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2018 NBA Summer League: Studs and Duds

Ben Dowsett breaks down the early studs and duds from 2018 NBA Summer League on the ground in Las Vegas.

Ben Dowsett

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With NBA Summer League in full swing, spanning smaller tournaments in Utah and Sacramento plus the main event featuring all 30 teams in Las Vegas, Basketball Insiders has you covered. Today, we’re taking a look at the early studs and duds of summer – guys who, during the earliest and generally most important part of the tournament, are either impressing beyond expectations or really disappointing.

This can be a tough area to parse at times. Statistics are only of limited use in small samples like summer tournaments. The very best performers will stick out here, and extreme outliers can definitely tell us something, but it also takes a careful eye to identify which guys are meeting the kinds of expectations placed on them – which are often very different from team to team and player to player. With that said, let’s dive in.

Studs

Trevon Bluiett, New Orleans Pelicans

Bluiett, an undrafted 23-year-old out of Xavier, had declared for both the 2016 and 2017 drafts before withdrawing and returning to school. He was passed over after running out of eligibility, but he’s quickly making himself known in Las Vegas.

Bluiett burst onto the scene for the Pelicans, scoring a blistering 50 points in his first two games – both off the bench, no less. He put 24 on the Raptors on just 10 shots and 19 minutes on the court, canning 6-of-8 from the three-point line. A day later, he went 6-for-10 from deep en route to 26 points in 21 minutes in a rout of the Miami HEAT.

The 6-foot-5 shooting guard cooled off a bit in his third outing, with “just” 13 points, but he’s still shooting 60 percent for the tournament and has committed just three total turnovers in three games.

“Just playing regular basketball,” Bluiett told Basketball Insiders after his second game. “Just playing in the flow.”

Bluiett is an unrestricted free agent at the moment, and it’ll be interesting to see if a team looks his way. He’s a bit on the older side for a summer league breakout at 23, but the league has begun to come around more recently to guys in that vein.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Young is a perfect example of the way stats can, at times, be misleading in summer tournaments like these – particularly shooting numbers, which are prone to big swings over tiny samples. The fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft has really struggled shooting the ball, both in Utah and in Las Vegas, but while there’s certainly cause for concern there, it’s the other elements of his game that have us listing him as a stud here.

Through two games in Vegas, Young has racked up 14 assists compared to just six turnovers, an excellent ratio – and one that’s more sustainable over the long run than missed shots that he’s shown he’s capable of making. He’s getting to the free throw line a ton, with 29 attempts in five summer games across both venues, another positive and generally sustainable sign. And while there aren’t any stats to back it up at the summer league level, Young has shown a strong work ethic and mostly decent positioning defensively, a surprise benefit for a guy many projected to struggle heavily on that end against NBA athleticism.

There’s still some reason be skeptical about the shooting, and perhaps about Young’s ability to consistently create separation against strong NBA defenders. But some of the worries at this point are overstated.

Duds

Dragan Bender, Phoenix Suns

The fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft, Bender never really stood out at his first two summer leagues – but he is this time around, and for all the wrong reasons.

Remember how shooting stats can be deceiving in these tournaments? Well, Bender is pushing a pretty sizable sample at this point and challenging that notion. Through his first two games in Vegas this year, he’s now shooting an embarrassing 32.6 percent from the field in 12 summer league games dating back to 2016. This year has been his worst showing of the three, as well – as of this writing, he had attempted just 12 shots and made just two.

Bender isn’t rebounding particularly well, isn’t creating for others, and outside the occasional highlight-reel weak side block, he’s not standing out defensively either. To say this is worrying would be an understatement – Bender is a third­-year lottery pick playing in summer league, and guys in that position should be dominating. This kind of completely invisible performance should spark some serious concerns about his future in Phoenix if he doesn’t turn it around quickly.

Henry Ellenson, Detroit Pistons

The theme stays consistent here with Ellenson, who like Bender is in his third summer league after going in the top-20 of the 2016 draft. Unlike Bender, Ellenson had at least shown some signs of life in previous years – he averaged 17 points and seven rebounds last year in Vegas on a respectable enough 44 percent shooting, albeit while taking a ton of shots.

This year? He’s chucking to an almost insane level, and it isn’t working out. Ellenson has taken a ridiculous 49 shots in three games, making just 14 of them – that’s 28.5 percent, for the folks counting at home. He’s pulling down boards, which is good, but he’s also turned the ball over a ludicrous 16 times in those three games, or over five times per game.

For a guy like Ellenson, the 18th pick in 2016, this just isn’t good enough. He’s 21 now, older than many of the guys he’s playing against, and this kind of inefficiency is really concerning. The Pistons had better be hoping this is a huge outlier, to say the least.

Keep up with Basketball Insiders through the remainder of 2018 NBA Summer league for more on-site videos, updates and articles.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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Tip-ins and Treys from Around the NBA

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The Butler Has Arrived in Philly

If you’re a Sixers fan you have to be thrilled that their perennial number one picks, borne of spectacular franchise failure, are finally bearing fruit. Joel Embiid has more than lived up to his lofty billing and is averaging over 28 points per game this season while Ben Simmons is emerging as a young superstar in his own right. Although the jury is still out on Markelle Fultz, it appears that he is beginning to assimilate and trying to contribute to his team’s fortunes. But this group of young guns needed a bona fide All-Star veteran to add a maturity component that the team has been missing and they found the perfect complement in Jimmy Butler.

As we all know, Butler was a disgruntled member of the Minnesota Timberwolves and, at age 29, saw his window to compete for a championship in his prime dwindling by the day. Minnesota understood they had two chances of signing Butler after this season, slim and none, and Slim just left town. Although he has been called everything from feisty to irascible, Butler brings a passion that either turns teammates off or makes them better. It’s a fair assumption that his brand of swagger will have a positive effect on younger players which is why the Philly brass believes he will bring a championship conclusion to The Process.

Of course, it was regrettable that the 76ers had to deal young talent in Robert Covington and Dario Saric but if Philadelphia can lock up Butler to a long-term deal then it will be worth trade. However, if the four-time All-Star decides that the City of Brotherly Love is not his favorite place then it will be a costly one-year rental. Nevertheless, Butler brings the Sixers closer to the NBA Finals if the young blood buys into who he is and what he brings to the table. That question will begin to be answered when he dons a 76ers jersey for the first time on Wednesday night in Orlando.

Sun Setting on Melo in Houston

Carmelo Anthony was brought to Houston as an experienced veteran with enough gas left in the tank to serve in a capacity that is foreign to the 10-time NBA All-Star – role player. But the Houston Rockets have underperformed and underachieved this season as they sit in mid-November as a sub .500 club, a monumental fall from grace after a 65-win campaign last year. After a dismal 1-of-11 shooting night from the field that garnered all of two points in Houston’s 98-80 loss to Oklahoma City, Melo has been a DNP the last two games and it appears that this marriage is headed for an early divorce.

Anthony’s reps are reportedly reaching out to other clubs to see if there will be a taker for the 34-year-old’s services but as of this point, no one is answering the phone. The wheels have come off the wagon and the dynamic in the Western Conference is changing as the best online sportsbooks are dealing the surging Denver Nuggets as 4 ½ point home favorites over the Rockets on Tuesday night. To highlight how far the mighty have fallen, last February these teams met in Mile High and it was Houston that was favored by four and they did not disappoint their backers as they covered the number in a 119-114 victory.

Perhaps it’s just early season jitters for the Rockets and no one would be surprised if James Harden and the boys went on a prolonged winning streak. But right now they are just another struggling group looking to get on the right side of the standings. Whether Carmelo Anthony will be part of that resurgence, if it does indeed occur, is anyone’s guess.

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NBA Daily: A Little Bit Of Trouble In Paradise

Even with all their success, the Warriors’ most recent incident may suggest that there’s something ugly going on internally, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s tragic to see an all-time team crumble from within.

When an empire falls because of its own hubris, it’s dead forever. Teams like the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers are a prime example of a fallen empire because of such. As the Lakers won titles year after year, the tension between the two of them became so palpable that their egos surpassed their talent, infecting their play on the court.

