The Blazers announced their 2014 Las Vegas Summer League schedule last week to minimal fanfare. Portland kicks off its midsummer slate of exhibition games on July 12 -- matched up against the New York Knicks' squad -- with several games to follow that week, wrapping up with a 24-team tournament.
In team exit interviews last month, Blazers coach Terry Stotts told reporters he expected guards CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Will Barton to join frontcourt players Joel Freeland, Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard on the summer league roster.
Parsing meaningful predictions and projections about players from summer league play is tricky at best, and can be downright unfruitful. The games are often guard-oriented -- thus, big men don't often shine on the offensive end -- and consistent, solid defense can fall by the wayside as undrafted free agents and fringe NBA talents compete with young "project" players and lottery picks for the spotlight and attention of coaches and team executives.
For some players, a good summer league can lead to an NBA training camp invite in the fall or some buzz internationally, where they can continue their professional basketball careers overseas. Players with guaranteed NBA contracts for the next season -- all five presumable starters for the Blazers' team fall in this category -- use summer league to hone their skills against decent competition, get on-court time with teammates, and gain the trust of their coaching staff.
The somewhat-chaotic nature of these July exhibition games makes many proclamations about players' summer league performances ring hollow, but pontificating on such matters is nevertheless interesting and, well ... it's (kind of) NBA basketball smack-dab in the dog days of summer -- when soccer, golf and midseason baseball highlights dominate the sports sections and SportsCenter highlights. With the NBA Draft in the rearview mirror and training camp months away, of course diehard Blazers fans will pore over the summer league roster in the middle of July.
That said, for every Damian Lillard -- who dominated the 2012 Las Vegas Summer League as a rookie, averaging 26.5 points and 5.3 assists in four games -- there are countless players like free-agent guard Josh Selby, who shared Summer League MVP honors with Lillard that year. After averaging over 24 points on 55.7 percent shooting from the floor in five 2012 summer league games, Selby went on to play in 38 games combined for the Memphis Grizzlies over the next two seasons. By 2013, he was already out of the league and has since played in both China and Croatia.
All things considered -- Portland currently has no draft picks this year and a maximum of two open roster spots to fill this summer, as it stands -- which Blazer has the most to prove in offseason play over the next couple months?
McCollum played in five 2013 Las Vegas Summer League games for Portland, averaging 21 points but shooting just 36.6 percent from the floor and 31 percent from deep. After an October foot injury kept him out of the first half of the year, McCollum went on to play in 38 games during the 2013-14 season while improving his field-goal shooting to 41.6 percent and his three-point shooting to 37.5 percent for the year.
With guard Mo Williams likely opting out of his contract and possibly not returning to the Blazers next season, Stotts will be looking for more scoring off his bench. Certainly Portland GM Neil Olshey will look to bring in a player or two to bolster the reserve unit, but right now plenty of backup minutes and shots appear to be up-for-grabs. If McCollum demonstrates some shooting consistency and an ability to penetrate and create for himself and his teammates this summer, he could earn himself a leg-up heading into training camp competing for backup minutes in the backcourt.
Joining McCollum in the competition for minutes this fall will be Crabbe and Barton. With guard Wesley Matthews pulling in almost 34 minutes a game last year and Williams cemented in Stotts' sixth man role, Crabbe was bumped onto the inactive list for much of last season as McCollum and Barton gobbled up most of the scraps left over for the end of the bench. Unless he proves himself as a dynamic and dead-eye three-point threat this summer, Crabbe's projection for 2014-15 could again be as an end-of-rotation player.
Barton, on the other hand, has plenty of opportunities this summer to prove himself worthy of minutes going into training camp. The "People's Champ," as he's come to be known by Blazers fans, dipped in and out of Stotts rotation up until the All-Star break, playing mostly in garbage-time situations up until that point. Toward the end of the season, Barton broke into the lineup, often playing 10-15 minutes a night, spurred by his potential as a dynamic bench scorer.
In the playoffs, Barton played about a minute-and-a-half total in Portland's first round series with the Houston Rockets. Against the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, though, the 6-foot-6 guard from Memphis was unleashed by Stotts, playing in all five contests, culminating in a Game 4 win that saw Barton play 29 minutes and score 17 points off the bench with a 7-for-13 shooting performance. If he continues to show that knack for scoring this summer while still working (at least somewhat) within the flow of the Blazers' offense, Barton will be a standout this July. Stotts already called him out as Portland's most improved player last season, certainly a sign of faith in the third-year guard.
With all the talk of the Blazers guards and wings, let's not forget Freeland, Leonard and Robinson, Portland's frontcourt representatives for the upcoming summer league. Freeland started the 2013-14 season as starting center Robin Lopez' main backup, collecting over a dozen minutes a night and displaying himself as a tenacious rebounder with a decent touch inside and plenty of hustle and effort on the defensive end of the floor. A nasty knee injury in February robbed Freeland of the last third of his second season, and he went on to play sparsely in the playoffs. With a good summer league showing, the 27-year-old British import could make a case for himself regaining some of his former minutes in the frontcourt rotation behind Lopez and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Of course, Freeland has some competition for Portland's backup center role with Leonard, the 7-foot-1, third-year center who played in just 39 games last year. Leonard told reporters in his team exit interview last month that he has "something to prove" at summer league. He has the athleticism, shooting ability and potential to be an offensive force, but often looks out of position defensively and -- considering his size alone -- should be more of a factor rebounding on both sides of the glass.
Every one of the Blazers' young players has something riding on the line for summer league play this year, but the man who can make the biggest splash is Robinson, who's looking for backup minutes spelling Aldridge next season at the power forward spot. The 6-foot-9 big man was taken No. 5 overall out of Kansas by the Sacramento Kings two years ago, but was traded to the Rockets the following February, then flipped just five months later to Portland.
The Blazers have a team option to keep Robinson around through at least the 2015-16 season, so he should be in the team's long-term plans. He found himself playing plenty of minutes down the stretch of the regular season and he played in all 11 playoff games last month, including some extended minutes situationally. As the most established player in Stotts' reserve rotation heading into the offseason, Robinson should take a leadership role in next month's summer league games, playing big minutes and setting the tone on the boards and on both sides of the ball for Portland. He has the athletic ability, he has demonstrated extra effort when rebounding the ball, and he wants to be known as a good defender going forward. Now, Robinson just has to prove he can be consistent from game-to-game heading into next season as Aldridge's main backup, which can start with big, productive minutes this summer in Las Vegas.
Who do you think has the most to prove this July as the Blazers participate in the 2014 Summer League with six players holding guaranteed contracts for next season? Barton and Robinson appear to have the inside track for minutes off the bench, but McCollum, Crabbe, Leonard and Freeland could all make solid cases for themselves this offseason, too.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter