July 20, 2015

Summer League 2015

Today is the final day of the 2015 Las Vegas Summer League. The championship game, which is the only game played today, pits the Phoenix Suns against the San Antonio Spurs in a tournament that means little more than pride. Last year my beloved Washington Wizards bowed out in the semi-finals of the event, a fairly impressive outing that saw an overall 5-1 record plus two all tournament selections in Otto Porter and Glen Rice, Jr., who also managed to snag the most valuable player honor for the entire league. Last year's trip to Vegas was all about those two second year players and the Wizards made pretty much the most of their summer trip to the desert.

This year promised to be completely different. And it was. With no returning summer leaguers whatsoever, the Wizards experience this year was all about Kelly Oubre, our first round and number 14 overall pick out of the University of Kansas, and to a much much lesser extent Aaron White, who we grabbed with our second round pick out of the University of Iowa. White has pretty much zero chance to make the team with our roster already filled with the offseason signings and trades of Jared Dudley, Gary Neal, Alan Anderson and Drew Gooden III. As I've done the past two years under the tournament style format, I made it out to Sin City for two of our three non-tournament games before heading back east with little tolerance for more than three nights in Vegas.

By all accounts (considering the Wizards won three of their last four), I made it to the wrong two games. Not only did the Wizards lose their first two games to the Phoenix Suns and the D-League Select team, they lost pretty handily, getting pushed around by the Suns' second year center Alex Len in game one and then getting out-worked, out-desired and out-experienced by a group of perennial NBDL players dying to make it to or back to the NBA in game two. Not like winning really matters too much in Summer League, but winning's better than losing under almost any circumstance and it's just nice to have it happen once now and again.

The Wizards 2015 Draft class: Aaron White (left) and Kelly Oubre (right).
I think Wizards fans sort of got what we expected in the first two Summer League games out of our draft picks this year. In Oubre, we got raw talent and most likely a project who if he pans out at the projected level of ability, is THE steal of the draft. But we'll likely have to wait and see what he can do in not many minutes on the floor this year. He'll likely be parked on the bench behind Otto Porter and likely Jared Dudley for much of at least the first half of the season.

In his first two games in Summer League he looked more often lost than found. It's not entirely surprising considering he's playing on a team that had been together less than a week but from my perspective in the fifth row or so, Kelly got more than he bargained with when he was going up against older, stronger players, some of whom were almost fighting for their basketball lives. It might not have helped at the beginning of the league that he was being cheered on by a number of visitors from nearby Findlay Prep where he finished out high school. He was one of the only guys I saw there with local and personal support. Sometimes those things can cut both ways.

I thought on the offensive end he was far more effective letting the game come to him than when he created on his own. I suppose every player is but the difference early on was striking; he got rejected several times going to the hoop in what looked like far too ambitious circumstances. When you are 19 years old and going to the basket guarded by two or three older players, you might expect to get blocked or miss. He settled down after the first half of game one but never looked fully comfortable to me unless he was putting back off a rebound or receiving a pass close to the hoop. I would have loved to have been there for his final game when he dropped 30 on the Oleksiy Pecherov-led Denver Nuggets. Just to see Pech and KO going at it would have been amazing.

In other parts of the game, I thought Kelly looked much better. He made a couple of nice defensive plays in the Phoenix game, including blocking a shot on a fast break and taking a charge. He got beat on some one on one match ups but is clearly both gifted and talented. There were a couple of rebounds that he got in traffic that showed how big his wingspan is relative to his height. That's a tantalizing skill if he can harness that.

Final score: D-League Select 94, Wizards 74.
Then there's Aaron White, who showed enough in games one and two where you could understand why he got drafted but also showed enough to validate him being a second round pick. Since draft night, the Wizards have unfortunately (for Aaron) signed enough players to have zero roster flexibility barring an unbalanced trade or waiving a player via the stretch provision (I wouldn't be surprised if we let someone like DeJuan Blair go this route). That means he's stuck in a spot where the Wizards have control of his rights but have no home for him. Barring the Wizards letting him go, Aaron's options appear to be overseas for  decent money or staying at home in the NBDL for very little money.

If there's one thing that impressed me about Aaron it was his ability to run the floor. This is a really athletic guy out on the court, not some stiff who can just shoot. He also had some impressive hops, especially on one offensive rebound putback for a dunk. But he clearly has tons of room to grow. Lack of obvious success seemed to discourage him out on the floor and any hope we had for him being a homegrown stretch four this coming year evaporated with his game two shooting performance where he started 0-8, including a number of bricked wide open three point shots. I know it's difficult to draw any conclusions from two two-hour games but there's more development required here.

Jordan Crawford defending Seth Curry (right).
The Wizards played two games within a span of about 24 hours, playing their first game vs. the Suns on Saturday at 3 p.m. and their second, a 20 point loss to the D-League Select, at 1 p.m. the following day which finished a couple of hours later. Just like that, my two Wizards games were done. I'm not sure I've had a quicker Summer League. Maybe I should stay longer next time. Maybe.

But one other thing I wanted to do with my few hours over at the Thomas and Mack Center was to catch up on a couple of former and almost Wizards since the schedule worked out just perfectly that way. I was not able to see any play from "I got buckets, son" Oleksiy Pecherov but I did catch up on a couple of old friends.

The Wizards played in the third game on the Saturday we arrived in Vegas. The first game that day featured the Dallas Mavericks taking on the New Orleans Pelicans. The starting two guard for the Mavs that day? Jordan Crawford, a guy traded three times in his first four years in the league who once denied ever playing for the Wizards, the team who really gave him the best shot to show the league what he had.

