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Roaming the Baseline: NBA Summer League Edition

Roaming the Baseline: NBA Summer League Edition

Welcome to a special NBA-Summer-League-Edition of Roaming The Baseline. This will serve more like a notebook, with observations around the league from this year's summer-league experience. Players that stood out, players that disappointed, randomness from the stands -- you'll get it all here.

With that, let's roam the baseline.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE PROBLEMS

I mean this in a positive sense. You don't want to make sweeping conclusions before, during or after summer league ball. I mean, it's summer league ball, duh. But I do feel a little bit better about the Houston Rockets' draft after watching them in Vegas.

The morning after the draft, I shared my concerns on Twitter. To sum it up: I liked the picks individually, but wasn't quite sure how or if the developmental reps would be spread around in an effective manner. 

Some of those questions still persist, but I'm more comfortable because of how everyone looked.

Jalen Green (20-4-2 with a 51/53/93 slash line) flourished, blessing a masked audience with shot/space creation flashes and pick-and-roll poise beyond his years. I'm still losing my mind over this pass.

Alperen Sengun (15-11-3-1-3, 43/38/61) was Houston's most productive rookie, showcasing real scoring and passing chops out of the post, as well as holding his own as a positional defender. I'm curious to see how his skill set translates against actual NBAers, but his feel was apparent even on this stage.

Watching Josh Christopher (17-4-4, 39/18/78) was an experience and a half, man. You were just as likely to see him clamp up a primary initiator (he had some reps against Cade Cunningham) as you were to see him take an ill-advised, early clock pull-up triple for... no real reason, to be frank with you. 

But the energy was infectious. He got to the rim almost whenever he wanted and generated free throws at a solid clip. And speaking of infectious energy — watching Rockets-Pistons live was even more fun because I was seated near either friends or family of Christopher. And they were loud and proud, let me tell ya.

Usman Garuba (4-8-3-2-1, 33/0/40) came to Vegas late due to Olympic obligations, but immediately gave his fans and critics plenty of ammo.

On the high end, he absolutely wrecked the Portland Trail Blazers on defense. He did the "boring" stuff, rotating and boxing out and ending possessions with defensive rebounds. But the event creation was there: five steals and a block is nothing to sneeze at.

Offensively, well, there wasn't much offensively. There was the occasional instance of quick processing as a passer, but you'd be hard-pressed to find really high-level reads. The finishing wasn't there; Garuba converted well-under 50% of his looks at the rim, per InStat tracking. He missed both of his three-point attempts, and the free-throw percentage wasn't great with a limited sample.

THE KINGS MAY HAVE SOMETHING IN DAVION MITCHELL

It's not too often that the Sacramento Kings win things, so it's only fair to highlight them when they do.

On a serious note: What a summer league run for them. 5-0 with a title to boot, all behind a devastating defense. The points allowed: 70 (Charlotte), 75 (Washington), 75 (Memphis), 70 (Dallas), 67 (Boston).

It started with No. 9 overall pick Davion Mitchell (11-1-6-1, 42/47/29), whose on-ball defense was on full display across multiple positions. This isn't the time to have "point of attack defense vs. rim protection" discourse, but Mitchell showcased the value of strong point of attack defense. The stretches he had against fellow lottery pick James Bouknight were downright filthy.

He provided value offensively as well, shooting the leather off the ball, puncturing the paint consistently and making timely reads in pick-and-roll. To nearly rack up a 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in summer league is not an easy thing to do, considering the, uh...[waves arms wildly]... nature of summer league basketball.

Mitchell seems ready — well, as comfortably as you can make that proclamation after Vegas games. Finding playing time for him should be interesting. I would imagine we'll see plenty of three-guard looks from the Kings this year. If Mitchell is genuinely able to defend up a position, that alignment should be fine.

CADE CUNNINGHAM'S ROLE

After watching him operate in a phone booth in college, with teammates that didn't consistently generate open looks for him, I was excited to watch Cade Cunningham (19-6-2, 43/50/50) in a summer league setting.

He wouldn't be surrounded with Team USA or anything, but just about anything would be better than the context he had worked with in college. So it was a bit surprising to see Cade work off the ball as much as he did.

It makes sense, zooming out. You don't want to overwhelm your number one, even one as poised and as talented as Cade. Though he's mature beyond his years, you don't want to give complete control and run the risk of bad habits being established.

