyond the arc through five games.
Warren, shooting 59.6 percent from the field prior to a 3-of-11 stinker against the Dallas Mavericks, is just a natural scorer.
Every field goal seems to come in a different manner, and his craftiness is nearly unsurpassed in this summer-league field. He just knows how to control his body and find the open spaces, and his creativity is complemented by some incredible touch from all areas of the floor (so long as those areas are inside the three-point arc).
This method of play isn't guaranteed to be successful against NBA-caliber competition, as the defenders are more physically able and smarter, but Warren sure does look good.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman has been one of the NC State product's biggest supporters, and that sentiment hasn't changed over the past few weeks:
He can score with the game slowed down in the half court, whether he's working one-on-one or off the ball. And he's automatic on the break, where his body control is sensational and his Eurostep is mean.
The kid just knows how to get buckets, from pull-up jumpers and floaters to off-ball cuts and tips. And since he's 6'8" with good length, tremendous mobility and adequate athleticism, there isn't much to question regarding his physical tools.
Warren isn't the flashiest, and he doesn't have the traditional go-to shots you see from most NBA wings, but his offensive instincts are off the charts. You just can't teach that.
Personally, I'm still not entirely sold on Warren's ability to score at the sport's highest level, but I'm coming around, and the process isn't even that slow. These scoring outbursts are forcing a change in mindset.
Already a Few 2nd-Round Steals Emerging
The 2014 draft class was a rather heralded one. Not just because the top prospects were franchise-changing ones, but also because the depth was as impressive as we'd seen in a long time.
So far, that depth has been on display, as a number of second-round picks have been strutting their stuff throughout their time in Sin City.
Jordan Clarkson (No. 46 to the Los Angeles Lakers) has impressed, suiting up at both guard positions and looking quite comfortable at each one. Heading into Friday night's outing against the Denver Nuggets, one in which he struggled with his shot, the former Missouri star was averaging an efficient 16.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
That should be enough for him to get a run with the NBA squad.
Jordan McRae (No. 58 to the Philadelphia 76ers) has been even better. Only Glen Rice Jr. and Tim Hardaway Jr. have scored more points per game, and McRae's numbers have come while shooting 50 percent from the field and drilling six of his 16 attempts from downtown. He's hit shots out of all half-court situations, and he's consistently shown an ability to get to the rim and draw contact, even if he's not named after his father.
How about Russ Smith?
The diminutive floor general from Louisville is making New Orleans Pelicans fans forget about Pierre Jackson, leading the Vegas competition with 6.4 assists per game. For a No. 47 pick, that ain't too shabby, especially when accompanied by 16.0 points and 5.0 rebounds during the average outing.
However, no second-round pick has been more impressive than Nick Johnson, whom the Houston Rockets stole at No. 42. He hasn't been able to match the triple-double exploits from the Orlando Summer League, but Johnson is still averaging 11.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in Vegas.
Shabazz Napier Not on Schedule
Apparently, LeBron is not the best evaluator of talent.
It's obviously far too early to put the brakes on the Shabazz Napier hype train, but Las Vegas Summer League hasn't exactly helped him assert himself at the NBA level. Nothing that he's done has been particularly impressive, and all the positives come with caveats.
Napier has averaged 10.3 points per game through his first four outings in Vegas with the Miami Heat, but he's shot only 27.7 percent from the field, lowlighted by a 2-of-16 brick-fest against the Washington Wizards that was followed up by a 5-of-18 outing against the Wiz just two days later.
He's been far too reliant on his perimeter jumper, making just five of his 20 shots from beyond the arc in Sin City.
How about his passing?
The point guard has averaged 2.8 assists per game during his Vegas appearance, but those are offset by 3.5 turnovers during the typical outing. Clearly, that's not a good assist-to-turnover ratio.
While Miami still hasn't signed a point guard in free agency, other than Mario Chalmers, to team up with Norris Cole and Napier, it's abundantly clear that the latter has a great deal of developing left to undergo before becoming an NBA-caliber contributor. Especially because his Vegas struggles are coming on the heels of a similarly lackluster stint in Orlando.
Utah Jazz Are Worth a Watch
The Utah Jazz aren't going to be very good, but at least they're going to be entertaining. Wildly entertaining even, assuming you enjoy watching young players who could go off at any minute.
During Las Vegas Summer League, the Jazz have been giving heavy minutes to four players who look likely to receive substantial playing time during the regular season—Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood and Rudy Gobert.
And every one of them is going to be worth watching.
Burke didn't have a particularly impressive rookie season in Salt Lake City, but he's still brimming over with offensive potential. He was a floor general in the truest sense of the positional moniker during his time at Michigan, invoking legitimate comparisons to Chris Paul (a poor man's version, but still a version).
He hasn't found his shot in Vegas, but the confidence and desire are clearly there.
As for Exum, the Australian rookie is clearly going to require a lot of development. He's quite raw, but every once in a while, he makes you realize exactly why he was thought so highly of heading into the 2014 NBA draft. Of course, he's averaging just 7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
"With [Exum], he has so many expectations and so much pressure, I try to relieve some of it. He's got so much potential, I'm just going to have to be that leader and continue to mentor him and get him going," explained Burke, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt.
However, that's not it.
Rodney Hood has been quite spectacular, averaging 13.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 42.1 percent from the field, 35.7 percent beyond the arc and 90.0 percent at the charity stripe. He, even after a disappointing final game against the Portland Trail Blazers, might make more of an impact than Exum as a rookie.
Plus, how can we forget about Rudy Gobert?
His mile-long arms would reach over and slap us if we did. The second-year big man has boatloads of potential, and he's already terrorizing shooters who dare enter the paint, rejecting 2.5 blocks per contest. Only Cole Aldrich (just one game played) and Justin Hamilton have averaged more shots blocked.
Utah will lose plenty of games in 2014-15, but at least the young guns will get run and show glimpses of why they're so highly regarded, if only in spurts.
Doug McDermott's Scoring Will Translate
Just in case you weren't aware, Doug McDermott is quite adept at scoring the basketball.
He was completely dominant at the collegiate level, averaging the top number in the nation as a senior by posting 26.7 points per game at Creighton. And now, that scoring prowess is translating to the next level, just as it should when he transitions from summer-league play to the regular season.
Through four games (he was a coach's scratch in Game 5), McDermott averaged 18.0 points per game, and those are coming on 44.2 percent shooting from the field, 44.4 percent from downtown (on 6.8 shots per contest, no less) and a 95.7 percent clip at the free-throw stripe.
As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney describes, he's already terrifying defenses, just by stepping onto the court:
Doug McDermott has yet to play an NBA game, but one can already trace his sphere of on-court influence. When the 6-foot-8 forward comes curling around a screen at the Summer League, defenders abandon their principles in a moment of pure panic. When McDermott hunkers down into a screen, he nags at the attention of multiple opponents. He is so efficient with his timing and his movements that every step must be followed closely, lest the ball swing his way and splash through the net in a single, fluid instant.
"College is kind of a slower process, but in the NBA, 24 seconds goes by fast," the scoring phenom said to Mahoney. "You have to be able to think on your toes and make quick reactions on defense. It's something I'm still trying to adjust to."
He's doing more than adjusting; he's forcing Tom Thibodeau's hand.
The Chicago Bulls head coach is usually quite hesitant to give rookies an extended run, but he might have to make an exception for this one.
Better Late Than Never?
There have been plenty of players who've shown steady improvement throughout their summer-league stints. There have also been plenty of players who've improved their efficiency.
But nobody has gotten steadily better and been more efficient than Donatas Motiejunas, the soon-to-be third-year prospect for the Houston Rockets.
Indeed, Motiejunas has easily been one of the sneaky-best players of the lot, averaging 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds on a cartoonish 64 percent from the field, the highest mark of any summer-league player attempting 50 or more shots.
What's more, the skilled Lithuanian saved his best for last, tallying 19 points and 13 rebounds on 6-of-10 shooting in Houston's 78-71 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night.
At 23 years old, Motiejunas might be peaking at just the right time. And while his last two seasons in Houston haven't seen the 7'0" big man garner anything more than spot minutes, his unique, floor-spacing skill set is right in line with Houston's offensive philosophy.
The D-League Is Becoming a Valid Springboard
Looking past the myriad of players who are attempting to make the transition from the D-League to the sport's highest level, there are two standouts who are legitimizing the NBA's minor leagues as a springboard to getting drafted and finding success.
Glen Rice Jr. played for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers before he was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 35 in the 2013 NBA draft, and he's excelled this summer. He didn't do much as a rookie in the nation's capitol, playing in only 11 games and largely failing to spend much time on the court, but you wouldn't know it this summer.
Over five incendiary games, the young Wizard led all summer-league players in scoring, putting up 25.2 points per game (including a whopping 36 in Washington's thrilling 95-94 triple-overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night) while shooting 51 percent from the field. On top of that, he's added 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 dimes per contest.
And, as The Washington Post's Michael Lee explained after Rice dropped a game-high 22 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he's scoring in a variety of ways:
Rice found his shooting stroke early against Minnesota — which was coached by former Wizards assistant Ryan Saunders — scoring his first 16 points on just six shots. He displayed his entire offensive arsenal, pulling up for quick three-pointers in transition and using his strength to barrel his way inside for bruising layups and tough hanging floaters.
Rice isn't the only alum making the D-League proud, though. P.J. Hairston is doing the same thing with the Charlotte Hornets, fresh off becoming the first D-Leaguer in history to be selected in the first round of an NBA draft.
Hairston got off to a rough start, going 2-of-16 from the field in his first game for the former Bobcats. But, showcasing his maturity, he's rebounded nicely in each of the four games since.
During those final outings, the sharp-shooting wingman has averaged 18.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while shooting 36.4 percent from the field (dragged down by a 4-of-18 performance against the Dallas Mavericks) and 41.3 percent from beyond the arc.
He's definitely not afraid to shoot the ball.
Ivan Johnson Is Still Ivan Johnson
Ivan Johnson is a legend.
He may not be the most skilled basketball player, and he doesn't even have a guaranteed spot in the NBA after largely failing to impress while playing with the Dallas Mavericks in Las Vegas, but he's still a legend.
Why? Because he's an absolutely terrifying presence on the basketball court, a chiseled man who isn't going to back down from any challenge. He's been banned from playing in Korea, found himself ejected from countless games, inspired this hilarious Grantland series and continued to play just like you'd expect from Ivan Johnson.
Thus far, his only NBA experience comes with the Atlanta Hawks, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a rabid Hawks fan (yes, they exist) who won't get excited as soon as they hear this forward's name.
Well, Ivan Johnson was Ivan Johnson in Vegas.
Not when he was brutally posterized by Cleanthony Early of the New York Knicks, but when he was ejected in the fourth quarter of a game against the Charlotte Hornets. After falling/getting pushed into the stanchion, he stared at the referee until he was tossed from the contest.
Except he didn't just stare. Instead, he yelled "Really, [word I can't print here, but one that has 12 letters and evokes images of a female parent]?"
You keep being you, Ivan.