NBA Summer League 2017 is in the books, but the implications continue for the Portland Trail Blazers. In need of help at the forward positions, they appeared to strike gold in 26th pick Caleb Swanigan, who earned All NBA Summer League First Team honors while leading the Blazers to the championship game.
Swanigan’s unexpected ascension contrasted with the underwhelming performance of 10th overall pick Zach Collins, who shot poorly and appeared frustrated with his own performance before exiting the tournament with a quadriceps contusion.
Looking at the final results, it’d be easy to proclaim Swanigan as a promising player, Collins as a disappointment, and everybody else a non-factor. Obvious impressions are not always the correct ones, however. Here are some nuances to the Trail Blazers’ summer league that you might have missed.
Swanigan’s Offensive Diversity is Special...
Caleb Swanigan looks tailor-made for the lane. He’s built to finish shots and grab boards—exactly where classic offenses would leave him. But his wide body belies even wider potential. Swanigan spent more time in Vegas on the perimeter, flashing to the high post, and in the short-corner than he did pigeon-holed under the basket.
He displayed a confident jump shot, capable passing, and devastating screens, all powered by a motor that doesn’t quit. Not many players with Swanigan’s frame have those skills. Even fewer get the freedom to show them.
...But His Defense Is Still Up in the Air
Despite glowing praise for his overall game, the verdict is still out on Swanigan as a defender.
Swanigan demonstrated defensive chops during summer league. When quicker perimeter players tried to drive him, they ran square into his chest. He has a low base, moves his feet well, and can stay in front of dribblers without losing balance or turning his shoulders perpendicular to the ball handler...all good signs.
That said, other facets are still lacking. The rookie big man often leaves a large cushion between himself and the dribbler. On screens he drops back deep, every time. This may be due to comfort level, or because Blazers coach Terry Stotts has his big men drop back in most pick-and-roll situations. That abundance of space could be a problem against good shooters, as Swanigan just doesn’t have the length to cover the ground he gives up.
Some skills have yet to be tested. The ability to contain on a closeout is one of the most important skills for a big man guarding the perimeter. Rarely does an NBA big have time to get set in a stance when defending in isolation against penetration. Most drives come after a pass, forcing defenders to adjust positioning on the fly.
Defending on the move is a completely different skill than defending in place. Summer League offenses do not utilize the drive-and-kick as much actual NBA offenses, so Swanigan still needs to demonstrate the ability to close out and contain before the praise for his game becomes universal.
Jake Layman Mystifies
Summer League games typically reveal who belongs at the next level and who doesn’t. Some players bounce back and forth, though. Jake Layman might have been the best example of the latter in the whole 2017 tournament. The 6’9 forward brings the ball up competently and moves toward the basket so smoothly, the game looks easy for him. Making a complicated sport simple is a sign of a great player.
Layman had a few of those moments every game, but lacked consistency. Perhaps his confidence fell when his shot didn’t. He has the tools to play big minutes, and at times it’s hard to see why he doesn’t. But the NBA isn’t about “sometimes.” It’s an every-night league.
Despite his dazzle, Layman isn’t quite there yet.
Zach Collins Has a Ways to Go, But He’s Not Bad
Collins is still not strong enough to compete at this level. Time and again in Vegas he’d find the right spots on the floor only to get moved off or stalled in place, and his problems center around strength and conditioning. With added stamina and muscle, his Summer League story would’ve been different.
Collins spent much of the week getting down on himself, but there’s no reason for fans to do the same quite yet. Summer League showed that he’s not ready, but his deficiencies were predictable and can be easily addressed. Until Collins gets his body in NBA shape, any judgment beyond that is premature.