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Orlando Summer League: What To Watch For

While we may hold off doing back-flips over everything that takes place during Summer League, there are still several intriguing storylines to monitor while these 10 teams compete in Orlando.

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Perhaps the most vital thing to remember when watching this year’s Summer League action in Orlando and Las Vegas is to not read too heavily into the results, whether extremely positive or disappointingly negative. While this is the first taste of what professional basketball may be like for many players, it is important to maintain perspective regardless of the outcome. Of course, you want to be able to see what the incoming rookie class is all about, and how some of the second and third-year players are progressing; but we shouldn’t hold a great deal of expectation for players that are just a little more than week removed from being drafted into the NBA in many cases.

Not to completely rain upon anyone’s Summer League parade, as it is definitely an exciting time and has naturally developed into a ‘bridge’ from all of the draft and free agency hoopla to this year’s Team USA Blue vs. White Showcase (August 1) which will lead us directly into the FIBA Basketball World Cup Tournament (August 30-September 14).

More than anything, Summer League is a time where players can adjust to the speed and tempo of the game at a level closer in resemblance to NBA basketball while adapting to the lifestyle and opportunities that come along with being a professional athlete. There are, however, some intriguing storylines to keep an eye on throughout the Orlando tournament. Of the 10 teams competing, six were playoff squads (HEAT, Thunder, Pacers, Rockets, Grizzlies and Nets) while the other four (Magic, Celtics, Sixers and Pistons) were in the 2014 NBA Lottery.

Here are some of the bigger names and situations of intrigue:

Can Marcus Smart continue developing his offensive arsenal enough to hit the ground running in Boston?

The Celtics have made it as clear as possible that Coach Stevens intends to play soon-to-be re-signed Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart in the same backcourt at some point, if not immediately upon entering training camp in a couple months. Meaning, Rajon Rondo could be on his way out of Boston once GM Danny Ainge is able to find a suitor and deal of his liking.  Regardless of whether fans are patient, replacing the final core piece of Boston’s most recent title run will come with a certain level of anticipation, if not full-on expectations for the backcourt of the future.

Defensively, there’s no question Bradley and Smart will develop into a highly effective duo. Bradley is already one of the league’s better defenders at the point guard position, and Smart brings the type of intensity and approach Stevens will absolutely love. Although Summer League isn’t likely to solve the concern over how Ainge might find enough shooters and scorers to surround them, it will grant them valuable live-game action for both Smart and second-year center Kelly Olynyk.

Olynyk had a positive rookie season, but actually turned a few heads with his strong finish (16.6 PPG, 7.3 rebounds on 54.7 percent FG in April) to 2013-14. Regardless of what the Celtics do on the free agency market, it would be pivotal for them to enter the year with a viable and established low post threat in a confident Olynyk. That might certainly remove a bit of the pressure on such a young backcourt.

Smart, to his credit, is incredibly head-strong and really seemed to impress the teams he met with throughout the pre-draft process with his maturity and overall eagerness to lead. That type of self-assurance and willingness to do whatever it takes for the betterment of his team should play well within Boston’s locker room, especially when you consider all that Smart brings to the table. He’s a lot more a natural and capable playmaker than some may have anticipated heading into the draft, but continuing to develop his shot from both the mid-range and deep would go a long way toward making it an even smoother transition for the 20-year-old.

Can Nerlens Noel stay healthy and reach his full potential?

For a team in the Sixers coming off a 19-63 season in 2013-14, any bit of good news is welcomed. Holding strong to last year’s plan of selecting a highly-touted -yet injured- prospect, it appears the Sixers eventually plan to pair the 2013 No. 6 overall pick with this year’s No. 3 pick in center Joel Embiid. Although both players are listed as centers, teams have attempted this ‘twin towers’ attack with great success in the past; but these two bigs could possess the most combined athleticism and agility if/when both are fully healthy.

After missing all of what would have been his rookie campaign, Noel hopes to generate some of the magic that a young Blake Griffin brought to a once-destitute Clippers organization when faced with the same scenario. While Griffin’s game has generally been predicated upon his offensive exploits, a suddenly healthy Noel’s greatest impact will likely be on the defensive side of the ball, especially to start his career. Noel is freakishly athletic and long, even for a big man. Part of why several teams were salivating over him even with the knowledge that he would be out for an extended period of time (knee) prior to that draft was due to how much of a destructive force he might one day be for opposing teams’ offenses. His 106 total blocks as a freshman at Kentucky were still good enough for the sixth-most in the country even though Noel (4.4 BPG) played in 10 less games than others within the top-five.

Alongside last year’s Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams, Noel joins a team that is expected to struggle yet again, but one that should also provide plenty of playing time and opportunities to develop and grow from the experience. He’ll pick up buckets in clean-up duty around the rim and undoubtedly in transition opportunities, but Noel (already about 20 pounds heavier than when drafted) will need to continue adding a bit of size and strength in order to avoid being taken advantage of by some of the bigger bodies in the post. He won’t gain and learn all that he needs from one Summer League experience, but this tournament could be exactly the type of jumpstart he may need to simply feel fully comfortable on his legs while facing live action. Noel had a strong debut in his first summer league game, but is rested out of precaution for the second game on Sunday.

Can this young, talented roster in Orlando be one of the best defensive units in the coming years?

The Magic are clearly another team in the midst of a carefully (and successfully) orchestrated ‘youth movement’ as head coach Jacque Vaughn heads into his third year at the helm. They may have only won a combined 43 games over his first two seasons, but GM Rob Hennigan has been able to completely recreate the roster following Dwight Howard’s departure that came just after Vaughn’s hiring.

Nikola Vucevic is expected to return to start the season after missing the last few games of 2013-14 with what was diagnosed as a “sore Achilles,” and he’ll be joined by Victor Oladipo as the only starters we can be sure of at this point. Although Oladipo played the point guard position at times last season, and the team picked up shooting guard Evan Fournier in a trade, recently drafted No. 4 overall Aaron Gordon and No. 10 overall Elfrid Payton are expected to work themselves into starting positions at some point between now and the end of next season.

Like Oladipo, Gordon is seen as the type of athlete that could effectively transition into either forward spot; Payton has already been referred to as the “point guard of the future.” Payton is considered one of the best perimeter defenders in this draft class, while Gordon could be the best athlete and most versatile defensive weapon in what was a remarkably impressive group. Add those two ball-hawks to a high-intensity player like Oladipo and the rest of Vaughn’s scrappy bunch, and it really shouldn’t be a shock if this core eventually develops into one of the league’s premier defensive rotations within a a couple seasons and for years to come.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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