The Portland Trail Blazers remained unbeaten in Las Vegas after a solid 81-69 victory over the New Orleans Hornets in the team's second of five Summer League contests.
Much of the luster was already taken off of this game thanks to the dual absence of Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, but an ankle injury to power forward Craig Brackins took the rest of the air out. All that was left was for an in-sync, fully-loaded Portland team to out-execute and out-work a band of misfits who were at the mercy of shoot-first point guard Aubrey Coleman, who was feeling it (8-13 for 19 points) and content to get his own.
A quick rundown on each of the five potential Blazers will suffice tonight as Quincy Pondexter (14 points, 5 boards) was possibly the only NBA player left on New Orleans's roster, and he wasn't stopping five guys by himself.
Cunningham (14 points, 5 rebounds) was sporting an awesome combination of custom-color Beats By Dre headphones and a vintage Baltimore Orioles fitted hat. His wide-eyed rookie swag is completely gone.
Cunningham impressed the team's brass and coaching staff with some development off the dribble. He recognized his opportunities very well and struck quickly and authoritatively. He also displayed some tone-setting leadership by example that may or may not be coming through on television. His teammates are really responding to him and his work ethic is catching on.
I'm afraid the Jeff Pendergraph (11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks) we're seeing this week is a little bit too similar to the Pendergraph we saw last year. In terms of meaningful development I'm not sure I've seen it yet. (If you beg to differ, please make your case.) If there's a positive sign it's that he is more assertive in offensive situations that call for it. The results, however, weren't always pretty: stagnant possessions, wild shots, questionable shot locations, and turnovers. You can't help but feel like the shots he's being encouraged to take this summer are the same shots Nate McMillan will discourage him from attempting during the season. His game just lacks that polish.
On defense he continues to commit fouls (7) at an alarming rate, although he did alter and block a bunch of shots tonight, dish out a pounding and control the paint. I still think the team wants, or at least hopes, to see more. I think Pendergraph wants to show more, and might be pressing.
The best thing about watching Babbitt (9 points, 1 rebound) play in person for the first time was seeing his varied ability to get his own shot, or at least create space off the dribble. It's not quite to a Brandon Roy level of creativity but it shares some of the efficiency of motion that Roy possesses. He has a knack for getting players off their feet, making them leaning one way or another and pulling up his dribble when they're back on their heels. A lot of it is instinctive and it's very advanced. Today Babbitt seemed frustrated by his inability to hit from deep but he found other ways to score. I'd like to see how he plays when his shot is really going -- he seems like he has some explosive potential in this environment.
Coming into this week we wondered how and where he would fit on defense. It's next to impossible to see him defending anyone at the NBA level on the block or in the paint. He simply doesn't have the strength or the length and his defensive instincts far trail his offensive instincts. We generally accepted these things coming into the week and they were reinforced tonight.
Babbitt stayed late after the game to sign some autographs and, best of all, to receive feedback from various sources about his play. This guy is a basketball junkie.
Mills (18 points, 3 assists, 5 turnovers) continues to look better than he ever has as a Blazer and yet continues to look less and less like a Blazer by the game. The things he did well tonight -- hit some tough shots, push the tempo, play aggressively -- aren't necessarily things that McMillan will be looking for from his second or third string point guard. The things he did poorly -- a few bad decisions, a few careless possessions, assist/turnover ratio -- are Nate McMillan's pet peeves. This is shaping up to be a make-or-break year for Nate McMillan and it's difficult to see him trusting Mills as a member of the rotation.
With that said, he's been a pleasure to watch and was the spark of the game. His range is indeed improving and he had some great body control finishes near the rim. He should stick in the NBA. This hasn't' been a particularly strong week for point guards and Mills is drawing a lot of great reviews from media and scouts hailing from outside Portland.
I dare say Armon Johnson (15 points, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 turnovers) is stealing the show. It's too early to call him a lock at the third string point guard spot but I'm tempted to call that shot right here and right now.
The most surprising aspect to his game has been his strength on the ball. We heard and saw he had poise with the dribble and we knew he was a physical defender, but I didn't know the depth of his ability going to the basket. His broad shoulders and quickness are a lethal combination: he fills space as fast as he creates it, and it's almost always with a direction and purpose. He's got a little "jump pass Jarrett Jack" to his perimeter game that needs to be worked out but his sense of spacing and ability to find the open man are more advanced than I anticipated. His shot selection tonight was excellent. He knows his limitations there and he's not forcing it. That's exactly what the coaching staff wants to see from him.
On defense he is a handful. He's tireless and committed. Johnson was a treat tonight. He left the gym with a huge grin. As did members of his coaching staff, who seemed tickled by his play.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
PS The Blazers are set to informally scrimmage the Washington Wizards tomorrow, providing both Mills and Johnson the opportunity to face off against John Wall. Good times.