Summer Reviews: The Rest of ‘Em

|

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?

 

Victor Claver

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.

 

Allen Crabbe

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

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.

Summer Reviews: Will Barton

|

Summer League might be ridiculous and meaningless but let’s pretend that it’s not!

Sometimes when professional basketball teams that are knocking on the door of the playoffs have an erratic young player who struggled for minutes in his rookie year due to his fondness for unpredictable, zany drives into traffic and random, ill-fated jumpers from strange spots on the court, those teams decide that the best route to take with that player is to put him at point guard, run the offense through him, and rely on him as a playmaker to facilitate for his teamma—wait, what’s that? That’s not what teams sometimes do? Oh, you’re saying that’s not what they ever do? Really, ever? Hmm…well, let us put away old conventional wisdom along with our Encyclopedia Britannica set and move into the postmodern age of basketball philosophizing because Will Barton at point guard is totally a thing now! 

The 40th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Barton spent his rookie season playing almost exclusively at the off-guard spot. Though his effervescent energy and conspicuous style made him impossible to ignore, his raw inconsistency – to put it mildly – led to limited minutes and a couple short stints in the D-League with Boise’s Idaho Stampede. So coming into Summer League, Trail Blazers fans hoped to see Barton develop an attractive jumper, smooth out the bizarre dribbling forays to seemingly nowhere, start sporting a Windsor Knot, cop that sensible Volvo wagon with the side airbags, and a find a nice cul-de-sac in West Linn to settle down. But the Portland basketball brain trust, beautiful visionaries that they are, decided instead to let their creatively minded Memphis Tiger run free and celebrate idiosyncrasy rather than eradicate it. Or maybe they believed that giving Barton a role that would build on his strengths (dribbling, creativity) rather than dwell on his weaknesses (unpredictability, strange impulsiveness) could give him confidence, aid in his development, less awkwardly fit him into the team concept, and maybe even turn some of those perceived weaknesses into strengths along the way. Regardless of the motives, the Great Barton at Point Guard Experiment kinda sorta worked.

Finishing the week averaging 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.8 steals in 30.8 minutes per game, Barton’s numbers were solid but don’t quite reflect his impact on the games. After C. J. McCollum handled more of the point guard duties in the first contest, an 82-69 loss to the Phoenix Suns, Barton took greater ownership over that role as the week went on (apart from the third game which Barton missed due to a right knee strain). While the offense appeared to stagnate some under McCollum, Barton helmed a visually more dynamic attack with better movement and teammate involvement. As McCollum struggled with hard traps, the 6’6’’ Barton used his height to easily pass over double teams, while also slipping a few clever bounce passes between the trapping defenders. Even his signature bizarre adventures towards the rim and general unpredictability gave him an unorthodox, Rajon Rondo-esque, ability to break down the defense – that is, if Rondo was being piloted by Nate Robinson. Befitting his “Will the Thrill” moniker, he still displayed those typically Barton random moments of explosion, like his impossible block of a wide open Markieff (or was it Marcus?) Morris dunk attempt, and of course, the myriad of body contorting lay-ups. Every Barton finish is singular and unique in nature like a snowflake.

NBATV announcer, former Rapid City Thriller, and friend of stylistic rarity Sam Mitchell reveled in his broadcast partner’s comparison of Barton’s game in Vegas to Clippers’ guard, former Trail Blazer, and he of the legendary handle, Jamal Crawford (the patron saint of Seattle basketball, oral history tells of a young Crawford bringing the ball up the court skipping backwards while doing dribbling tricks during games for Rainier Beach High School). But when categorizing Barton, I tend to favor the rapper Method Man’s etymological description of late rapper and fellow Wu-Tang Clan member, Ol’ Dirty Bastard: “There is no father to his style.” Barton’s game is totally unique. It’s as if he fell off the Josh Howard assembly line at some point in his youth, only to be found years later and finished with spare parts in a garage somewhere in a California desert town. He is the rat rod version of Josh Howard and that he somehow makes Howard, the notoriously mercurial guard, conscientious objector to the national anthem, and friend of the green leaf, seem mass-produced should tell you all you need to know about the rare stylistic power of Barton’s kung fu. 

Entering the latter stages of summer as preparation for the upcoming season builds, it will be interesting to see how those prior noted beautiful visionaries within the Blazers coaching staff and front office react to Barton’s relative success as a playmaker in Vegas. Damian Lillard, fresh off his Rookie of the Year season, is firmly entrenched as the starter at the point. But with the rookie McCollum, the aging Earl Watson, and the now strangely more intriguing Barton in the mix, the backup spot appears to be all the way wide open. McCollum’s pedigree, relative consistency, and versatility, should make him the frontrunner for the third guard role, the first guard off the bench to step in for either Lillard at the point or Matthews at the 2. Yet McCollum so far appears more comfortable playing off the ball in more of a scoring role than he does playing as the primary ball-handler and playmaker, which likely will leave some minutes available at the point. Watson is old enough to remember when the likes of REO Speedwagon and Foreigner were dropping new vinyls on Tuesdays, so hopefully he won’t be counted on to provide anything beyond mentorship to the young guards and someone with whom coach, and fellow old-timer, Terry Stotts can discuss things like Gerald Ford’s presidency and the underrated-ness of Alf as an actor. Hence, those open point guard minutes should fall to none other than the pride of B-More, Will Barton. The imagined alternate world of Barton running the show next to McCollum, Victor Claver, Dorrell Wright, and Thomas Robinson is all kinds of wonderful and endlessly exciting, although when framed in reality, it becomes rather frightening. But whatever, the time has come to ride or die. The violent realization of progress does not wait for comfort. This year, the revolution will be on Comcast Sportsnet Northwest.

Summer Reviews: Thomas Robinson

|

Summer League might be ridiculous and meaningless but let’s pretend that it’s not!

Like the mythical Kraken rising from the deep to claim non-believing Nordic sailors and put some juice in the word of Pliny the Elder, Thomas Robinson came to Las Vegas Summer League to prove that the legendary beast seen at Kansas’ Phog Allen Fieldhouse wasn’t just the stuff of bedtime stories and doodles at the edge of the map. After being picked 5th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, Robinson spent the first half of his season in Boogie’s World down in Sacramento until the Kings — for whatever reason the Kings do anything that they do — traded Robinson to Houston, who buried him on the depth chart before sending him to Portland in a move to cut costs and pay Dwight Howard (stop getting guac on your burrito, Morey! every penny counts!). Clearly, Robinson didn’t walk into a thriving garden of personal growth in Sacramento or Houston but still, rare is the lottery-pick who has been traded twice in his first year, to say nothing of the fairly limited production on the court. Maybe unfairly, but “Bust” was starting to creep into the conversation. So coming into Vegas, Robinson didn’t necessarily need to star but he did need to show enough flashes of ability to quiet concerns and convince the populace that he just needed the right situation to bring out that Jayhawk vintage of his game. After last week, the populace might not be quite convinced, but they’re leaning heavily in that direction.

