Five surprises from the Las Vegas Summer League
LAS VEGAS — Summer league came up a bit dry in terms of glamour prospects and sustained intrigue, but there were still plenty of participants who managed to exceed expectations. Below are just a handful of those pleasant surprises — some on guaranteed contracts and some not, but all impressive in their own right.
Thomas Robinson, Portland Trail Blazers
Robinson is just 70 games into his NBA career and already two teams have passed on the opportunity to develop him. (Sacramento and Houston have both traded him.) It’s too soon to say definitively what the 6-foot-9 forward will or won’t be, but at the moment he’s struggled to access the versatility that made him such an interesting prospect coming out of Kansas. That’s disappointing, but at the very least Robinson seems aware of needing to find the means to contribute more modestly.
He put a lot into his rebounding on the summer-league stage and averaged 12.8 rebounds in 28.6 minutes. Beyond the raw numbers, though, Robinson did a great job of extending vertically to sky over the rebounding scrum, which — in conjunction with the 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes Robinson averaged in the NBA last season — bodes well for his chances of creating value on the glass. There’s still hope for him as a finisher and face-up threat, but it’s his work on the glass that will earn him the playing time necessary to bring along his other skills.
It’s admittedly odd to frame a former No. 5 pick this way, but Robinson’s NBA start has been so unusual that it makes little sense to evaluate him by the same standards as other high draft picks. He’s had no coaching continuity whatsoever and little chance to prove himself (despite first landing with the lowly Kings). So it’s understandable that he’s more or less the same flawed, inefficient offensive player he seemed to be in summer league a season ago. A more stable position in Portland could go a long way in acclimating Robinson to the NBA game, but that stability begins with Robinson’s proving that he can work and produce while learning on the job. His body language isn’t always great, but the effort he showed here was a good start to his reclamation season.
Jeff Taylor, Charlotte Bobcats
The Las Vegas Summer League showcases the fine line between fringe players with guaranteed contracts and those still fighting for a roster spot. But that muddle of similarly capable end-of-the-rotation types only makes it that much more obvious when a clear-cut NBA player is on the court. Taylor, the 31st pick in 2012, is just that. In Charlotte’s first four games, the 6-7 swingman pressured opponents off the dribble, leveraged his athleticism on break-outs and fared surprisingly well as a primary offensive option in a half-court setting.
Although merely an average perimeter shooter, Taylor looked surprisingly comfortable driving into traffic for someone whose offense came largely on spot-up jumpers and fast breaks last season. His free rein worked to great effect for the Bobcats, as Taylor has run the two-man game effectively with No. 4 pick Cody Zeller and made the most out of isolations in averaging 20.3 points.
Taylor won’t soon command this much creative responsibility for the first-team Bobcats, but being able to work more effectively off the bounce (and finish drives in a crowd) brings him that much closer to being a quality two-way player. He’ll still need to follow through on his summer-league efforts and prove he can score more effectively against actual NBA defenders on a regular basis. But after his Vegas showing, Taylor, who already looked like a decent prospect, is a nice get for Charlotte.
Ray McCallum Jr., Sacramento Kings
Second-round picks have a lot at stake in summer league, but the 6-2 McCallum — selected by Sacramento with the 36th pick — played well enough in Vegas to secure a three-year deal on site. The primary selling point was McCallum’s driving ability. Few guards available at McCallum’s price bring the same level of athleticism and control. He seems to have the quickness necessary to break down the first line of defense at an NBA level. From there, he displayed an ability to change direction, finish with both hands and connect on floaters and acrobatic layups. He can convert on a variety of attempts around the basket, making him a somewhat reluctant passer, but that could soon change as he plays with more talented shooters and big men in the NBA.
Also impressive was the way McCallum navigated the casual style of summer league, which involves few set plays and even fewer well-executed ones. Without much structure, many primary ball handlers tend to simply call for the ball and wait on the perimeter when they aren’t in control. McCallum, on the other hand, made some nice cuts and set screens for his teammates — minor actions in the grand scheme of things, but decisions indicative of sound basketball logic. It’s early, but McCallum — who had a 23-point performance in Vegas as well as a 12-point, 11-assist outing — looks like a nice pick-up for the Kings on a cheap, three-year deal.
Mike Scott, Atlanta Hawks
Scott was a nondescript role player as a rookie for Atlanta last season, but the 6-8 forward wound up as one of the top scorers at summer league (18.6 points in five games) by way of his savvy shooting touch and heightened offensive responsibility. The 43rd pick in the 2012 draft won’t be allowed to gun for points quite as much during the regular season. But by being able to put together some scoring runs, he could help a Hawks team undergoing a frontcourt overhaul.
Atlanta could well part ways with four (Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia, Ivan Johnson, Anthony Tolliver) of its five top bigs from last season in terms of minutes played, leaving room for Scott to land some more playing time at the back end of the rotation. Paul Millsap and Elton Brand will each take a good chunk of the available playing time, but Scott is the only other big man on the roster and might be ready to contribute in a larger role as a reserve scorer.
He really isn’t much of a defender, but Scott has good hands and a quick release around the basket, which allows him to make up for being a so-so athlete. Otherwise, he’s primarily a face-up player — spot-up jumpers, pick-and-pops and face-ups in the post give him the means to contribute immediately, in a way that makes sense as an extension of the offense Millsap, Brand and Al Horford will provide.
Scott scored well enough in limited minutes last season, but it’s good to see him do so as a more prominent piece. It’s one thing for him to salvage broken plays, but another for him to actually find ways to create points without being surrounded by NBA talent. He took a step in that direction in Vegas and looks capable of chipping in offensively if Atlanta needs him to sop up more playing time this season.
Jackie Carmichael, Dallas Mavericks
The biggest questions about the 23-year-old Carmichael going into the June draft and summer league came on offense, as he generated so much of his scoring at Illinois State by overpowering shorter and younger interior defenders. Carmichael, who measured 6-9 and 241 pounds at the draft combine, has the build of an NBA power forward, but perhaps not the skill set to be a consistent scorer in the pros. That was apparently enough of a concern for him to go undrafted, despite his notable defensive ability. With that, a burden of proof was created: Carmichael was sure to get a shot and in Vegas he would need to showcase his scoring ability against quasi-NBA competition.
The results were mixed. Carmichael was efficient overall, but wasn’t able to put himself in a position to score on consistent basis. In those games where he found openings and made himself available — like his 23-point performance against the Clippers — he thrived on face-up drives and strong finishes. But there were plenty of occasions, too, where Carmichael seemed invisible on the offensive end, lost as a screener or bystander rather than a more active participant. Some of that can be linked to the play of the ball-dominant guards on Dallas’ roster and the generally sloppy offensive play in summer league, but Carmichael still has some work to do to demonstrate his abilities as a pick-and-roll big man and continue to improve his mid-range jumper.
Still, his defensive chops are valuable and immediately evident, good enough to at least warrant an invitation to an NBA training camp. Even without much of a system to coordinate his defensive rotations, Carmichael was able to rack up blocked shots (including seven in a game against the Warriors) and challenge drives regularly. That’s tough to pull off in the chemistry-devoid summer league, as Carmichael had to rely on instincts and timing alone to contest shots and swing into good defensive position.
Carmichael would be an easier sell if his offensive game were just a bit more reliable. But as it stands, he has more than earned a place on the NBA radar and a make-good offer come October.