The Phoenix Suns defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 82-69, in their first game of the 2013 Las Vegas Summer League on Saturday.
If CJ McCollum can spend every possession of his NBA career in isolation against Kendall Marshall, he can book his ticket to Springfield right now. If not, well, the plot will be a little thicker.
The Blazers' rookie guard turned in a very nice debut performance, one that, despite some warts, put him head and shoulders about the other 2013 lottery picks through two days here in Las Vegas. Wizards forward Otto Porter floated and floated and floated on his way to a 3-for-13 night; Cody Zeller was active and involved for the Bobcats but far a showstopper; Kings guard Ben McLemore went 4-for-23 in a loss; and Shabazz Muhammad had seven points on seven shots in Minnesota's loss to a team of D-Leaguers.
Then there was McCollum, who enjoyed a nice half of abusing Marshall off the dribble before extra defensive attention from Phoenix swallowed up his night. He finished with a game-high 22 points on nine-for-19 shooting, adding four assists and four turnovers as the Blazers saw a three-point halftime lead evaporate into a double-digit defeat during the second half.
"I think I played alright," McCollum said. "I wish I could get a couple of the shots back, a few of the turnovers on the ball screens. It's a learning experience. ... [I give myself a] B- minus. Too many turnovers. I didn't get to the free-throw line, and a loss."
The two takeaway conclusions from McCollum's successes: he has an innate slipperiness on the ball that serves him well, and he has the confidence and technique to find points in the paint without getting all the way to the rim.
By slipperiness, I'm not referring exclusively to his play of the night, a helter-skelter, yet somehow still controlled, Globetrotters-esque sequence that saw him lose the ball and his balance multiple times before weaving through the chaos to sink a calm mid-range shot. He just possesses a creative handle and a level of body control that makes him unpredictable when facing up against a defender. He manufactures his clean looks, fake by fake, and then calmly makes use of them. He's not afraid to lean at all angles along the way and yet he eventually comes back to even keel. Against Marshall, he really had his way, getting all the way to the hoop along prosperous lines and finishing at the rim with good burst.
"Coming into the NBA, I knew I would be able to score the basketball," McCollum said. "I'm not worried about that. It's more about keeping the turnovers low and finding the right guys on offense. I'm a basketball player."
The second half brought bigger and more committed on-ball defenders and extra help on high screens. Those changes brought a subsequent drop in McCollum's freedom to create and Portland's ability to find offense. Fifteen of McCollum's 22 points came in the first half; he shot just 3-for-9 and had all four of his turnovers after halftime.
The development areas to watch were quite obvious. First, and most obviously, McCollum struggled when Phoenix's big men blitzed the high screens. He kept trying, and trying, and trying to turn the corner, finding himself pushed back into tighter and tighter spaces. Turnovers are an almost guaranteed result under those conditions.
"[The Suns] did a good job of giving me different reads, blitzing ball screens," McCollum said. "It was tough coverage."
As frustrating as it might have been to watch McCollum get pushed into the back court on one occasion and forced to make a desperation pass on another, this should be a relatively easy fix. Damian Lillard showed nice progress early last season in getting a feel for stretching out those big men before finding the right skip pass. McCollum appears smart and aware enough to get this corrected in short order.
There's another element at play: the court shrinks without shooters. Portland's other major guards here -- Will Barton and Allen Crabbe -- combined to shoot 7-for-24 overall and 0-for-5 from deep. Those numbers look better than their actual shooting performances, as Barton found a few buckets in transition late in the game to salvage his line somewhat. No one on the court was truly prepared to penalize Phoenix for loading up on McCollum.
"They started being more aggressive on pick and rolls," Summer League coach David Vanterpool said of Phoenix's second-half defense. "They wanted to slow him down. We tried to make adjustments here and there, but as the ball got to players, we've got to make quicker decisions, as far as what we want to do from there. When you catch the ball, you have to catch and finish, or catch and make a pass and get into another situation."
The second major development area to track is simply McCollum's overall ability as a distributor and set-up man. Here, he is playing more point guard than he will play in the regular season and, zooming out, he doesn't need to be great as a play-maker. Competence, however, would be very helpful.
Even during his stronger first half, McCollum was essentially a one-man show, aside from a very nice early drive-and-dish to Meyers Leonard for a stuff. By the final buzzer, there wasn't another Blazers player who could claim to have played well on offense. That's a reflection of some opening night nerves, some poor shooting, a lot of wasted possessions with low-percentage looks and, it seems, McCollum's wiring as more of a two than a one.
There's no question he will look better as a playmaker when surrounded by better teammates during the regular season, but it's not too much to ask of McCollum to find some easier looks for his teammates as the rest of Summer League develops.
"He has to control his team a little bit better," Vanterpool said. "Bottom line, when he's on the floor he has to make sure guys are in the right spots before we get into whatever set we're in."
Random Game Notes
- Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool coached on Saturday night.
- CJ McCollum's first half had a little bit of Damian Lillard-like buzz to it but things fell apart pretty quickly in the second half, as Phoenix pushed out with a 28-17 third quarter. Portland was outmuscled on the boards -- 42-34 -- and the Suns shot 18-for-30 in the second half after a rough start.
- Prior to Portland's game, Lillard was sitting next to boxer Floyd "Money" Mayweather. Photo here.