After struggling through the first couple games to find his identity within the squad, Robinson discovered and embraced his role by the end of the week. Paring his game down to Spartan simplicity, Robinson excelled in putting his head down on offense to bully his way to the rim and attacking the glass on both ends with unmatched ferocity, averaging 12.8 rebounds per game. Watching him gather rebounds was awesome in the most classical definition of that word. He would prowl menacingly in the paint, like a predator stalking prey, until the shot clanged off the rim, then calling on his athleticism to explode above the fray and his strength to win the aerial battle for possession. The only thing better was watching him try to dunk absolutely everything, including those aforementioned rebounds. His missed tip dunks were the stuff of Shawn Bradley’s night terrors and the made ones, well, let’s just say that a couple Atlanta Hawks are headed back to the D-League rocking souvenir Lichtenberg Figures like henna tattoos (Lichtenberg Figures are lightning-induced scars for those of you yet to venture to that corner of Wikipedia). Possibly overlooked amid such overwhelming moments of explosion, Robinson even flashed some nifty perimeter skills for a man of his size and power. He used strong ball handling to beat defenders off the dribble, displayed a good eye and ability to execute interior passes in tight areas, and spent long stretches effectively defending wing players out at the three-point line. Although he did splash a few turnaround fallaways, some very poor misses suggest that his jumper is still in the latent stages of blossoming (NBATV broadcaster, recipient of the Toronto Raptors severance package, and self-appointed shot doctor Sam Mitchell opined that the inconsistency of Robinson’s jumper was not due to lack of touch but because Robinson’s off-hand was positioned too far past perpendicular on the ball, thus restricting the fluidity of the release). Anyway, while the rest of those skills are cool and all and their development might someday get him to stardom, his play in Vegas seemed to reflect his knowlege that tenacity and prodigious rebounding are why he’ll be on the floor this year.

Heading into training camp, Robinson looks to be positioned solidly as the third big man on the depth chart. Unlike Leonard’s lack of development and Freeland’s lack of general ability, Robinson’s elite rebounding gives him a singular skill that will both get him on the court and define his role once there. Yet the level of his rebounding acumen and his comfort on the perimeter and his ongoing development across all areas could also create some very intriguing possibilities for the Portland coaching staff. Should Robinson consistently show the genius rebounding rate from his 18-boards-in-twentysomething-minutes performance, then he may not need to be paired with a second true big man and those possible bench units featuring Robinson at center and Dorrell Wright at the 4 (you know, the ones I write sonnets about when alone in my room at night) become less of a fun 5-minute gimmick and more of a 10-15 minute reign of terror. And/or should Robinson’s perimeter skills hold their own against NBA wings, Stotts could even substitute Robinson for Wes Matthews, slide Batum over to the 2, and give Damian Lillard the reigns to a fully enormous — but still running — lineup of Lillard, Batum, Robinson, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez (IMAGINE THE THUNDER! ..try not to imagine the spacing though..). If nothing else, Robinson is a younger, more athletic replacement for J. J. Hickson. But if everything else, the Western Conference will be doodling a new monster around the north bank of the Willamette.

Summer Reviews: Meyers Leonard

|

Summer League might be ridiculous and meaningless but let’s pretend that it’s not!

Some players come to Summer League to showcase their best, while others come to test their worst. For D-Leaguers and wayward journeymen and undrafted rookies, Las Vegas provides the stage to prove to their potential employers that their best stuff can crack it in the Association. For that reason, they tend to outplay their more tenured counterparts, as evidenced by the D-League Select entry in Vegas finishing with a 4-1 record and quarterfinal appearance in the inaugural tournament. But for those sophomores and others already with guaranteed contracts and roster spots, their time in Summer League is used to experiment with new skills and buff out the rough edges in their games in order to compete for dwindling minutes. So for last years eleventh overall pick, coming off an enlightening but often disappointing rookie campaign, Meyers Leonard found himself in the latter group, needing to use his time in Vegas as a benchmark for the work already put in, and to force the accelerated improvement of his weaknesses in – albeit less competitive – game situations. But as Summer League viewers would find out, playing for development doesn’t necessarily equal playing well. 

By the end of his rookie season, Leonard had shown impressive athletic ability and solid, if overlooked, shooting mechanics. At 7’1’’ 245 lbs, those skills are usually enough to get folks excited. In order for Leonard to turn that excitement into outcome, he would need to improve his defensive positioning, rebounding, offensive awareness, and post game – or simply, every skill on the basketball court other than size and athleticism. After spending some quality time with mystical big man guru, Tim Grgurich, Leonard entered Summer League looking ready to depart from his small comfort zone and test his offseason work against real opponents. Most of that work seemed to be on the offensive end, as he favored a new right-handed jump hook from either side of the basket and later in the week especially, he flashed a solid perimeter jumper, even knocking down a couple three-pointers. Defensively, his abilities hadn’t changed much from the level of adequacy displayed during the season, although he did appear to have a marginally better understanding of positioning (it would impossible to have a worse understanding of positioning than what he showed last year) and was less prone to wandering. While his performance may not have been impressive, his committment to development deserves praise.

Now having been fair to Leonard’s circumstance as a developing player, his play throughout the week nonetheless could only be objectively described as atrocious, or subjectively, like cartoon aliens had stolen his talent (cue: “what talent?” joke) to play a basketball game for the sovereignty of Looney Tune land. Every time a pass headed in his direction, he would startle and fumble like the ball was a palantír transmitting the sinister gaze of Sauron, that is, if Leonard was even close to catching the pass in the first place. Rarely on the same page as his teammates, passes to Leonard had a higher percentage of turnovers than passes to any other target by an extremely unofficial estimation. He would post up, then inexplicably run away as the post entry was en route. He would cut his flashes to the rim curiously short. He would strangely drift away from perfect positioning under the basket. When he did have the ball, his newly favored jump hook failed to find the net unless he was wide open (although it did find the side edge of the backboard once). His finishing at the rim was as soft as ever, even drawing the ire of newcomer and noted un-soft finisher, Thomas Robinson. While his intriguing jump shot was effective at times, it is also the skill most extraneous in the archetypal franchise center. At times, Leonard looked more lost than he had last year, causing wonder that maybe the breadth of his focus on accelerated development in all areas had overwhelmed him, had him thinking too much, and that maybe he just needed to simplify the game back to catch ball, dunk ball. After all, he looked worse than Joel Freeland.

