1. Final Shots From Vegas Summer League
LAS VEGAS -- For the basketball junkie in attendance at the Thomas & Mack Center or watching at home on NBA TV, the Las Vegas summer league functions as an introduction to the league's freshest young talent. It's a unique event, far livelier than the preseason.
Summer league's stripped-down basketball might not always produce the most graceful results, but there's an accessibility to the affair that carries great appeal. These 10 days in July also serve another purpose: It's summer camp for NBA insiders. That relaxed vibe breeds easy schmoozing for owners, executives, coaches, agents and reporters who have endured the pressure cooker of the season, draft and free-agency period.
There was no shortage of topics to dish about in Sections 104 and 119 of Cox Pavilion, where team officials gather during games, or at the restaurants and lounges on the Las Vegas Strip, where they often gather after the day's action. What were they talking about this year?
You can usually find scattered seats in Cox Pavilion during the summer league -- but not for Washington's first three games. John Wall not only excited fans; he filled the VIP sections as well. "It's not just that he's the No. 1 pick," said one NBA head coach. "He's also what every coach and general manager wants with the way the game is being played." Wall led the summer league in points (23.5) and assists (7.8) per game, and added four rebounds and 2.5 steals to those averages.
The superlatives and comps were flowing freely: Derrick Rose with defense and charisma. Chris Paul with better size. Rajon Rondo with more upside on his jump shot. One of the privileges of the summer league is the opportunity to observe a top prospect in a meaningful context.
After months of discussion about wingspan, upside, motor and potential, we finally have the chance to watch the player in a game situation. Seeing Wall run the pick-and-roll with JaVale McGee was a revelation for skeptics and reassurance for the true believers.
The looming lockout
The current collective bargaining agreement expires next summer, and it was nearly impossible to find anyone in Las Vegas who has an optimistic view of the pending showdown between the league and the players' union. David Stern and the NBA have furnished the union with figures that project enormous losses, projections that players' union chief Billy Hunter says "strain credulity."
Even those sympathetic to wholesale change believe that the NBA has an impossible sales job to perform. "The numbers that the league is throwing out there are hard to believe," one team executive said. "That doesn't mean the status quo is working. But the league is going to have a hard time getting anywhere using those numbers as a foundation."
The impasse has governed a lot of what has happened over the past few weeks in the free-agency market, both here and in Europe. For instance, with the prospect that their clients might have no employment in the fall of 2011 (or in fear that American players will come to Europe), some agents are locking players into longer contracts in Europe. For decision-makers in NBA front offices who had cap space this summer, there's a sense that those dollars have an expiration date. Rather than carrying that flexibility into an uncertain climate, better to spend now.
Even those who came into the summer league with conflicted feelings about the young Sacramento Kings center were taken aback by the polar extremes Cousins displayed during his six games in Las Vegas. In his first three games, Cousins unveiled a broad range of skills, far more than his reputation as a raw big man suggested. He drained face-up jumpers, handled the ball in transition, worked off the dribble against defenders from the top of the circle, gobbled up rebounds then flicked perfect outlet passes 50 feet downcourt, and gracefully played pick-and-roll basketball with his guards.
But we also saw Cousins' immaturity and petulant body language. He jawed incessantly at opposing centers like Greg Stiemsma and nagged game officials with impunity. After shooting 45.8 percent over his first three games, Cousins went 9-for-45 from the field in his final three and also saw his rebounding totals sag.
When the Kings' coaching staff gave him instructions during huddles, Cousins pouted and looked away. Whether his fall-off was a product of poor conditioning, irritability or just self-disgust, one thing is certain: He has more talent than advertised -- and it's going to be more difficult to harness than most of us realized.• See the full Arnovitz TrueHoop entry
2. Eyenga Remains Intriguing Work In Progress
LAS VEGAS -- On draft night, nearly every international prospect gets tagged with the "mystery man" label. But in this day and age, much of the mystery that once surrounded international prospects is gone. With the ability to watch international games and look up statistics on the Internet, increased attention to international teams during the Olympics and the World Championships, more Web and TV coverage of the draft, and the advent of YouTube, fans now know what they're getting when their team looks outside of the NCAA ranks for a prospect.
