Summer league has come and gone and, after a year off, the NBA’s premier offseason event delivered again, with seven games a day and unfettered access to players and personnel.
It’s been three weeks since the Clippers played their first game, and plenty has changed with the roster since its last, but hopefully it’s not too late to empty out my notebook from the time I spent out there. For practical purposes, I have divided the roster into three pretty clearly defined groups: the veterans, mostly in search of training camp invites, the precious few young members of the core, and the prospects.
Each organization goes to Vegas with a different look. Teams like Houston and Golden State are there, showcasing premium lottery talent up and down the roster. In many cases, these are the players being counted on to carry franchises to greater heights.
Relatively speaking, the Clippers brought a group that lacked excitement, so it seemed fitting that their schedule didn’t begin until after the first weekend. Because they were short on franchise building blocks, they used Summer League as an opportunity to work on things, track the progress of a couple second- and third-year guys, and to get an intimate look at a few potential back-of-the-roster candidates.
The fact that the three players who led the team in minutes were Adam Morrison (30 mpg), Hilton Armstrong (25.6) and Antoine Wright (25.6), tells you all you need to know about the Clippers’ summer league entry. By the end of the week, the team’s identity would be tied to these former lottery picks, who showed up with intention of proving that they still had something to offer. As non-roster members of the Clippers, that meant they were there to impress someone. Because of potential openings at the small forward and backup center as summer league began, perhaps one of these three could emerge as a roster option for the Clippers.
But by the end of the week, only Morrison remained as a viable candidate for a roster spot. He was so good, in fact, that the Clippers were convinced he had played himself into a guaranteed contract. (They said nothing about plans to use a roster spot on him themselves, and acquisitions elsewhere suggest such plans did not exist.)
As one Clipper official put it, Morrison was essentially “the best player out there.” He explained: “People say Tobias Harris (2011 1st round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks) looks good, but that guy is a key part of their future.” Morrison, on the other hand, was available to the highest bidder.
In his quest to “change what people think” of him, all Morrison did was come out and average 20 points and five rebounds a game, with the efficiency you might expect from a former third overall draft pick. He shot 55 percent from the field, 62 percent from three, and 79 percent from the line.
Directly following a week in Orlando with the Nets, he came to Vegas and just got better and better. His 26-point, six rebound finale was deserving of every MVP chant it drew from the Cox Pavilion faithful. But alas, he didn’t even make the summer league All-Star team and the Clippers landed Grant Hill.
According to his coach, Robert Pack, Morrison did everything he could to dispel the myth that he is “just a shooter.” Pack noted his versatility as a scorer and praised his ability to find the open teammate. By the end of the week, he had convinced many watching that he deserved at least an invite to camp, and that the Clippers might even be a good fit. With his size, if he’s shooting it like he did, you could certainly see the argument.
Armstrong looks the part of backup NBA center, but he did nothing to inspire, and you could make a case that no one involved in the Malcolm Thomas Massacre should be allowed back onto a basketball court. That was on the last Saturday night, against the Bulls, when the rookie from San Diego State erupted all over the Clippers for 21 points on 9-11 “shooting” (almost all were monster dunks) and 16 rebounds. Since then, the Clippers have signed both Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf — probably a sign of how they feel about Armstrong.
And for every Adam Morrison, there are many more Antoine Wrights. Lessons like these are crucial to putting summer league in proper perspective. Another former top pick with all the measurables to play the 3, Wright came out firing, and not until the final game of the week was he able to locate the basket. He shot 29 percent overall, including 0-9 and 3-10 clunkers in the first two games.
At one point, the Warriors trotted out a lineup you could eventually see starting together — especially considering the fragility of Andrew Bogut and Steph Curry. A handful of others featured five or more young players under contract, many of whom integral pieces of the teams’ futures.
For the Clippers, this category consisted of Eric Bledsoe, Trey Thompkins — essentially the last two guys in the rotation last season — and Travis Leslie, who missed the week with a right calf injury.
Bledoe’s mission was clear from the beginning. Pack said he was there to work on “his decision making, getting in the paint, and finding the right plays, and I think he did that.” In an NBA TV interview Vinny Del Negro agreed with Pack, and ultimately, gaining favor with his head coach is most of the battle.
In three games, he averaged 12 points and finished third in summer league in assists with 5.7 a game. He also committed almost five turnovers per game, but Pack excused them due to unfamiliarity with new teammates and from a scouting perspective, they were more of the “good turnovers” we’ve seen from him before. He showed off a few nice midrange jumpers and on a couple occasions made strong drives down one side of the lane and found teammates over the top of the defense in the opposite corner. Unlike some young pros playing in Vegas who stick around, Bledsoe left town altogether after his mission was complete.
Trey Thompkins looked like we think Trey Thompkins should look in the 12 minutes he played, before went down with a hyperextended knee. He and Bledsoe had a nice high pick-and-pop game going that led to two two nice jumpers from the top of the key. It’s a real missed opportunity to impress the coaching staff, but he stuck around for the entire week and seems to understand what he has to do to get on the floor. Which is, basically, everything: “Make sure I’m being a basketball player, not just a pick and pop guy. Make sure I’m making plays for other guys, being a good teammate, rebounding, setting screens, and playing defense.”
Travis Leslie missed an opportunity, as well, but unlike his Georgia teammate, his path to playing time is less clear. With Willie Green now in the fold and a roster littered with injury risks, his roster spot could be in jeopardy when Chauncey Billups returns, or sooner.
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but NBA teams that don’t utilize the D-League are missing out. This is never more apparent than at summer league. There is so much talent out there, and while it’s not all NBA-ready, there is no reason to believe development is possible in other sports but not in basketball. Even the Clippers, with no draft pick on the roster, had a few guys you could easily see finding a role after some professional strength training or skill work.
They are limited by roster restrictions — they can only keep 15 guys under contract, so practically only one or maybe two could be dedicated to player development — but keep an eye out for the following guys should they make it to training camp.
If the Clippers had to dedicate one roster spot to development, I’d be in favor of using it on Cameron Moore. Moore, who told me he had played with Eric Bledsoe for four years growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, really jumps out at you with his length and demeanor on the court. He’s 6’10” and is adjusting to playing on the perimeter after playing in the post at UAB. Like Devin Kharpertian of Nets are Scorching, who witnessed him “affect the game on both ends of the court” at the Nets combine before the draft, I couldn’t help but get excited.
He said his strength is rebounding and that he “doesn’t mind playing defense, getting up on somebody, but of course I love to crash.” His stroke is still developing, but he has nice form and acknowledged that he’s working on it. He got fewer than 15 minutes a game, but he finished with eight rebounds in 20 minutes in the finale. Like his buddy from Birmingham, he told me the coaches had him working on taking his time and slowing down his mind. But you could dream on his potential.
If this were baseball, Moore might be headed to High-A Rancho Cucamonga, with a career trajectory that would put him in the big leagues around 2014. Here’s hoping that he at least makes it to training camp so they can see what’s out there.
Talor Battle, the rookie point guard out of Penn State, benefitted most from Bledsoe’s departure. He barely played for the first three games, but over the last two, he had 32 points on 20 shots, including 8 of 12 from three. He’s got legitimate range — the Celtics bench was yelling “shooter” every time he touched the ball on the last Sunday — but he still drained five of six from deep. Robert Pack praised his ability to “run the show” once Bledsoe left. He’s another guy you could see making a contribution down the road, but will probably end up going back overseas instead.
I know some are very high on Terrico White, and why not? He certainly has the tools — he’s listed at 6’5″ and does two things very well that the Clippers could use from a guard: rebound and defend.
His week was basically the opposite of Battle’s, in that his minutes came early on and so did his best games, but the two find themselves in similar situations with the team. Both have potential, White especially so because of his insane athleticism, but neither figure to crack a roster that features no fewer than four healthy guards and Chauncey Billups. White’s chance to make the team probably passed with yesterday’s deadline to make Leslie’s deal fully guaranteed, but it probably wasn’t a good sign for White that with Leslie injured and Bledsoe gone, he had an 0-8 night and then disappeared in the finale.