With training camp ahead, Leonard’s spot in the roster appears as mysterious as it has ever been in his brief career. Obviously, he won’t be starting, and Thomas Robinson’s ferocity on the glass and offensive potential should make him easily the 3rd big in the rotation. Then given Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts espoused desire to play at a faster pace, Dorrell Wright’s experience defending at the 4 in Golden State will likely lead to Wright playing alongside Robinson in the second unit, and maybe even spelling Aldridge or Lopez for brief stretches with the first unit. This leaves Leonard and Freeland to compete for those last 10-15 minutes per game of big man clock. Freeland lacks almost all of Leonard’s natural ability, but Leonard is frighteningly inconsistent and if the Blazers challenge for a playoff spot as they expect to, Stotts will likely be loathe to invest precious minutes into a multi-year development project. Don’t get me wrong though, I like Leonard and believe in his athleticism and his new jumper and his commitment to improve and whatever, Summer League is stupid anyway.

Summer Reviews: C. J. McCollum

|

Summer League might be ridiculous and meaningless but let’s pretend that it’s not!

Even before the draft, C. J. McCollum could not escape the predictable comparisons to Damian Lillard. Both players are 6’3’’, 195 lb, combo guards. Both were four-year players at mid-major college programs. Both even sustained broken feet during their college careers. That McCollum ended up in Portland with Lillard only heightened the similarity. Since Lillard had previewed his Rookie of the Year season with a Summer League MVP performance, Trail Blazers fans hoped, if not expected, that McCollum would do the same in Las Vegas. McCollum finished as the second leading scorer in Vegas, averaging 21.0 points per game, but he did so shooting a woeful 36.6% from the field and 31.0% from three-point range, while also revealing a few flaws elsewhere in his young game that prevented him from matching Lillard with a Summer League MVP trophy. Of course, the Blazers losing 6 of their 7 games in Vegas didn’t help his cause either.

But McCollum isn’t quite the sequel to Lillard and to properly evaluate McCollum’s performance in its appropriate context, it becomes more important to highlight his differences with Lillard, rather than their similarities. When Lillard entered Summer League play last year, he was in peak condition, coming off a career-best season at Weber St. in which he averaged 24.5 points per game. His goal in Las Vegas was to see if his peak would be good enough for NBA stardom, making domination his only desirable outcome. McCollum meanwhile came into this year’s Summer League at the end of a 6-month rehabilitation. He hadn’t played a competitive 5-on-5 basketball game since breaking a metatarsal in his foot against Virginia Commonwealth all the way back on January 5th. Thus, the goal for McCollum wasn’t necessarily domination, but to show that physically he was back to where he had been two years ago, that his essential skills and go-to moves would be good enough to beat athletic NBA defenders, and for him to get back into the feel and rhythm of a real game. Due to the time off though, rust would have to be expected. 

Throughout the week, McCollum’s best success came on the offensive end when attacking defenders off of the dribble. While not a superlative athlete by any measure, McCollum displayed his elite dribbling ability and used intelligent selection from his variety of hesitation and step-back moves to consistently create separation from defenders, even though some poor misses with his jumper suggested that his vaunted shooting ability may still be in reconstruction. Interestingly, he appeared most effective when attacking off the dribble against defenders in isolation, as opposed to in pick-and-roll situations. The Blazers coaching staff and front office (and probably fans too) will like to see McCollum able to back up either guard spot this season, and possibly challenge Wes Matthews for a starting role by the end of the season. As a point guard though, McCollum didn’t show quite enough in Vegas to foster full confidence in his ability there, although that’s also where his rust might have had the largest impact. 

After mainly playing off the ball during his collegiate career at Lehigh (he did play some at the point there too) McCollum didn’t seem entirely comfortable reading the defense as a pick-and-roll ball handler and reacting quickly, which resulted in some inconsistent success. When teams tried to chase over the top of the screen with the guard to deter the shot, while settling the big underneath to stop the roller and hard drives, McCollum looked most dangerous, deftly navigating into that dead zone around the free throw line to either attack the rim, find a shooter in the corner, or step back for a midrange jumper (note: LaMarcus Aldridge’s shooting ability deters defenses from using this strategy during the regular season, since all the ball-handler needs to do is start to drive hard to commit both defenders, then fire it back to the screener for a wide open 17-footer AND LAMARCUS LOVES 17-FOOTERS). But when teams blitzed (i.e. sent both defenders out to aggressively trap the ball-handler), as they often did in the first couple games in Vegas, McCollum struggled to break the trap, resulting in turnovers or timeouts. Possibly to build his confidence, the coaches played McCollum less at the point as the week went on, putting Will Barton in the playmaker role and allowing McCollum to play in his more comfortable role off the ball. Although as a shooting guard, McCollum’s lack of size at only 6’3’ may limit him as a defender during the regular season, as his defensive skills didn’t shine in Vegas anyway.

Defensively, McCollum’s lack of top level footspeed and sometimes poor footwork led to his struggles to stay in front of quicker point guards prone to attacking the paint off the dribble, such as Hawks’ rookie Dennis Schroder and the Bulls’ Marquis Teague. However, defending the top athletes of the NBA was already going to be the biggest adjustment for McCollum in coming from the Patriot League, even without the long layoff due to the foot injury. But while his defense was clearly the area that will need most development between now and the regular season, he did show some hints for optimism. In late game situations when McCollum really focused and dug in defensively, neither Schroder and Teague could get to their desired spots, and were forced into passes or difficult contested jumpers. As McCollum’s conditioning improves along with his comfort in the game, his intelligence and competitiveness should make him at least an adequate defender when called upon.

Though he has plenty flaws to work on through training camp, McCollum’s ball-handling skill, natural scoring sense, and healthy confidence will give him the ability to contribute right away off the bench, while his celebrated work ethic should spur improvement elsewhere that may lead to stardom down the line. On a Summer League roster with two other lottery picks and three more players with NBA experience, McCollum was regularly the best player on the court in a Blazers uniform. The offense ran through him. He led the team in scoring every game (except for the last one, in which none of the roster players except for Allen Crabbe played) even when he didn’t seem to have his best stuff. And in crunch time, he took and hit the big shots, highlighted by the screwface’d buzzer-beating three-pointer to take the Bulls into overtime. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played a real, competitive game of basketball since January 5th.

