Yes, that’s what you think it is, Blake Griffin on the reverse jam. Considering the agony of last year, it’s comforting to see that he is completely healthy. Earlier in the week, Craig Smith tweeted that Blake was as strong as Karl Malone and as athletic as LeBron. I think that’s a bit hyperbolic, but only a bit.
The scrimmage at Camp Pendleton was definitely a feel good affair. I’ve never been on Camp Pendleton before and, while I knew that bases were little cities, I was impressed by how big Camp Pendleton was. From the back gate to the gym was 4 miles and it wasn’t like the road stopped there, it kept going. The gym itself is cinderblock-chic, the only design modification are the horizontal lines of sandstone cinderblock as a opposed to the normal grey. Outside the courts (there are two, one the Clippers practiced on, the other for the scrimmage) there are pristine racketball courts and beyond that there is a giant workout room filled with myriad machines. Servicemen and women, their families and friends filled the gym seats, most excited to see professional basketball up close, all relieved to be free of the monotony of service and enjoyed something communal in their town.
Even when the Clippers announced that they would take the floor at 1:40 (the event said from 1-3, so it was a bit later than expected), the men and women were relaxed to just be there. The Clippers Spirit performed acrobatics and gymnastics and the delighted applause followed every flip and toss.
When the Clippers finally took the court, fans stood up to cheer. The Clippers Camp team had 18 men in it and they were separated into two teams, White and Blue. Ralph Lawler, tanned and shod in sandals, announced the teams. Playing for the Blue Team was Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Randy Foye, DeAndre Jordan, Marqus Blakely, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jon Scheyer, Jake Voskuhl and Baron Davis (held out, knee). Playing for the White team was Chris Kaman, Ryan Gomes, Rasual Butler, Brian Cook, Stephen Dennis, Eric Bledsoe, Jarron Collins, Craig Smith (held out, back) and Willie Warren (held out, groin). I knew it was going to be a blood bath, clearly the Blue Team was stacked.
The somewhat fuzzy, slightly pixelated picture above came from warmups, which was incredibly entertaining because all the players were letting loose, dunking, doing crazy reverse layups (DeAndre comically did a point guard-ish floater… that went in… surprised me too).
Tip-off came and on the first possession Eric Bledsoe stole the ball from the Blue Team, drove down the court, only to have Blake Griffin take a charge on the other end. Offense was not a highlight of this day as it had such a loose feel. It was amazing to see the players shoot so poorly. The gymnasium may have had something to do with it since the visuals of shooting in large arenas often are cited as disorienting for shooters accustomed to small gyms, it’s viable that the reverse could have an effect.
What was incredible though, was that while one team did dominate the other, it was the White team that played superior. Much of that responsibility can be placed on one player. If you were going to predict who ran the floor, played efficiently (great shot selection and few turnovers), involved teammates, played great D, knew how to work the pick and roll perfectly (both on offense and guarding it on D), would your guess be the White Team’s Eric Bledsoe? Maybe, but he wasn’t the most likely. The Clippers signed Randy Foye because they didn’t know if Eric would be ready to play right away. And yet, here was Bledsoe running the offense beautifully (there was a point in the first half that he ran three straight plays with Kaman for buckets, their chemistry was remarkable). He was unquestionably the reason that the White Team played so much better.
Additionally, here’s a simple, player-by-player breakdown:
Baron Davis – He didn’t look as fit as he did in June and not nearly as fit as he did last year in camp, but he didn’t look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man version that I remember in 2008. He sat on the bench with his knee wrapped in ice the whole time and from what I’ve heard, he’s yet to play with the team in scrimmage situations, not exactly boding well for Baron.
Eric Gordon – Pretty much was on cruise control until the second half when he and his fellow Blue Teamers found themselves in a double digit hole, at which point he began taking it to the rack hard. There was one play specifically where he took a pick from Blake and then split the coverage to go right to the hoop. Beautiful. His shot, still beautiful. For those of you that are hoping he suddenly picked up a court vision, I wouldn’t get too excited. While he makes simple passes well, his passes in traffic were picked off or he fumbled them. Not that this is any different from the Eric Gordon we know, he just hasn’t transformed in to a different player over the summer, just a better version of what we already knew.
