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Summer League Wrap

I’m back from Summer League and somewhat rested.  So let’s consolidate all of those impressions into one post and try to get something meaningful out of it.

Lesson #1:  This summer league was about three players, period.

The last two summers have featured Brandon Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Martell Webster, and Jarrett Jack.  Even with all of those sure-fire, big-league guys playing I have never heard fewer murmurs about, nor seen less impact from, the supporting cast.  Even in the star summers there was always a Joel Freeland or Nenad Sinanovic to elicit a couple speculations.  Not this year.  We didn’t see any standout contributions at all until the final game when Bayless sat.  This team was set up and coached to emphasize the main three players, and that’s what we got.

Lesson #2:  Jerryd Bayless will be able to play in the NBA.

Bayless demonstrated his attitude, his willingness to absorb contact, his free throw shooting, and his ability to get past his initial defender and get a credible attempt up.  Granted that’s only one offensive move--the drive--but the way he does it that’s plenty to start with.  He also showed he could catch and shoot the ball a little, but we didn’t see enough of his jumper off of the dribble to trust it quite yet.

On the defensive end Bayless showed speed, lateral quickness, and the desire to stay with his man.  He’ll need to keep working on his recognition in the overall schemes.

On both ends he appears to take less than full advantage of his height.  He’s a legit 6’3”.  (I can confirm because that’s about how tall I am and I finally got the chance to stand eye-to-eye with him.)  But I’m not the first observer (and I won’t be the last) to mention that he plays small.  Part of it is his deceptive quickness, but even with that he doesn’t appear to get great extension on his jumpers nor to bother other people on their jump shots, especially if he’s closing out.

Bayless’ ball-handling is good.  He appears fluid on the dribble in the halfcourt and transition both.  His passing skills are adequate but the jury is still out on whether he sees passes or is willing to make them.  He’s definitely a scorer first at this point.  The offense did not run smoothly at all with him at the helm.  Part of the reason was that, unlike everybody else on the team, he didn’t have Jerryd Bayless to pass to.  But he also dribbles with his head down, eyes forward, and jaw set.  A point guard’s mentality could be in his future repertoire, but he’ll have to develop it.  It’s pretty certain that the first time he misses Brandon or Lamarcus on the wing they’ll let him know about it.

Next to Summer League competition Bayless looked amazingly quick.  We’ll see if this continues when he gets into big league competition.  You can’t take away his body, which is well-built, nor his leaping ability on the run.  It’s safe to say his combination of speed, flight, and sturdiness will make him stand out.

The biggest questions surrounding Bayless are his role and his willingness/ability to fill it.  He looks like the kind of player Nate will rely on quickly, much as he relied on Jarrett Jack last year.  The two are similar in size but Bayless is far quicker and more explosive.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to pencil in Bayless for many of Jack’s minutes, including the fourth quarter ones.  Despite that, starting seems like a stretch at this point.  For one, he’d need to start at the point and he needs more experience to do that.  Second, he’d have to be willing to give up the ball and we haven’t seen that yet.  Whether that was legitimate in Summer League (it was) isn’t the issue.  The point is we saw the most amazing parts of his game when he had the ball and the freedom to use it however he wishes.  He wouldn’t get that in our starting lineup.  Off the bench in the Jack role he can penetrate and score to his heart’s content.  That second unit desperately needed offense last year anyway.  If he can learn to create opportunities for Travis so much the better, but the learning curve won’t be as steep as a scorer off the bench and both confidence and production should remain high.  The general idea is to give him a role you know he can handle and let him grow from there.

Many folks ask about Bayless’ attitude, likely because of the intense facial expression which he holds seemingly 24-7.  (On the car ride home from Boise I was telling my wife about the overall skimpiness of female clothing on the Vegas Strip after dark and she gave me the “Bayless Face”.)  I observed very little during the week that gave me concern.  The guy is an intense competitor.  He showed the ability to take over and dominate that game against the Suns and you need to be fierce and focused to do that.  He was a good teammate, giving other players high fives and pumping up the team when they got down.  He did laugh and joke a little during the informal moments of practice.  The only trait that was less than productive was a tendency to get down on himself demonstrably when things weren’t going right.  He knew his game wasn’t coming through, he knew people were watching, and he wanted them to know that he knew so he’d yell or slap the ball or something.  This isn’t uncommon among athletes, especially young ones.  Hopefully he’ll settle into his own skin as time goes by while still retaining the competitive fire.  Overall I’ll take his attitude as a package deal.  The Blazers need a little more in-your-face intensity sometimes.

Lesson #3:  Neither of the other two players are ready to play NBA minutes.

Petteri Koponen had all of the point guard attitude and vision that Bayless didn’t show.  He saw the floor and usually passed to the right man.  He didn’t demonstrate a consistent ability to score but he did hit a few jumpers and later in the week worked on his penetration.  For the most part his outside shot plagued rather than helped him.  Both his dribble and his shot are a bit slow.  He turned the ball over consistently through the first half of the week but never shied away from playing his game.  He moved well without the ball.  He displayed energy on defense, got back in transition, and never quit on plays.  Nevertheless it’s hard to envision him bothering true NBA guards.  His body is adequate.  He’s got legit height.  But he’s young and still a project.

Nicolas Batum got hammered by the general public for his offensive play, which was admittedly disappointing.  Even more than Koponen he seemed surprised by the pace of the offense and the athletes he faced.  It wasn’t until later in the week that he finally made an impact, driving the ball mostly.  Unfortunately he couldn’t finish most of the time.  Every time he leapt in the air for a jumper or a layup his body seemed to drift a different way:  left, right, backwards.  However his fluidity and leaping ability were evident from the start.  He is as graceful as any wing player we have.  He’s far too thin to play with the big boys, however.  As he found out this week grace and quickness only go so far.  The one area where he seemed to be on par, maybe a little ahead of the game, was defense.  You can see why he has the reputation as a perimeter defender.  He appears to enjoy defending and was able to stay with his man and even help out in the team defense.  His quickness and length are real assets in this area.  Despite that, he showed no ability or passion to use his athleticism to dominate, a la Bayless.  He’s as much of a project as Koponen.

As predicted, it’s unlikely anybody played their way on or off of this team in Vegas.  Bayless was already going to suit up and get at least a few minutes.  He’s cemented that and maybe opened up the door for a few more.  It would have been remarkable had he failed in Summer League.  Nevertheless it’s encouraging that he dominated as much as he did.  We learned a lot about the player, if not his game.  If the Blazers were already leaning towards keeping Koponen or Batum on the main roster last week probably didn’t change that.  The same is true if they were leaning towards letting them return to Europe.  Whatever they saw on film and in the pre-Vegas workouts probably weighed as much as anything we saw.  The risk of letting them return to Europe is entirely contractual.  European teams now ask for long-term contracts with significant buy-out clauses to protect their young talent.  Plus if either player excelled then European clubs would eventually offer them far more than the rookie-scale contract Portland could offer.  If the Blazers think they’d have use for either player before 2010 or so they might want to keep them in house and let them play in practice and the D-League.  There’s little doubt that both Batum and Koponen would receive more (and better) experience playing in Europe, however.  If the Blazers don’t think they’ll be ready in the next couple of years and are willing to risk not having them come over at all, it might be better for the team and the careers of the two gentlemen involved to let them play overseas.  From what I’ve been able to gather Batum is playing here and Koponen is a maybe.  But the wind seems to blow a different way every day and the Blazers aren’t sharing yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.

--Dave (