Las Vegas Summer League: Timberwolves 72 – Blazers 66

|

All across the country, cities host summertime basketball leagues like Los Angeles’ Drew League, Seattle’s Jamal Crawford Pro-Am Summer League, and whatever that outdoor league is in New York City that had the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson playing against some guy named “Homicide”. Featuring an eclectic mix of professional stars returning to their hometowns to stay in shape during the offseason and bygone local legends rekindling old magic, the games in these leagues tend to skimp on defense, but offer plenty lively displays of individual brilliance to those gathered in the packed Boys and Girls Clubs. Without the urgency of regular season competition, these leagues are as fun for players to play in as they are for fans to watch. The Trail Blazers’ 72-66 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a consolation game at the Las Vegas NBA Summer League was the exact opposite of watching those fun leagues. A largely unknown group of fringe players desperately grasped for a precious few remaining roster spots in a disorganized, ugly game of basketball that was no fun to watch.

With the Blazers eliminated from the real part of the tournament on Friday and the Saturday game against the T-Wolves being Portland’s sixth contest in seven days, the team sat most of its regular season roster players and started a lineup of Cedric Jackson, Terrel Harris, Allen Crabbe, Olek Czyz, and Dallas Lauderdale. Along with Crabbe, one of the few contract players, albeit a non-guaranteed contract, Harris actually provided the only impressive performance for Portland, scoring 25 points on 11-19 shooting and 3-8 from three-point range. In doing so, the throw-in acquired from New Orleans in the trade for Robin Lopez was often the best player on the court, including the stretches when Minnesota first round draft pick and former UCLA Bruin, Shabazz Muhammad was on the floor. Muhammad only garnered 6 points on 2-8 shooting in his 23 minutes. The Blazers’ only other contract player to see minutes in the contest, Allen Crabbe finished with 9 points on 4-13 from the field and 1-7 from deep in 35 minutes of action. Crabbe again appeared to struggle to find good spot-up opportunities in the overall disorganization of the game and the survival-motivated selfishness of his teammates.

No one for the Blazers had a rougher time than once YouTube highlight hero of this space and self-titled “Professional Polish Freak Athlete”, Olek Czyz. Czyz tallied 7 points on 2-11 shooting, low-lighted by multiple shots blocked at the hands of Gorgui Dieng and former Blazer Chris Johnson, while even getting rim-checked on a wide open dunk opportunity. At one point, announcer Sam Mitchell openly wondered about Czyz’s ability to learn from his continued failed attempts down low against Dieng – cue that well-worn Einstein quote defining insanity. In honesty though, Czyz found himself in the worst possible situation, matched up for most of the game against one of the athletic, shot-blocking big man tandem of Dieng and Johnson as the Polish swingman desperately pressed to show his finishing ability inside. He never really had a chance.

On a stormy night in Las Vegas complete with flash flood warnings and the game playing at the same time at Cox Pavilion (this one was at the Thomas and Mack Center) being delayed due to a leaky roof, Portland’s group of summer roster fillers couldn’t find the leaks in the Timberwolves defense to start a flash flood of their own. After trailing 39-32 at halftime, the Blazers played well enough in the third to take a one point lead into the final intermission, only to see the T-Wolves jump back out to a small lead midway through the 4th quarter. When a Harris one-dribble Travis Outlaw-esque pull-up jumper closed the deficit to one at 67-66 with about a minute remaining, the Wolves’ Othyus Jeffers converted a three-point play to push it back to 70-66 and clinch the victory. With only Crabbe and likely one of the Harris and Jackson combination making it to the next stage of the Trail Blazers roster, the rest of the players who appeared Friday will soon be basketball nomads again, left to wander the globe, looking to catch on for that next team in Boise or Zgorzelec or Holon or Milan. For them, this game will offer little consolation.

Las Vegas Summer League: Suns 92 – Blazers 84

|

 

The dream that began all the way back at the dawn of last week, of hoisting the first ever Las Vegas NBA Summer League Tournament trophy and joining the likes of Nate Robinson in Summer League immortality, ended Thursday night for the Trail Blazers, with their 92-84 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Despite 43 combined points from the backcourt tandem of C. J. McCollum and Will Barton, the Blazers as a team shot 39.0% from the field (McCollum and Barton combined to shoot 17-47) while the Suns shot 47.7% with 6 players scoring in double figures (the Blazers had 4 scorers in double figures). Or for a more abstract analysis in the spirit of Hawks boss Bruce Levenson’s “championship culture” chat yesterday, NBATV broadcaster, former Toronto Raptors head coach, and alleged Vince Carter wrestling opponent, Sam Mitchell posited, “The Phoenix Suns came here to win the Las Vegas Summer League because they’re trying to change their culture and get back to winning.” The Las Vegas NBA Summer League: where trans-cultural hierarchical diffusion happens! 

The Blazers came out wearing the black v-neck t-shirt jerseys for the first time this week, but with the same starting lineup as last game of McCollum, Barton, Claver, Thomas Robinson, and Meyers Leonard. The Suns, meanwhile, started Kendall Marshall, 18-year-old Archie Goodwin, 28-year-old P. J. Tucker, and the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff. Both teams got off to a hot start, hitting the first three shots of the game on a Leonard jump hook, midrange jumper from one of the Morri, and Barton three-pointer from the top, until Thomas Robinson air banked a straight-on jumper off of Jerry West’s likeness at the lower left corner of the backboard. For the Blazers, Barton and Leonard starred in the early going, as did Mitchell on the broadcast, who made remarks about Robinson’s “Spiderman” tights (they were black though, so Venom might have been a more apt comparison) and inexplicably cackled off and on for a good two minutes after what must have been a very inside joke with his broadcast partner. Then with 1:11 remaining in the first and the Suns ahead 22-17, the Suns’ Alex Oriakhi strode to the line to shoot two free throws, and after leaving the first just short (Vegas free throw!), the broadcast cut over to Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver at the Board of Governors Press Conference.

Stern opened the annual quasi-State of the Association address with the announcement that the owners had unanimously approved the Charlotte Bobcats changing their name to that of the former Charlotte franchise of Muggsy and Grandmama, the Charlotte Hornets, though Stern would voice his initial lack of understanding on the issue, saying, “I sort of laughed at it initially. It is what it is, get over it.” Like yeah, Seattle, so that team and name that was a major part of your city’s identity was dishonestly bought and taken halfway across the country where it promptly became a nationally celebrated contender, like it is what it is, get over it. Other notable developments presented to the press included the new replay reviewability of block/charge calls (somewhere, a lone tear slips down Joey Crawford’s cheek), that unsportsmanlike actions are now punishable if spotted during replay review of another call, that the NBA’s current lack of testing for HGH is entirely the result of mundane scheduling issues with the Players Association representatives and has no basis in actual suspicion of illegal use, and that the current CBA has been a success since its adoption just over a year ago due to the improved competitive balance and increased player movement, because there’s nothing fans love more than when their local heroes depart for greener (pun absolutely intended) pastures as a result of complex luxury tax rules and interest rates and everything else that can be found in wonderfully exciting collegiate finance textbooks. This would almost definitely be Stern’s final Board of Governor’s meeting as commissioner with his imminent retirement and Silver’s ascension into that role, and this is also a good time to mention Silver’s role in spearheading the Las Vegas Summer League and making it into the grand event and celebration of the league that it has become, gathering scouts, coaches, players, and media types from all over the globe (Please read the fascinating history of summer league written by our exalted leader Danny Nowell over at TrueHoop.com).

