Las Vegas Summer League: Progress reports for NBA players on the ropes
LAS VEGAS — The NBA’s annual summer leagues in Orlando and Las Vegas are an intersection of opportunity for prospects of decidedly different classes. There are those lottery picks merely looking to establish a foundation for their NBA careers. There are plenty of prospects, too, angling to impress to the point of landing an NBA contract. But an often-overlooked subset of the summer-league player pool is inhabited by those who have spent time in the big leagues and yet are fighting for their NBA lives.
Variable salary structures affords teams the ability to wiggle their way out of many NBA contracts through options and non-guaranteed salary, and for players in that particular position the summer league could serve as a chance to influence their own futures, if not a referendum on their careers. Below are snapshot evaluations on the progress of four such players — each in jeopardy in some way, and each clawing for a spot in the top basketball league on the planet.
Jan Vesely, Washington Wizards
The Wizards forward is entering his third NBA season but still suffers from the same lack of focus that has plagued him from his first days in the league. He’s 23 years old and not yet a rotation-caliber player, and while Washington has another two seasons to keep an eye on his progress if they so choose, declining Vesely’s fourth-year option in 2014-15 could save $4.3 million and create an equivalent amount of cap space. Vesely may still have time to justify his place in the league, but he has yet to perform at a level that would justify anything near that kind of salary.
Still, NBA teams are generally hesitant to cut ties with lottery picks before they serve out the full terms of their rookie deals, and the Wizards might wind up picking up the bill for Vesely’s fourth season if he can demonstrate more focus. His body of work provides evidence aplenty of his lack of basketball comprehension, but in spots of summer-league play Vesely looks to be a bit improved in harnessing his on-court energy. His inability to shoot, handle or create offense through the post makes him strictly a role player on that end of the floor, but he has the physical tools to be an effective cutter should he continue to hone his sense of spacing*. He won’t get much opportunity in Vegas to prove how he might function in an NBA-caliber offense, but on Tuesday he did well to convert the opportunities presented in the summer-league bedlam.
In Vegas, Vesely doesn’t look lost quite as often on either end of the floor, in spite of his limitations. That could soon change when operating against defenses that work as a collective or in matchups with more skilled opponents, but there’s evidence of some marginal improvement in the snow-globed insulation of summer-league play. He has a long, long way to go, but hope for Vesely’s NBA viability isn’t completely sunk yet.
*It also wouldn’t hurt if Vesely would actually create some contact on his screens, which he looks to slip before they’re even set. Players with skill sets as slim as his can’t get by without the means to contribute as non-scorers.
Chris Singleton, Washington Wizards
Singleton was Vesely’s 2011 draftmate, and sits in a similarly precarious position with the deadline for his fourth-year option upcoming. That the final year of Singleton’s rookie contract would be worth just $2.5 million lowers his burden of basketball proof, but he still needs to demonstrate an ability to create offensive value to complement his defensive potential. Singleton isn’t even a plus defender at this stage in his career, but he could develop into a decent enough asset in coverage (by way of his strength and competent level of awareness) to make up for some of his offensive deficit.
But Singleton has offered exceedingly little on offense in his first two seasons, both of which ended with shooting marks of less than 40 percent and an inability to top even 10 points per 36 minutes. Washington doesn’t need Singleton to act as any kind of dynamo, but merely function as the kind of conduit who could play off of the energizing contributions of John Wall and Bradley Beal. He’s come up well short of that standard against NBA competition, and even has his work cut out for him in summer-league play; Singleton put up just four points in 22 minutes on Tuesday against Denver, which unfortunately is reflective of the kind of low-return, low-usage performance that has become his standard.
Where Singleton surprised, however, was in his ability to make functional passes without forcing things. His five assists came up just one short of tying a game high, and he did a particularly good job of keeping his wits about him on counter-drives against a rotating defense. That’s particularly important for a player of Singleton’s underwhelming athleticism, who will have to find ways to score or facilitate against defenses that can recover in time to impede his path to the basket. Given that Singleton doesn’t have the explosion to finish over defenders or the finesse to score around them, an ability to read the defense and make a quick, accurate pass out of trouble could expand his value to the point of making him a more playable rotation piece.
Jarvis Varnado, Miami Heat
Although a rising sophomore in NBA terms, Varnado is nonetheless a 25-year-old prospect on a largely non-guaranteed contract. He’s been waived twice in just a year and already is clinging to his place in the league. Miami could save some money by releasing Varnado for a second time (the Heat waived him out of training camp in 2012 before re-signing him later in the season), whether by opening night or the ides of December. He’s a step ahead of the game in that he has a contract on the books and a guaranteed $250,000 coming his way no matter the Heat’s decision.
He’s clearly an intriguing athlete among the crop of big men in Vegas, but doesn’t have any sort of offensive game that could be accessed in so sloppy a context. Ideally, Varnado might grow into a catch-and-finish pogo stick in the same vein as Chris Andersen, but without productive playmakers or any sense of offensive scheme, he’s often left to force his way into shots around the basket. I doubt that Varnado has any delusions about his NBA role, but the summer-league rosters and style nonetheless nudge him into a role that hardly helps in fostering a rosy evaluation. He drifts through these exhibition games without much means to make use of his physical gifts, save for his bits of bouncy weak-side shot blocking.
To his benefit, Varnado is one of the noticeably few big men in this pool with the hands to catch and complete plays somewhat reliably. Even that hedged praise is a superlative in the summer-league terms, as the feeds are sloppier and the play actions muddled to the point that the competing bigs are asked to make the most of a generally unfriendly situation. Varnado would do better with the looks created through the standard operations of the Heat offense (and in playing off of the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade), and for that reason he could well hold his spot through both guarantee deadlines and perhaps through the end of the season. As it stands, though, summer-league play isn’t likely to move the needle for Varnado in any favorable way. His stint in Vegas is important in that any opportunity to showcase counts for a player in Varnado’s position, but the means for him to impress Heat officials are exceedingly limited with the haphazard style of play working against him.
Andrew Goudelock, Chicago Bulls
Winning MVP honors in the D-League isn’t any reputable indicator of NBA success, but Goudelock is a solid enough scorer to land an NBA deal. Although he’s limited enough to make him a poor fit as a more conventional off-the-dribble playmaker, Goudelock has shown a knack for utility scoring both off the pass and off the dribble. That touch tends to come and go a bit in summer-league play (as evidenced by Goudelock’s 31-point outing one night followed by an 11-point showing the next), but as far as deep reserve scoring specialists go, Goudelock is a better option than most.
He’s good enough to pick up slack when needed but not so audacious as to overstep the bounds of his role. If that were that a more common combination, Goudelock might be out of luck. But as it stands, it’s worthwhile for some team (though likely not the Bulls, who have a decent number of guards already) to pick up a capable standstill shooter with the potential to develop into a more serviceable offensive curator.
The summer league has given Goudelock far more opportunity to showcase his abilities as a scorer than to flesh out the other aspects of his game, but even in that he can provide a head-to-head comparison with the other fringe prospects competing for a roster spot in Vegas. It’s easy to see some potential in an untested prospect, but in watching Goudelock torch the summer competition, front-office types can better glimpse the limitations of all involved. Goudelock is a baseline for NBA participation; we know what role he plays on the next level, and what those in his range of performance might be able to offer. That he’s getting the better of most his matchups here serves as an equal reminder of the range of talent involved in summer league and a sobering point of comparison that ultimately favors Goudelock’s relatively more proven game.