NBA fans, rejoice — summer basketball is officially underway! After two stops in Utah and Sacramento, the granddaddy event of them all kicked off in Las Vegas on Friday. While the NBA Draft’s top prospects like DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr. have all made their formal debuts already, there’s little reason to be concerned or worried about anything they do over the next week or so.
However, there are plenty of players worth keeping an eye on as this tournament progresses between now and July 17. Whether you’re examing potential franchise cornerstones taking the next step or watching previously drafted newcomers just trying to get their feet wet, there are some incredible storylines running throughout Vegas. It was difficult to narrow the list down to just six names, but look for these standouts in the box scores and on your televisions — they’ll be ones with the most to gain from a strong summer session.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have always loved Caris LeVert, the multi-positional slasher that’s now headed into his third NBA season. As the Nets suffered through another injury-riddled campaign — including long-term maladies to both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell — it was LeVert who helped steady the ship at the point guard position. Last year, LeVert averaged 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 34.7 percent from three-point range — which was an improvement, sure, but perhaps not as large a leap as many expected. Brooklyn brought a young roster with little NBA experience outside of former rookie Jarrett Allen to Las Vegas, so the onus will be on LeVert to be aggressive, control the tempo and, more or less, dominate.
Although he’s still looking to be more consistent, LeVert can absolutely (and efficiently) torch teams on any given night. In one breakout performance in 2017-18, LeVert dropped 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in a narrow victory against the Miami HEAT. The Nets have plenty of intriguing pieces — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Spencer Dinwiddie come to mind as well — but LeVert is the type of do-it-all glue guy that the franchise desperately needs to pan out.
If LeVert is ready to take that third-year leap, we’ll likely see him take Las Vegas by storm… well, once he plays. LeVert did not log time during Friday’s loss to the Orlando Magic — but he’ll lead the way soon enough.
Malik Beasley, Denver Nuggets
There’s no time like the present and it would behoove Malik Beasley to make some big-time waves out west. Beasley, the No. 19 overall pick in 2016, has played minimally over his first two seasons, typically stuck behind veteran stalwart Wilson Chandler. With Chandler moving to the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this week, Beasley should get his long-awaited chance to bloom in Denver — unfortunately, it may be the best and only shot he’ll ever get. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged just 3.2 points over 9.4 minutes per game in 2017-18, but he flat-out knows how to score.
During his one season at Florida State, Beasley pulled down 15.6 points and 5.3 rebounds on 47.1 percent from the floor — so there’s some scoring precedence on his resume already. He’ll turn 22 years-old shortly after Thanksgiving and there are minutes to be had with Will Barton joining the starting five as well. Flanked by Monte Morris and Tyler Lydon in Vegas, it’ll be up to Beasley to assert himself and prove that he deserves a place in head coach Mike Malone’s young, athletic rotation. During Friday’s win over the Timberwolves, Beasley registered 10 points, five rebounds, threes assists and one block on 30 percent shooting.
Willy Hernangomez, Charlotte Hornets
Last season, Willy Hernangomez was freed from the metaphorical jail cell of the Knicks’ bench… and went right into another tough situation behind future Hall of Famer Dwight Howard.
But with the center’s recent trade to the Nets, Hernangomez will only have to deal with Cody Zeller, theoretically, on his long, winding quest for consistent playing time once again. His second-half numbers with the Hornets were both promising and underwhelming at times — but if you rewind to his rookie year with New York, it reveals a far more talented prospect. Over 22 starts to end the 2016-17 campaign, Hernangomez averaged 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, capable numbers that would propel the Spaniard into the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Now, Hernangomez has the fortune to start his first full season in Charlotte off on the right foot by bossing these summer games. At 24 years-old, there’s plenty of basketball left for the former second-rounder, but the Hornets would love to get a taste of the new Hernangomez in Vegas over the next week. There’s no reason why the 6-foot-11 center can’t use his energetic, reliable skill set to truly breakout in 2018-19 and beyond — particularly so if he keeps trying to expand his range as well.
He got the fresh start that he so badly wanted last season, but this is his biggest opportunity to make good on the Hornets’ front office faith. In Charlotte’s one-point victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, Hernangomez starred with 16 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in 28 minutes — an ideal takeoff for the promising center.
Cedi Osman, Cleveland Cavaliers
With the Cavaliers potentially poised to hit the reset button, there’s a golden ticket chance for Cedi Osman to own this upcoming revamp. Understandably, there’s a bit of hyperbole in that statement — but the gifted athlete could be a true building block in a post-LeBron era. Naturally, most casual onlookers will find themselves enamored with Collin Sexton this week, but Osman’s physicality will turn heads undoubtedly. With an innate scoring prowess and high basketball IQ, Osman could be head coach Tyronn Lue’s starting small forward moving ahead — with or without a total blowup of the roster.
