Poor Man's Commish here, back in Sin City again for the NBA Summer League. Last year, I ranted and raved about Marco Bellinelli in the infamous Belinelli! Belinelli! Belinelli! post. It was actually a sort of unfinished post, too. I didn't really get a chance to go through my notes and give you all my scouting "reports".
My three-day excursion for 2008 begins this afternoon and I'm very anxious to see how some of my observations from 2007 will hold true for any returning Summer League players this year, as well as new observations for those particular youngsters who we have been a bit curious about since hearing their names at the NBA Draft.
Take last year, for example. Almost 365 days ago, I really liked the diminutive J.J. Barea of the Dallas Mavericks. Lo and behold, Mark Cuban last week signs him to an extension, despite Barea having an otherwise anonymous 2007-08 regular season and with a roster already consisting of proven point guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Maybe Cuban also saw a diamond in the rough?
I'm hoping to give you a few insights on players that don't make the headlines all the time. But before I take a look at some of my last year's unpublished notes, I'd like to explain why Summer League is so fun and, to a certain degree, important. I can't really figure it all out myself, but here goes...
- Vegas, baby. 'Nuff said.
A few feet from the action. Depending on what time you get to the games, you can literally pick any seat you want, as long as it is not a courtside seat (which still cost more, of course) or in the section in the corner reserved for players awaiting their next game or chillin' after they've already played. I like mine at halfcourt, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th row. Tex Winter likes his around the same spot. Gavin Maloof obviously must sit courtside, albeit it's always with some family kids, and Chris Mullin likes to lean by the entrance whenever he makes a cameo (he's not so much scouting as checking things out, whereas Tex seems to be scouting). Like Pat Riley says, it's best to evaluate talent as close as possible to the action. You can also hear the coaches barking and the players talking. It makes a huge difference.
Trust me, you learn a lot more about the game up close than on TV. Early in the 2006-07 season, my dad offered to take me to a few Warriors games. I told him, let's try something different. Instead of so-so seats at a few games, let's get awesome seats at one game. Because I remembered the time when I was a peon one summer at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture and I obviously no longer work there), staffed in Chicago for the mandatory newbie training. My college buddy Carlos was also there for his family's business, so I took the opportunity to use Andersen's awesome concierge service to snag us some 4th row tickets to a Bulls pre-season game. Yep, I was 4 rows behind MJ, Pip (who was injured at the time), and Rodman.
Despite it being a pre-season game, Jordan scored 21 points in 3 quarters of play and completely dominated. Now, back in the day, you might have said so what, I can watch MJ on TV and dude, why did you pay over $100 for a pre-season game? Well, now you guys are jealous. To see the legend in action, in his prime, from 4 rows away was mind-blowing. Probably one of the best pre-season games he ever played. I can't really explain it. Basically, it ain't TV.
So I told my dad, let's splurge on one game and get really awesome seats. The game we selected happened to be against the Denver Nuggets (before Allen Iverson arrived), about 3rd row. Up close, you realize what a unique physical specimen Carmelo Anthony is. Sure, the man is 6'8", but I don't know if it's his high socks or what, but his calves seem to span like almost half his body! I mean, he has super-human fibula and tibia bones (the ones that connect the knee to the ankle). I swear, those extra-long bones must have something to do with his textbook jumper and ability to take a huge jump-stop past defenders.
The other thing I noticed from being so upclose was the energy impact of bench player big man Reggie Evans. He's always pumping up his teammates as they come back to the bench during a timeout. Aside from the inspiration during dead time, he does all the dirty work on the floor and never complains about his role. He may have limited skills, but I still think a serious veteran contender such as the Spurs could use a guy like him. He's currently on the Sixers and will backup Elton Brand, so you may hear more and more about Evans the more successful the Sixers become, I hope. There's no way you see this side of Evans on TV.
Also, J.R. Smith. Talk about athleticism. And he puts his body on the line. If this kid gets the right coaching, he can be special. He's of the Ron Artest "tru warrier" mold.
Finally, I remember Coach George Karl barking out instructions for probably Carmelo, in the waning moments of the 2nd quarter, to "go at six!!!" That meant, don't make your move until there are 6 seconds left. And you know what, that makes perfect NBA basketball sense to me. If you go at 8 seconds, you'll end up leaving too much time. Remember, even on a made basket anytime under 1 minute remaining (2 minutes in the 4th), the clock will stop. That gives the other team some time to muster an inbounds and a heave. Go too late with 5 seconds or less, then you don't leave your teammates enough time for a putback. I'm sure all the NBA insiders know that you go with 6 seconds left, no argument. It's just that there's no way an avid NBA fan ever learns that unless he hears it sitting in the 3rd row from an experienced NBA coach. You can never get that from TV.
- Knowing why the hell someone got drafted. Or conversely, having reinforcement that so-and-so was not a wise first-round pick (e.g., Spencer Hawes). Basically, having any information about some guy you never heard of, and seeing him play in a competitive environment, is a lot more comforting. We fans do not like surprises, of course. Keep in mind, though, you can't get everything about someone just from one game. That's why Belinelli was so special last year. While every other player was doing something interesting every now and then, Belinelli was showing off some skills about 80% of the time. Well, aside from Marco, if you are closely observing one player (who happens to not do too much), you are not closely observing another player. Basically, you kind of have to get lucky when scouting a Summer League game for a diamond in the rough. It's uncommon for one player to be the clear cut best player on the floor (again, why Belinelli was so special), which would then cause you to stop taking notes on someone else and start focusing in on that one other player (e.g., Barea).
- Seeing the NBA stars and other luminaries pop in and out. Hey, they're just as curious as you are. Brent Barry took a quick peek. Baron Davis checked it out. Ron Artest stopped on by. Tracy Murray was clearly doing some networking (I guess he hasn't found that elusive NBA job yet). Tex Winter sitting a row or two up from you is pretty cool, too.
- Cozy confines. You walk across the "lobby" to get from Cox to Thomas & Mack. Doesn't get any better than that, especially when you want to digest a lot of games and player observation. I'm sure most real scouts would agree, Cox Pavilion is a much better place to watch Summer League. Sometimes Thomas & Mack ends up being so empty, you can hear the air conditioner in the background. Then again there are more Row 2 seats available at Thomas & Mack.
- Kind of finding out what teams are up to. Why would the Spurs have an entire roster of 6'7" tall guys who can shoot? Hmmm. What does Joe Dumars see in Rodney Stuckey and Aaron Afflalo? Well, one year later, we know what Dumars saw in Stuckey. Stuckey just didn't do much of what he did in the 2008 playoffs in the one 2007 Summer League game I saw him play last year, but you could tell he had the right body type to take the grind of the NBA. Meanwhile, Afflalo doesn't seem to have a promising NBA career ahead of him and last year he was as uninteresting as Stuckey, only not as physically imposing as Stuckey. Maybe he was the insurance policy in case Stuckey turned out to be a bust.
- Kind of figuring out what happened (or happens) to certain players. Belinelli is the perfect example. It's pretty clear that his rookie season was all mental. His success in Summer League probably made him put too much pressure on himself. Also, humility is an excellent way for someone to learn from his mistakes. After such a breakout Summer League, perhaps it was difficult to be humble. In other words, when you were hitting from left and right in Summer League, you start expecting to hit left and right in NBA practice and games. When you don't, all you do is launch some more, because you already proved you did it. Well, maybe you should be working on other aspects of your game, and the shooting will come back naturally? Also, the real NBA has a lot bigger guys. You have to have nerves of steel to train your mind to trust your skills even though everyone around you just got bigger than the previous environment. (Either that or go balls out on the weightlifting, which could adversely affect your shot.) You see how it gets all mental? I think Stuckey ended up being the opposite example of this. Barea is somewhere in the middle, too, similar to Belinelli's situation. McGuire just needs more minutes, maybe on a team that will value what he has to offer (that most other players can't, which is rock-solid defense).
- Finally, the excitement of possibly finding a diamond in the rough. Granted, most Summer Leagues games are sloppy. Most of the big men suck. Some of the no-name guards, you wonder if they can merely get by the full-court pressure without dribbling off their foot (that kid Funk on the Warriors!). But when Barea shows flashes of controlling a halfcourt offense or DJ Strawberry takes it to the hole on a smaller point guard, or Dominic McGuire records multiple blocked shots and completely shuts down whomever he is defending, that's when there are a few sparkles that make you wonder. Hey, this is no different than how high school varsity used to be when there were summer leagues (well before the AAU era). Back in the day, we didn't really care what the score was and neither did our coaches. We were out there to show off our skills, possibly improve a little and listen to what the coach had to say (and mind you, he definitely had a lot of things on the plate he could bring up), learn how to play with teammates, while at the same time learn how to shine and enter some semblance of limelight. The play was sloppy, but you looked for flashes of brilliance. Then you evaluated whether or not you could possibly "bottle up" that flash for that player or not. You look for the things that could ultimately lead to the process of winning at a bigger stage sometime in the future. That's the magic of Summer League.
Without further adieu, I publish my notes from last year. Granted, some of these notes don't really dig all that deep. Like I said before, sometimes you have to get lucky and the sample size is not that much...
- MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: Cory Brewer looks so incredibly wiry, like an alien. Without the illusion of those ultra-baggy Florida shorts, Brewer looks even skinnier in the standard-issue NBA nylon shorts. Mateen Cleaves just doesn't have the lightning quickness you need when you are that small. What's the fuss about Randy Foye (2006 Summer League MVP, I believe)? He doesn't appear to have anymore moves than the similarly sized Rashad McCants. In my notes, I describe Foye's passes as "plastic" (?).
- SAN ANTONIO SPURS: I don't have any first names and I lost the program booklet, but in the two games I saw, Gadson seemed to be the best out of all the 6'7" shooters they had. Remember, the Spurs had no draft picks in 2007. Williams seems to be a lighter-skinned carbon copy of Cory Brewer. Matt Haryaz is not all that bad. He uses his long limbs.
- DETROIT PISTONS: Neither Stuckey or Afflalo seem all that remarkable except for Stuckey's wide body. Neither seems quick enough for the NBA. Coach Terry Porter seems to argue too much with the refs. I mean, first of all, these are Summer League refs, not guys and gals who are in the regular season NBA rotation. Secondly, this is Summer League, for chrissakes! Maybe Porter just wants to show off that he's a dedicated coach ready for a head spot in the association?
- WASHINGTON WIZARDS: Dominic McGuire is built strong and plays great one-on-one D. He drew a travel on the Kings' Garcia. McGuire is a like a more athletic Bruce Bowen. He also has way more upside than Bowen. I still can't believe McGuire used to be a skinny Cal Bear, but that's another story. JR Pinnock has pretty good moves to the hoop. Nick Young's jumper is suspect. Perhaps he holds the ball too low on his palm. If they are calling McGuire "Nic" (short for "Dominic"?), isn't that confusing with Nick Young also on the court? In the second game that I saw Young play, he had more "flash", but then again it was against the rather boring Pistons guards in Stuckey and Afflalo. One time at the end of a quarter, Young had the ball with 10 seconds to go when a fan yelled out, "Go!", but Young did not go until a few seconds afterwards. It reminded me of my witnessing George Karl telling Carmelo not to make his move until 6 seconds left.
- PHOENIX SUNS: In person, DJ Strawberry looks taller than 6'5".
- PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Gerry McNamara is just too small. He yells, "I don't just fall on my face!" to one of the refs (uh, Gerry, get over it, you're the smallest guy on the court, what did you expect?), who happens to be Riel Banaria, a friend of mine who has reffed our Asian American community tourneys. Banaria is now a full-time ref in the Korean Basketball League. Louis Williams has pretty good handles.
- BOSTON CELTICS: Glen Davis is like a juggernaut. He yells, "Gimme that!" as he tries to grab a ball heading out of bounds. He even gets slapped in the face at one point, but doesn't seem to have felt it. Leon Powe is, as expected, hustling like crazy, but only shows a post-up hook move. As a Cal alum, I can tell you that he has more than that. Cool to see ex-Warrior Clifford Ray cracking the whip on the young big men, especially with his deep, deep voice.
- CHINESE NATIONAL TEAM: Yi Jianlian's name is getting butchered left and right by the announcer. In fact, the announcer is butchering nearly every Chinese player's name. A Chinese lady and her mother chuckle a bit. Nice that they can laugh about a guy who clearly did not do his homework (c'mon, dude). Anyways, Yi tends to shoot from the right side of his head. There's no need for Yi to be hacking down on a drive by the Knicks' Renaldo Balkman -- just keep your hands up against the shorter opponent, young fella. On offense, Yi has trouble with the jump-stop, resulting in a travel. At one point, Yi had the ball down low on Nate Robinson, but kicked it out to Wang Zhi Zhi, who missed the three-pointer. Another time, the coach unbelievably took Yi out after an and-one. I guess Coach has never heard of adrenaline. Yi is always setting picks for guards who have tunnel vision. I've already posted about the sad situation of the Chinese National Team (I hope for the sake of the Olympics that they have disposed of their coach since last year). What's up with the ego of Wang? He quips to a ref, "First time, huh?", then waves his hand at the ref in disgust. Wang, that ref probably doesn't even know who you are.
- NEW YORK KNICKS: Sure, sure, Nate Robinson looks great, but seriously, who on the Chinese National Team can possibly guard him? I think you could go out to Doolittle Community Center and pick five random guys and get better defense! At least they would foul him. Unfortunately, I cannot really say anything about any of the Knicks because this game against the Chinese National Team is a waste.
- SACRAMENTO KINGS: Spencer Hawes has okay moves, a decent turnaround (except he can't hit). Fernando Garcia is a tall finesse point guard, but somewhat too rigid. He's not a good penetrator in traffic. He's the undisputed leader of the Summer League team, though.
- DALLAS MAVERICKS: Popeye Jones is the coach! J.J. Barea can hit the open trey and although he is pretty short by NBA standards, in real life the man is ripped! He can force a change of direction on defense, but that's about it. Overall, he's tough as nails, fast and strong. Sort of a mini-John Stockton. Being from Warrior country and witnessing Keith Jennings and Earl Boykins, Barea certainly has the potential to become a Dallas crowd favorite. Brandon Bass plays bigger than his 240 lbs. Nick Fazekas can't even run down the court without looking like C3PO, but he is somewhat spidery on defense.
- DENVER NUGGETS: Jelani McCoy is being aggressive and single-minded, which is good, but I don't understand the stare-down on Pops Mensah-Bonsu at the end. Why is Ed O'Bannon arguing with the ref? This is not the 1995 NCAA National Championship!
- LA LAKERS: You know how George Karl has that scar near his cheek which makes him look a little intimidating? Well, his son Coby Karl looks even meaner, without any visible scars. Coby is fearless. He's also somewhat emotion-less in a good way. Nothing fazes him. I definitely think his apparent nerves of steel have a place somewhere in the NBA.
Well, this was all just looking back at 2007 and reminiscing. I can't wait until for the diamond-hunt again later today!!! And this time I won't wait a whole year to post about it (hey, I was busy and it's not like I'm getting paid to do this!)...