Also: Cade isn't the only guy the Pistons wanted to give reps to. Killian Hayes entered the summer coming off an underwhelming, and later injury-shortened, rookie campaign. It was worth exploring what Saddiq Bey could do with the rock. Heck, Saben Lee intrigued during the second half of the season with his adventurous forays to the basket.

So the Pistons did spread the wealth, often sliding Cade off the ball. Luckily for Detroit, Cade is 1) very smart, and 2) a darn good shooter, a development that should scare folks. 

He got busy off movement, relocated well and cashed home spot-up shots to the tune of a 50% clip on nearly nine attempts per game. Oh, and he was able to do it like this, too.

There were some warts to Cade's stint in Vegas. The passing was good, not great. There were some wayward skips and forced dimes, though nothing to be super concerned about long-term.

Something to watch: Cade took two free throws in three games. Him not having elite burst has been on the scouting report for a while, but someone with his size and skill level should be able to get to the line more than that on accident.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO "HMMMM"

  • With the obvious caveat of not being, like, PD Web-level draft person, I did not understand the Spurs taking Josh Primo in the lottery. He did raise my brow some with his ball-screen savvy and the ease in which he flowed into pull-ups in Vegas. His 31.3% clip on threes (8.0 attempts) doesn't tell the full story, but there were some ugly misses in there too. I gotta see more.
  • Know who I don't need to see more of? Payton Pritchard (17-6-9), Tyrese Maxey (26-6-5), Immanuel Quickley (20-4-8) and Obi Toppin (21 & 8), for starters. Desmond Bane (24-4-4) also fits the bill. It's always a good sign when Year 2 guys look like they have no business being there, and they all looked thoroughly out of place.
  • Y'all really let Jalen Johnson (19-10-2) fall out of the lottery, and Sharife Cooper (14 & 7) fall to the middle of the second round, huh?
  • Following the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade, the Heat have to hit on the margins to fill out the roster. Omer Yurtseven (20-10-2-1-3) seems to have real potential as a rotational big, and I have my eye on ball-hawking guard Marcus Garrett to potentially land a two-way deal.
  • The Portland Trail Blazers. That's the thing that makes me go "hmmmm." Because what was the direction — what was the point, really — of their roster? It was a who's-who of former lottery flameouts (Michael Beasley, Emmanuel Mudiay), Kenneth Faried for some reason and then... Greg Brown III, who gave us this when we truly didn't deserve it.

STRAY THOUGHTS

  • It felt weird being in Vegas, to be completely honest with you. It wasn't as hot as it was when I went in 2019, and it was nice to see some of my (media) pals that I either hadn't seen in a while or hadn't met yet. But man, it would've been nice to have more access, more freedom, a little more fun. Not sure if things will be "normal" for quite some time, but summer league didn't truly feel like summer league this year. 
  • Back to actual basketball — I came away impressed with Scottie Barnes (16-7-3-1-2). It's simple, it's cliche, but the dude knows how to play basketball. He's always moving, flowing from the dunker spot to the corner, then lifting to the wing if necessary. He's unselfish, sometimes to a fault. Though shooting concerns persist, it's encouraging that he wasn't gun-shy. The defense is pretty much there already, and he was tasked with multiple positional assignments, as well as different schemes. Fun dude to track.
  • Won't go deep into Evan Mobley since I wrote about his debut, but I'll just say that young man is gonna be good.
  • I wasn't a fan of how the Charlotte Hornets put their team together at all. Bouknight and Grant Riller can't be your only trusted ball-handlers, especially with neither of them being natural playmakers. Expecting your offense to flow, or for your more raw talents (Kai Jones, JT Thor) to flourish within this context was a fool's errand.
  • Shout out LiAngelo Ball!
  • The Pacers have something in Chris Duarte, who both shot and defended well. That man was everywhere the few times I watched him.
  • The shooting splits may not show it, but Jonathan Kuminga looks further along than I expected him to be. There were plenty of on-ball flashes to be excited about. Also... don't call him that.
  • Nets rookie Cam Thomas was regarded as arguably the best shot creator in this year's class. Leading summer leaguers in scoring (27.0 points, 42/36/85) is an easy way to back up that claim. I'm even more impressed with Brooklyn's offseason now.
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