NBA Summer League 2013: Veterans With Most to Prove This Offseason
The NBA junkies going through withdrawal over these past couple weeks finally had their thirst satiated on Sunday, as summer league festivities got underway in Orlando.
There are two major summer league events on the NBA's calendar: the tipoff in Orlando and a finale in Las Vegas. The latter event tends to carry more weight with 22 teams, compared to the 10 in Orlando, while the Vegas summer league also lasts for 10 days.
But for players participating in Orlando, these games are either a vital beginning to their careers or the opportunity to stave off the end.
Most top rookies who have signed their deals are in attendance, with the Magic's Victor Oladipo, the Jazz's Trey Burke and the 76ers' Michael Carter-Williams among the most notable names. There are also a host of undrafted free agents and second-round picks looking to impress their current clubs and make a roster.
Perhaps the most interesting players to watch in Orlando, though, are the guys who have NBA experience. These rookies are getting their first taste of even minor league NBA ball. To see them dribble the ball off their feet—figuratively and literally—is understandable.
For guys who have stood across the battlegrounds from the game's elite to struggle when taking the talent to a D-League level? That's concerning. As Bruce Arthur of The National Post pointed out on Twitter yesterday, there is only one law of NBA Summer League play:
It's awesome that Kelly Olynyk was great today, but again, the rule of NBA Summer League is it can't tell you who can play; only who can't.— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) July 7, 2013
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few of these veteran players who will have to prove themselves to their current or another team this offseason.
Jonny Flynn (PG, Indiana Pacers)
For fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jonny Flynn will forever be remembered as the man taken one spot ahead of Stephen Curry in the 2009 draft. By now, his draft story is so infamous that it should come as secondhand to most fans. In one of his fits of infinite wisdom, Timberwolves general manager David Kahn took Flynn with the sixth pick in that draft, just one selection after he drafted fellow point guard Ricky Rubio
It was the first of many signs that the Kahn era wouldn't go so great. And, of course, it didn't. Flynn, who flamed out of Minnesota in two seasons and then played a total of 29 more NBA games between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, became a symbol of the Kahn era's rampant incompetency.
In Indiana, it's possible that Flynn could get a second chance—so long as his solid play overseas last season finds a way to carry over. Flynn signed with the Melbourne Tigers of the National Basketball League in Australia for the 2012-13 campaign and excelled. He was named to the league's All-Star Game and was a second-team All-NBL player after averaging 17.4 points and 5.9 assists per game in Melbourne.
The level of competition obviously isn't the same as it is stateside, but it gave Flynn a glimmer of hope. He was signed to the Pacers' offseason squad in hopes of landing a bench role, which seems possible considering the depth issues in Indiana. The team already signed C.J. Watson to fill its backup point guard role, but all Flynn is looking for is an opportunity.
Flynn already has an uphill battle ahead of him. He got the dreaded "DNP - Coach's Decision" in the Pacers' 76-68 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, a game in which Indiana could have used an offensive spark plug. There are any number of reasons guys don't get burned in individual games, but Flynn has little time to waste. Teams are much more likely to discard a player with NBA experience not excelling than ones who are just getting their first crack.
Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times notes that Flynn will also make the trip to Las Vegas to play with the Los Angeles Clippers' summer league squad. Either way, getting on the floor is step No. 1 for Flynn finding NBA redemption.
Jeremy Lamb (SG, Oklahoma City Thunder)
Jeremy Lamb isn't quite getting his second shot at having an NBA career. He's still just one calendar year out of Connecticut, and there is presumably plenty more to write in his professional journey.
That said, Lamb's summer league performance could be an initial indicator of where he'll stand on the Thunder hierarchy next season. They've already lost 2012-13 sixth man Kevin Martin to the Minnesota Timberwolves in free agency. Martin is a minus defensively and appeared only sporadically during the postseason after Russell Westbrook went down, but Oklahoma City will have a tough time replacing his production—especially if Lamb is unable to step up.
The former UConn standout had a completely nondescript rookie campaign. He made only 23 appearances with the Thunder, averaging 3.1 points in 6.4 minutes per game on a not-so-great 35.3 field-goal percentage. We're obviously talking about a nonexistent sample size here, but it's at least worth noting that Oklahoma City got outscored by nearly 17 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
While that's not exactly what the Thunder were looking for, Lamb did show signs of hope in the D-League. Still unable to find his strong form from long range—Lamb was touted as a three-point gunner coming out of college—he still managed to score 21 points and grab 5.3 rebounds per game for the Tulsa 66ers, leading them to the playoffs.
With the Thunder continually showing patience with their young talent, that excellence at least shined some rays of hope. But it will be absolutely necessary that Lamb continues showing those flashes in the summer.
As most are aware, the 21-year-old guard represents far more than a lottery pick from last year's draft. He and Steven Adams are vital cogs to the James Harden trade, which, as of now, looks like one of the five worst in NBA history. Should Lamb bust and Adams not develop offensively, that trade will forever be marked as a momentum-shift in league history—especially after the Houston Rockets parlayed that deal into wooing Dwight Howard last week.
Lamb was a principal in that trade, expected to blossom to the long-term answer at the 2—either as a sixth man or in the starting lineup. We're still a long way from having any concrete answers, but Indiana did an excellent job of bottling up Lamb on Sunday. He shot only 5-of-16 from the field en route to a 14-point performance that ended when he fouled out of the game—a rarity for summer league.
The pressure hasn't been ratcheted completely up yet, but we're getting there with Lamb.
Alec Burks (PG-SG, Utah Jazz)
While not facing the pressure of an all-time terrible trade, Burks' career might be at a crossroads far worse than Lamb's. The former lottery pick is in the third year of his rookie contract, which usually means the relative indignity of playing in summer league is behind him. Of the players in Orlando, he's the only one in his class to be taken in the lottery.
Things, as they say in the streets, aren't going to be chipper for Burks in Utah. He's had two seasons of almost identical production, none of which has been all that promising. He averaged seven points per game on 42 percent shooting, facing trade rumors almost since the beginning of the season.
Hope for Burks came in the form of playing the point, which was necessitated by injury late in the season. Utah outscored opponents by nearly 15 points per 48 minutes when Burks played the point, as his length and athleticism made him a handful for opposing guards. It was still a process for him working as the primary ball-handler, and Burks still needs some work on his court vision, but he at least looked salvageable in those minutes.
Of course, Utah did nothing but put a glaring spotlight on Burks' future on draft night. The Jazz traded both of their first-round picks to trade up to No. 9, drafting the rights of Michigan point guard Trey Burke. An all-everything guard at Michigan, Burke is all but expected to take over the starting reins opening night, as a full-scale rebuild is underway after the departures of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap this summer.
With Burks floating into the option years of his contract, he's not just competing for a job. He's competing to collect the over $7 million remaining on his rookie deal after this season. There won't be any definitive answer to that question for a little while, but it's a situation to monitor.
Burke looked miserable in his first summer league game, going 1-of-12 from the field and missing each of his four long-range shots. Meanwhile, Burks dominated in his limited time on the floor. He had 10 points in a little less than 11 minutes, looking like a polished NBA player against guys who weren't in his class.
That's how these things are supposed to go. But over the course of the summer, Burke will get more confident in his game and catch up (somewhat) to Burks. How he responds could answer a $7 million question.
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