Ryan Gomes – He wasn’t a guy that fans hoped the Clippers would sign at small forward, but he’s not going to disappoint either (unless you hope he’s going to have LeBron/Carmelo numbers). In the scrimmage he was a quiet, efficient addition to the white team and a large reason why they won. An interesting tidbit about his offensive style, he’s not a ball-handler so he’s not going to take too many touches away from the rest of the team, and he spends a lot of his time on cuts and curling off screens. And it’s the way he goes through screens that’s interesting. He’s not like Ray Allen or Richard Hamilton where they use their speed and endurance to constantly lose guys on those baseline double screens. Gomes jogs his defender into the screen and when the defender picks a side, Gomes goes the other way. Two or three times during the course of the scrimmage, he found himself with just a touch more space due to that little screen shimmy. Also, he was one of the few Clippers that consistently made outside shots.
Blake Griffin – He is absolutely healthy. On one instance Chris Kaman looked like he was going to shoot and unintentionally pumpfaked because Blake had jumped into his way. Blake was so high that there was no possibility that Kaman could get a shot off (Kaman let Blake fly by and scored two). Another occasion saw Blake attempt an alleyoop, only the pass was thrown behind Blake and as he turned in the air to get the errant pass, he had to duck to make sure his head didn’t hit the backboard. Impressive. If you’re noticing the subtext of those moments, then it’s not going to surprise that he wasn’t great on offense. His shot wasn’t going down and he wasn’t calling for the ball all that often, nor was he effective in the low post when he did get the ball. He was in complete garbageman mode, playing great defense (one or two good blocks) and rebounding well.
Chris Kaman – Were it not for Eric Bledsoe, Kaman would have been the highlight of the day. He looked comfortable and coordinated on both ends of the floor. While he hasn’t magically gotten faster over the off-season it did appear that he has more spring in his jump, evinced on a play where he (after receiving a pass from Bledsoe) went for a monster left handed jam. I just hope he stays healthy.
Bench Rotation Guys
Randy Foye – He is very strong and when he got his man on his hip, Randy went to the hoop. There were a couple times where he looked uncontrolled, jumped into defenders and couldn’t thread a pass to another player (he and Gordon had similar problems). He struggled to guard Bledsoe, everyone did, but he probably did the best job.
DeAndre Jordan – If you were hoping that DeAndre added a post-move or two to his arsenal of dunking and, well, dunking, then you’re going to be disappointed to hear that I didn’t see any signs of it in the scrimmage. While he did appear to be more comfortable in his positioning, he fumbled passes, was called on charging, and dribbled the ball off his foot. The dunking though, that’s still there as he had a thunderous dunk (the hoops were on metal overhanging supports so it was much louder than in an arena with the stanchion base hoops). It should make you feel better that he made his two foul shots, in a similar manner (two rainbows, one swish the other heel in), which was a pleasant surprise.
Eric Bledsoe – Holy mole, he looked good. It’s still hard to believe that the best looking player on the floor was the one that spent the vast majority of last year playing a different position (he had to defer his point guard position to John Wall). What was most impressive about him was just how patient he was. He made sure that Kaman was set before working the pick and roll and he made real efforts to get the ball to the open man (even if those shots weren’t made). He never took forced outside shots and his dribbling was impeccable. No one could get the ball from him. On defense, he played a sneaky brand, coming up with clever steals by using his bursts of speed to jump into lanes but only when necessary. For the most part he stayed in front of his man, although he made one really simple but astonishing block on Randy Foye on a jumper and then acted like nothing happened. I like humility like that in a player because it means he’s just going to keep trying hard and not get out of the moment.