Christian Eyenga was different. When the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Eyenga with the 30th pick of the 2009 NBA draft, nearly everybody had the same reaction: "Wait, who?" The footage ESPN had of Eyenga was grainy film of him throwing down dunks and blocking shots in what appeared to be a quarter-full high school gym. Draft Express did not have a picture of Eyenga in its profile of him, which called the then-20-year-old "moderately intriguing as a defensive-minded small forward." The NBA draft staff didn't have a nameplate prepared for his spot on the big draft board in the WaMu Theatre. In every way, Eyenga was an unknown quantity.
After his second year playing for the Cavaliers at the Las Vegas summer league, there is a bit less mystery surrounding Eyenga, but there's still no telling what type of player he'll end up becoming. Eyenga shows flashes of brilliance on the court. He's one of the best athletes in the summer league -- when he jumps for a dunk, block or rebound, he seems to come from out of nowhere before gliding an impossible distance to the spot he wants to be. He can also make a 3-pointer if he's given the time and space he needs to shoot it, can get to the basket with one or two long dribbles, and has even shown some post moves during his time in Vegas.
Eyenga has had his moments of brilliance, but he's far from a finished product. His ballhandling skills are nearly nonexistent, he doesn't really know where to be on offense, he struggles to make shots or plays off the dribble, and he makes too many bad gambles when going for blocks. The fact that Eyenga is trying to learn English and get by without a translator in Vegas makes things that much more difficult for the young native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Cavaliers could use Eyenga's athleticism on the wing next season, but his learning curve will be extremely steep if he does end up making the Cavaliers' roster, and another year in Europe may be in Eyenga's best interests. He has the physical gifts to be a quality NBA wing; the question is whether or not he'll ever be able to utilize them effectively enough to crack an NBA rotation.John Krolik is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime
3. Sampson Has The Right Touch For Bucks
LAS VEGAS -- At some point this season, Larry Sanders and Tiny Gallon will look as if they were put on this earth to play basketball in the NBA. Times will be good. At some point this season, they'll be glued to the bench, saddled with foul trouble or fighting inconsistency. Times will be bad. Even the very best rookie seasons are a mixed bag.
For Bucks assistant coach Kelvin Sampson, it's keeping them on an even keel that's most important.
"Rookie years are tough for these guys," he said. "At some point they're going to go through a tough patch. With the kids here, it's making sure they handle success and failure in the same vein. Don't get too high, don't get too low. Understand work is the answer to most of your problems."
The development of young players is a crucial ingredient in the success of any NBA team, and Milwaukee has one of the best in the business on its staff in Sampson. Within the past week, Gallon has tweeted about the immediate positive influence Sampson has had on him. Gallon's words should come as no surprise, as last season Brandon Jennings repeatedly noted how helpful Sampson was in helping him develop. Keeping Jennings on an even keel during a roller-coaster rookie season was a focus for Sampson.
"That was a big thing with Brandon," he said. "The night he scored 55, I remember he was texting me later that night, and one of the things I said to him was 'Don't allow a 55-point night on a night in November define who you are.' That's part of being able to handle success."
It should come as no surprise that Sampson has such a strong connection with younger players. A former big-time college coach, Sampson had over 25 years of college coaching experience before joining the Bucks as an assistant two seasons ago. Even in the NBA, he gets the most joy out of helping along the younger players.
"I have a great relationship with Andrew Bogut, Kurt Thomas and John Salmons," Sampson said. "But those kids may need me more. When Kurt has a great game or bad game, I don't worry about him. But Brandon, Tiny, Larry Sanders, those kind of guys, you take them under your wing a little bit."
"I'm here for them," Sampson said, when asked what the key was to his working with younger players. "When you're coaching a basketball team, you're making sure that you're available for anything. If they need to vent or need to go in at night and work or watch film, that's the answer to our problem. If we go in at 11 at night, floor needs to be swept? I don't mind sweeping the floor. I've swept floors before; that doesn't bother me. It's just helping them. As a coach, you get most of your satisfaction from just helping somebody along the way."
