Summer League might be ridiculous and meaningless but let’s pretend that it’s not!
For the lottery picks, Las Vegas Summer League is just another line on their offseason checklist, right there between “Rise and Grind” and “Beach Vaca”. They show up to assert their talent and test the work they put in earlier in the summer. Then with easy minds, they head off into America’s Playground to dine at that Thomas Keller joint in the Venetian, hit the Cosmopolitan to sip cocktails with their special ladies inside the giant chandelier at The Chandelier, and maybe round out the night by taking in one of the many fine Vegas shows (Meyers Leonard found Cirque Du Soleil’s “One” to be a spellbinding marriage of Michael Jackson’s musical genius with stunning visual exploration of the human potential! …or at least that’s the vibe I got from him on Twitter). But what of the second round picks and undrafted rookies and non-rostered invitees, for whom the constant impending doom of their basketball career doesn’t go down so well with a specialty cocktail and perfectly cooked Idaho trout atop haricots verts, toasted almonds, and beurre noisette? For a few, Summer League is the place to redefine their positional designation and work on a new role that their coaches see them filling in the upcoming season. But most arrive in Vegas like the flyover fodder from the penultimate shot of Scorsese’s Casino, anonymous and characterless and trampling over each other for the brief chance at fortune, clinging to dreams and hoping they would never have to come back.
Let’s evaluate how they did, shall we?
Despite his occasional moments of Spanish flair amid constant heady play, Claver still cannot escape his strangely incessant blandness. The 6’9’’ Valenciano just needs a bit more saffron in his paella, so to speak. Last season, Claver filled in with varying adequacy (a compliment for a player on last year’s bench) at a few different spots, so fans hoped to see him carve out a clear identity for the upcoming year as a floor-spacing jump shooter with decent skills elsewhere, especially given Claver’s said summertime commitment to improving his shooting stroke. Instead, Claver averaged 5.3 points per game in Vegas on 25% shooting from the floor and 16.7% shooting from deep (he was 2-12 on 3-pointers for the week… woof) but he actually played pretty well in other areas. Displaying intelligence and a wily game, Claver looked fairly solid defensively, and on offense showed good vision and willingness as a passer, even developing a nice chemistry with Thomas Robinson that hopefully will carry into the season (they also make a great action-comedy duo: One’s a 6’10” intimidator with a heart of gold! The other’s an oft-ignored swingman dedicated to keeping alive a dying language from the Old World!). Style-wise, Claver’s strange blend of Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum still leaves him in the bizarrely boring space as a Luke Walton type of savvy player with random alley-oop flourishes, or like how every white male above the age of 18 describes their weekend game: “yeah, I’m a pretty decent defender, kinda scrappy, but I have good vision as a passer and I’m a streaky shooter.” Yet despite his blandness and though he might not be growing into the role fans had hoped, Claver’s smarts and feel for the game should be enough to find some minutes off the bench again and maybe develop into something more exciting down the road.
Poor Allen Crabbe, Las Vegas in July can be a particularly unforgiving place to his kind. A classic spot-up shooter, or what the kids call a “3 and D” man, Crabbe relies on the careful patience of his teammates to create his open looks in the half court and their generosity to find him in rhythm. In the cutthroat atmosphere of Summer League though, neither patience nor generosity are in much supply. As a result, Crabbe averaged a meager 4.8 points per game and only shot 23.5% (4-17) from beyond the arc. When the Blazers acquired Crabbe, the 31st overall selection, from Cleveland on draft night and then signed him promptly to a guaranteed contract (rare for a 2nd round pick), the front office obviously expected that Crabbe, who had the best shooting % on uncontested jump shots last year of any player in the entire draft, would be able to contribute immediately as a spot up shooter. Yet in Vegas, Crabbe struggled to hit even his rare open looks and visibly pressed at times — not getting properly set, shooting off balance, etc. — before disappearing for long stretches. The poor shooting percentage is likely just the result of a small sample size (Ben McLemore, the consensus best pure shooting guard in the entire draft, also shot terribly in Summer League) but the disappearances are a bit more concerning given Crabbe’s history in college. At Cal, Crabbe was outplayed for most of his career by homely Jorge Gutierrez (now of the Canton Charge) as Crabbe’s sleepy lack of assertiveness became a point of frustration for both fans and coaches alike (remember that time Cal coach Mike Montgomery hit Crabbe in the chest to wake him up?). Hopefully the small sample size and disorganized environment are to blame for Crabbe’s struggles, but maybe GM Neil Olshey could have waited a little bit longer before giving out that guaranteed contract.
Joel Freeland makes consistent mediocrity look like solid play (or maybe he makes consistently poor play look like mediocrity?). Each game in Vegas, a new crop of opponent big men would pick Freeland over Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard as the defender they would try to isolate and exploit to impress their way into a roster spot. D-League centers looked at Freeland with the hungry eyes that a lionness might set on a sickly wildebeest. Yet each time, Freeland admirably held his own and while Alex Oriakhi isn’t exactly Roy Hibbert, Freeland’s defense had to be seen as a strength of his Summer League performance. On offense, apart from a couple fleeting memories of an open dunk and something that resembled a made jump hook, I can’t really remember much of anything that Freeland did on that end (NBA.com tells me he averaged 5.0 points and 5.6 rebounds per game). However, that also means that unlike Leonard, Freeland avoided the memorable failures, and that is where his consistent mediocrity starts to look like a strength as well. Whereas Leonard’s wild inconsistency may lead coach Terry Stotts to avoid relying on Leonard for any important stretches, Freeland’s steady no-risk, no reward style of play might make him more likely to steal those 5-10 minutes of reserve center clock.
Terrel Harris vs. Cedric Jackson
While Harris still has a roster spot and Jackson was just an invitee who also played in the Orlando Summer League with the Miami Heat, their similar places in the Summer League playing rotation suggested that the Blazers were auditioning both for that last roster spot. A 6’3” point guard from Cleveland State who played last year with the New Zealand Breakers, Jackson was often the first guard off the bench. Lacking the athleticism and scoring talent of his more pedigreed teammates, Jackson looked as solid a playmaker from the point guard spot as either C. J. McCollum or Will Barton, and maybe more comfortable in that role than both. Harris, meanwhile played mainly on the wing, using his athletic ability to stay active and aggressive on both ends. Harris found less time though as the week went on until he starred in the consolation game when the rostered players all sat, scoring 25 points on 11-19 shooting. Harris’s advantage of a contract, if not guaranteed, should still be enough to give him the edge over Jackson. However, Harris appeared to be more of a pure scorer, but not one good enough to score against NBA defenders, while Jackson’s ability as a facilitator may translate better for the role of practice player and catastrophic emergency guard. Either way, whoever ends up with that final roster spot will undoubtedly spend almost all of their time either inactive and wearing business casual behind the bench, or back in Boise, fighting more anonymous faces for another chance at fortune.