For 11 days, in the desert of Las Vegas, 24 NBA teams vied for the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League Championship. About 300 players took part in the event – some undrafted rookies hoping to get a summer league invite, some overseas rotation players trying to keep their skills sharp and earn another stint in the NBA, some who expect to play major roles for NBA teams this coming season.
For many coaches, summer league is an opportunity to prove their chops and at least exhibit the requisite skill and leadership ability that is required to steer an NBA team through the topsy-turvy terrain that is high-level basketball competition.
In all walks, the competition is quite fierce and while it is normally the man with the numbers who gets the credit, there are a great many whose contributions go largely overlooked. With the NBA naming their All-NBA Summer League First and Second Teams, we pay homage to a few of the other players who caught our eyes for one reason or another.
Isaiah Canaan (Guard, Houston Rockets. 17.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.0 apg): Donatas Motiejūnas, Canaan’s teammate, was named to the All NBA Summer League First Team, but Canaan himself proved that he is capable of being the best player on the floor on any given night. He rarely made poor decisions with the ball and could very often be heard yelling directives at his teammates. The Rockets rarely looked lost on the offensive end during summer play and Canaan had a lot to do with that. Known as a pure shooter, his inefficient 40 percent field goal percentage in Las Vegas was a bit of a surprise, but high-quality shots and efficient basketball are not the hallmarks of summer play. What you look for are players who have potential, and specifically, as it relates to a point guard, one who can control the game and run his team. Hoping for a rotation spot once the season begins, Canaan passed that test with an A-plus.
C.J. McCollum (Guard, Portland Trail Blazers. 20.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.0 apg): After missing significant time due to injury during his rookie year, McCollum’s efficient scoring served as a stark reminder as to why the Blazers opted to select him with the 10th overall pick of the 2013 draft. He got to the basket easily, but still managed to shoot 35 percent from behind the three-point line. He ended the summer league fourth in scoring and showed an all-around versatile offensive game that NBA players often aspire to. With Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews playing the lion’s share of minutes at the guard spots for the Blazers, it may be difficult for McCollum to find consistent minutes during the regular season, but the talent he displayed in Las Vegas will certainly give head coach Terry Stotts something to think about.
Jabari Parker (Forward, Milwaukee Bucks. 15.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.4 apg): There is a reason some have picked Jabari Parker as the player most likely to succeed from this 2014 draft. At this point, his game does not have any discernible weakness that can’t be easily overcome. His length, athleticism, shooting touch and ability to get where he wants on the floor were on fully display over the course of his five games in Las Vegas. We were actually surprised by the ease with which Parker was able to create shot opportunities for both himself and his teammates off of the dribble. When we spoke with him, he noted that he took pride in being a versatile player and believes that with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks will have two players who will be extremely difficult for opposing defenses to stop. We would agree with that assessment.
Andrew Wiggins (Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers. 15.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg): It may be a bit of a cop-out to put the top two picks on our list, but the truth is that they surpassed our expectations of them. Wiggins, defensively, was superb in Las Vegas. It is difficult to remember a player with the length, athleticism and timing that Wiggins possesses, and it is easy to see why the Cavaliers may be reluctant to part ways with the 19-year-old prodigy, even if they are getting Kevin Love in return. While Nerlens Noel was busy swatting shots and disrupting the Cavaliers’ offense, Wiggins made one of the most gorgeous players of the entire summer, spinning away from a double-team and throwing down a monstrous dunk. Though he only appeared in four games, every facet of Wiggins’ potential flashed at some point. It was enough to make onlookers salivate and remind everyone why he was the number one overall pick.
Nerlens Noel (Center, Philadelphia 76ers. 13 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg): It took much longer than anyone expected, but Nerlens Noel has finally seen some NBA action, albeit in summer league. As a young big man in the NBA, there are things that take time to develop. What is most important, however, is whether a young big man can both see the entire floor and move at the speed that is required of an NBA player. In short, Noel passed the eyeball test with flying colors in summer league play. Noel was all over the floor on the defensive end, and managed to capture the imaginations of everyone watching him. He played two games in Las Vegas and four games in Orlando (where he averaged 12.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.3 steals). If both he and Joel Embiid can overcome their health woes and fulfill their potential, the Sixers will truly have something special.
Cleanthony Early (Forward, New York Knicks. 11.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.3 apg): One of six members of Derek Fisher’s summer league team that has a legit shot at being a rotation player come regular season, Early left us with a positive impression. Like two of his predecessors in David Lee and Landry Fields, Early was consistently in the right place at the right time. His confidence manifests itself both in his willingness to communicate and be heard on the floor and in his propensity to attempt to control the game by playing at a breakneck pace. We love his athleticism and floor-running ability, but would like to see him develop one elite-level skill to help him stick in an NBA rotation.
Justin Brownlee (Forward, Charlotte Hornets. 9.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.3 spg): After being invited to training camp by the New York Knicks last year, Brownlee spent time overseas and in the D-League. During seven games in Las Vegas, he put together an overall solid effort and left a positive impression on head coach Patrick Ewing. At times, Brownlee showed both a proficient midrange touch as well as a high defensive I.Q. Very often, as the last line of defense, crisp rotations and intimidating would-be shot makers in the paint provide value to NBA teams that goes largely overlooked. Brownlee looks like an NBA player, though his overall offensive repertoire needs to continue to develop and he needs to show a more fluid post-game.
Since the NBA began playing summer league basketball in Las Vegas in 2004, the interest surrounding the league and its players has grown exponentially. That’s for good reason—the competitiveness and opportunity to see some players who are often lost in the shuffle is quite valuable.
As the NBA offseason continues, jobs were earned and eyes were opened in Las Vegas. And if what we witnessed was any indication of what may be to come, Canaan, McCollum, Parker, Wiggins, Noel and even Early and Brownlee may be making their presences felt on NBA courts not only in the summer, but in the fall and spring as well.
Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics
Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.
Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.
Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.
In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.
Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.
“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.
“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”
The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.
“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.
“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”
Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.
“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”
The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.
“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”
Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.
“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.
“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”
Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.
“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.
“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”
While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.
“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.
“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”
Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.
Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.
Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.
“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.
“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”
You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.
Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.
“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?
“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”
Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.
“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”
NBA AM: Dwight Howard’s Quest For Redemption Begins
Dwight Howard says he has been unfairly blamed for previous shortcomings. In Charlotte, he gets a chance to prove it.
Prior to the start of training camp for the Charlotte Hornets, newly-acquired center Dwight Howard made an appearance at a charitable event for the Boys and Girls Club at a local elementary school. At that event, Howard laid out the stakes for his first season in Charlotte.
“This [is an] opportunity for myself to really get back everything that I would say has been taken away,” said Howard, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.
In an August interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Howard seemed to imply that the primary thing that had been taken from him was a major role in the offense of teams he’s played with since he left Orlando, noting that his shot attempts had decreased from double digits to about six per game in Atlanta.
“I think it’s all opportunity, the system,” Howard told Wojnarowski. “I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”
Earlier this week, Hornets GM Rich Cho told NBA.com that Charlotte was the right place to give Howard that opportunity because of his relationship with coach Steve Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant at two previous stops.
“With the relationship that Cliff has with Dwight, I know ‘Cliff is going to get the best out of him like he has done with past players,” said Cho. The Charlotte GM also went into detail about how the trade for Howard fit the goals the organization set for the offseason.
“When we entered the offseason, there were a number of things we wanted to accomplish,” said Cho. “One was, we wanted to get a rim protector and some shot blocking. Two, we wanted to add some more physicality. And three, we wanted to add a lot more depth overall and improve our bench play.
“So with Dwight, I think we’ve added all those things. He’s a great rim protector and shot blocker. He’s averaged a double-double every year he’s been in the league. It adds a lot of physicality with him going to the starting lineup and moving Cody [Zeller] into a backup role. It also increases our overall depth.”
Controversy has followed Howard after every NBA stop, and his brief stint with the Hawks was no different. ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on a podcast that he was told that a former teammate of Howard celebrated when informed he had been traded to Charlotte. If Lowe’s story is true, it only shows how divided and factional Atlanta’s locker room was last season. Several of Howard’s younger Hawks teammates took to Twitter to refute Lowe’s account, and Howard was voted Best Teammate by Hawks players in the NBA Players Association’s 2017 Players Voice Awards.
— NBPA (@TheNBPA) August 18, 2017
With so many contradictory accounts, it’s understandable why Howard sees a fresh start with the Hornets as an opportunity to counter the narratives that have followed him from stop to stop.
“Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths,” Howard told Wojnarowski.
With that goal in mind, Howard’s quest for redemption got off to a rocky start in Detroit in Wednesday’s season-opening loss to the Pistons. Howard came close to the double-digit shot attempts he craves, hitting five of nine for 10 points and 15 rebounds. Only Kemba Walker (13) and Jeremy Lamb (10) shot the ball more for Charlotte. But Detroit’s Tobias Harris erupted for 27 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists to help the Pistons open the new Little Caesars Arena with a win.
“We’re going to get it right,” Howard said after the loss. “We’ve just got to stay together, stay focused and get Game 2.”
Awaiting the Hornets in that second game for tonight’s home opener are the same Atlanta Hawks that cut him loose after just one season. In addition to trading Howard, Atlanta allowed All-Star forward Paul Millsap to depart to the Denver Nuggets as a free agent. The Hawks appear to be rebuilding, but Atlanta didn’t look like a team aiming for lottery balls in Dallas Wednesday as the team won its season opener. Point guard Dennis Schroder led the team with 28 points and seven assists while rookie John Collins scored 14 with five rebounds off the bench — the highest-scoring debut by a Hawks rookie since Rumeal Robinson in 1990 — including several thunderous dunks.
In the preseason, Collins addressed the low external expectations for the young Hawks.
“It’s on us to do what we need to do to get these wins,” said Collins. “The chemistry’s great. I’m not really too worried about it.”
While chemistry could help the young Hawks exceed expectations, it will play a key role in Howard’s quest to prove that he was not the root of all the ailments of his past teams. Zeller had a breakout season for the Hornets before the Howard trade moved him to the bench. With Cho declaring that Howard addressed most of the team’s offseason goals, Charlotte should be much closer to a finished product than the retooling Hawks.
Howard is in the best possible position to succeed, with a coach that believes in him and the central offensive role he says he’s been denied in the past. Howard has stated his case, and now it’s up to him to prove it on the court.
Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid Are Trying To Run Into The Playoffs
The Sixers are going to get out and run. If they want to make the playoffs, Joel Embiid will have to start catching up.
“We were up on the NBA champions 19 to zero,” Brett Brown said as he recalled his first game as the Philadelphia 76ers head coach back in 2013.
Brown continued his recollection of the events that night, Oct. 30 to be exact, of how a ragtag roster upended LeBron James and the Miami Heat on opening night.
“We won three in a row,” Brown said. “I felt we surprised ourselves and the league. We were in great shape. We were in great cardio shape, we ran.”
Despite a three-game winning streak to start that season, Brown’s Sixers would end the year with just 19 victories. But the head coach kept his team in shape and running, all the way to being the fastest paced team in the league that season.
Present day, nearly four years after the events of Brown’s first night manning the sidelines for Philadelphia, and much has changed with the team. There are new faces, a new attitude, and certain expectations that are developing within the walls of the Sixers’ training facility.
But on the court, not much is changing.
“I feel like that part of it, and the base of it, this year is far superior because of the pieces,” Brown said referring to his offense. “We’ve had however many years to try to have our system in place and coach the coaches. I think from a ‘how do we do things’ perspective, we’re far advanced than that timeframe.”
As Brown kicked off his fifth season at the helm of the Sixers on Wednesday night in the nation’s capital against the Washington Wizards, his team’s play embodied the notion of being superior to years past.
Despite a 120-115 loss to arguably the second best team in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia flashed the promise of the new pieces the team’s head coach boasted about. Making his NBA debut as a 6-foot-10 point guard, Ben Simmons quickly asserted himself in the game and displayed his affinity for grabbing a rebound and beginning a fast break—just as his coach preached.
Against the Wizards, a team with a point guard in John Wall who is known for running himself, the Sixers outscored Washington in fast break points, handily. Although Philadelphia forced just 10 turnovers, they managed to score 23 points off of their opponent’s mistakes. On top of that, they pushed the paced and outscored Washington 19-4 in fast break points.
Things aren’t perfect for the team, however. Regardless of their superiority in comparison to the team and personnel four years ago, the Sixers still feature a rookie point guard in Simmons, as well as another in Markelle Fultz. Youth leads to mistakes. Whether directly caused by the newcomers or not, a bit of sloppiness led to 17 turnovers by Philadelphia on Wednesday night’s opener.
“I still want to have Ben play with a higher pace,” Brown said. “I want to act responsibly at the end of the break where we can be a little more organized, a little bit more disciplined at the end of a break. But putting up 115 points, and I don’t think we played that well offensively, 13 turnovers in the second half, four or five to start the third period. We have the answers to the test. When people say what’s it going to take for you to get into the playoffs, it’s Joel Embiid’s health and we gotta care way better for the ball.”
The biggest question mark for this Sixers team is obviously Embiid’s health. Starting the season on a minutes restriction, Embiid logged just 27 minutes. Still, that was more time than either Embiid for Brown expected.
During the early stages of this season, Embiid’s minutes will be dictated primarily on the big man’s conditioning. For a team that likes to get out and run the way the Sixers do, that could present a few bumps in the road from the get-go in getting Embiid adjusted to the pace of their game.
Monitoring Embiid’s minutes intelligently and effectively is always at the forefront of Brown’s mind, though. Just like the pace of his team’s play.
“I sat down with the sports science people this morning, and they’re very thoughtful with how they come up with this decision in relation to the loading,” Brown said in reference to Embiid’s minutes. “You can judge the loading scientifically in blocks. There was only one section of his loading, his chunk of minutes, that they deemed to be in the high area. It was torrid pace up and down. The other times he came in he played at a reasonable pace.”
Should the Sixers find themselves in a run-and-gun game, be it by their own doing or their opponent’s, Brown thinks Embiid’s minutes could see a drop off from the opening night number in those instances.
“We’ve done two things,” Brown said. “We still have his health at the forefront, and selfishly for me, and the team, and Jo, you’re able to get maybe eight more minutes than you thought you were gonna get from him.”
While the Sixers look to progress through the season, so will Embiid and his minutes total. Brown isn’t going to change the principles of his offense, with Simmons at the helm he’ll look to enhance the pace at an even higher rate. For the 7-foot-2 center, getting back into game shape so he can consistently run with his team is the most important thing for Philadelphia at the moment.
“It was all on me,” Embiid said about his minutes total. “The way I looked, if I wasn’t tired I was going to play. It’s just about the way I feel. If I look tired, they’re gonna take me out. If I don’t look tired, I’m gonna stay in and keep playing. I thought yesterday I was fine. There was a couple stretches that I was a little bit tired, but it’s all about pacing myself.”
As Brown mentioned, Embiid is Philadelphia’s answer to the playoff questions. For the 76ers, and Embiid himself, pacing will become the staple of their study guide over the course of this season.