When the feed returned to the actual basketball game, the Suns led 52-37 at halftime. Presumably the Blazers had a poor second quarter, although I also prefer to imagine that even without scoring, Will Barton did fantastical and magical things while Sam Mitchell loquaciously danced between descriptions of Barton’s slitheriness and an astute discussion of Franz Boas’ views of cultural anthropology as applied to the present NBA landscape. In the third quarter, Mitchell only offered pointed criticism about the Morri’s inability to grow contiguous beards, in comparison to Mitchell’s personal assertions that he could first grow a full beard at age 12 and that he now can grow one in two days. Apart from a redundantly acrobatic reverse lay-up from Barton, a Barton tip dunk, a really impressive Barton block on a wide open dunk by one of the Morri – Barton played well enough in the game to have both announcers comparing him to Jamal Crawford and openly assuming he must be “unguardable” on the playground – and Robinson beating the hydrogen fusion core out of a Suns attempt at the rim, nothing much else notable occurred in the third and the Blazers entered the final quarter, down 74-56.

After a banked three-pointer by former Temple Owl, Dionte Christmas, put the Suns up 79-61 with about 7:45 remaining in the game, the Blazers began to chip away and crawl back towards their dreams of Summer League glory. Back-to-back midrange jumpers from McCollum and an and-1 from Barton cut it to 81-70 with about 5:25 left before a McCollum three-pointer with 4 minutes left trimmed the deficit to 9, at 84-75. The Suns made a couple baskets to push the lead back out, but then a thee-pointer from Leonard in the corner (Meyers Leonard jumpers are a thing now!) followed by a fast break dunk from Barton capped a 15-5 run, with the score closed to 86-80 inside of a couple minutes to go. Unfortunately though, the Blazers began trading buckets for free throws and when Barton’s two free-throws that could have cut it to 5 with about 30 seconds left both missed the mark, the contest essentially ended. The Suns ran out the clock to win 92-84 and the Blazers were sent to a consolation game, like a group of emotionally fragile 5th graders in a Christmas Vacation jamboree. In fact, with the consolation game taking place on Friday night and marking the sixth game for the Blazers in 7 days, those 5th graders very well may be taking the court to give the actual roster players a much-needed and deserved break – it’ll be either be the 5th graders or the triumvirate of Dominic Waters, Dallas Lauderdale, and Olek Czyz. The consolation game seems a fitting beginning and end for Beast Life.

Las Vegas Summer League: Blazers 70 – Hawks 69 (OT)

|

Playoff basketball descended on the Thomas and Mack Center’s hardwood oasis in the Nevada desert Wednesday with the start of the first ever Summer League tournament. The Blazers finished their three game “regular season” 0-3, but their 4 individual quarter wins tiebroke them into the 19th seed out of the 22 teams in Las Vegas and a first round match up against the 14th seeded Atlanta Hawks. Somewhere in a parallel universe of mainstream sports fandom, pundits bemoan the Summer League season’s lack of intensity and declare that they “only watch the tournament”. Out of respect for the gravity of the moment, I have on a t-shirt of Damon Stoudamire dribbling next to a surprisingly detailed map of Oregon, as I watch a slightly delayed online stream in my apartment thousands of miles away. Even NBATV dispensed with Steve Smith (nooooo) and the frosted tips of Brent Barry to bring in Hall of Famer and former ruler of the CBA, Isiah Thomas for the call and I promise, there will be no Zeke jokes here. The game is too big for cheap snarkiness and triteness. Just like that other Midsummer Classic, this time it counts.

The Blazers opened the game with the not yet seen starting lineup of C. J. McCollum, Will Barton, Victor Claver, Thomas Robinson, and Meyers Leonard, relegating rookie Allen Crabbe to the bench, while the Hawks started with Denis Schröder, John Jenkins, (former Oregon State Beaver!) Jared Cunningham, Mike Scott, and the already internet-famous Lucas Nogueira. The C. J./Barton/Claver/Robinson combination brings some exciting possibilities, while Zeke was high on Leonard, saying, “I really liked the way he played at Illinois.” Yes, and Renaldo Balkman was a helluva ballplayer down at South Carolina (not a joke, actually he really was good). Maybe bolstered by Zeke’s remarks, the Blazers’ starters jumped out to a 6-0 lead, riding the activity of Claver, who had back-to-back steals, a good rebound in traffic, and an aggressive post move on Jared Cunningham to draw a foul (quick aside on Claver: stylistically, he lies somewhere in the space between Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum, yet Rudy’s moments of extravagance made him seem like a revolutionary forever suppressed by Nate McMillan’s authoritarian system, whereas Batum’s constant, subtle brilliance, sometimes wandering into apathy, has always hinted that something of greater beauty waits for its eventual day to bloom. But though Claver blends Rudy’s brief flourishes with Batum’s nuance, his perception among fans remains that of a decent bench player with a game perfectly mated to his ability. He is neither the talented disappointment nor the martyr. Put on some Coltrane and marinate on that, children). The other engine for the Blazers in the opening period was Barton, who played the entire quarter, and mainly did so at the point guard spot. Though he has been playing in that role for much of Summer League, he saved his best for the playoffs. In the 1st quarter alone, Barton creatively found shooters, split traps with deft bounce passes, and then did those typically Barton things like somehow deflect a lob at the rim after trailing the break by a good 10-15 feet, give a faux-no-look pass to Robinson for a dunk on a 2-on-1 fast break, and manage to contort both body and mind to finish a misguided adventure towards the rim. Unfortunately though, the Hawks shot 58% for the quarter and the Blazers found themselves down 20-19 at the first intermission. 

The 2nd quarter opened with the much less excitable group of Cedric Jackson, Barton, Crabbe, Joel Freeland, and Leonard. Early in the quarter, a Barton drive resulted in three steps across the lane without a dribble, followed a fake behind-the-back pass to no one, a travel call, and a very confused Barton. He came out of the game shortly thereafter as C. J. stepped back in and hit a three-pointer just before things got weird. During a chat on Crabbe, Zeke spoke about Crabbe’s commitment to gaining his degree in education, and then casually dropped a rich anecdote about taking a high-level education class with Crabbe at Berkeley last year and that Crabbe always showed up and participated in class activities and then somewhere in there I think I might have blacked out because I swore that Isiah Thomas just said that he took senior-level education classes at Berkeley last year and yet no one seemed interested by that nugget and this was the first I was hearing of it. Where have you been on this story, Tim Kawakami? The newspapers must truly be dead after all (UPDATE: this was actually widely reported, including by Kawakami’s San Jose Mercury News, I just spend too much time eating Fruity Pebbles and watching Antiques Roadshow that I missed it). As I still sat imagining the possible reality that Zeke spent time last year talking about the perils of systemic education reform with Allen Crabbe in a Berkeley classroom, Hawks’ managing partner Bruce Levenson sat in with the broadcast crew to address the state of basketball in Atlanta. He began the chat with a fun story about how his 4-year-old grandson’s love of Jeff Teague overruled Danny Ferry (note to Ferry: stand down, the 4-year-old never gave Larry Hughes $70M), then discussed the building process and how the Hawks fans can start to appreciate the championship culture they’ve built and—wait, word? You guys have a championship culture down there in the kingdom of The Varsity? That’s what you call it when your best player flees the scene to play with Kyle Singler in Detroit and your 4-year-old grandson is talking up Jeff Teague’s playmaking skills to the GM during your annually unwatched appearance in the NBATV playoff series? In fairness, Levenson continued by mentioning the 6 million basketball fans counting on him and genuinely asked for Isiah Thomas’s autograph while on television. The reality train was sailing. Meanwhile in the basketball game happening in the background as I Googled the population of Atlanta (432,427) and that of Georgia (9.92 million – maybe Levenson’s saying 3/4 of Georgians are basketball fans, but theoretically, would that necessarily make them Hawks fans?), Dennis Schröder was knocking down shots and finding his teammates, Meyers Leonard was knocking down back to back jumpers (see: sailing reality train), all while Zeke was firing shots at Thomas Robinson’s use of emoticons on Twitter (real grown man business!). The Hawks took a 41-31 lead into the break as Schröder finished the half with 11 points and 4 assists.

Let’s just skip through the third quarter: a flurry of careless turnovers by the Blazers, Meyers hit another jumper, Barton made a couple nice plays to key a 7-0 run to trim the lead to 7, the announcers talked to an Italian scout who they asked for restaurant advice but the scout surprisingly didn’t mention legendary Vegas cathedral of ye olde American-Italian tackiness, Battista’s Hole in the Wall, and the Blazers went to the 4th, down 9.

Slowly chipping away at the lead through the first half the quarter, the Blazers found themselves down 3, 62-59, after two McCollum free throws with about 5 minutes left. McCollum and Schröder then went head to head for the next few possessions with limited success, as Schröder turned it over on a palming violation, drew a foul to hit one of two free throws, and missed an open three, while McCollum missed a tough contested jumper and drew a foul after some slop inside. Isiah went so far as to say that the two guards were beginning an intense career-long rivalry and would never be friendly towards one another because he’s Isiah Thomas and he sometimes speaks in “Bad Boys”-nostalgic absurdities. The Las Vegas NBA Summer League Tournament: Where the start of everlasting cross-national enmity happens! Then with about 2:40 left, Claver airballed a wide open three-pointer that would have tied the game, but on the next possession after giving up a bucket, Leonard swished an open three-pointer from the wing (who cares why he was out there shooting threes, Meyers has a jumper now!) to cut the Hawks’ lead to two, causing our play-by-play man Joel Meyers to concede, “anything can happen in Vegas, I guess.” The Las Vegas NBA Summer League Tournament: Where anything can happen in Vegas, I guess! After the Hawks’ Mike Muscala finished inside over Robinson (curiously, Muscala seemed to give Robinson trouble on both ends throughout the game), an awoken Robinson retaliated with a thunderous tip dunk accompanied by a primal scream, the sheer combined force of the two flattened three homes in suburban Indianapolis and impregnated a woman in Missouri and the Blazers were back down two points. Next, a beautiful pass from Barton over another trap on a pick-and-roll (Barton turned into a combination of Rajon Rondo and His Holiness the Dalai Lama at some point during this game and it was stunning) found Robinson for an open bucket and the game was tied at 67 with 21 seconds left. McCollum, who’s starting to make a habit of finding his inner defensive stopper when the situation demands it, did a good enough job on Schröder to deny the shot on Atlanta’s final possession, forcing a pass to John Jenkins who missed an open three and like yesterday, the Blazers were back to overtime.

The overtime period went rather quick by virtue of the Blazers first possession, which lasted over a full minute marred in Summer League slop and did not end with a made basket. On the ensuing possession, McCollum, with burgeoning malice in his heart, drove on Schröder to draw the foul but left the first free throw short. Isiah called these “Vegas free throws” because apparently the heat and the long walks through the immense casinos to buy overpriced muffins from Starbucks kiosks can be quite taxing on the legs of young basketball players. McCollum must have called upon his intense hatred for Schröder to muster the power to sink the second and Hawks coach Quin Snyder (Quin Snyder! Word to Kareem Rush and that little point guard with the dreads!) called timeout with 21 seconds left. Snyder presumably used the timeout only to remind Schröder the depth of his career-defining animosity towards McCollum, because Schröder immediately drove on McCollum to draw a foul and then hit both free throws to put the Hawks up 1 with 17.2 seconds left as the Blazers now took a timeout. Knowing potential game winners are no place to celebrate the enduring hostility that prevents the realization of peace and unity and understanding within the human race, Blazers coach David Vanterpool eschewed the budding clutchiness of McCollum to instead draw up the play for fellow guard and noted humanitarian, Will Barton. Barton took a pass on the right wing, backed down Jared Cunningham, and just as Cunningham tried to draw a charge, Barton spun around and knocked down the baseline floater to put the Blazers back up 1 with mere seconds remaining. Schröder again tried to go at McCollum but again McCollum rose to the defensive occasion and forced a pass to Muscala, who missed the bunny at the buzzer. The impossible dream would live another day. Quoth Barton on the coaching staff asking if he was ready after sustaining a strained knee a couple days ago and possibly limiting his minutes: “If I’m gonna play, let me play.”

Las Vegas Summer League: Bulls 81 – Blazers 78 (OT)

|

According to the laws of mathematics, a straight line can be drawn between any two points in space. Not until the third point in the sequence does the actual trajectory of the line start to reveal itself (or something like that). As the Trail Blazers entered their third contest in Las Vegas Summer League, taking on the Chicago Bulls, Portland fans were hoping to see the beginnings of a trajectory leading to champagne raining down from parade cars and retired numbers – although at this point, those fans would probably for a trajectory of Meyers Leonard not looking entirely lost on a basketball court. By the end of the Blazers’ 80-78 overtime loss, the future appeared less singular and more a collection of divergent lines, some rising and some headed elsewhere. Nowhere was the divergence more apparent than in the starting frontcourt with Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard.

Leonard finished with 12 points on 6-11 shooting as his touch around the basket looked better than it had in the prior two contests, especially when he could square up and not be bodied by a defender. Yet other than a few nice floaters, the rest of his game still looked pretty terrible. He only finished with 3 rebounds and though his defense still leaves plenty of room for development, his most noticeable shortcomings came in his offensive awareness, or lack thereof. A recurring theme in the game was Leonard looking not on the same page, or even in the same book, as his teammates. An early post-entry from Crabbe became a turnover when Leonard appeared to forget that he was posting up and ran away when the ball was en route. Later, Robinson drove baseline and drew a second defender, allowing Leonard to flash unguarded to the rim. But when Robinson made his pass, Leonard curiously stopped his move and the ball went into the hands of a Bulls defender. Later still, McCollum drove into the lane on a pick-and-roll action and forced the second big to step up, then threw what should have been an easy lob to Leonard, only Leonard strangely wandered under the basket instead and the lob fell harmlessly off the side of the backboard. Then to round out the starters, Claver pulled up on the wing on a secondary break, then fired a ball down to Leonard, seeing the big man had great position on the block, but the ball skipped off his hands (this one is somewhat forgivable since Claver was wide open and probably should have just taken the 3-pointer). Even one of Leonard’s better shots came after the pass awkwardly bounced off his chest before he could corral it and wheel around to hit a floater just inside the free throw line.

Leonard’s most damning moment occurred with about a minute and a half left and the Bulls ahead by 7 as the Blazers were battling back into the game. Robinson made a strong drive into the center of the paint to draw the defense and found Leonard in perfect position under the basket for what should have been a fairly easy finish over two small defenders caught out of position. However, Leonard bobbled the pass before hoisting up two embarrassingly soft attempts that both failed to graze the rim, the second of which was knocked out of bounds as a visibly frustrated Robinson turned his back on the whole painful display. It cannot be overstated how soft this sequence looked. It was like watching a commune of kittens bake commemorative cupcakes for their favorite watercolor paintings of rainbows (in fact, I thought Robinson might slap Leonard during the stoppage). As it happened, Robinson ended up forced into a tough contested jumper off the inbounds from the top of the key that didn’t hit rim, resulting in a shot clock violation, and as Robinson went back down the floor, he said something to Leonard while making an arms-up flexing motion, presumably asking the young center if those two attempts were some kind of purposeful attempt to gain a Lisa Frank sponsorship. 

After spending the first two games seemingly unsure on his role in the team, Robinson asserted himself early and often, with 12 points and 18 rebounds in 29 minutes. His ferocity as a rebounder has been one of the revelations thus far from Las Vegas but Robinson also showed better aggressiveness and care with the ball on the offensive end. Going up against Erik Murphy and Jason Snell, two smaller stretch 4’s, Robinson used his physicality to bully his way to the rim, but maintaining the body control to spin back, should they overplay him to go one direction, or find teammates with precise passes inside. In general, he just seemed much more involved, mentally and physically, in the game. After Claver hit Robinson with a wonderful pocket pass for an open dunk, followed by Crabbe finding him running the floor for another finish that cut it to 63-60 in the 4th, Robinson could be spotted looking up to check the score and time, then clapping and yelling to his teammates, “Get a stop!” His developing rapport with Claver is also encouraging, as those two will likely be seeing a lot of minutes together on the second unit during the season. Robinson played the 5 for a couple stretches with smaller lineups, and his dribbling ability and comfort on the perimeter allowed the Blazers to go with a 5-out offense during those periods, opening up driving lanes that led to great slash-and-kick opportunities. While Bulls’ center (and former Washington Husky!) Matthew Bryan-Amaning didn’t have the post game to really test Robinson’s defensive ability in that spot, Robinson’s staggering rebounding rate should more than make up for what’s lost by the absence of another true big man, so expect head coach Terry Stotts to see how Robinson can handle playing in that kind of smaller group during the year. Imagine a second unit of McCollum, Barton, Claver, Dorrell Wright, and Robinson. That’s some heavy mind-altering dope. 

McCollum finished the game with 27 points on 8-25 shooting to go with 6 rebounds and only one assist (a spectacular half-court lob for a one-handed jam by Claver), although that assist number is somewhat misleading due to the amount of missed outside shots by Crabbe and others. Unlike the prior opponents, the Bulls seldom used the hard traps in their pick-and-roll defense that McCollum had struggled with, instead opting to have the guard chase over the top while the big man drops below to defend the roller and prevent hard drives to the bucket. That strategy allowed McCollum to carefully navigate the area just inside the free throw line where he can just as easily find open shooters, attack the rim, or create step-back opportunities. McCollum’s dribbling ability, array of hesitation moves, and almost Tony Parker-esque variety of midrange shots make him most dangerous from that spot.

Defensively, McCollum faced a tougher test against the quick Marquis Teague at the point and, less frequently, the torrid Andrew Goudelock who came in averaging over 28 points per game in Las Vegas. While on offense, McCollum can make up for his lack of athleticism with his elite dribbling ability, smarts, and craftiness, on defense he’s just rather slow, a fact Teague took advantage of by getting into the lane nearly at will. Late in the 4th though, while the game hung in the balance, both McCollum and Teague really went after each other as the two teams and two players traded buckets back and forth. Coming out of a timeout down 3 with 13.5 seconds left and the Blazers inbounding from the side, McCollum ran up from the baseline off a staggered screen to drill a deep three-pointer from the top of the key and unleash a textbook screwface. Then left one-on-one with Teague as Chicago played for the last shot, McCollum did well enough to force a tough fallaway jumper that came up way short, forcing overtime. He might have got Teague on the arm during the release but Steve Smith (Smitty back on the call!) opined that it was clean, so nothing more need be said, and the two teams headed to overtime tied at 75. 

In the 2-minute overtime period, Goudelock scored all 5 points for his team on a pull-up jumper, isolation drive against Crabbe, and a free throw. After the free throw with 6.8 seconds left put the Bulls on top 81-78, McCollum pushed the ball up the floor and handed it off to Claver on the left wing as McCollum continued towards the corner. With time ticking down and Claver doubled by two defenders, he couldn’t find an opening for a jumper and lobbed it just over one of the defenders to Leonard, a few feet away, who then hit the alley-oop three-pointer, catching and shooting while still in the air. The officials, however, ruled that Leonard’s shot happened after time had expired and the game ended. Interestingly, if the Blazers had found a way to get to a 2nd overtime, the rules of Summer League say that a second extra period becomes sudden death.

