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Five Observations From NBA Summer League in Las Vegas

Separating the real from the fake after four days in the desert

AP
AP

After four days in Las Vegas, it’s hard to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake. Everything starts to look like a mirage. That goes double at NBA summer league, which has about the same relationship to NBA basketball as Elvis impersonators on the Strip do to the King. Nothing really counts, nobody really cares, and the most impressive accomplishments at the Thomas & Mack Center came from media members collecting assets on Pokémon Go. Nevertheless, there was a ton of semiprofessional basketball being played, and enough gossip going around to keep everyone entertained. Here’s a look at five things that caught my eye in Vegas.

The Suns Are on Their Way to Something

The Suns were the most watchable team, thanks largely to the ex-Kentucky backcourt of Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker. They join Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Archie Goodwin as part of Ryan McDonough’s plan for world domination through collecting every John Calipari guard in the NBA. Ulis and Booker revived their connection from their Lexington days and outclassed most of the guys they went up against. Booker was completely overqualified for this summer run, lighting up whoever was guarding him, knocking down 3s from all over, and effortlessly creating separation off the dribble. Ulis had no problem adjusting to the size of the pro game, and dominated fellow mini-guards such as Russ Smith at their own game. Having a legitimate point guard on the roster was a differentiating factor in Vegas, and Ulis allowed everyone around him to shine.

The biggest story for the Suns was the play of Dragan Bender, who stood out by how well he moved and how well he carried his weight. He’s 7-foot-1, 220 pounds, and the Suns often had him playing out on the perimeter with Marquese Chriss and Alan Williams occupying the power positions. A player as tall as Bender shouldn’t be able to move as fluidly as he does, and his age (he doesn’t turn 19 until November) belies his on-court savvy. The game was never too fast for him. He knew where the ball was supposed to go and he knows how to get to his spots. The scouts and executives in attendance came away raving about him. No one in Vegas seems to believe in cross-racial comparisons, though, as I had one executive compare him to Toni Kukoc and another to a 7-foot-1 Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Bender, who has wing talent with the size to play center, gives an offense almost unlimited flexibility. His ceiling might not be as high as Ben Simmons’s or Brandon Ingram’s, but he’s a much better shooter than Simmons, and he’s much bigger than Ingram. He can pair as easily with Alex Len as he can with Chriss, and he gives the Suns a ton of options in their frontcourt going forward. You never want to overreact to a limited sample size against substandard competition, but Bender was the most impressive rookie I saw in Vegas.

The Celtics Are Essentially Running a Car Dealership

Thanks to the wealth of picks the Celtics have accumulated, there were players on the roster with actual NBA contracts coming off the bench for their summer league team. Forget finding minutes and touches for guys in the NBA, they had too many mouths to feed in Vegas. Boston started James Young, Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, Jaylen Brown, and Jordan Mickey, and brought Ben Bentil, Demetrius Jackson, Abdel Nader, Marcus Thornton, and Guerschon Yabusele off the bench. It’s a good thing Ante Zizic stayed in Europe, or else they might have had to give DNP-CDs to guys the team drafted.

It was hard for anyone to make too much of a positive impression given the logjam at almost every position, especially with Brown struggling with a knee injury he suffered earlier in the summer. Yabusele, Human Mack Truck, showed some touch from the 3-point line, and he had one great moment when he attacked a closeout, finished on a drive to the rim and then stared in wonder at his shooting hand as he ran back down the floor. He’s not a great athlete, so the French Draymond comparisons might be a little ambitious, but he has an interesting combination of size and skills, enough to where he might be able to come over soon.

The problem for him, and for many players the Celtics drafted, is whether they will ever have an opportunity to show what they can do in Boston. The bell might have already tolled for Young, who didn’t win a lot of fans among NBA observers with a 1-for-7 shooting performance (in 19 minutes) as a third-year player. The Celtics didn’t play him in the second game, because there’s no point in watching a relative elder jack shots from all over the floor when you are trying to evaluate a bunch of rookies. There was no room for error for anyone on their roster, as second-round pick Ben Bentil found out when he was benched after three minutes in his Vegas debut for not boxing out. He learned his lesson in his second game, firing up four shots in about five minutes of action. If there’s one rule in Vegas, it’s that the more shots go up, the more shots go in. It may not be the way to impress front-office executives watching from the stands, but it always feels good to see a big number by your name in the points column.

The Celtics need to make some trades to consolidate their young talent. But here’s the problem: Young players in the NBA are like new cars. As soon as you drive them off the lot, they lose half of their value. The Celtics have a lot of cars sitting on the lot, and it’s only a matter of time before everything must go.

Is There a Backcourt Logjam in Denver?

The Nuggets are another team setting themselves up for some interesting roster decisions in the backcourt. Malik Beasley was out with a stress fracture in his leg, but the dynamic among Gary Harris, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jamal Murray in Vegas was interesting. Harris and Mudiay seemed determined to make a statement about the pecking order in Denver, firing up a combined 34 shots in the first game. Murray responded with 12 shots of his own, often shooting as soon as he touched it.

With Mudiay and Harris watching in street clothes for the rest of their time in Vegas, Murray was given the freedom to dominate the ball. You don’t draft a guy at no. 7 to have him ride the bench, but there may not be much of a role for Murray in Denver with Mudiay, Harris, and Will Barton ahead of him. That’s an even bigger issue for Beasley, a player who has many fans in front offices around the league. The Nuggets have focused on creating a healthy locker room in the aftermath of Brian Shaw’s disastrous tenure, but managing roles and expectations for so many young players at the same position can be very tricky.

Given the number of ball-dominant guards on the team, it was a wonder Juancho Hernangomez was able to show anything, but the no. 15 pick might have been the Nuggets’ most impressive player. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds soaking wet, he’s the rare stretch 4 who isn’t afraid to mix it up in the paint, and he has an impressive nose for the basketball, with eight offensive rebounds in their first three games. The younger brother of the Knicks’ Willy Hernangomez — a burly 6-foot-11 center — Juancho had to learn how to bang at an early age. He’s also deceptively athletic, with the ability to switch screens and slide his feet on the perimeter. The Nuggets have been one of the best teams at drafting European players in recent years, and they may have found another gem in the younger Hernangomez.

The Thon Maker Experience

The good and bad of Thon Maker were on full display in Vegas, as Maker played to decidedly mixed reviews. Length was one consistent criticism I heard from executives; Maker is built like a square with a 7-foot-1 frame and a 7-foot-3 wingspan. As for the age controversy, one executive thinks it might be overblown: Tall athletes with talent often develop at a slower pace. And there aren’t many in the league with Thon’s height, skills, and athleticism — at any age. He just has to find out what he is as a basketball player.

“Ambitious” is probably the best way to describe Thon’s game. He tries every shot in the book on offense and wants to block every shot on defense. He went 2-for-10 from 3 in his first three games, and committed 20 fouls, fouling out in a game against the Grizzlies. He wants to push the ball off of misses, he wants to take guys off the dribble, and he’s unafraid of shooting over the top of multiple defenders in the lane. If he could pull off half of the things he tried in Vegas, he would probably have been worth a top-five pick.

When he stayed within himself, though, it’s easy to see why the Bucks were so high on him. His mere presence on the floor impacts the game, and he’s a terror on the glass, averaging 12 rebounds through his first three games. He’s a great catch-and-finish player around the rim, and he should be a very interesting pick-and-roll partner for Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s unclear whether he will be able to play right away, but he could be a difference-maker in a defined role that doesn’t ask him to do too much on either side of the ball.

There Will Be Big Problems in Sacramento

If the backcourt in Denver is a logjam, the frontcourt in Sacramento is a congested artery. One coach told me that the level of sophistication in the way teams assembled summer league rosters had increased dramatically in his three seasons in Vegas, but apparently the Kings did not get that memo. They had six true centers on their roster, and they were often playing three at a time, with Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, and Skal Labissiere sharing the floor for stretches.

Papagiannis, the no. 13 pick in last month’s draft, is pretty skilled for a massive 19-year-old, and he carries his 7-foot-1 frame well. He can step out and shoot midrange jumpers, but he’s most comfortable putting smaller guys on his back and scoring in the post. The question is what he will do against bigger defenders, as he doesn’t seem to have a Plan B when he can’t bully people. One interesting comparison is Ivica Zubac, the Lakers’ second-round pick. He is slower than Papagiannis, but he has more skill and touch around the basket, and it’s unclear which one is the better prospect. I talked to one executive who would rather have the grinding, old-school game of Zubac, since neither is fast enough to guard on the perimeter. One executive simply texted me a thumbs down emoji when I asked him about Papagiannis.

Somewhat lost amid the hubbub about his more highly drafted counterpart is Skal, who had several strong showings in Vegas. He still needs to put on weight and get tougher in the paint, but he showed great touch from the perimeter and a good feel for scoring in traffic. One scout compared him to a more defensive-minded Channing Frye, which would be great value for a late first-round pick. But it’s hard to envision any quick path to playing time for him in Sacramento with the front office clearly invested in Papagiannis.