When we first traded Kirk Hinrich to the Atlanta Hawks for Jordan, we acquired our fourth first round selection from the 2010 draft and got a guy who was apparently instant offense and had once dunked on LeBron James and LeBron's own camp. How could we not love this guy? But the organization soon had Jordan playing deep in the rotation behind rookie Bradley Beal, who was younger and more talented and definitely was more interested in playing some defense. Last year Jordan played in China and then spent the tail end of the year playing for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the NBDL, ultimately failing to get picked up for a playoff run by a contender.

The few minutes Jordan played in the one Summer League game I saw were pretty unremarkable but he still gets lost on defense pretty easily, especially when circumstances require him to do something different than just cover his own man. I typically hold grudges against guys who badmouth our franchise after leaving but I don't with Jordan; I just think he's too much of a character. Maybe he can work on his defensive liabilities and be a bit of a spark plug for someone in the next couple of years. If not, I think he's got to be resigned to playing somewhere else other than the NBA.

Glen Rice, Jr., hands on knees, vs. the Phoenix Suns.
Speaking of offensive minded guards who play questionable defense and have perhaps a higher opinion of themselves than they should…

Last November I headed to Toronto to watch the Wizards take on the Toronto Raptors in an early season matchup that didn't go very well at all for my team. There was little positive for the Wizards to take away from that game but ultimately they managed to fix most things about their on court performance which ultimately culminated with a 4-0 sweep of Toronto in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

But one thing we didn't fix about that game was an on court encounter between head coach Randy Wittman and Glen Rice, Jr. which apparently led to another verbal altercation between the two the next day. I noted Glen had some words for Sam Cassell last year during Summer League so this had sort of become a pattern. A couple of weeks after Toronto, Rice was in the D-League. Two months later, he was no longer a Wizard.

I got to see maybe five minutes of Glen Rice on the court during last week's Summer League action. In those five minutes he scored ten points, including two three pointers, one of which beat the buzzer at the end of a quarter. As far as Summer League and scoring go, Rice has that down pat. He led the tournament last year with a  25.0 points per game average and he finished this year with a 19.0 points per game average.

But I have to say as soon as I sat down at the Suns-Rockets game on Sunday afternoon, I saw Rice yelling at the official for some perceived non-call while the play was going on and his man had the ball. While he was focused on the referee, the Suns scored. A minute later on the next Suns trip downcourt, Rice was still upset, lazily kicking his leg out while defending an inbound pass for what should have been a layup (the Suns just blew it) instead of getting his head back in the game and playing some D. Maybe this is super unfair to write this based on five minutes, but he's clearly got some issues to overcome here. No matter how good he is at putting the ball through the hoop, he's not good enough to overcome attitude like this. If he won't outgrow this, I don't see him back in the league anytime soon.

The packed packed packed Thomas and Mack Center.
Finally just a few words about Jordan Clarkson and the popularity of Summer League in general. Jordan Clarkson was the Wizards 2014 second round pick whom we parted with for cash from the Los Angeles Lakers which one could argue we spent on multiple attempts to find a quality bench point guard to back up John Wall. Clarkson's a point guard who made the All-Rookie first team last year. We had him and we let him go.

I've often opined about the Draft being a total crap shoot when you get outside of the top few picks and I get that nobody could have seen an All-Rookie selection out of the 46 pick in the draft but this kid is electric. You could see it in some games the Lakers played last year (especially January 27 when the Wizards visited Los Angeles) and you could see it in Summer League this year. Ernie Grunfled was on our flight out to Vegas this year and I thought about asking him about the draft but ultimately decided against it; every time I talk to Ernie I get very little information because he plays things so close to the vest.

I watched Clarkson last week in the game the Lakers played against the Philadelphia 76ers, a game which featured the Lakers' D'Angelo Russell (number two overall pick) and the Sixers' Jahlil Okafor (number three overall pick). After the Wizards succumbed to the D-League, we figured it would be a good game to watch in a relaxed atmosphere over in the main arena at the Thomas and Mack. Not so much.

I've been coming to Vegas for Summer League since 2008 and I have never ever ever seen the big arena filled the way it was for this game. I get that part of it was the Lakers contingent being so close to Los Angeles but the upper deck was open (never seen that before) and it was genuinely difficult to find a seat in the place. It was insane.

When I first started coming to this event, nobody knew about it. If you got in a cab on the strip and asked to be taken to the Thomas and Mack Center the cab driver usually asked what was going on over there. Getting a cab home was honestly touch and go; the only way you usually got one was if someone was getting dropped off. I have in past years walked to either the Hard Rock Hotel about a half a mile away or all the way to the Strip, which is about a mile and a half. There was never a line for tickets and seats were plentiful inside the arena, with the exception of John Wall's first game in 2010 when the Cox Pavilion was packed solid.

Two years ago, we had difficulty getting tickets and immediately entering the arena so the couple two years, I have bought the first day in advance, incurring hated Ticketmaster service fees. That same year, I finally saw some cabs waiting outside the arena. Vegas was clearly catching on.

This year when we arrived for the Wizards' game one, we saw guys directing traffic and cones set up to define lanes for the expected flood of cabs which were coming. We also stood in line to get into the building all the way down the main steps to the arena. Every year we see Summer League founder Warren LeGarie stalking the sidelines of both the Thomas and Mack Center and the Cox Pavilion and he has to be absolutely ecstatic with the way things are going. This thing is huge business now. I hate complaining about success but this event is no longer the intimate experience it was the first year I went in 2008. It's now Vegas sized and it's different. Might be time for a year off for me. Or I just need to go all in mid-week maybe. Anyway, that's all from Vegas this year. Next up: two months of thumb twiddling before training camp. Ugh!

Waiting in line to get in, Saturday afternoon. Are you kidding me?

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