- Lillard was quite popular with the crowed in Las Vegas, handing out high fives as he moved about the arena following Portland's game.
- Blazers owner Paul Allen took in the game from a courtside seat between coach Terry Stotts and GM Neil Olshey.
- Olshey was interviewed on NBA TV during the game. Casey Holdahl of Blazers.com has a transcript. The interview didn't cover a ton of new ground but Olshey did discuss just about everyone on the Summer League roster individually.
- McCollum on the importance of his mid-range game: "It's the in-between shots you've got to have in the NBA. Even if you're an explosive leaper, you can't always get to the basket with those seven-footers in there. It's one of the shots I've really worked on."
- McCollum on what he is hearing from coach Terry Stotts: "The biggest thing is getting in the right spots and not getting lackadaisical with the ball. Coach Terry get on me about that. Don't take passes for granted. I kind of lofted the pass and it turns into a deflection or turnover."
- McCollum on his adjustment from Lehigh to NBA competition: "I didn't see anything I hadn't seen before. I played against the Morris twins in college."
- Thomas Robinson had one true "wow" moment -- a fast-leaping block shot -- but otherwise did not have the type of impact the Blazers would hope to see. One thing is for sure: dribbling the ball up the court and pounding the rock in isolation at the top of the key in an effort to create a scoring opportunity for himself are not behaviors that will win him any regular season minutes. He finished with six points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes, and Vanterpool had a nice line (below) about Robinson's need to be more consistent with his energy level.
- Victor Claver left the game after just five minutes with a right thigh/quad contusion. He had his leg wrapped in ice during the game and said after the game that it was "painful" and that he wasn't sure if he would play on Sunday.
- TNT's Steve Kerr tweeted about McCollum: "Day 2 in Vegas for summer league- loving CJ McCollum. He's going to be a player."
- Leonard, Will Barton and Joel Freeland didn't look dramatically different than when we last saw them.
- Plenty of familiar faces -- former Blazers GM Rich Cho and former assistant Kaleb Canales, to name two -- are in Vegas with their respective teams.
- The Blazers play the Lakers at 3:30 PT on Sunday. (Update: earlier this read ET. It is PT.)
David Vanterpool's Post-Game Comments
It's the good, the bad, the ugly. We started with great defense, I thought, we were intense. Guys were excited, it's expected especially [in] the first half of any situation or game where it's their first chance. As it went on, I think Phoenix turned up the defense in the second half. The way we started in the first half, we didn't continue that, we didn't match that intensity. Those things happen, teams make runs, and they kind of stifle the offense.
I thought he played well. There's still a lot of things he has to learn, of course. He made some tough shots, he made some great decisions offensively, with good pace. He has to control his team a little bit better. Bottom line, when he's on the floor he has to make sure guys are in the right spots before we get into whatever set we're in. Defensively, I thought we did a pretty good job.
Changing defense against CJ McCollum
They started being more aggressive on pick and rolls. They wanted to slow him down. We tried to make adjustments here and there, but as the ball got to players, we've got to make quicker decisions, as far as what we want to do from there. When you catch the ball, you have to catch and finish, or catch and make a pass and get into another situation. They did a good job of taking the ball out of his hands and putting a lot of pressure on him. We have to do a better job of moving the ball when that happens.
Will Barton's decision-making
It's the first game, he wants to do well so badly. I've been with him since May, all the work that he's put in, I know that he's progressed. He just has to be a little more patient, I think, and let things happen, let things come to him. I know at the end of the game, he picked it up defensively and that turns into offense. That's the type of player Will has to be. He has to just continue to build every little thing.
Things you were happy about
I was really happy, especially in the first half, with the defensive intensity and the way we protected the paint. I thought we did a good job contesting their shots, we made sure that the shots they did make were all contested in the first half.
I was really happy with the way our bigs ran to the rim on the break. They rim ran all night, they got inside, they posted strong, they really didn't get the ball as often as we would have liked to have seen. But a couple times they got foul calls, they showed the ability to be aware that they can rim run, have the opportunity to get an easy basket. I was happy about that.
I saw a grown man, a lot of times. Thomas really just has to give the grown man effort all the time. He has to be consistent with his effort. His motor, sometimes it's up really at a high level, at other times it starts to wane. I just want him to be as consistent as possible with that type of motor and intensity. He's really strong down there, and he's someone who can help us.
First game jitters
We didn't run many sets. Some plays that our guys should be aware of, and they were the ones that made mistakes in those situations. It was just those type of jitters, in the second half, when Phoenix turned up the defensive intensity, they got comfortable on offense. The name of the game is defense. The bottom line is, if you can defend, stop people, you'll get easier baskets, it makes you more comfortable offensively. Hopefully we got those jitters out and we can be even better tomorrow.
It's good, kind of, to take this type of [loss] early and learn from it.
CJ McCollum -- 22 points in first Summer League game
I think that he could be very consistently putting up those type of numbers. You'll have explosions here or there. With him, as it was with Damian, everything you want to be more like the waves of an ocean, as opposed to a rollercoaster. The idea is to be as consistent as possible. For him, scoring 20 -- even if he scores 10 and played the same way or played better, I'd be happy. For him, playing the right way, doing the right things is going to be more important. I talked to [Damian] and he and I are going to talk to CJ a little bit later this evening and tomorrow when I watch film with him. To kind of go over some of those things.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter