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: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role
Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.
It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.
Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.
Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.
Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.
“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”
The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.
His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.
“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”
Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.
In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.
“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”
Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.
“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”
The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”
With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.
By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.
For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.
A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.
6. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)
Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.
This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.
Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.
Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.
Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.
The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.
In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.
After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.
Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.
Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.
Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.
Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.
At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.
The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.
Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.
As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.
After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.
No big deal.
That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.
Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.
Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.
The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.
James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.
Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.
What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.
On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.
LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.
NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?
The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?
At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work
The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?
Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.
All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:
Not Enough Touches
The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.
That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.
It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.
That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.
Russ Has To Be Russ
When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.
The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.
Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.
Where’d Offense Go?
The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.
Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.
It’s Not A Selfish Problem
The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.
Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.
But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.
All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.
It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.
That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.
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