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Monday, July 5, 2010
Remember summer league?

By Henry Abbott

Last summer at about this time I went on vacation. While I was poolside, Kevin Arnovitz, David Thorpe and a collection of TrueHoop Network bloggers launched a multi-faceted attack on summer league basketball -- in Orlando and Las Vegas -- and TrueHoop had what was, at the time, the busiest traffic month in the blog's history. (We have since obliterated that mark; the bar is high this July.)

The delightful truth is that basketball fans want to know how their teams' young prospects are doing in the early going. It's hard to follow on TV or in newspapers. This team does a better job than anybody else of offering smart and timely insight.

The setting is different this year. LeBron James is the eye of the NBA media hurricane. Everyone's newsometers are calibrated such that this year a promising performance from Wes Matthews might not matter as much as it did in the news vacuum of last summer.

However, summer league rolls on -- Orlando's starts today at 1 p.m. ET. The Vegas summer league begins Friday and ends July 18. And what's true every year is true again this year: Out of all those names on all those summer league rosters, there will be some players who will emerge to really help an NBA team. Who will they be? You have to pay attention.

David Thorpe just called from his car en route to Orlando, and we had the following conversation:
What are you looking for in Orlando?
I always look forward to seeing the rookies. Evan Turner and Derrick Favors will be here. Paul George, Gordon Hayward ... there will be a lot of drafted talent here. But one of my favorite things is to check on the guys from the last couple years. There are first- and second-round picks from the last couple of years, and it's always interesting to see how they've developed. In some cases, they're going to become strong rotation players. In some other, they're going to get new starts.

For instance, we're going to get to see Chris Douglas-Roberts, who looked like he was going to be a player for New Jersey. Everyone thought he was going to be a first-round pick -- he wasn't. He's a guy that can score. New Jersey traded him to Milwaukee. How does he fit in now? There are always stories like that.

There are always going to be players who have played overseas and are trying to make an impact. In many cases they're good enough to make the jump. In most cases, they don't get the chance. But it's such a big story off the court. The bidding from the European teams, the American players saying they don't want the deal now, especially because the money issues there are such an issue. Most players want to go to NBA veteran's camp, but can they get a vet camp offer? That's always a big game for me to watch with keen interest, because I think a lot of these guys can play in the NBA.

Does summer league matter?
I think  you'll hear two different sides. There are definitely a lot of people who feel that it doesn't matter. Whether you fail or succeed it's really not indicative of anything. They are right that it is not an absolute predictor. But I think it absolutely does matter in a couple of different areas. For instance, last summer we talked a lot about Steph Curry. I think he's one of the smartest players in the NBA. I wrote that a number of times this year in my rookie report. And one way I know he's such a smart player is he was so bad in summer league last year, in terms of understanding how to play offensively. But he was so good, for most of the year, in the NBA. That learning curve was so evident because we saw him in July.

Another example is Brandon Jennings. The brand image he had going into summer league last year was one way. I had never seen him play before. No one predicted he was going to be this fun to play with. But it was evident in summer league! He just had an energy and an enthusiasm about him, and an absolute willingness to shoot, but an equal willingness to share the ball. Whatever was better for the team, he was down for. And that was clear.

Ty Lawson, same thing. Seeing those guys matter in summer league gave you an idea that they might take that enthusiasm and talent to another level.

You'll see athleticism in summer league. The college game is such a power game. It's such a cramped game. It's such a scrum in the paint. The NBA game is more open. It's called much tighter by officials in the summer. The officials are almost hyper about what they call. That's why they allow ten fouls, for example, in the Vegas Summer League -- there's a good chance you might get ten fouls, even though you'll probably only get four or five if the game was called by NBA officials.

The game is more open. So players you're not sure are going to be athletic enough when you watch them play in college, you see it more in summer league. You see that they are going to be able to play above the rim, or get to the rim.

You also are going to find players like the Suns' Lou Amundson, one of my favorite players. When he first played summer league for the Sacramento Kings a few years back, I thought there was no question this was a rotation player in the NBA. I was shocked that the Kings didn't keep him. I was shocked that it took him a while to actually make it. But it's pretty clear now that what he has been bringing to the table, he has always had, and summer league gave us that first glimpse.

He's just one guy who started a career for himself in recent summer leagues.

Wes Matthews played for the Jazz and Kings in summer league [after he had played in Orlando's summer league for the Jazz]. I was actually surprised that they gave him an invite, and I was wrong. I didn't love him coming out of college, but he was very good, and probably showed he was an NBA player. Utah jumped on him and the rest is history.

Brook Lopez obviously didn't have to make a name for himself, but he was the 10th pick in that draft. It was a pretty strong draft, but I remember watching him play and right away he was able to impact a game in a way no one predicted. If anyone projected what he did in his first couple of summer league games, just the rebounds and fluid movement at that size, he would not have been a number 10 pick.

I remember people questioning Russell Westbrook. In his first summer league game, he was overwhelming in his athleticism. In a way that he never showed at UCLA because the game is so different. No one walked out of the gym after his first game thinking: "OK, he's not going to make it."

Whereas, in Michael Beasley's case, it was evident in that first summer league a couple of summers ago, how he would just really kind of float. There were times that he was fantastic, and times when he was just boring and average. I think that proved to be a good predictor.

Thorpe will be in Orlando most of the week, and then heads to Las Vegas on Friday where he will join a formidable TrueHoop team. Thorpe says he'll be tweeting throughout, focused 51 percent on rookies, but also keeping an open mind to whoever might be making a big impression. This summer, the vast majority of summer league games are televised on NBA TV.