NBA Summer League 2013: First Impressions from Day 1 Action

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2013


There were only four games during the opening day of 2013 NBA Summer League action in Las Vegas, but the relatively quiet afternoon and evening doesn't mean the day was without excitement.

The San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Bobcats played their capper down to the wire, and none of the contests were separated by more than eight points.

On a day where the 22-team field kept things mostly under wraps to allow the Orlando Summer League's placement games time to shine, it was nearly impossible to keep your eyes off the Vegas contests.

The Las Vegas Summer League is generally considered of higher quality, mainly because there are a greater number of teams.

There are more than double the amount of teams in Vegas compared to Orlando, which brings forth a ton of advantages. There are more opportunities to hobnob with the NBA elite in attendance and, more importantly, more chances for young players to get their moment in the sun.

For most of the players fans and scouts are watching the closest—the rookies—this is their first chance to create a real impression. Second- and third-year players are also interesting to watch as you look for marked developments in their games. 

Focusing on anything from the final scores of these games is a waste of time. No one puts any stock into win-loss records during the summer league. It's fun when a game is close and things suddenly get tense in the last four minutes, but that's about it.

This is a week-plus of developmental efforts, with young guys looking to prove they're worth the trouble going forward. With a day in the books, let's take a look at some of the more notable takeaways from Friday.


Soooo...Austin Rivers is Good Now?

It might be time to send your Austin Rivers LOLz.doc to the recycle bin, folks. The son of Doc and butt of every NBA writer's jokes last season, Rivers got off to a blazing start in summer league.

Playing perhaps the best all-around offensive basketball since he left Duke, Rivers scored 24 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out six assists. He worked mostly as the Pelicans' primary ball-handler in their 77-72 win over the Knicks, not showing the timidness that marred his rookie season. He looked confident, played with physicality and bullied his way to the line for 11 free throws. 

More impressively, he did so against a real-live NBA defender. Iman Shumpert spent a good chunk of his day covering Rivers, and the opposite was true on the other end.

Shumpert, one of the league's most promising young perimeter defenders, got manhandled on both ends. He failed to make any of his five baskets, turned the ball over four times and was a minus-17 when on the floor—the worst of any New York player.

Now, this is just summer league. We're not about to go lay $1,000 on Austin Rivers being named Most Improved Player or anything quite yet. The 61-game sample size of Rivers' rookie season still speaks volumes about his viability as an NBA starter down the line.

Rivers had one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory. His 5.95 PER was the second worst of any qualifying player in the league. The Pelicans were outscored by six points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor last season. And after starting 26 games early on, Rivers was increasingly being phased out of the rotation.

As someone who didn't love Rivers when scouting him out of college, it gave me some sick level of comfort being right to make fun of that pick. And this offseason, the Pelicans made it clear in no uncertain terms that they weren't in love with Rivers' development either. 

The additions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans will make Rivers finding his way back into having consistent playing time even more difficult.

Barring injury—always a possibility when Eric Gordon is involved—Rivers will be the fourth guard at best. Each of those three players is going to expect somewhere in the 30 minutes-per-night range, which probably means some vomitous time for Evans at the 3.

But if Rivers is at least able to create a decent facsimile of his outing on Friday going forward, New Orleans is going to have even more of a pickle on its hands. 

Still, don't be surprised if Rivers goes out and lays an egg in the Pelicans' next game and we're all over this renaissance come Monday. It's how summer league works.


Dion Waiters—Egads

Has anyone posited the Waiters-Rivers Freaky Friday theory yet? Because if not, I'm calling dibs. 

Waiters, who had a very good rookie season despite some injuries last year, did his best 2012-13 Rivers impersonation in Vegas Friday. The second-year guard missed all but one of his 11 shots, finishing the game with a piddly three points. Cleveland brought Waiters out west to work on his ball-handling and his offensive leadership, but he wasn't up for the task. 

The Cavaliers were able to defeat the Lakers' ragtag group of miscreants 70-62 despite that performance, but reaction tends to shift negatively in these cases. Cleveland didn't have any player who had such an outstanding game that it deserves merit, so many will fixate their concentration on the struggles of Waiters.

The correct reaction here is much as the same as it was with Rivers, in that there is no real reaction. Waiters is prone to shockingly horrible performances.

He hit a below-average 30.9 percent of his jumpers as a rookie. If that's not falling, teams can hang back a bit, which is what the Lakers did. Los Angeles defenders gave Waiters an extra step of space as the game went along, which only made him press a little more.

Cleveland wants Waiters to develop quickly. The Andrew Bynum move was a power play, one designed to put the Cavaliers into the thick of the playoff hunt. They don't want to be sending poor Nick Gilbert to the draft lottery for the umpteenth straight year.

Waiters' development will be key to that effort. Cleveland signed Jarrett Jack to run the second unit, putting any proclamations about Waiters' destiny being a super-sixth man on hold for now.

He's going to start next to Kyrie Irving and possibly Anthony Bennett on the wings. Bennett and Waiters will be the biggest non-injury question marks in that starting five, and their ability to stretch defenses plays a huge role in this team's future.

Waiters has to be better than he was Friday, obviously. But he also has to be a better player than he was as a rookie, period. Being better means these 1-of-11 days need to be much rarer than they were last season.


Calling Charlotte's Future. Are You There? No? OK, Then

The Bobcats' summer league roster boasts three players who are considered major cogs in their future. Bismack Biyombo is entering his third year in the league, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist his second and Cody Zeller his first.

They all were outshined by Jeffery Taylor on Friday, a second-year guard who will be making $788,872 next season.

The former Vanderbilt standout scored a game-high 24 points in the Bobcats' two-point loss to the Spurs, shooting 9-of-17 from the field and throwing down a ferocious slam that might cause Aron Baynes' family to disown him. It was an impressive performance considering Taylor was maligned for much of last season for getting starting nods early in the season. 

Charlotte's other youngsters in the lineup? They could each use a mulligan. Zeller, Biyombo and Kidd-Gilchrist combined to score 23 points—a fun little bit of symmetry that shows just how underwhelming each player was.

Kidd-Gilchrist's 12-point effort acquitted him best. He made six of 12 shots from the field, some of which were even jump shots. The former Kentucky forward hit a woeful 24.2 percent of his jumpers last season, and spacing was a complete wreck when he and Biyombo shared the floor.

Merely knocking down shots—even if his form still needs a ton of work—is a slight win for the 19-year-old forward. He still wasn't great by any stretch of the imagination, as he looked far too much like the exact same player we saw end the season three months ago.

Zeller had eight points on 4-of-9 shooting and grabbed five rebounds. Rookies playing in their first game wearing an NBA uniform tend to get a pass from me, and such is the case with Zeller.

He didn't look totally comfortable in his new skin as a stretch 4, got beat a couple times on the defensive end and failed to make a real impact one way or another. We'll get to see if he's more comfortable in a couple days, at which point more of a takeaway can be had.

On the other hand, Biyombo was just plain miserable. He scored three points on 1-of-3 shooting, with his saving grace being an 11-rebound effort.

At no point in the game did Biyombo look like a third-year player on the precipice of realizing his potential. Rather, he often looked like the same guy who came in completely raw in 2011. But we're talking about one game here, and it's possible Biyombo will come right back with an excellent performance in Charlotte's next matchup. 

The problem is that Bobcats fans have been waiting for a long while now. Nothing that happened in Vegas on Friday made anyone any more comfortable about the future of this franchise.


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