As important as being a teacher to rookies and second-year players is to Sampson, he's also not above learning himself. He has worked with big-name coaches like Jud Heathcote, George Karl and Gregg Popovich, and now Scott Skiles in Milwaukee.
"Scott is probably one of the most fair coaches I've been around in terms of he doesn't show favoritism," Sampson said. "He treats Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings the same he does Carlos Delfino or whoever. And I try and prepare the guys for that, how demanding he'll be, but that if you do your work, you'll be treated fairly."
The success Sampson has had in preparing players may soon take him out of Milwaukee, as he's been rumored to be a candidate for a number of open jobs over the past offseason. His quick rise from tarnished college coach to NBA head coach could be complete by next summer. Milwaukee has already seen one Skiles assistant (Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins) get work elsewhere, and could soon lose assistant general manager Jeff Weltman, too. Such is the life of a franchise that's suddenly gone from afterthought to front and center.
But for now, the Bucks still have Sampson, the do-it-all assistant who preaches hard work and sweeps floors when needed.
Jeremy Schmidt is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime
4. Daily Dime Live Recap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Sunday's action -- all on Daily Dime Live.
5. Waiting On Thabeet
True Hoop Network
LAS VEGAS -- Two steps forward, one step back for Hasheem Thabeet.
A great week for Thabeet in Las Vegas ended with a disappointing performance against the San Antonio Spurs. All week, Thabeet has been more deliberate with his movements, more focused at both ends, and brought the kind of defense he was drafted for. But against the Spurs, every concern scouts had about him sprang to life. At one point the 7-foot Thabeet actually missed a layup by hitting the underside of the rim. His lack of perimeter defensive skill was on display as Eric Dawson continually hurt him from midrange.
It certainly wasn't all bad for Thabeet. His free throw-shooting form is more fluid than last year, and he is still a strong force at the rim. But he finished with zero blocks and five fouls.
It's not Thabeet's fault he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2009. In a perfect world, he would have spent a season or two developing his game in the D-League. Thabeet spent six games in the D-League late last season before returning to Memphis. But honestly, he could use a full two years there, receiving attention not only from Grizzlies personnel, but from the D-League's special skills coaches.
If there was any doubt about what the D-League can do for players, nowhere was it more evident than in the performance of the Spurs, who were staffed by multiple D-Leaguers from their affiliate Austin Toros, and who crushed the Grizzlies at both ends.
Thabeet shows a ton of promise, and it was a good week overall for the optimistic youngster. But just as things started to look up, the struggles returned, and we're left to wonder just how long the blossoming of his game will take.
Matt Moore is a regular contributor to the Dime
6. Eye On Eyenga
Christian Eyenga could give the Cavaliers an impressive physical presence. Now getting it all to come together is the challenge. (See Box 2)
7. Bledsoe Looking Sharper
LAS VEGAS -- After turning the ball over 28 times in his first four games, Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe put together a heady, controlled performance against the D-League Select team. He changed speeds and read the defense beautifully off high ball screens from Rod Benson -- bursting into the paint only when invited, and making smart passes or drawing contact when the defense converged. He scored 13 points (6-for-10 from the field), grabbed five rebounds and dished out five assists against three turnovers.
• The Spurs bludgeoned the Grizzlies by sticking Benetton Treviso guard Gary Neal in the left corner and creating open looks for him off drive-and-kicks or curls. When sets broke down for the Spurs, Neal was the safety valve. He hit six of nine attempts from beyond the arc in the first half.
• Greivis Vasquez finished up an unremarkable week at the point for Memphis. Never has so much dribbling produced so few results.• See the full Arnovitz Day 10 Notebook
8. Uncertain Kings Backcourt
LAS VEGAS -- The Kings were able to debut their two latest frontcourt additions during this Las Vegas summer league session. And while they showed plenty of flashes for the future of a burgeoning frontline, the backcourt remains more of a mystery than it was before.
