16 Takeaways from Day 6 of 2014 NBA Summer League

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2014

16 Takeaways from Day 6 of 2014 NBA Summer League

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    "How's your bracket doing?"

    It's not typically a question you hear in July, is it? But with the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League kicking off its tournament portion on Wednesday, a little dose of that familiar collegiate madness made its way to the pros.

    There were buzzer-beating stunners, heartbreaking second-half collapses and even a plucky underdog knocking off a more talented squad (sort of). Basically, every ingredient that makes the NCAA tournament one of the most exciting spectacles in sports suddenly showed up in Vegas.

    Teams seeded between ninth and 24th did battle Wednesday, and eight winners will advance to face the top eight seeds (that enjoyed byes) on Thursday. There's a consolation bracket for the teams that fell short in the first round, which removes the single-elimination sting of harsher tournament formats.

    But assurances of at least one more game, regardless of outcome, did little to stifle the intensity. These guys were engaged, competitively focused and clearly drawing on the adrenaline rush that accompanies any tournament.

    Well, at least that was true of the guys who didn't skip out on their teams to attend the ESPYs.

    Here's what you need to know from a bracket-busting Day 6 of the Las Vegas Summer League.

Dang, Dieng!

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    Gorgui Dieng had himself a game for the Minnesota Timberwolves' Summer League squad on Wednesday, for what that's worth. Dieng ripped down 19 rebounds—the fourth-most in summer league history—to go along with 13 points and a pair of steals during the T-Wolves' 86-77 win over the Phoenix Suns in their playoff opener.

    Dieng's rebounding prowess is nothing new. The Louisville grad averaged a double-double (12 points, 11.3 rebounds) over Minnesota's last 18 games of the 2013-14 season, 15 of which Dieng started.

    Between Kevin Love's likely departure, Nikola Pekovic's constant injury concerns and the lack of rim protection that those two bring to the table, the T-Wolves shouldn't have too much trouble finding playing time for Dieng, who, at 24, is more mature than your average summer leaguer.

"Warren" out the Summer League

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    DAVID BECKER/Associated Press

    In case you hadn't noticed, T.J. Warren can score. He led the ACC in that department at 24.9 points per game as a sophomore at N.C. State.

    Apparently, that all-important skill hasn't escaped him since he arrived in Las Vegas. Warren, the 14th and final lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft, piled up 26 more points on 11-of-16 shooting in the Phoenix Suns' defeat opposite the T-Wolves. More impressive still, he did all that without so much as attempting a three-pointer.

    In fact, Warren hasn't made a single shot from distance yet in Sin City. His only three attempts thus far came against the Philadelphia 76ers, whom he torched for 28 on Tuesday.

    A long-range shot would certainly do Warren well at the next level. But, contrary to (some) popular belief, the mid-range is still precious territory in the NBA, and if Warren can carve out a niche for himself therein, he may prove to be a valuable addition for the Suns yet.

    "He’s got (scoring) down, that midrange (jumper)," Suns Summer League coach Mike Longabardi told NBC Sports' Kurt Helin. "He’s got a good instinct for the ball, he got a couple rebounds. And he really does well in transition, we get the rebound… and advance it to him and he’s great."

The More Ivan Johnson Changes, the More He Stays the Same

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    Ivan Johnson is back in the NBA after a year playing in China, trying to work his way into a roster spot with the Dallas Mavericks.

    Up until Wednesday, his return was most notable because the Mavs had been using him in a wholly unexpected way. Johnson was shooting threes—lots of them, in fact. Through Dallas' first three games, Johnson, a hulking physical specimen listed at 6'10" and loaded up with muscles on top of muscles, attempted 15 triples.

    Toss in the four he tried in 18 minutes of the Mavs' 82-81 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday and you've got a grand total of 19 three-point attempts in four games.

    That's how many threes Johnson shot in his two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks combined.

    Clearly, Dallas has some changes in mind for Johnson.

    Lest anyone worry the dirty-work specialist whose most notable characteristic as a player is his terrifying skill as an intimidator was losing his edge in his move to the perimeter, fear not.

    Johnson earned himself an ejection in the fourth quarter after being shoved into the basket standard, toppling to the floor, staring at the official and firing off a certain magic word that, most times, is good for an instant trip to the showers.

