With Friday marking the official end of NBA Summer League action in Orlando, it could theoretically mark the official beginning of the offseason. Well, it could—if only there weren't another slate of contests beginning in Las Vegas that will arguably trump the week of action in Florida.
The NBA's annual midsummer trip to Las Vegas is often seen as the "real" summer league. If you have to choose between the two, it's the event you choose to go to—and not just because Las Vegas is more fun than Orlando (though that certainly is a factor).
The Las Vegas summer league provides more bang for the buck. There are 22 teams in Vegas, compared to 10 in Orlando. That means more rookies, second-year players and fringe guys hoping to hang on for one last opportunity—and the greater scouting opportunities that come along with it.
There is also a larger congregation of NBA general managers, coaches and other executives, all of whom you can bounce ideas off of and see where they stand. Vegas also allows those team executives to huddle together and speak in hushed tones. I'll be surprised if we don't see one or two semi-major trades come out of this nearly two-week excursion. At the very least, there will be enough rumors to give you goose pimples.
But the biggest draw of this event is seeing a majority of first-round picks in action for the first time. There will be some overlap between the two events in Orlando and Las Vegas, but this is a front-row ticket to the start of these players' NBA journeys.
Friday's action gets things off a little slowly, with only four games taking place. The final scoreboard matters about one-twentieth as much as a preseason NFL game, so we're going to avoid discussing the overarching matchups in the two games. Rather, in previewing these contests, we'll merely look at a few individuals who are intriguing—both first-round picks and fringe guys looking to hang on.
With that in mind, here is a complete look at all of Friday's action.
4 p.m. ET: New York Knicks vs. New Orleans Pelicans
Having pawned off their first-round picks in each of the next two seasons, the Pelicans also punted their intrigue in these events. Anthony Davis is on that rare plane where New Orleans wouldn't think about asking him to participate in this event, and considering his injury-plagued rookie season, it's probably a good idea for all parties if he sticks to training.
As a result, the Pelicans will likely be cellar dwellers in Vegas. Not even the team's second-round pick, 5'10" spark plug Pierre Jackson, is officially listed on the team's summer league squad. It would have been interesting to see how Jackson, whom I touted during the pre-draft process as a Nate Robinson-like difference maker, would have acquitted himself.
Instead, the focus for New Orleans will be on Austin Rivers. The second-year guard is coming off a rookie season that ranks among the worst in NBA history. He finished with a PER of 5.9, which was the second-worst PER of any of the 344 NBA players who had enough minutes to qualify. He somehow managed to have a negative offensive win share, which is really hard to do. It was a top-to-bottom mess and an overarching reason Rivers now sits fourth in the Pelicans guard rotation—and that's if he's lucky.
Finding a way to spark some hope will be key for Rivers this summer.
New York's roster is almost equally uninspiring. First-round pick Tim Hardaway Jr. inked his deal and will be in attendance, but we all have enough tape on him to know who he is. I have a hard time getting excited to see Hardaway play, though he'll probably spark some interest in the Big Apple with one or two big scoring performances.
More intriguing is undrafted addition C.J. Leslie. The former N.C. State product somehow saw 60 picks come and go without hearing his name called, despite most pundits pegging him for a late-30s selection. Leslie is a great athlete with a ton of length. He plays above the rim and could really help the Knicks on the defensive end if Mike Woodson can coax consistent effort. Don't be surprised at all if Leslie is one of the most buzzed-about names coming out of Vegas.
Because his name merits mentioning, Iman Shumpert will also play with these Knicks. New York likely just wants to get Shumpert some work as a primary ball-handler and shooting off the dribble. Not much else to see there.
6 p.m. ET: Atlanta Hawks vs. Los Angeles Clippers
With the Hawks having a mostly depleted roster, their summer league players by and large have little chance of making the senior club.
Outside of first-round selection Dennis Schroeder and second-rounder Mike Muscala, Atlanta has a crew of ragtag players. John Jenkins and Mike Scott will also make the trip, but their appearances will likely be cursory. Jenkins will need to show he's more than a three-point gunner, while Scott's career arch is little more than a 10th man.
Atlanta will want Schroeder to show some promise, but he's a long-term project. His basketball IQ isn't anywhere near adequate at this point. If he shows a couple of nice things in iso and off the pick-and-roll, the Hawks will move on pleased with his effort.
Like many contending teams, the Clippers aren't overloaded with talent in Vegas. First-round pick Reggie Bullock inked his deal just in time to make the trip and should find some success as a primary scorer. The Clippers went on a shooters spree this summer, so Bullock will have to be impressive from now through camp if he hopes to avoid D-League bus rides.
Bullock will be joined by a couple of undrafted rookies in BYU's Brandon Davies and N.C. State's Scott Wood, both of whom could pique the interest of Los Angeles or another franchise. Davies has the length and athleticism to disrupt NBA 4s down low, and he plays with a high enough motor that he'll stand out a bit in the crowd.
Elsewhere, Jonny Flynn will get his second summer league opportunity with the Clips. The former lottery bust of the Minnesota Timberwolves was in Orlando this week with the Indiana Pacers, but things went rather miserably. Flynn was a high-usage player in the limited minutes he was on the floor and still looked a step behind everyone else—even after a nice year in Australia.
He'll have to be a lot better to even get a sniff for training camp.
8 p.m. ET: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Finally, an honest to goodness summer league team that should catch a few eyeballs. Cleveland's roster is filled to the brim with young talent.
Last year's first-round picks Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller will both be playing in Vegas, as will 2013 second-rounder Carrick Felix. Waiters and Felix probably won't share the court much as 2-guards, but the Cavs will need to see something out of the Waiters-Zeller combo.
Both, especially Zeller, left a ton on the table last season, and Cleveland has made it clear it wants to compete for a playoff berth. Waiters should try to play off the ball more and show that he's grown as a jump-shooter. We know he can create with the ball in his hands, but that's not going to help when he's playing alongside one of the game's best young point guards in Kyrie Irving.
As for Zeller, he'll merely have to show he's worthy of being a fourth big. Cleveland's signing of Andrew Bynum pushes him fourth in that rotation barring a trade, which accurately reflects his lack of impact last season. Zeller was never going to be a star in the NBA. He has to prove now that he's worthy of being on the roster.
Interestingly enough, the Cavs brought in some notable collegiate names who at least have a chance of an NBA future. Matthew Dellavedova spent the last couple of years enthralling at Saint Mary's, and his Greivis Vasquez-like game might stand out in the crowd if he's given enough minutes. Kenny Kadji will at least be fun from a name-recognition standpoint, though he doesn't stand much of a chance of making an NBA roster.
The Lakers typically don't throw all that much effort into summer league. Their signings are usually minor or merely cobbled pieces from other teams' rosters.
Dwight Howard is gone, Kobe Bryant could be out until the 2014 calendar year, and the entire organization is pretty much in shambles. While Los Angeles still didn't go out of its way to add any intriguing rookies to its summer league squad as a result—Duke forward Ryan Kelly, the team's second-round pick, will sit out with a lingering foot injury—some guys with NBA experience could make the final roster.
Chris Douglas-Roberts is a typical D'Antoni fixer-upper project. He's an interesting wing athlete who can do a bunch of things well as a defender but just can't shoot from beyond the arc. Josh Selby is also at least worth watching considering he dominated summer league festivities a year ago.
10 p.m. ET: Charlotte Bobcats vs. San Antonio Spurs
The Bobcats' undrafted free-agent signings aren't much to write home about, so much of the focus will be on how their young players in attendance fare.
First-round pick Cody Zeller not only brings the pressure of being the No. 4 overall pick to the table but will also have eyeballs on him for not being Alex Len or Nerlens Noel. Charlotte took a big-time risk taking the Indiana forward-center over the two consensus top bigs in this draft with its first-round pick, ostensibly because it liked the way Zeller stretches the floor. He wasn't given much of an opportunity to knock down mid-range jumpers under Tom Crean, so this will be the first time most see him in that stretch-4 role.
The Bobcats being the Bobcats and such, Zeller probably doesn't want to screw this up.
This year's first-round pick will be joined by lottery picks of each of the last two years. Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte's 2011 first-round selection, will likely start alongside Zeller in the middle. Biyombo was a project when the Bobcats selected him and still carries that label now. He's a passable defender and solid athlete but is an absolute mess on the offensive end.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 2012's No. 2 overall selection, showed real promise as a wing defender once he got more used to how NBA teams use the pick-and-roll but was miserable as a jump-shooter. That was the knock in him coming out of Kentucky, so it wasn't much of a surprise to see him struggle. The Bobcats will need marked improvements from Biyombo and Kidd-Gilchrist next season; otherwise, it's fair to wonder where they'll land in the team's hierarchy going forward.
San Antonio doesn't have the problems with its senior club that Charlotte does, nor does it have as many players to watch on its summer league team. The Spurs typically add a couple of undrafted guys to their roster and fill the remaining spots out with young incumbents, and this year is no different.
Cory Joseph, Nando De Colo and Aron Baynes are the most notable names from last year's NBA Finals team on this year's summer league squad. Joseph has the most talent, which means he could either take a starring role or get 25 minutes total and a free trip to Vegas. De Colo, in his second NBA season, could play a larger role with San Antonio as a ball-handler and shot-creator. Baynes was the garbage-time man during the Spurs' defeat of the Lakers and is battling for a roster spot.
Second-round picks Marcus Denmon and Deshaun Thomas are also listed on the roster and both could play major summer league roles. Neither stands much of a chance of making the senior club any better next season, though.
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