Sacramento currently has Tyreke Evans, Beno Udrih, Francisco Garcia and Donald Sloan as their guards under contract. And with Sloan's contract non-guaranteed and a less-than-stellar summer league performance under his belt, it seems like the Kings really have only three guards they can be sure will start the season. With the free-agent market getting thinner as the Kings keep their salary-cap room for better use, the group to choose from has to start with the guards on this summer league roster, with Dionte Christmas, Sylven Landesberg, Ryan Thompson and Sloan being the best candidates.
The Kings need shooters to space the floor for Evans and DeMarcus Cousins. The guards from the past week didn't exactly show they fit this criterion. Between Christmas, Landesberg, Thompson and Sloan, there were only three 3-pointers made in a combined 223 minutes of action; all three were made by Christmas. Overall, they shot 21 percent from beyond the arc, and nobody besides Christmas took more than two.
Christmas showed the best potential for being the long-range weapon that makes the help defense hesitate; he made the best case for a camp invite during his time in Las Vegas. Thompson and Landesberg were very efficient at getting to the basket and getting trips to the free throw line, but neither proved he could be a deep-ball threat. Sloan was very unspectacular and didn't show that the non-guaranteed contract he received earlier in the month should be paid in full.
Now the Kings have to pore over the summer league games from other teams, listen to their scouts and go back to the drawing board for finding backcourt depth. There is probably a solution to fill the holes in the backcourt, but it's not coming from the past seven days.
Zach Harper is a regular contributor to the Dime.
9. Babbitt Shows Game, At Last
LAS VEGAS -- Luke Babbitt has had a tough summer league. Heralded as a shooter after putting up a Steve Nash-esque 50/40/90 shooting percentage in his last season at Nevada, Babbitt hit one 3-point shot in his first 10 attempts in summer league play and had two nights when he shot 50 percent from the free throw line.
In order to obtain Babbitt, the Portland Trail Blazers traded 3-point specialist Martell Webster to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and there was concern among the Portland faithful that Babbitt would be unable to help fill the void left by Webster's absence.
There's nothing like a hyper-efficient 22-point performance on eight field goals attempted to wash the bad taste away. Babbitt shot 2-for-3 from beyond the arc Sunday and took eight free throws, hitting all of them. Three assists and four steals rounded out an impressive performance in a win over Chicago that has Blazers fans feeling just a bit relieved.
Babbitt still has much to work on; he hasn't demonstrated that he can defend his position at the NBA level, and he needs to learn to be more compact and efficient with his movements when trying to create space. Babbitt's motions tend to be exaggerated, and all the space he travels through during a shot fake or jab step is space he has to recover before the shot; those fractions of seconds are an eternity for longer, more athletic NBA defenders, who turn what would have been an open jumper at the NCAA level into a tough, contested shot.
While Babbitt was happy with his individual performance, he made it quite clear postgame that the only number that mattered to him was the total in the wins column. Babbitt talked about his struggles as a learning experience and displayed a positive and coachable attitude. There is no doubt that Babbitt has a genuine passion for the game and will work as hard as he can to improve.
Portland will have to be patient with Babbitt as he makes the adjustment to NBA defenses, but if he can translate the skills he showed against Chicago to the next level, he will be a solid contributor worthy of his draft position.
Nathan Begley is a contributor to the Daily Dime.
10. Roddy's Summer Session
LAS VEGAS -- Two of three phases of the Summer of Roddy are in the books. Five rather nondescript summer league games by the Dallas Mavericks' point-guard-in-training wrapped up Sunday night. It followed an intensive, interactive June with coach Rick Carlisle and precedes a run next month with the French national team at the World Championship in Turkey.
Rodrigue Beaubois' time in the desert was a mixed bag. He certainly didn't blow anybody away, although at times it was evident that his silky jumper can be lethal (he bounced back Sunday after a scoreless game to hit six of nine shots, going 3-for-3 from beyond the arc, for 15 points) and his athleticism is electric.
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