Rasual Butler – Since I mentioned the Clippers didn’t shoot well, it’s no shock that Rasual didn’t perform well, he missed many open looks. That happens though. What was frustrating was when he was guarded by Jon Scheyer (oh, man, Scheyer can’t guard anyone) and he decided to go to the rim. Not pretty. He just doesn’t have the body control that successful finishers have that allows them to contort through the defense and still have a square, balanced shot at the hoop.
Al-Farouq Aminu – Between him and Bledsoe, the Clippers are going to create some steals and have a show on fast breaks this year. He’s already looking like a player that, though his shot isn’t quite there yet (he kicks out to the left on his shot), he’ll be able to play some effective minutes in the game. On one play, Aminu faked Gomes and then went hard to the basket for a crowd pleasing dunk, so he has other options besides the jumper.
Brian Cook – Ugh. I hope he plays a lot better than that. Good Ole D.J. Foster told me that Cookie went something like 0-9 on jumpers. And he’s never been much of a rebounder. Not exactly a thrilling performance.
Marqus Blakely – Didn’t get enough time to really make an impact, although he did have an impressive goal-tend on Kaman (an after the whistle swat) that clearly showed how athletic he is. One tidbit was the way he lined up for free throw rebounding when his man was at the line. Instead of lining up on the block closest to the opposing player with inside position to the basket, Marqus lined up as far away as possible in the blocks. And while the free throw was made, I did notice that it was an ingenious way to create space as a means to play to his advantage of being quick. Other than DeAndre, he’s probably the player that smiles and talks to guys on the team the most, which is great to have at the end of the bench. He’s a guy that will root for the team and the team will root for him when he is playing. I think chemistry at the end of the bench is extremely important to a team because those are the guys that aren’t getting minutes and most likely to be crabby. He’s very undersized for the position he played in college (power forward), but his athleticism, effort and charisma could combine nicely with an outside shot to make a solid, if unspectacular career (statistically, because he could have some spectacular highlight plays).
Jarron Collins – Meh. Nothing impressive other than his size.
Jake Voskuhl – Meh. Nothing impressive other than his size.
Jon Scheyer – He rocked up wearing mid-nineties Oakley wrap around style rec specs which was the accessory highlight of the day. It made him look like he should be focusing on correct titration rather than running an offense. He appeared controlled on offense if unsuccessful. And defense, ugh, his defense was terrible. On one occasion he guarded Eric Bledsoe and while no one could stay in front of The Bled, it looked like Scheyer was stuck in Matrix slow-mo as Bledsoe flew by him. I’d be surprised if he made the team. I’ll miss the glasses though.
Stephen Dennis – A definite surprise. He’s built like Scheyer (tall, skinny, narrow, with long limbs) but he has a scorer’s feel and was one of the few guys today that consistently got a good shot for himself. He didn’t shoot much from long range, but I’ll be curious to see if he finagles a spot on the team. He would have a better chance if the Clippers didn’t already have Willie Warren and weren’t going to use that last spot for a center.
(Addendum: I received an email from Skye Dennis informing me that Stephen is second cousin to Rip Hamilton. Not bad genes.)
Willie Warren – He was withheld from the game due to a groin/hamstring issue so I didn’t get to see him. I remember from the draft workout that he and Bledsoe played each other and he often settled for difficult shots, which was annoying considering the looks that he can get.
Craig Smith – Also withheld from the scrimmage. Unfortunately for Craig, he has lost his title of “Best Mohawk on the Team” to Ryan Gomes. I’m not sure if there was a belt, a crown or a trophy that goes along with that, but it has to be heartrending to lose that title.
This team is not without flaws, not that any team is, but I’m encouraged by their prospects. What I saw at the scrimmage only solidified my belief that this team could scare .500 this year and has an outside chance, but still a chance, of stealing a playoff spot.
For me, the experience was very unique to be on Camp Pendleton and to see the Clippers play so close. I want to send out a special thanks to Sargent Rodella for escorting me from the gate to the gym and making things run smoothly. Thanks, Troops, I hope you enjoyed the scrimmage.
Bonus: In case you want to go through all the photos, I posted them on Facebook so everyone can see.