As for the other guys, both literally and rhetorically speaking, Cedric Jackson again handled point guard duties for decent minutes, although he didn’t look quite as effective as he did in the first two, nor did Terrel Harris for that matter. Portland’s own Dominic Waters got some brief burn in the second quarter when he came in and promptly hit a midrange jumper that no doubt made some folks in Northeast very excited, but it’s hard to think the Blazers really see him really challenging for a roster spot. Olek Czyz finally got to let his Beast live for a few minutes at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th, but failed to do much of anything other than get blocked underneath twice by Bryan-Amaning. The only certainty in Vegas is that for some to win big, a lot more have to bust.

Las Vegas Summer League: Lakers 81 – Blazers 63

|

At its worst, Summer League can devolve into such a hellscape of slop that it becomes nearly impossible to decontextualize individual performances good or bad and make sense of them on any larger scale. Hopefully, the Trail Blazers’ performance in Sunday’s 81-63 loss against the Lakers was one such hellscape or else it might be a long season ahead (remember what I said yesterday about Summer League being the natural habitat of wild overreaction?). All beauty was gone from these parts. C. J. McCollum, who starred in the first game, finished with 15 points on 6-17 shooting but looked less the composed creator with swaggy forays into scoring like he did against Phoenix and instead looked more – this is painful to say – like a chucker. His aggression and conscienceless shot selection could be forgiven though by the scoring-challenged environment in which it took place, and while his struggles again with hard-trapping defenders on pick-and-rolls do cause mild concern in his future as a primary point guard, McCollum was still one of the bright spots in a truly bleak game of basketball. Most of the only other bright moments, especially early, came from the Hellraiser himself, Will Barton. Again handling both guard duties with varied effectiveness, Barton’s relentless activity and uncontrollable athleticism seemed to steal the scene whenever he was on the floor. He managed a couple quick steals early in the 1st quarter for run-outs and then a few plays later, in the most Will Barton of Will Barton moments, he rose for a quick three-point attempt from the wing with absolutely no hesitation or self-awareness of any kind, only to slyly rebound his own miss and unleash an elaborately designed double pump reverse layup around and underneath the Lakers’ Robert Sacre for two points. Barton finished the 1st quarter with a team-high 6 points, as the Blazers won the quarter 20-18, which gave them 1 point towards their place in the Summer League tournament, and I could try to explain what that means and how that tournament system works or we could just move on.

Despite the strong 1st quarter, Barton only finished with 8 points as the totality of the game’s ugliness claimed even the most resilient source of joy. With a little over 3:30 left in the 3rd quarter, Thomas Robinson drove baseline past Elias Harris, and bowled over Michael Snaer, who had stepped across the lane to take the charge. As Snaer fell, he landed on the anchor leg of Barton, who immediately went to the floor as the Blazers’ training staff rushed out to attend to his right knee. The diagnosis turned out to be a right knee strain and Barton did not return. While terribly unfortunate, the play did highlight a couple interesting notes. First, while Robinson looked plenty careless at times with soft turnovers and missing a wide open alley-oop finish, he also looked plenty explosive when attacking offensively, and his ball-skills and body control in spite of his aggressive athleticism led to some nice interior passes after he had drawn the defense with a strong move. He’s also undoubtedly the hardest working rebounder on the Summer League roster, finishing with 10 in the game to go with his 7 points on a paltry 3-12 from the floor. What makes him further intriguing is his possible potential to play the 3. With the Lakers playing lineups that featured only Sacre as a true big man, Robinson found himself matched up for stretches with Elias Harris, who by the way, looks to be a very solid NBA small forward. Robinson showed little trouble defensively with that assignment and although Robinson’s shots weren’t falling, he gave Harris and other smaller defenders fits with his quickness, physicality, and explosion. Robinson’s athleticism paired with his solid dribbling ability and budding midrange jumper may allow the Blazers to experiment with some extra big lineups with Robinson at the 3 to bolster the less-than-optimal rebounding of assumed frontcourt starters, Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Meanwhile, the Lakers showed little fear in occasionally sticking an undersized defender on Meyers Leonard when their smaller lineups were on the floor, as Meyers and his shot put failed to make them pay. In all fairness, Leonard did score 12 points on 6-9 shooting, but many of those came on open finishes once the game had completely desecrated itself. His most notable moment in the game was either when he steamrolled Marcus Landry (brother of Carl) on a comically bad closeout at the three point line that ended with a foul call and a facepalm (no kidding), or when Leonard put one of his new jump hooks off the side of the backboard. A few more of those and legendary summer camp counselor Tim Grgurich might start denying that he and Leonard ever drank from the same pitcher of bug juice. Elsewhere in the realm of invisibilty, Allen Crabbe submitted his audition tape to become the new feature performer at Circus Circus (do they have feature performers?) with a 23-minute vanishing act. Although Crabbe certainly didn’t look great, his game should show much better in the regular season with a structured offense and teammates that actually display patience in the set and a willingness to find open shooters. In comparison to the first game, Crabbe appeared more balanced on his rare spot-up opportunities and even knocked down a nice three-pointer from the corner. Realistically, if he can do that and defend at a decent level, invisible or not, he’ll stick around the league for a while. Oh, to be 6’6’’.

As for the rest of the squad, Cedric Jackson and Terrel Harris again received solid minutes as the Blazers appear to be auditioning those two for the final roster spot. Harris, on the non-guaranteed contract, looks more athletic and dynamic both defensively and running the floor, but hasn’t shown much of anything as a primary ball-handler, while Jackson has been a pretty decent playmaker in the pick-and-roll. If the battle for the final place on the team really does come down to those two, the verdict will depend on whether the Blazers feel a pressing need for an extra point guard to back up the combination of Lillard, McCollum, and the currently decomposing Earl Watson, or if instead, they want an extra energy guy who plays more on the wing. Jackson’s playmaking skill-set probably translates better to the real NBA game, but who knows what the coaching staff wants from a guy who will spend most of his time waving towels anyway. On the topic of indulging towel-waving dreams, Dallas Lauderdale and Dexter Strickland both rose from the DNP-CD underworld to see some brief clock in this one, so at least they could tell the honeys later at Aria all about what it’s like to do battle with the mighty Lakers (a couple shots of Patron and Robert Sacre becomes Wilt Chamberlain). Still waiting for his own chance to fly, Olek Czyz likely sat quietly at the end of the bar all by his lonesome, sipping a Stoli with two olives and wondering about the tax credit for donating 3-dozen “Beast Life” shirts to an orphanage in Tanzania. Las Vegas is no place for an idealist.