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2010 Las Vegas Summer League Preview

Coach Kaleb Canales and second year players Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph lead the Blazers into this year's Summer League.  

<em>Photo: Ben Golliver | Blazersedge</em>
Coach Kaleb Canales and second year players Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph lead the Blazers into this year's Summer League. Photo: Ben Golliver | Blazersedge

No question about it: Summer League has taken a serious backseat to free agency this year, both here in Portland and league-wide.  While the mantra around the Blazers has been "it's time to improve through trades and free agency" don't lose sight of the fact that they added two first round picks, a highly-touted second round pick and are bringing three roster players from last year into Las Vegas.  Add that all up -- even taking into account an injured Elliot Williams -- and it would be foolish to overlook this year's Summer League entirely.

There are a few obvious storylines. What have Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph added to their games? How do Patty Mills and Armon Johnson look and are they battling for a roster spot?    Does Luke Babbitt look ready to step in and play real minutes behind Nicolas Batum this year?  Are Johnson -- who the team sees as a one -- and Babbitt -- who the team likely needs to play three -- able to handle the demands of those positions? 

Keeping Dave's Summer League primer in mind, it's unlikely we'll get definitive answers to all of those questions.  But what goes on during the five games in Las Vegas gets added to the team's portfolio on all of these guys.  With a new GM coming in, every player on the roster will be re-assessed.  That exercise will be valuable for us as well.

The goal of this preview is two-fold.  First, I'll look at where Pendergraph , Cunningham, Babbitt, Johnson and Mills are as players right now.  Then, I'll take a look -- with the help of Summer League coach Kaleb Canales -- at where the team wants these guys to be heading into next season.  

For a slideshow of images from this week's practices, click here.

Click through for the full rundown.  

-- Ben Golliver | | Twitter

PS If there is anything in particular that you would like to see from this year's Summer League coverage from Las Vegas -- games begin Sunday, coverage begins Monday -- do not hesitate to shoot me an email.

Jeff Pendergraph


Where's He At?

Jeff Pendergraph was one of the nicer surprises last year, as no one -- himself included -- expected him to play many minutes. But injuries to Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla opened up a crevice in Portland's frontcourt and Pendergraph responded admirably when called upon.

Pendergraph brought energy every night but not always consistent quality or impact. He finished very well around the basket, often with emphasis.  He was extremely coachable and anxious to learn, both from his teammates and the coaching staff. He was fearless in mixing it up with opponents (as pictured above).

The Blazers have always questioned whether Pendergraph is a power forward or an undersized center at the NBA level. He saw some time at both spots and he displayed some clear limitations.  His overall lack of polish and range on the offensive end limited his impact to that of a rebounding specialist.  His lack of height and elite length/timing led to a lot of fouls on the defensive end to the point where he struggled to stay on the court at times.

For more on Pendergraph, check out Brother Wendell Maxey's post from earlier this week

Where's He Going?  

With the mid-season addition of (and contract extension for) Marcus Camby and the expected return of Oden, Pendergraph is set for a big fight for minutes this year.  He's the team's fifth big man right now and that's not including the injured Joel Przybilla.  

His path to minutes is pretty clear: add wrinkles on offense and cut down on the fouling.  Canales said the Blazers will look to get the ball to Pendergraph in half-court play to test his development on the offensive end.  "There will be court time for him to expand his game. Offensively the challenge is scoring out of the post.  Back to the basket, face up, and get his reads off of that."  In other words, jump hooks or step throughs from Pendergraph will be good signs.  Collapsing a team's interior defense and finding the open man will be an added bonus, as will drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line.   

While fouling out really isn't a problem in Summer League given the 10 foul limit, the Blazers will keep an eye on how he handles opponents in one-on-one situations.  Canales made it clear that the team doesn't want Pendergraph -- or any of the players -- to worry about fouls, but that the goal for Pendergraph on the defensive end is "to be aggressive without fouling."

Dante Cunningham


Where's He At?

It's been awhile since I've written about Dante Cunningham and you're probably grateful, as I tend to gush.  Like Pendergraph, Cunningham was a pleasant surprise who enjoyed some nice development in the wake of injuries to Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw.  Cunningham has gotten knocked for getting stuck between positions but I think the effect is muted somewhat with the increasing prevalence of stretch fours around the league and Cunningham's ability to reasonably handle guys who are both bigger and smaller than him on the defensive end.

The Blazers asked virtually nothing from Cunningham on the offensive end last year, other than to take and make wide-open mid-range jumpers and to run the floor on the rare transition play.  Defensively, he guarded a wide variety of players and was used both in man-to-man and zone looks.  An extremely intelligent player with good footwork, deceptive strength and a very good sense of spacing and timing, Cunningham gave McMillan the opportunity to throw a monkey wrench at wing scorers.  If there was a drawback to his game defensively it was that he could be overpowered on the block and didn't alter a ton of shots in one-on-one situations. 

Where's He Going?  

For the time being, Cunningham slots in above Pendergraph on the team's depth chart heading into next year and will see time both at the three and four.  Canales singled out Cunningham for praise today, saying he had had a "great camp" this week which should hopefully get your mouth watering.

Canales said that, like Pendergraph, he is looking for more from Cunningham on the offensive end.  "I think Dante's offensive game has been expanding," he noted, adding that Cunningham has extended his range and is even more confident shooting the face-up shot.  But the Blazers will be watching what else Cunningham can do with the ball. When Cunningham gets the ball in pick-and-roll situations or touches generated through sets, for example, they want to see him applying pressure to his defender.  "Really not [automatically] settling for that jumpshot," Canales said. "Him driving and attacking the basket. All the way to the rim."  Cunningham has an underrated ability to elevate, which he displayed a few times last year.  If he has found out how to harness that skill to consistently get buckets it could make for an entertaining week.

Defensively it sounds like what we've seen is what we should be expecting.  "He's very versatile," Canales said. "I think he's going to keep growing with that."  Today we saw Cunningham as the front man in a 3/4 court soft press (pictured above) and he looks to be in very good shape, moving quickly and assertively. In the halfcourt sets, keep an eye on how Cunningham and Babbitt alternate assignments.  Who gets the other team's premier scorer? How often will they cross match-up?  Those could be potential tip offs for rotation roles next season.  

Luke Babbitt


Where's He At?

Putting up obscene numbers at a smaller school that didn't have a ton of success, Luke Babbitt was a polarizing prospect for a lot of NBA scouts.  Can he play small forward?  Is he more of a stretch four?  Can he defend anyone?  Those are open questions.  But no one doubts his ability to shoot the ball.  He can stroke it and he has been able to find his own shot up to this point.  He's also known as a worker, a smart kid and he comes across extremely eager.  There are always certain NBA players that have a "living their dream" vibe.  He's one of those guys. 

After watching practices this week, I think Babbitt is the biggest question mark for the team this year.  Put it this way: there wouldn't be talk about Wesley Matthews or Roger Mason if the team was completely convinced that Babbitt was ready to step in and play big minutes at the three or potentially start should Nicolas Batum go down to injury.  Those kinds of expectation are tough for any rookie on a team that expects to win 50+ games.  

Honestly, at times this week he's looked exhausted and a little confused.  He's been grabbing for his shorts and getting extra instruction from coaches afterwards.  But his shot is pure money.  And, throughout the portions of play we've been able to see, he hasn't hesitated to shoot it.   

Where's He Going?  

While Canales had very specific goals for both Pendergraph and Cunningham, his hope for Babbitt was much simpler.  "I'd just like to see Luke play. Play to his strengths, come out and have fun, and take it game by game. Be aggressive. Both offensively and defensively. Get up and guard some people."

Personally, I want to see Babbitt come out gunning.  I think there will be some players that are really looking to test him on the defensive end and I'd like to see him answer that doing what he does best, and doing it confidently.  I'd much rather we come out of next week asking "Should he pass more?" rather than "Is he too passive?"  It boils down to whether he trusts his skills at this level.  That's what will earn him playing time and Nate McMillan's trust.

Defensively, Canales admitted that "it's going to be a challenge" for Babbit given the different types of players the Blazers will ask him to guard.  He noted that Babbitt has been guarding Reyshawn Terry, a dynamic offensive player with "good size and strength", this week and that's served him well. "He might see speed guys too," Canales said, sounding more prepared than worried.  "For him it's going to be a daily challenge. But he's been great this week." Given that Babbitt will see far more reserve players than starters next season, the big keys will be effort and positioning.  Regardless of the results, is he trying hard and doing the right things?  

Armon Johnson


Where's He At?

The Blazers see Armon Johnson as a big, physical point guard who can get to the basket but needs to work on his shot.  They see him being able to defend either guard position at the NBA level but they hope he transforms into a big, pure point guard.  Aside from his shaky shot and lack of range, there are also questions about his ability to run and intuitively understand an NBA offense and read NBA defenses.  These questions face virtually every young point guard coming into the NBA.  Johnson doesn't lack for confidence, which could turn into a really good thing or a really bad thing.  That's what Summer League is all about.

The Blazers plan to use him both on the ball and off the ball next week and it will be interesting to see how that works itself out. Johnson wants to make a name for himself as a team-leading, all-around point guard but the baskets might come more easily when he's taking his man off the dribble while playing the two guard spot. How does he react and adjust?

Where's He Going?  

Points of emphasis for Johnson will be shot selection, limiting turnovers and making the proper reads.  "W
e don't want [the point guards] to be out there thinking too much," Canales said. "If they have a shot, we want them to shoot.  If they see a play for a teammate we want them to make that play."

But g
iven the team's depth chart for next year, with scorers throughout the second unit, playmaking rather than shooting would seem to be the preference. 
inding offensively where he can look for his teammates and where he can be aggressive on his own will be the challenge," Canales said.  Will Johnson be able to find Babbitt in his sweet spots?  Will his driving ability lead to dunks for Cunningham and Pendergraph?  Will there be a flow to the offense when he's on the court?  How (and how well) does he make pick-and-roll reads?   

Overall, Canales seemed optimistic.  "Armon has a great pace to his game. He's smooth with the ball." 

Right now both Johnson and Mills are under consideration for the third string point guard spot.  I have been acting under the assumption that Johnson holds the inside track given how much money the Blazers spent to move up and draft him. But it's no secret Paul Allen is a Patty Mills fanboy and Mills is probably more seasoned right now.  The goal for Johnson is to do enough next week to make the Blazers comfortable with the thought that Mills is expendable.

Patty Mills


Where's He At?

Patty Mills is in by far the best shape of his short Blazers career after recovering to 100% health and playing serious minutes for the Australian national team in preparation for the 2010 World Championships in Turkey.  He's drawn rave reviews from coaches and teammates during this week's camp and it's clear that he is viewing Summer League as a showcase for his abilities, an opportunity he lost last year due to a foot injury.  

Mills has looked very quick on the ball in the limited action we've seen and he's been looking to push it every chance he's had.  His shot and range were always considered strengths of his game and they are said to have improved.  His obvious limitation is his small stature, which makes him something of a defensively liability.  Also, there's the issue of turnovers.  He forced some passes into traffic during today's scrimmage that would get him a quick hook from McMillan. 

Where's He Going?  

Mills has felt like a square peg in a round hole here in Portland, given the differences between his skillset and McMillan's philosophy. Canales said there will be plenty of minutes for Mills to show he can do what McMillan will ask of him. "Patty just needs that court time and confidence, to get more comfortable on the court and his game will continue to grow. His speed and his shot -- his shot has really improved a lot. We're looking for him to be even more aggressive with that."

A best case scenario for Mills is that he impresses enough that another NBA team decides he should be their backup point guard.  His skill level is such that fighting for third string minutes here in Portland is not ideal.  Barring that, playing big overseas might afford him a better opportunity than another year buried in Portland.  But that's looking a little too far ahead, at least for now.  His first and longest look will come from the Blazers.  If he shows the ability to run an offense, limit turnovers and handle things defensively, Portland's interest will perk up.  If not, hopefully he will at least provide some of the offensive fireworks that were reserved for NBDL fans last season. 

-- Ben Golliver | | Twitter