I can't believe I'm writing this, but the L.A. Lakers saved my first day at Las Vegas Summer League yesterday.
Sometime in the first half of the Lakers' game against the Philadelphia 76ers yesterday, D'Angelo Russell calmly weaved his way down the floor in transition, head on a swivel to see what was developing. As Tarik Black darted through the key, Russell flung a beautifully-placed no-look pass to him that ended up sailing out of bounds. And there's no contradiction in saying that pass was perfectly placed despite being a turnover -- after being confused into a spin trying to catch the pass, Black turned around acknowledged his fault in the turnover and gave the 19-year-old phenom an apologetic high five.
Even in a botched play, Russell is consistently five steps ahead of the other nine aspiring pro ball players on the floor -- on that play, he slowed down, saw Black coming, took a casual probing dribble in the opposite direction Black was going to draw the defense, and waited for the defense to leave the opening to fire the pass into. Despite the outcome his potential was on full display and everyone, including his teammates who are fighting for their own basketball lives, are acknowledging it in various ways. He's doing things that show a potential mastery of the nuances of the game that often eludes the other hopefuls in Vegas.
Russell finished with a so-so stat line of 14 points on 4-for-15 shooting, a team-high 3 assists to go with a team-high 7 turnovers with a team-high 8 rebounds for good measure. On paper, it was nothing special. But summer league really isn't about what's on paper; it's about how players play and whether they have the tools that serve as signposts that lead down the path of stardom.
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Summer league is a really weird kind of heaven for a basketball junkie. The opportunity to watch top prospects pursue their dreams on the court is unlike any other. Everyone loves feel good stories of hope and in Vegas they are legion. The cost of stalking hope is enduring some awfully ragged basketball — insufficient practice time notwithstanding, there are numerous botched pick and rolls, tunnel vision supplanting court vision and players trying so hard to play their way into a NBA jackpot that they lose sight of fundamentals that someone yelled at them about in high school. Yet the payoff of all of this is the hope that somewhere out among the muck that is The Next Big Thing who will take our favorite team to the promised land.
For those of us trapped in a love affair with the game, summer league allows us to release our imaginations. Even if we sometimes set expectations too lofty for the actual players to meet, the experience of seeing a player explore their talents in Vegas helps you appreciate whatever they become and just how hard the best players have to work to become great. It's not so much the ability to say "I saw him before he ever became a star" as much as having that prologue that helps to frame the rest of the story.
As this is the third year I've attended, I found myself constantly having to remind myself of that while watching the games yesterday. Sam Sorkin, who was sitting next to me for the day, joked that it was nothing like the last game he attended — Game 5 of the 2015 NBA Finals — and as obvious as that is you actually do find yourself having to consciously discipline your vision to take this experience on its own terms. If you don't, particularly as a blogger, the entire thing becomes a massive chore — there is nothing more unpleasant than the blogger who regards the tasks that come with the privileged position of writing freely about basketball as a chore. You have to come here open to the possibility of leaving excited or curious or intrigued about something. Russell epitomized that for me yesterday.
Putting the numbers aside, Russell waits, surveys and picks the best possible angle to create scoring opportunities for his team while other summer league point guards search for glory, force the action and hope for the best outcome — Russell is about as close to a natural for his position as we'll see in summer league. There are others at summer league who have shown similar court vision — former Warriors Scott Machado came to mind as someone who displayed all the court vision in the world in Vegas. Current Warrior Aaron Craft has shown some signs of good decision-making as well. What separates Russell is the combination of that ability to distribute and the ability to break his man down off the dribble and score.
With Russell handling the ball and Jordan Clarkson able to guard the quicker point guards that rookies routinely struggle with, the Lakers' backcourt seems to be a strong candidate for the best backcourt in Vegas — I haven't yet seen the entire field this year, but even in comparison to any of the three previous years I've watched this backcourt tandem is impressive. Russell's ease in navigating the court complements Clarkson's riskier play well and keeps the defense off-balance if nothing else. And not only can you start to see them figuring each other out on the court in real-time, but you can start to imagine a brighter future for (often insufferable, particularly in Vegas) Lakers fans. That poise that made him both stand out and know when to pull the ball back and give others a chance to shine is what helped Russell earn a plus/minus of +12 despite those 7 turnovers.
Another player whose summer league numbers probably don't adequately reflect his NBA potential is Kristaps Porzingis. He's rail thin and probably a couple of years away from being a consistent impact player, as others have surmised, but the skill is there — from his ability to create scoring opportunities to the mechanics of his jump shot — and he's not afraid of contact as much as unable to really play through it at this point (I'm directly addressing claims that he might be soft, which I just don't see).
Yet Russell wasn't the only player who caught my eye. In the previous game, Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns garnered the majority of the attention and for good reason: he has a refined post-up game and the physical tools to eventually impose his will on NBA games. But Bobby Portis was one of those players who I just couldn't take my eyes off of and that quality alone has to be taken in the context of the monotony of sitting around and watching these games all day. Portis played with an energy and heart that just made everyone else look lazy. He was beating guards down the floor in transition and posting up Towns and scoring in the half court. It felt like the guy was just everywhere and his numbers sort of back that up, but this is just one of those guys who you just want on your team on principle — anyone who can play that hard and be that efficient is worth looking into further.
And that's all you really can look for at summer league: players with indicators of strengths that might help them succeed at some point in the future. If you're only looking for top statistical performers, you're bound to be disappointed.
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"Warriors play today?" another SB Nation blogger asked as he walked into the bedroom at our shared Blog House as I was laying in bed trying to steal a quiet moment while jotting down notes this morning.
"Yep," I responded in that inattentive matter-of-fact tone I use far too often when I'm preoccupied. "5:30."
"That's the perfect time," he said stopping what he was doing to elaborate. "The 1 o'clock game, the players aren't even awake yet. After the 5:30 game, it just gets too late to be watching that. That's the sweet spot."
Most people here don't even know any of the players playing for the Warriors — when someone asked me and Bram Kincheloe about the roster and we came up with names like Ognjen Kuzmic, Kevon Looney and James Michael McAdoo, he responded, "Ok...but does actually anyone care about any of those guys? Like are they going to make a roster?" But the point, and while I'll be there proudly donning one of the many Warriors shirts that I purchased during and after the championship run, is to continue chasing that dream of watching the budding star emerge in Vegas.
Maybe all of us bloggers and the thousands of fans who show up to watch this stuff are putting way too much into a product that many people see as worthless. I mean, any time there's an unspoken yet mutually agreed upon strategy just to get through a sporting event, you have to begin wondering why on earth you're bothering to invest the time to sit through it and the money to get there. But when you're open to it, there's the potential that you might see something special begin to unfold.
And maybe that day will be today.