    Who says perimeter players are soft?

Madness in July

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    You know, maybe there's something to this whole tournament thing.

    The NCAA seems to benefit from the built-in drama of its pet format, and on the first day the NBA implemented it, we got a remarkable buzzer-beater that felt like it belonged in a 12-5 upset.

    Roberto Nelson, a gentleman you have certainly never heard of unless you're an Oregon State alumnus, dialed up some March madness in July, driving the length of the floor to hit an impossible, double-covered three-pointer to give the Hornets the win as time expired.

    Nelson, a long shot to make the roster, wisely chose to take a horrible heave over giving up the ball to any number of open teammates. As a guy auditioning for a spot in the league, Nelson seemed to understand that nobody would have remembered if he'd simply made the right pass to an uncovered teammate.

    Everybody will remember this.

    So, Charlotte advanced, the NBA got exactly what it wanted out of its tournament format, and Nelson got his moment.

    Tournament formats forever!

The Battle of Big Point Guards

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    Kyle Anderson's long been a point guard, even at 6'9". Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, isn't one yet, but he is well on his way to becoming one.

    Both had their moments to shine, though Anderson's San Antonio Spurs easily got the best of the Greek Freak's Milwaukee Bucks, 100-71. Anderson, the All-Pac-12 performer out of UCLA, showed off a smoother, quicker shooting stroke, including a pair of jumpers to open the game. Anderson finished the afternoon with 14 points on 4-of-9 shooting.

    Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, looked like a kid who's still learning the tricks of his new trade. He attacked the basket without fear, but he didn't exactly take great care of the ball while he had it in his hands. He didn't register a single assist against six turnovers, though having the ball in his hands didn't hurt his scoring any (20 points).

    Luckily for Antetokounmpo, he'll have plenty of time in his career to catch up to where Anderson is in the floor-general trade. As NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper noted:

    He will get more time, here and almost certainly into training camp.

    The Bucks see the possibilities, from putting opponents in matchup hell to creating more versatility so the second-year player from Greece fits with Jabari Parker, the second pick in the draft who some teams think can be a small forward, Antetokounmpo’s primary position last season, or power forward.

Toeing the Line

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    Jabari Parker had far from his finest outing on the Bucks' behalf, but, like any scorer worth his salt, he found a way to put points on the board.

    That is to say, he got to the free-throw line. Parker took 12 of his 13 attempts from the stripe before he put the ball in the basket from the field even once. He finished the afternoon on a mere 3-of-7 shooting with seven turnovers, but he still wound up with 16 points, thanks to his ability to draw fouls.

    That, in itself, is an important skill to have in the NBA. It's also one that Parker has long demonstrated. He averaged 6.1 free-throw attempts per game during his freshman year at Duke, and he now has two games of double-digit foul shots to his credit as a pro.

    Parker's size and skill portend many more nights spent shooting uncontested 16-footers from a standstill. If that proves to be the case at the actual next level, Parker could establish himself as the focal point of Milwaukee's offense in a hurry.

The Mighty Have Fallen

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    It's probably not a real point of pride to be known as the league's most dominant summertime team, but the Golden State Warriors really did seem to care about their four-year undefeated streak in Vegas.

    Well, that run ended in a one-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on July 14, and the Dubs built themselves a new streak by falling to the Atlanta Hawks in their opening-round matchup on Wednesday. There will be no joy in Oakland; a third consecutive summer league title is no longer in the cards for Golden State.

    Steve Kerr's boys will venture into the consolation bracket which, in the grand scheme of NBA competition, might literally be the most meaningless location imaginable.

    Still, for guys such as Justin Holiday, easily the biggest and most surprising contributor for the Warriors so far, one more game to make an impression can't hurt. It was his potentially game-tying triple at the buzzer that rimmed out against Atlanta, and the fact that he was the one to take the shot says plenty about how much he's shown this summer.

    The Warriors, now losers of two straight summer contests, at least have an intriguing prospect to consider.

    Hopefully, that'll be enough to help them get over the devastating, franchise-altering disappointment of breaking their venerable streak.

Major Payne

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    No, the numbers haven't quite been there for Hawks rookie Adreian Payne. And yes, the Michigan State product has played with the kind of rushed pace you'd expect from a player with zero professional experience.

