With Summer League just around the corner, it's time for our annual review of what to look for as the Portland Trail Blazers take the court in Las Vegas. We'll start with specific thoughts about this year's squad and move to our general Summer League primer after.
What To Watch for from the Trail Blazers in 2014
Portland's full Summer League roster is listed here, but with all due respect to the immortal Rodney Carney, this July is all about 4.5 players: Meyers Leonard, Will Barton, C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson, and half of Joel Freeland. The common denominator among these five guys: they've all played real NBA minutes. They'll be going up against a couple of star first-round picks plus a whole bunch of players who have barely seen the league, if at all. Wins and losses don't matter much in Summer League, but you'd expect to see a quantifiable difference between Portland's lineup and most of their opponents. Most of these guys should shine most of the time. If not, that puts perspective on some of Portland's brighter bench hopes.
That's not to say that Summer League is an iron-clad determinant of talent or future. It's not. But McCollum, Leonard, and Robinson were all recent lottery picks. They're not rookies anymore either. They need to show something, even if it's just flashes. A 30 or 40 point game from C.J. or Will, a monster rebounding effort from Robinson, paint control from Leonard...this is the chance to show what you've got.
Joel Freeland is a special case. He's far more experienced than the other four and far less apt to stand out. That's not his game. I'd expect him to look good, but the burden of proof doesn't rest on him as heavily. He'll do well enough on just about any court. He might explode, he might not. Either way, we know about him already.
Allen Crabbe should also get a decent look in Vegas. He's not had the court time of the Big Five but Summer League is friendly to guards. His shooting could tell and he should be steely-eyed, bucking for a promotion.
Passivity will be anathema to the Blazers. Summer League results are often mixed. Brandon Roy had incredible outings, LaMarcus Aldridge decent, Greg Oden so-so, Nicolas Batum generally poor. All four were quality players. No matter the stats, you saw sparks in each of them. No matter what the stats said, they stood out from the crowd in the way they moved, their athleticism, in some cases their court authority. In Batum's case it was just, "This guy moves fast and fluid even though he looks like he doesn't know which end of the ball is up right now." That's enough to go on. If we don't see that from multiple Blazers, stats won't matter. If Portland's players aren't invested in fighting for every inch of respect they can get on a roster crowed with young peers, something's wrong. Good or bad, right or wrong, they need to be aggressive.
That aggressiveness (or lack thereof) will tell the tale of Portland's summer. They're not adding big names to the roster. They're depending on some of these guys to step up. A few "out of your seat" moments would be appreciated. If we're all going, "Why are we watching this again?" that's a bad sign.
Here's the rest of our Summer League Primer, plus a few tips for those who will be in attendance. Enjoy!
What to Watch for During Summer League in General
Rule #1: Success is the baseline. Failure...is bad.
A player having a good-to-amazing Summer League outing proves that he's good-to-amazing at Summer League. This does not translate into good-to-amazing in the actual league. Everything in Summer League happens on a pass-fail basis. Score 100%? You pass. Score 70%? You pass. Neither one indicates what kind of player you're really going to be. 100 steps remain before clearing that bar. Failing in Summer League, however, often indicates what kind of player you're going to be...usually non-NBA. Exceptions like Nicolas Batum--who had a confused Summer League but ended up starting and prospering a couple months later--are rare. 99.9% of the time if you can't make it here you won't make it, period. You can't advance your career here, but you can end it.
Rule #2: The defense is bad, so scorers better score.
Summer League is typified by guys of non-standard height (read: short), guys who are slower than the average NBA phenom, and/or guys who just never learned or prospered on the defensive end of the court. You are not going to find any better opportunities to score than this. If you're a power forward whose gig revolves around rebounding you're not necessarily obligated to post 20 points per game. But if you're tabbed as a future scorer you need to show it.
Rule #3: How you score matters.
A lot of guys pour in 20+ point efforts in July who never sniff half of that average in the league. Scrambling, confused defenses and short/slow players are going to give the average guy more open shots than usual. Discount those immediately (unless the guy can't hit them). Discount the break-away dunks that make everybody leave their seats as well. Neither will happen during the regular season. You want to see shots over outstretched hands, pull-ups off the dribble, jukes that get a guy to the rim, contact drawn and free throws made.
Rule #4: It's a guard-driven league.
Everybody is trying to make an impression, to earn a job. Much of that impression comes through scoring. When your ball-handling guard is desperate to make the league he's not going to perceive a balance between getting his own and setting up that 6'10" guy who needs to be fed. Even true point guards who will live and die by the assist in real games will be more likely to show off their shooting, ball-handling, and drive-by skills in the summer. If they unselfishly rack up 15 assists setting up Joe Center in the post people are going to figure Joe Center is great and any point guard can set him up. If they blitz through three guys in the lane and convert a layup or short dish just once they just might get noticed.
It's no surprise that guys like Nate Robinson and Jamal Crawford are Summer League legends while you barely remember LaMarcus Aldridge's summer outings. Don't be too shocked if a lot of point guards and wings look really good or really bad while your big man ends up looking so-so no matter who he is.
Rule #5: Stats don't always matter.
Sometimes you'll see a guy average 16 and 10 over the course of the summer but he won't make a team. Sometimes you'll see a guy average 7 and 5 who does. The latter guy is not likely to see the regular rotation come fall but a team is taking a flyer on him because of something unusual they saw, probably relating to freakish athleticism or raw ability.
This could also be known as the Nicolas Batum Rule. Batum looked lost, disoriented, years away from playing in his Summer League debut. Even so there was a grace and fluidity to his game that made him different that most of his peers. He consistently got open shots off of the dribble and just as consistently missed them. The Blazers got far more excited about the former than they got discouraged about the latter.
By contrast Petteri Koponen looked like a more confident, ready player than Batum but he seldom got by anyone, dribbled the ball too high, and released his shot too low. Batum now starts for Portland. Koponen has yet to come over from Europe.
Watch for things a player does with his body that nobody else is doing. Watch for guys getting free in the halfcourt, getting higher than everybody else in traffic, moving to places from which they can't be budged or dissuaded. The little things sometimes make a big difference.
Rule #6: Among the glitz and glamour moments, be prepared for some ugly, slow foul-fest games.
Part of it is the players. Part of it is the refs. It's par for the course. Bring snacks and a friend to get you through those rocky outings.
Advice for Summer League Attendees
This may seem obvious, but it's hot. REALLY hot. You will break a double sweat just walking from the parking lot up the arena stairs. Dress accordingly. Everybody else will.
You will never get a better chance to get close to NBA folks. Unless they're feeling really charitable (and want to get mobbed instantly) currently famous folks probably won't stop and talk to you. But you can still stand next to them as they walk by, get floor level to measure how tall they are, watch them shake hands with each other. The physical proximity is unparalleled. Enjoy it.
If you don't mind trips down memory lane, you can often find former players sitting in the stands. Even before Blazer's Edge got huge and I got recognizable, I found myself sitting next to multiple former Trail Blazers, many of whom you would recognize instantly. Some will even converse with you if you're not obnoxious. Most, living out of the spotlight now, don't mind if you walk up for a second and make a fool of yourself telling them how much they influenced your fandom. If you're interrupting a conversation between said player and a scout, or if said player is obviously working as a scout and taking notes right then, then you're a little bit of a tool. Otherwise you can probably take a chance and shake the hand of one of your childhood heroes.
You can find plenty of good eateries between Thomas and Mack Center and The Strip (if that's where you're staying). Eating on The Strip might be a little overrated. Also, if you've never been to Vegas, never EVER plan to drive down the strip if you don't have to. It's worse than a nightmare. Just take a side street to your destination and walk.
Speaking of, you'll often see players out and about. You're a big person now and they're a big league player, so handle as you will. My rule was always nodding in respect is OK, but if a guy is eating or shopping, let him do it in peace.
Remember that your ticket gets you in the venue for multiple games and that they're running on two courts simultaneously. (Thomas and Mack is the large arena on your left as you go in the doors, Cox Pavilion is on your right.) Make sure to check out more than just the Blazers! You'll never get closer to hot rookies around the league than here. They usually schedule popular players and teams on the spacious Thomas and Mack side. If you anticipate a featured attraction on display at tiny Cox Pavilion, get there early.
They do have food and drink available on site in case you get hungry. They have restrooms too. If you're lucky you may find yourself at a urinal next to an assistant coach or Casey Holdahl. Go ahead and chat them up! Urinal discussion is never awkward.
Anybody with Summer League experience is welcome to chime in with thoughts, rules, or advice. Blazer's Edge will have you fully covered all through the event. Ben will be down there as always. All games will be televised so we'll be recapping and following here as well. Stay tuned for all the latest developments!
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard