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.