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3 Take-Aways from NBA Summer League for the Trail Blazers

The champs are here, but the details matter as much as the outcome.

2022 NBA Summer League - Portland Trailblazers v New York Knicks Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers won the 2022 NBA Summer League championship in Las Vegas, Nevada this weekend. The victory capped a 4-1 run through the tournament, a fine—though not entirely unexpected—showing for a talented, veteran club.

Portland didn’t win the Summer League crown with dazzling displays of individual brilliance. Instead they locked down with steady team defense, shared the ball, rebounded well, and made the most out of their opportunities. An event designed to showcase individual talent ended up going to the most cohesive team.

The two-week journey still provided some revelations, though. Here are my three biggest take-aways from Portland’s performance this summer.

I Still Like Trendon Watford

Summer League is all about the guards, at least under normal circumstances. In an environment where 99% of participants are trying to make the league—or justify why they already have via high draft choices—showing your own wares is paramount. Shot creators and ball handlers get first pick at the buffet. Big men often become an afterthought, designated to set screens and grab the misses that their smaller counterparts chuck up.

Forward Trendon Watford became Portland’s anchor during this tournament. He ended up as the second-leading scorer on the team, but his commitment to defense, his smart—yet unobtrusive—offensive play, and his refusal to get ruffled kept his team grounded.

In a world full of people wanting to be the next celebrity chef, Watford is a line cook. He’s going to step into his station, make sure the mis en place is fully prepped, then whip out your menu items efficiently and with good quality. You’re not going to see his name on the menu and he’ll never have a pair of tweezers in his hand, but when you bite into that medium rare steak with just the right amount of char the sixteenth time you’ve visited this restaurant, just as same as you did your first night there...that’s him.

All Hail Jabari Walker

Second-round pick Jabari Walker was an eye-opener for many observers. He stepped up alongside Watford, providing a potent 1-2 punch in the frontcourt.

It’s tempting to forecast great things for Walker based on his Vegas performance. Have caution. My stance has always been that you can’t win a spot in an NBA rotation in Summer League. You can only lose it.

That Walker didn’t lose it is a positive sign. The Blazers offering him an admittedly-team-friendly, but still quite real, NBA contract based on his Vegas performance is another. They’re bullish on the former Buffalo.

Three granular things stood out to me about Walker that justify the optimism.

  • His footwork looks really nice. Many bigs need overhauls of their technical skills when they enter the NBA. Walker looks really good already.
  • His energy and commitment match the best of his teammates. His motor got mentioned so often in Vegas, he might as well have played for Detroit.
  • His offensive game is farther along than I suspected. It looks like he’s going to have range and interior scoring potential both. That’s a huge asset if he hopes to see floor time.

Nobody knows what the future holds for Walker, but if this is an example of Portland’s deep-draft scouting ability, we should be impressed.

Who Is Shaedon Sharpe?

The biggest question heading into Summer League is still the biggest question heading out. Shaedon Sharpe had less basketball experience than any player participating in Las Vegas, let alone among high-profile draftees. Suffering a shoulder ligament tear 5 minutes and 33 seconds into Portland’s first game robbed Sharpe, and the world, of the chance to see who he is.

It’s impossible to glean much from such a limited scope of play. Even guessing is perilous. I’ve been wrong about players I thought would break through (Armon Johnson) and about players I thought would take a longer time to develop (Nicolas Batum) based on their Summer League performances.

If you made me speculate about Sharpe, I’d say that his micro-gifts are exciting, but the macro needs work. He steps lightly, and you can see where his cuts and drives could get dangerous for opponents. We didn’t really get to see him leap, but we know he’s capable of soaring to the ceiling. If his speed and lateral mobility translate to defense as well as offense, he will be dangerous. If his shot falls into NBA form, he could be blindingly so.

As one would expect, the awareness just wasn’t there, at least from what we saw. He seemed to be searching for the right play instead of making it. It’s hard watching guys stand straight up with their arms at their sides on defense, even if they’re playing on the weak side. Reading the floor, readiness, and engaging with urgency will all need to develop.

Provided he gets healthy, I expect Sharpe to be one of those players who pulls a few minutes per game, gets heavy play in blowouts, and makes a buzz ripple through the arena when he takes the floor. I can see 16-point outings in his future when the scoreboard gap is large. I could also see 10 points in 8 minutes from time to time. But I suspect there will be a lot of stopping and starting in between. Keeping the gold-star rookie enthused without disrupting the overall flow of the team will be an interesting challenge for Head Coach Chauncey Billups.

That’s blind tea-leaf reading, though...just gut instinct. Preseason will be the next test for Sharpe. He needs to bring it in the next exhibition.

You’re Up!

I promised myself that I’d confine my observations to three big ones. It’s your turn to fill in the rest. What did you take away from Portland’s Summer League, 2022 performance? Share in the comments below.