The Portland Trail Blazers currently sit 3-0 after the round robin portion of the 2018 NBA Summer League tournament. It’s hard — really hard — to take much meaning from Summer League games, although Brian Freeman and Steve DeWald have done a fantastic job sifting through all the dunks, missed dunks, blocks, attempted blocks and loud crashes to the floor to find nuggets of real basketball action over the last five days.
It’s hard to draw many conclusions because the players are young, inexperienced or on the fringes of the league. How a rookie plays against another rookie gives you an idea of how he holds up to his peers, but what will he look like against LeBron James or Kevin Durant? How will he hold up against Avery Bradley or Joe Ingles? Only time will tell with what the rookies become and which players will earn roster spots.
Meanwhile, there are still plenty of takeaways for basketball junkies. Here are a few observations from my time in Vegas.
Seeing guys up close highlights how big and strong they are. Even the “small” ones.
With all 30 teams in attendance there are hundreds of players to watch. Their heights range between 5-foot 5 Junior Robinson to Portland’s own 7-foot 2 Georgios Papagiannis. There is nothing like seeing so many of them in a short period of time to appreciate the variety of sizes and strength shown by players.
I even noticed the “small” player on the floor — that might be someone who is short or someone who is slender — but that someone was always a much larger person than me.
When the Blazers first drafted baby-faced Anfernee Simons, it was hard to see him as anything other than a high school kid. But he is generally in the same age range as most of the first-round picks. Seeing Simons (6-foot 4, 185 lbs) up close was somewhat reassuring in that he might not be a massive human like Mo Bamba, but there are other players like Shai Gilegious-Alexander (6-foot 6, 181 lbs) or Furkan Korkmaz (6-foot 7, 185 lbs) who also have slender frames. Despite his small appearance, Simons moved with confidence against larger players.
Assistant coaches are a great show
At Summer League the coaches and team personnel can outnumber the players. It is not unusual for a visiting veteran like Damian Lillard or Meyers Leonard to wander over and add their two cents to the coaching situation as well. Here are two rows of coaches and team personnel (and this picture does not include the whole coaching staff).
Because the 11-day long tournament is about development, you hear more coaching from the bench than usual, like play calls to the familiar “5-4-3” countdown.
You see more mistakes than usual and a commensurate number of hands thrown in the air, head-clutching and hand-wringing. It is really a surprise that I have never seen any towel-biting besides the Jerry Tarkanian statue that sits outside the entrance of the Thomas and Mack Center.
The league tries new things
Quirky Summer League rules are always fun, especially the perennial favorite: sudden-death overtime. The NBA uses both the G-League and Summer League as a testing ground for new ideas.
A couple of these new ideas were tested at this year’s tournament. The coaches’ challenge allows each coach one opportunity to challenge a call in the last two minutes of regulation and overtime. I finally got to see one when Nuggets coaches asked for a review against the Bucks. This call was ultimately upheld.
Another rule unique to this tournament (from the program):
The shot clock will be reset to 14 seconds (instead of 24) after 1) an offensive rebound of an unsuccessful field goal or free throw attempt which contacted the basket ring 2) a loose ball foul is called on the defensive team in the sequence immediately following an unsuccessful field goal of free throw attempt which contacted the basket ring, or 3) the offensive team gains possession after the ball goes out of bounds in the sequence immediately following an unsuccessful field goal or free throw attempt which contacted the basket ring.
I assume this has something to do with speeding up the pace of the game and would make it harder to run out the clock at the end of the game. I tried to watch for this one in action, but looking for adjustments to the shot clock proved much harder to notice than a big green light on the scorer’s table.
Whether either of these rules are implemented during the regular season remains to be seen.
Uniforms this year are better than ever
While the first few weeks of the 2017 season were rough for Nike with the ripped jerseys and their fabric widely panned, the uniforms at Summer League had a much better debut. In the past, uniforms looked like practice jerseys. This year, there was a lot of buzz about how nice they look.
Look at last year’s uniforms, which are uninspired, to this year’s digs:
It’s Nike’s first effort making the Summer League jerseys — the new clean uniform designs have been really well received. The simplified template approach for all 30 teams will be carried over into the G League uni designs this fall too. pic.twitter.com/CvQgX3gvt7— Nick DePaula (@NickDePaula) July 8, 2018
While uniforms are obviously not the most important part of the tournament (very kindly pointed out to me by the guy sitting next to me who was not impressed with my assessment of the uniforms as “cute”), the new designs increase the formality and boost the profile of the occasion just a bit.
Las Vegas becomes the unofficial headquarters of the NBA in July so there are plenty of stars hanging around. They typically come in once the game has started to take their courtside seats.
During the New Orleans vs. Detroit game on Monday, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond entertained themselves (and the crowd) by taking half-court shots.
Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond taking half court shots at half time. pic.twitter.com/oNBi8bukdF— Team Mom (@tcbbiggs) July 9, 2018
Lakers fans want Damian Lillard
Now that LeBron James has officially joined the Los Angeles Lakers, their fans have become emboldened to try and steal Damian Lillard right out from under the Blazers.
I had several conversations with Laker fans who have decided they want Damian Lillard on their team. Wearing Blazers gear was an invitation for them to pitch a trade. Plenty of offers for Lonzo Ball or Josh Hart or Brandon Ingram. Funny enough, no one wanted to offer both Ingram and Kuzma in a deal. Fortunately, Lillard has made it clear that he is happy in Portland. But beware, Blazer fans, if Summer League is any indication, Laker fans are going to chase Lillard all year.
Feel free to discuss your impressions of Summer League (from Vegas or from home) in the comments below.