TrueHoop: Amir Johnson

Tuesday Bullets

July, 21, 2009

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

There's a long strip of yellow construction tape that cordons off sections 104 and 119 on opposite sides of the stands in Cox Pavilion at NBA Summer League. These are the VIP sections where team execs, player development people, scouts, and agents sit during games to assess the talent on the court. 

On the other side of that tape in section 105, you'll find Joe Borgia, the NBA's vice president of referee operations, and Bernie Fryer, vice president and director of officials. Borgia and Fryer prefer to sit a little closer to halfcourt to do their evaluating, but their assignments aren't all that different than those of the guys sitting to their right. They're here to watch games, study the fine details, and figure out who on the court is NBA-ready -- only their subjects aren't wearing team jerseys, but the familiar grays of NBA officials.

In some sense, what Borgia and Fryer are doing is more important to you, the NBA fan. Whether Quincy Douby or Marcus Williams land on NBA rosters and earn significant minutes this upcoming season is relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but the NBA's ability to find and develop good officials is essential to the health of the league. 

Borgia and Fryer were gracious enough to allow me to sit with them for the first half of the Bucks-Bulls game on Wednesday afternoon as they broke down what they saw from the game crew.

Here's a quick intro from Borgia and Fryer: 

Borgia and Fryer also have a couple of veteran officials sitting courtside, taking notes on the officials. These instructors chart specific plays to go over with the young officials in the video room later as teaching moments -- not much different than a player studying tape with a coach. 

Today, the general route to the NBA for officials goes through the D-League and the WNBA. Summer League, as it is for the players, functions as a tryout for a spot on one of those rosters. Only a select few non-NBA officials -- 15 in all -- got invitations to Summer League, and a young official may go to Summer League for several years before getting the call to work the D-League, assuming he or she ever does. 

Curtis Blair, who has one year of NBA experience as an official, is the crew chief for the Bucks-Bulls game. Not unlike NBA teams here in Vegas with their second-year players, league officials like younger refs with less experience to attend Summer League. "We want to see how he handles working a game with junior referees, and see if he can take charge of a game," Fryer said. "This gives him added experience as he progresses in his NBA career." 

Joining Blair are Cathy Ridella, who has one year of D-League experience after a strong 2008 Summer League, and Josh Johnson, who has worked as a college official and impressed at a recent pre-draft camp in Los Angeles. "We saw some potential there," said Borgia of Johnson's performance at the camp.

  • When you listen to Borgia and Fryer speak, the parallels between player and referee evaluation are strikingly similar. Here was Borgia talking about Johnson: "He was just identified after working with the pre-draft players, so now we bring him here where the players are a little bigger, stronger, faster, quicker to see if he can officiate at this next level." Borgia could be talking about an undersized small-conference guard who hasn't yet played agasint the top competition, couldn't he?
  • The first thing Borgia and Fryer look for is general court presence. "You watch their presentation," Borgia said. "Referees are actors. If they're good, they're believable." When a ref calls a foul, Borgia studies how they sell the call. Are their signals clear and strong? Did the scorers table understand them? Did they demonstrate what kind of foul was it? Another element of court presence is physical. Are these officials in the kind of shape the pro game demands. "If you don't have the physical ability to run the break, then you can't get in position to make the right call," Borgia said.
  • There are three referee positions on the court: the lead, the slot, and the trail. The lead navigates the baseline. The trail generally mirrors the lead near the top of the circle. The slot is positioned near the free throw line extended on the opposite side from the trail. Positioning is the key to being a good official, and it's the feature Borgia and Fryer examine most closely on a given possession. "Players move, and when they do, all of a sudden that good open look you had is gone," Borgia said. "We look to see if that official quickly makes an position adjustment to keep an open look so they can make a call if needed. It's like players. You have a set offense that you run. If you don't run it right, things fall apart."
  • Watching a game with your attention solely on the referees is really difficult if you come to the game with a fan's -- or even an analyst's -- background. Learning how to follow both players and officals simultaneously was dizzying to the point of impossible. If you had asked me in the second quarter who was having a good game for either Chicago or Milwaukee -- or even who was winning -- I couldn't have been able to tell you, even though I hadn't taken my eyes off the court!
  • For officials, it's also a challenge. Each of the three positions mentioned above -- the lead, the slot, and the trail -- have a "primary area" on the court that they're responsible for at a given time. If you're the slot and the ball is on the far side of the court, there might be two players fighting for position in your vicinity. It's your job to monitor that, to make sure there's no off-the-ball foul. But just as it was for me, it's natural for a young ref to follow the ball instead of focusing on that area. "As soon as the ball is passed out of their primary area to the weak side, they'll have a bad habit of following the ball with their eyes -- like fans do -- instead of going to the weak side rebounder, or to a matchup in the post that's actively being guarded," Fryer said. "If you follow the ball, you'll miss off-the-ball stuff, and that's a common mistake by new referees." Borgia and Fryer call this error "ballwatching." 
  • According to Fryer, quick reaction to a play is another skill young officials have to develop. "Things happen so quickly, especially in the paint," Fryer said. "By the time they recognize it, it's passed and we're already into the next play. So we get a lot of non-calls, because they're just a play behind. That comes with experience."
  • There's a play in the second quarter that caught Borgia and Fryer's attention when Taj Gibson fouled Amir Johnson on a rebound in the lane. The paint is the domain of all three officials, and on this possession Ridella whistled Gibson for the foul, while Johnson did not, even though he was closer to the play. Did Johnson not see the foul? Or was it merely a case that once Ridella made the call, that Johnson didn't think it was necessary to blow his whistle? It's not a big thing, but something Borgia noted to ask Joh
    nson about after the game. There's another play just before halftime when Blair "guesses wrong" as the lead on a play that originates at the middle of the court. Anticipating that the dribbler is going left, Blair slides along the baseline that way -- only the ball ends up on the right side of the floor. "It's no different than a player," Borgia said. "Sometimes you get fooled." Ultimately, nothing materialized on the play, so Blair's position was a non-factor. Similar to a player, there are sins of commission commited by a younger official that are natural and, to some degree, excusable. Generally, the game benefits from officials who have an intuitive sense of where a play is going to go. That Blair guessed wrong wasn't a catastrophe -- and it's also one of the reasons there are three officials.

After Summer League, Borgia and Fryer will review the performances of all 15 official candidates and determine which are ready to take the next step -- maybe to the D-League or the WNBA. The others will return to college ball, where they'll continue to be monitored by Borgia, Fryer, and their staff. If they're fortunate, their phones will ring again next spring.

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

  • The Knicks' Toney Douglas continued to struggle shooting the ball, but he performed his primary function as floor general quite well. He gave the Knicks what they needed at the point -- game management, penetration and kicking, creating for others, and, most of all, solid on-ball defense at that position. Douglas now has 21 assists to only two turnovers in his two games. Not bad for a guy who started out as a combo guard. 
  • Austin Daye The Pistons' order of the Daye
    (Garrett Ellwood/NBA via Getty Images)

  • Jordan Hill is at his strongest when he's facing up to the basket, but too often he rushes himself when he has the ball in the post. Several times on Wednesday, he lost track of where he was on the block, then flung an off-balanced shot up from close range. Hill also seemed a little passive as a post defender, even against the likes of Trent Plaisted. Hill stayed in close proximity on defense to his assigned man, but rarely tried to knock his guy off his spot. In general, the closer Hill was to the basket, the less comfortable he was.
  • You have to love a player who's useful at any spot on the court. Austin Daye is that guy for Detroit. He's a new wave three -- able to work as the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll, drive to the cup from the perimeter, post up against most small forwards, use a screen the right way, and hit from long range. Against the Knicks on Wednesday, he finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds. 
  • DaJuan Summers was the butter and egg man down low for the Pistons. I can't quite figure out whether to classify him as a small or power forward. IMG's Mike Moreau referred to him as a "Power 3." Whatever he is, Summers continued to leverage his ability to face up for opportunities to get inside. There's a lot of offensive weaponry there, and he can clean the glass, too. His scoring line: 24 points on 9-for-15 shooting from the field, and 5-for-7 from the stripe. 
  • Joe Alexander did a much better job off-the-ball finding space on the floor where teammates could hit him for open looks -- not just on the perimeter, but in Scola-territory along the baseline at 15 feet. The Alexander-Taj Gibson matchup was an interesting one and it was anything but a pitching duel. Alexander finished 9-for-16 from the field, Gibson 6-for-9. Gibson was able to exploit his length against Alexander, while Alexander used his versatility and triple-threat skills to beat Gibson. Meanwhile, Gibson became the second player in Summer League to rack up 10 fouls. The Spurs' Ian Mahinmi was the first Tuesday against Denver. Gibson now has 19 fouls in two games. 
  • Summer League is the perfect setting for an athlete like Amir Johnson to show off his wares under the basket. Johnson was an efficiency machine inside for the Bucks: 17 points on 11 possessions, along with eight rebounds. He owned the paint, gobbling up offensive boards, going up strong with the putbacks, either converting or getting fouled (11 free throw attempts for the game). Defensively, he was smart and physical, blocking shots and igniting breaks with sharp, quick outlet passes to Brandon Jennings
  • After sitting out Phoenix's first Summer League game on Monday with back spasms, Earl Clark displayed his full range of skills in his inaugural effort on Wednesday. He initiates the bulk of his offense along the perimeter, but he can do so many things from there to disarm the defense: a pretty touch pass into the post off a dish from his point guard, a catch-and-shoot, a dribble drive and pass-off that results in a hockey assist. He also showed his defensive flexibility, bothering guards and bigs alike.  
  • DeMar DeRozan is far more polished than advertised. He uses his quickness to build his game. As Mike Moreau said in David Thorpe's twitter thread, "Demar DeRozan really comes off the curl with speed, balance and elevation-very controlled. Will come off a decade's worth of pindowns."  He also rarely takes a bad shot -- uncommon among rookies and in Summer League, and particularly uncommon among rookies in Summer League. 
  • Jason Thompson was an entirely different player Wednesday. He claimed his spot down on the block, called for the ball, forced the action off the dribble, made hard back cuts when he was fronted, backed his guy in with force when he wasn't, and worked his tuchus off on the offensive glass. His totals: 31 points and 10 rebounds. 
  • Tyreke Evans didn't start for the Kings against the D-League Select team, and was very deferential when he checked in at the start of the second quarter and throughout the second half. He went 1-for-5 from the field, 3-for-4 from the line, with three assists in 23 minutes. Despite the off night, the change of speed on his dribble-drives was still ungodly.
  • Chase Budinger has a beautiful stride into his catch-and-shoot motion -- we know that -- but Wednesday night he also showed the athleticism to put it on the deck, weave through traffic, and finish strongly. He moved well without the ball to get open looks, and even absorbed a few bumps on defense to stay in front of his man, something he'll have to do this fall to stay in the Rockets' rotation.
  • Andray Blatche continues to be  one of the most confounding talents in the league. He flashed moments of sheer dominance Wednesday night with swift, whirling post moves off good recognition that made his defenders look silly. At other times, he tried to improvise and failed spectacularly. Blatche could be a top-shelf talent, but his preference for raw instinct over tactical strategy on a given play renders him inconsistent. He needs a plan. Still, between the potent face-up game at the top of the key, and the fancy footwork and explosiveness down low, it's hard to take your eyes off him. Let's see how he fares this season against NBA talent.
  • Dante Cunningham: NBA body, NBA aggressiveness, NBA defense ... NBA player? He didn't put up the most efficient line of the night (22 points on 23 possessions), but his physicality made the Rockets' defense work. He often chose to back his defender in with a dribble or two, then launch a mid-range jumper with good elevation. When he recognized there was something better, he'd build a head of steam and get to the rim. More than anything, he was out there with a purpose, moving with the offense, mindful of where Jerryd Bayless was at all times.