Within the yearly NBA lexicon, “Summer League means nothing” is just a hair less popular than, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
It’s an age-old adage, rooted in observable fact. The list of guys who lit it up in Vegas for a summer or two before never being heard from again in NBA circles is nearly endless, and it’s almost as easy to find a number of doe-eyed 19-year-olds straight out of college who couldn’t do much in their first summer of action but still managed to become quality rotation players or better.
The mantra rings truer on the positive side of things than the negative side, however, and it’s through this lens that we can begin to parse a few details. It’s not surprising when D’Angelo Russell or Devin Booker put up big numbers with ease as second-year lottery picks with a full NBA season under their belts; when others in a similar situation badly struggle, however, it’s a warning light. Combine this with visual indicators and a few other telltale signs, and in reality it’s much easier to assess which guys are hurting their full-time NBA chances at Summer League than which are helping them.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of guys who haven’t lived up to expectations on this stage.
James Young, Boston Celtics
Now in his second Summer League appearance and set to enter his third NBA season, the 17th overall pick from 2014 has consistently failed to make an impact even at the Summer League level. He shot just 13-for-48 from the field in all summer competition in 2015, and his 14-for-39 showing this summer between Sin City and Utah brings his grand total over two summers of play to a gross 31 percent. Somehow, he’s actually shooting a better percentage on 138 field goals in the regular NBA than he is during a much easier competition.
It’s far from just a small-sample size thing, too. Young is frequently just invisible on the court, going long stretches where it’s far too easy to forget he’s even out there. He has the body to be at least a solid defender, with 6’6 height and a 7’0 wingspan, but has never shown the effort or mental capacity at any professional level. His off-ball defense ranges from “slow to react” to “flat-out disinterested.”
He hasn’t developed his body much (if at all) since entering the league over two full years ago, and hasn’t added any ball skills whatsoever to the shooter reputation that put him in the first round to begin with. Young has totaled just 10 assists in the same number of summer games over the last two years.
For a near-21-year-old picked on the fringes of the lottery and now playing mostly against journeymen and even younger players, these are damning realities. Young has managed to hit 40 percent of his three-point attempts this summer, a small boon, but the figure comes on just 17 total tries and puts his utter inability to score from inside the arc in the spotlight; Young has converted just five of his 22 two-point attempts, or under 23 percent. Given Boston’s stocked youth cupboard and his lack of success, he’s in danger of falling out of the league in the near future.
Rashad Vaughn, Milwaukee Bucks
There must be a curse on 17th overall picks or something, because 2015’s selection in the slot has struggled mightily to this point as well. Rashad Vaughn has sandwiched an NBA rookie campaign where he finished with a 4.2 PER (yes, 4.2, easily the worst in the league among players logging at least 1,000 minutes) in between Summer League showings of 36 percent and 34 percent from the field in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Unlike fellow prime number draft pick Young, Vaughn has been asked to do heavy lifting for the Bucks as their primary offensive creator in summer play. He’s taken over 16 shots per game between last summer and this one, clearly stretching the limits of his ability. Like Young, he’s been completely ineffective as a passer, with assist totals that come nowhere near where they should be given how often Vaughn has the ball. All of his numbers this summer look eerily similar to those from a year ago, a decidedly negative sign. He’s connected on just seven of his 30 three-point attempts this year.
Vaughn has a few more things going for him than Young, namely age – Rashad is a full year younger and won’t turn 20 until mid-August. He’s been an acceptable-to-solid rebounder at his position both last year and this one. Vaughn also has been asked to play a summer role that’s likely nowhere close to what his eventual NBA responsibilities would entail (assuming he makes it that far), where Young has largely been doing the same things asked of him in the full-time NBA and is still failing. There’s time yet for Vaughn to make an impact, but his second summer campaign isn’t a very good start.
Tibor Pleiss, Utah Jazz
Pleiss is a different sort of case, both because he doesn’t fit the “former lottery pick who’s multiple seasons in” label and because, on the surface, his production doesn’t seem all that bad. He’s hovered right around the 50 percent mark from the field overall in eight appearances this summer, shooting very well from beyond the arc and the free-throw line (both on tiny samples, but still).