While his per game statistics aren’t noteworthy just yet, the 23-year-old turned in a handful of incredible one-off performances. The most impressive single-game output came when Osman tallied 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals on 2-for-5 from three-point range in a 16-point victory. After expecting to ride the bench for much of the season in 2017-18, Osman competed in a remarkable 61 games for the Cavaliers and even earned some postseason minutes as well.
During their Vegas opener, Osman finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four steals to lead the current Eastern Conference champions to a win over the Washington Wizards. Needless to say, if Osman can bring that bucket-getting tenacity all summer, he’ll be a fan favorite just about everywhere before long.
Jonah Bolden, Philadelphia 76ers
Although he was asked to spend a season overseas, Jonah Bolden — one of the most anticipated sleepers from the 2017 NBA Draft — is finally here and ready to play. Not only will he exhibit his skills in Vegas, but Bolden himself plans to stay with the 76ers through the season, no matter what happens during these summer exhibitions.
On Friday, Bolden tallied six points and six rebounds on 2-for-6 from the field, stating afterward that he felt the excitement, nerves and butterflies — “everything, all in one.” Over 29 EuroLeague contests in 2017-18, the playmaking Bolden notched 6.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals in just 21.1 minutes per game. If he can provide those hustle-worthy numbers for a well-built Philadelphia squad, he’ll be the perfect fit.
At 6-foot-10, the Australian big man joins a crowded rotation under head coach Brett Brown, but his high-ceiling skill set remains evident. He’s got some distance to go on his three-point shooting (31.9 percent), still, Bolden appears to be molded for the modern NBA landscape. Although he won’t be usurping Joel Embiid or Dario Saric’s minutes anytime soon, Bolden could feasibly surpass Amir Johnson or Nemanja Bjelica by year’s end.
For this rookie, the road to that long-term reality starts in Las Vegas.
Harry Giles, Sacramento Kings
Last but not least, there’s Harry Giles — an uber-athletic competitor just itching to begin his NBA career. Giles, a once top-rated high school prospect, underwent surgery on his left knee in 2013 and on his right is 2015, even adding another procedure to the former in the fall of 2016 — a necessary move that would cut his single collegiate season in half. After a cautious freshman season at Duke, the mysterious and risky Giles slipped to No. 20 overall, where the Sacramento Kings were more than happy to trade for his rights on draft night.
With the Kings in the Western Conference basement — and as more franchises decide to be more forward-thinking in regards to long-term rehab — Giles would eventually sit out the entire 2017-18 season. Despite playing in 26 games for Duke, there’s not much of a statistical backlog to go off for Giles — 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game — but the 6-foot-11 challenger has the chance to a play an important role in Sacramento this season. In three California Classic matchups, Giles averaged 9.3 points, six rebounds and a block over 33 minutes per game — not earth-shattering by any means, but a certainly respectable start nonetheless.
Expectations should be tempered following more than a full calendar year without serious in-game action, but Giles has all the tools to be a difference-maker right away. Alongside Marvin Bagley III, the Kings will hope they’ve finally found their frontcourt centerpieces of the future — now it’s just up to Giles to run with the opportunity.
Of course, it’s difficult to make any quantifiable conclusions off of summer basketball without any real stakes, but context is everything. From third-year grinders to rookie-season debuts, each player on this list is at a defining point in their career. At the end of the day, these six competitors likely won’t be the headline-grabbers in Las Vegas, but they’ve definitely earned the right to some extra eyeballs as well — but now that they have our attention, what will these blossoming contributors do with it?
NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?
The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?
What’s The Hurry?
The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.
While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.
There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Kawhi Wants His Own Team
It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.
According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.
There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.
If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.
Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money
Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.
Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.
While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.
If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?
Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.
That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?
The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.
Are The Raptors The front Runners?
In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.
That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.
League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.
The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.
Training Camp Is The Real Deadline
While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.
The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.
There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.
While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.
The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.
It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.
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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes
Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.
Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.
Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.
We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.
It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.
“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”
You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.
In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.
So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?
“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”
Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.
“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”
Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.
Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.
“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.
“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”
As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.
But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.
NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year
After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.
The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.
But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.
This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.
“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”
Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.
His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.
“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.
“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”
It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.
He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.
“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”
While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.
For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.
“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”
And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.
“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”
He’s certainly off to a good start.