It was a shame that the dysfunction came to a head in 2004 because the Lakers had arguably their most talented team in the Shaq/Kobe era that year. Even with all the drama behind the scenes, they still made the NBA finals. We’ll never know for sure what could have been with the 2003-04 Lakers. What we do know was that everything blew up after that season because their superstars couldn’t stand each other anymore.

Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, we must now ask ourselves: Are we seeing the same thing happen to the Golden State Warriors?

If we’re basing this entirely off the incident that happened both during and after the Warriors and the Clippers squared off on Monday night, then absolutely not.

For those of you who don’t know, multiple Warriors – including Kevin Durant – got heated at Draymond Green after his attempt to be the hero at the end of regulation led to him losing the basketball as time expired. This forced the game into overtime, where the Warriors eventually lost. It was a rather questionable decision on Green’s part because, with all due respect to the three-time NBA All-Star, he had more reliable closers in both Durant and Klay Thompson to pass the ball to and he neglected them.

One thing should be made clear: Occurrences like these are pretty common. Teammates get in fights all the time, and not necessarily because they hate the others’ guts. They get into these little confrontations usually for the love of the game. Emotions understandably ran high after Green tried and failed to be the man as time expired. Certain things were brought up that are definitely worth going over, but this could easily be swept under the rug in a matter of weeks.

However, rumors of a potential Warriors’ self-combustion go all the way back to last June. After Golden State won its second consecutive title and third in the last four years, David West had this to say that caught our attention.

Perhaps not everything was peachy in the Bay Area. West was calling it quits, so there was no need for him to hold anything back. Still, since he wouldn’t elaborate, all he said at that time could be dismissed as mere gossip.

What we had then was smoke. Now we have fire.

Something that’s also got people’s ears burning has been Durant’s caginess surrounding his upcoming free agency this summer. We can’t take that as proof of discord because it doesn’t prove a thing. Everything surrounding Durant’s silence in regards to his future is purely speculative.

Or, it was.

As Durant and Green had their confrontation in the locker room, Green reportedly brought up Durant’s impending free agency this summer. That is very telling of what might be on the Warriors’ minds, or at the very least, Green’s. It’s bothering him that he does not know what Durant plans are this summer. While Green may not be the most likable player in the league, his concerns are understandable. The uncertainty of a team’s long-term future can easily rattle any players’ mind. Just ask Cleveland.

Green could have made a better case for himself had he not reportedly called Durant an expletive name repeatedly. No matter what conclusions you may draw from this, the fact also remains that -after they got all the dirty laundry out – Green was suspended for one game.

Before all of this happened, all of the talks about the Warriors’ possible breakup was a bunch of hot air. Now, we have confirmation that things have gotten a little uneasy.

It’s also a possibility that this one little quarrel is as bad as it gets. Perhaps Green just had to get his concerns about Durant out in the open, and the two of them will cleanly resolve their issues. If this winds up being the height of the tension in Golden State, then this entire matter will be irrelevant as the Warriors pursue their third consecutive championship.

It also sounds impossible that a team that talented that has experienced that much success in the last several years would get sick of playing together. Some may think that what happened with O’Neal and Bryant was just an anomaly, but in recent years, we’ve seen a few elite players opt to leave their original teams in spite of their success.

Just a few months ago, Kawhi Leonard decided he didn’t want to be the face of arguably the league’s most well-run franchise anymore. The year before that, Kyrie Irving was fed up with being the Robin to LeBron James’ Batman despite a championship and two other finals appearances. Should it be mentioned that King James himself left his two previous teams after making the NBA Finals four consecutive times with both of them? Maybe what we’re seeing from this is that success does not always breed happiness and/or loyalty.

Getting back to the Warriors, say this is the first in a long line of public incidents that will compel Durant to leave. That doesn’t mean the end for Golden State. They still have the Splash Brothers, as well as Green. Managing the team without Durant wouldn’t be easy, but they won over 70 games without him three years ago. They’d probably still be a good enough team that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he left.

That is, of course, going off the notion that Durant is leaving this summer, which is by no means set in stone. As cliche as it sounds, we can only wait to see if things get worse from here for the Warriors.

But if things are actually as rocky as they appear, imagine what they could be like when DeMarcus Cousins comes back.

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