Unlike many of his peers at this event, though, Pleiss is nearly 27 years old and is pretty much finished developing at this point, which puts production that’d be acceptable for certain guys into a different category for him. After a year spent mostly in the D-League, it’s a bit worrisome that Tibor hasn’t been able to make more of an impact among guys typically far less physically developed than himself.
The issues begin on the defensive end, where Pleiss’s gargantuan height and wingspan just haven’t translated into the sort of anchor one hopes for. Even in the D-League and against summer competition, he’s frequently bullied by stronger guys down low and has very little impact defending the rim, even against perimeter players. He lacks the strength (both in his hands, for grip, and in his arms overall) to win his share of contested boards, with most of those he does collect coming purely by virtue of his height advantage. Pleiss simply isn’t mobile enough to defend any high-level pick-and-roll attack or pick-and-pop bigs. The Jazz have been better defensively this summer while he sits, even with likely their weakest roster in years behind him.
Tibor’s offensive template is incredibly desirable in the modern game, but in application it’s less impactful. His strong performance from beyond the arc this summer comes after just a 32 percent showing from there in the D-League, and to this eye it could be a bit of a desert mirage. His shot takes days to load up, and the list of successful NBA marksmen who shoot a ball as flat as Pleiss is pretty short (on many of his attempts the thing literally doesn’t spin, knuckleballing its way to the hoop).
His timing and win rate on the offensive glass leaves something to be desired against NBA athletes, and he turned the ball over more often than he assisted teammates both in the D-League last year and in summer play this year. Huge inconsistencies from game to game over these seven contests showcase a talented guy still struggling to make a solid nightly impact.
Pleiss is an incredibly hard worker with a great attitude toward improvement, but in the context of his play that might actually be a bit of an issue – he really hasn’t gotten much better despite strong intangibles. If his shooting figures from this summer were the real deal long-term, it’d be a different story, but this just doesn’t feel like the case. He’ll be in a fight once again to stay on Utah’s full-time roster, and even if he wins it (he’s probably a favorite to do so at this point), it could be another year bouncing back and forth between the D-League and NBA with at least five names ahead of him on the Jazz’s big depth chart.
The Sacramento Kings
Yeah, a full team gets a failing grade here. After a pretty good summer personnel-wise (for them, at least), the Kings have badly bungled their Summer League team to the point where even the small nuggets to be gained from these games are rendered virtually meaningless.
It would be curious enough if the Kings simply had five centers on their Vegas roster, but it’s outright offensive to the basketball mind to see them playing two and even three of these guys at the same time. There hasn’t been enough room to find minutes for each of 2015 lottery pick Willie Cauley-Stein, 2016 lottery pick Georgios Papagiannis and 2016 late first-rounder Skal Labissiere – so the Kings have just said screw it, we’ll play them all anyway.
Willie Cauley-Stein is not a small forward, guys, and his numbers in particular represent just how strange this looks. Willie has barely cracked 25 percent from the field in four games, forced to stretch his game miles beyond what he should actually be doing in an effort to get each of he, Papagiannis and Labissiere at least 20 minutes a night. Big George has struggled from the field as well, but in either case, how can we have any clue if this is player- or scheme-related?
The Kings have lost each of their four games so far in Vegas, three by double figures, and while this alone isn’t so bad, the way they’ve gone about doing it is just such a silly way for a team to approach summer play. There’s a big difference between extending roles, like most teams do for certain guys at this time of year, and what the Kings are doing. This approach could yield bad habits so easily, and even if it doesn’t, it offers no real benefit. Cauley-Stein, for instance, did perfectly fine in the NBA last year and would almost certainly have been better off staying home and doing team workouts. Not that it’s anything new, but management in Sacramento needs to take a hard look at how they’re operating.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.
Fixing The Detroit Pistons
David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.
We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.
They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.
What Is Working
Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.
If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.
The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.
They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.
What Needs To Change
Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.
Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.
The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.
Focus Area: The Draft
To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.
The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.
Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.
In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.
It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.
The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.