    But sometimes, you just get a feeling about a player.

    Maybe it's Payne's universally recognized "good guy" status that makes me want to believe in him. Without question, he's a player worth rooting for—if only on a personal level.

    Then again, Payne's intriguing combination of size (6'10", 245 lbs) and perimeter touch (he hit 42.3 percent of his triples last year at MSU) that give rise to a gut sense saying he'll be an impact player. Against Golden State on Wednesday, those qualities were on full display.

    He scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 26 minutes, hitting a couple of threes, snatching a pair of steals and more than holding his own against the competition from a physical standpoint. The Hawks are unabashed fans of players who can shoot the ball, regardless of position. So if there's a place for a bruising forward who can knock down threes consistently like Payne, it's Atlanta.

    The growing pains have already started, and there will be plenty more in the future. But Payne seems like a guy who's going to make it.

    And if you're not rooting for that to happen, well...I'm not sure we can be friends.

Some Pros Take the Night Off...

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    Wednesday's showdown between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers was more notable for who didn't play than for who did.

    Shabazz Napier and James Ennis, both of whom have signed on with the Heat, didn't play. Napier wasn't with the team (he attended the ESPYs in L.A. instead), while Ennis took the night off on account of a strained groin. On the Clippers' side, Delonte West saw his pursuit of a training-camp invite sidetracked by an ankle sprain.

    These absences didn't necessarily detract from the game itself. The two teams played it close throughout, with the Heat pulling out a 97-87 victory at Cox Pavilion. But with the name players (relatively speaking) out of the running, the buzz in the building wasn't quite where it would've been otherwise.

...While Others Take the Opportunity to Shine

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    That's not to say the Heat-Clippers matchup was at all devoid of experienced pros making meaningful contributions.

    Justin Hamilton, whom Miami signed out of the D-League this past March, was arguably the player of the game. He racked up 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including a pair of three-point plays—one from beyond the arc and one the old-fashioned way on a crowd-pleasing slam.

    Hamilton had plenty of help getting good looks from Larry Drew II. The son of former Milwaukee Bucks coach Larry Drew dropped a double-double (10 points, 10 assists) to help propel the Heat to victory.

    On the other end, DeAndre Liggins spent the afternoon showing off his three-and-D skills for the Clippers. The Kentucky product hit a pair of threes and accounted for a trio of steals and generally appeared to be in command for L.A.

    As well as these three guys played on Wednesday, don't expect any of them to be any more than bit players (if that) in the NBA once the 2014-15 season rolls around.

The Rockets Won Something

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    With apologies to Trevor Ariza and "future flexibility," the Houston Rockets haven't had the greatest summer.

    Chandler Parsons is gone, Chris Bosh never showed up and key role players such as Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik won't be back. That rapid sequence of events left general manager Daryl Morey miffed and even a bit defensive in an interview on SportsTalk 790 in Houston:

    We couldn’t turn a great decision, which is obviously drafting Parsons at 38 a couple years ago—and of course if we hadn’t made that great decision no one would be talking about anything right now—but we can’t turn that great decision into a bad decision by matching what contract he got… Our odds of winning the title are now higher by not matching.

    Plus, the Rockets started out their summer league slate with three consecutive losses.

    Houston fans, rejoice; something finally went your way!

    That something was a 93-77 win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, a victory powered by an opportunistic defense that forced 25 Canadian turnovers (which, when converted from the metric system, equal 25 turnovers).

    In addition, five Houston players scored in double figures, with Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan tying for the team lead with 18 apiece. That those two were the Rockets' best players against Toronto is especially encouraging because both Motiejunas and Canaan figure to have drastically increased roles this season.

    The same can't be said about the rest of Houston's summer roster.

    No amount of success in Vegas will make up for the assets the Rockets lost out on during the first week of free agency, but a surprising run through the tournament could at least make fans forget about their troubles for a while.

Toronto: Too Polite for Vegas

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    Having never been to Canada, I cannot confirm or deny the stereotype that the inhabitants of that snowy, Molson-producing wonderland are exceedingly polite. But as stereotypes go, that's probably not the worst one to have.

    So let's go with it.

    As confirmation, I submit the Raptors' loss to Houston—a defeat that came after Toronto had amassed a seemingly insurmountable lead in the contest.

    As Adam Reisinger of ESPN tweeted:

    "Raptors were up 26 and lost by 16? That's... carry the two... divide... and the remainder... Bad. That's bad."

    Sure, you could point to the wildly inexperienced Raptors roster that started coughing up the ball like crazy in the second half. And you could also cite Dwight Buycks' alarming eight turnovers in 34 minutes as a reason for Houston's remarkable surge.

    But allowing the Rockets a 19-2 run to start the second half is just too hard to pin on inexperience and careless ball-handling. Clearly, it was a case of overly polite Canadians feeling bad about embarrassing their opponents.

    Here's hoping the regular-season Raptors won't be quite so accommodating.

     

    *Note: Myck Kabongo is actually the only Canadian on the Raptors' summer roster, and he didn't play. Maybe I need a new theory...

The J's Come to Play...But Nobody Else Does

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers looked lethargic on Wednesday, save for their two picks from the 2014 NBA draft.

    Julius Randle started slow, but he wound up having a fairly productive evening. The No. 7 pick racked up 12 points—including several impressive finishes through contact—to go along with six rebounds and three assists.

    The more intriguing outing, though, came from Jordan Clarkson. The Missouri product put his length and fluidity to good use, poking away passes on the defensive end and making plays on the offensive end. All told, Clarkson, the No. 46 pick in the draft, contributed 11 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals.

    Both looked fairly rookie-like throughout, but in time, they could prove to be effective contributors for the big club.

    Just hopefully it's not in 85-63 losses and with some actual help.

Run of the Millsap

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    There's another Millsap running around Las Vegas these days, and he's having himself a grand ol' time while he's at it.

    That's Elijah Millsap, the 26-year-old D-League wing, not Paul Millsap, the 29-year-old All-Star power forward for the Atlanta Hawks. The younger Millsap poured in a game-high 19 points during the Sixers' win over the Lakers. More impressively, he used his strength and quickness to create seven of Philly's 14 steals.

    For most teams, an also-ran like Millsap would wind up as little more than afterthought after the proceedings in Sin City. But for the Sixers, whose NBA roster has become a revolving door for basketball's flotsam and jetsam, Millsap may well garner himself an invite to training camp, with some spare minutes during the regular season if he's lucky.

Summer League Creates False Narratives

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    OK, to be fair, I'm not sure if anybody is actually making a big deal out of the success of a team of D-League All-Stars in Las Vegas. But if they are, it's probably time to pump the brakes on that "little-known, rag-tag band of long shots triumphs over bigger, badder foes" script.

    Why? Well, mainly because the guys populating the D-League roster are every bit as good as the ones suiting up for actual NBA teams. Such was the case as the D-League All-Stars comfortably cruised by the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, riding a game-high 26 points from Toni Mitchell to a 87-75 win.

    As a unit, the D-Leaguers were far sharper than Denver, knocking down 53.2 percent of their shots and winning the battle of the boards by a margin of 39-33. The Nuggets hit just 37 percent of their field-goal attempts and allowed a 31-point explosion on defense in the fourth quarter.

    Clearly, this wasn't a David vs. Goliath scenario. It was more like David vs. David, and one had, I don't know, slightly more sleep the night before.

Michigan State Has It Figured Out

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    We've already gushed about Payne's prospects in these takeaways, and it's practically a crime to have come this far without mentioning the manic delight in every call by breakout superstar commentator Mateen Cleaves.

    "Showtime is yo' time!," Cleaves shouts joyfully after highlights.

    How can you top a guy who is genuinely, wholeheartedly enthusiastic about summer league games? Answer: You can't.

    Anyway, Michigan State has yet another notable summer league participant in Nuggets rookie Gary Harris. The shooting guard, who slipped in the draft largely because of a surprising downturn in his three-point percentage last year, has been one of the more promising young players in Vegas.

    He wasn't hugely productive against the D-League squad on Wednesday, using up 18 shots to get his 15 points, but Harris continued to look like a polished, versatile professional. And that's saying something in an environment loaded with raw, generally unrefined talent.

    Harris lit up the Raptors in Denver's first game, dropping 33 points in his professional debut. And while he hasn't quite measured up to that statistical high since, he has continued to look like a player capable of joining the Nuggets rotation immediately.

    Michigan State has it figured out.