1. Lillard Outshines Rivers In Guards' Debuts
LAS VEGAS -- Sunday night's marquee matchup at the Thomas & Mack Center offered a stark contrast in pedigree and portfolio.
Austin Rivers grew up in basketball royalty and played a single season at Duke, one of college basketball's most storied institutions.
Damian Lillard, overlooked by the big programs, drifted under the radar at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, for nearly four years, during which he sat out most of the 2010-11 season with a broken foot.
Both Rivers and Lillard are gifted performers who are creative and aggressive with the ball, but when it came time for the Portland Trail Blazers to select their point guard of the future, they opted for the more polished Lillard at No. 6. A few minutes later, Rivers stepped to the podium as the New Orleans Hornets' pick at No. 10.
After a jittery first half for both rookies, Lillard scored 21 of his 25 points after intermission and rallied Portland from a 17-point deficit to an 85-82 win over New Orleans.
"The first half there were some butterflies," Lillard said, "I was just getting used to it -- the speed. There was a lot of athleticism out there. But I think once I calmed down and got comfortable, that's when I started to play better."
Lillard started the evening by executing a perfectly choreographed pick-and-roll with fellow first-round draftee Meyers Leonard, who dived down the gut of the lane for an easy 2. For Lillard, whose primary collegiate competition came against the Big Sky Conference, this was slick, NBA-quality stuff.
After that, things got a little bumpy. He'd split a couple of defenders on his way to the hole, but the ball wouldn't go down. He'd create space for open jumpers, but the shots didn't fall. Overall, Lillard missed eight of his 10 shot attempts in the first half without a single free throw attempt.
That last fact gnawed at him at halftime.
"When I came out, a lot of my shots were jumpers," Lillard said. "I felt like I needed to get in rhythm, which meant I needed to get to the free throw line, and I needed to get to the rim and draw contact."
Those in Lillard's camp will commonly praise him for his ability to read the game and, subsequently, control it. In the third quarter, he promptly exerted those skills as he single-handedly reversed the Trail Blazers' fortunes.
Determined to force the issue inside, Lillard patiently planned his attacks, waiting on screens at the top of the floor, then bursting ahead to absorb contact. Twice in the third quarter he converted old-fashioned three-point plays with finishes in traffic -- once with an acrobatic chuck with his right hand, the other with a nasty crossover followed by an off-balance left-handed launch.
"It all came back to me," Lillard said. "I was being patient. My shots weren't falling, but I stuck with it."
Lillard is far from your ball-dominating point guard. Even when he started lighting it up from the outside, he never stopped looking for his big men. He went back to Leonard for another pick-and-roll in the third quarter, this one resulting in a thunderous alley-oop.
In the closing minutes, Lillard delivered an uncanny lookaway pass to Leonard on a basket dive. The big man got fouled and drained two big free throws in a tight game.
"I really wanted to show people I can make plays and get guys involved," Lillard said. "I thought I got a lot of guys shots. Any time you can come in and make the guys around you better and get them easy shots, I feel like you're doing your job and you're playing well and just making the right plays, and I thought I did that."
The question surrounding Lillard's counterpart Sunday night was whether he could perform a similar function with his new team. Rivers is a dynamic, confident guard who can find his way to the rim, but his capacity to hold down the point guard position is still up for debate.
Like Lillard, Rivers took plenty of lumps in the first half. He'd explode off a high screen to draw a backpedaling big man on the switch -- only to step out of bounds on the baseline drive.
And like Lillard, he appeared far more comfortable in the second half. Rivers finished with 14 points on 3-for-13 shooting from the field and 7-for-10 from the stripe. Those aren't attractive numbers, but Rivers' stat line shouldn't serve as an indictment. The Trail Blazers had a tough time staying in front of Rivers, who got to the rim with regularity off high picks.
Will Rivers' ability to penetrate ultimately allow him to play the point in New Orleans?
"Listen, it's a challenge," Rivers said. "I know I'm up to it. I'm going to work. I'll be ready. Tonight was the first time I've ever done it in my life, so you learn, but I know I can do it. I've got four more games, a million more practices. I'll be ready."
That's the gambit for Rivers and the Hornets. Can a talented player with formidable tools as a scorer parlay those skills to become a championship-quality playmaker?
Are point guards born or can they be engineered?
The Trail Blazers feel they have a natural, while the Hornets are banking that the latter is possible.
Kevin Arnovtz covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.
2. Waiters Emerges From The Shadows
LAS VEGAS -- Dion Waiters' summer league debut was full of unknowns -- even for some NBA decision-makers, who weren't able to see Waiters outside of a college setting because the Syracuse guard refused to participate in pre-draft workouts.
He was drafted No. 4 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but was that too high? Can a good bench player in college be a great starter in the NBA? Will he shine as bright in summer league now that new teammate Kyrie Irving is sidelined with a broken hand?
If he was aware of any of these questions, there was no indication in how he played or approached the game.
Waiters, who scored 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting with four assists, four rebounds and three turnovers against the Charlotte Bobcats, started aggressively and confidently. He got to the basket, got to the free throw line and moved with and without the ball. He also got open for his teammates, communicated on the floor, and showed he could hit shots at the rim and from outside the paint -- including the first basket of the game, a contested 3-pointer.
With Irving out, the game plan clearly was to get Waiters the ball and see what he could do. Which showed late.
Down one with under 15 seconds to play, Waiters pulled up from just inside the 3-point arc and hit a contested jumper to take the lead.
But after Kemba Walker responded with a tough runner in the lane, Waiters caught the inbound pass with under four seconds left and called timeout but the Cavs didn't have any more.
Cleveland was assessed a technical foul, effectively sealing the Bobcats' 68-64 win.
"I gotta come out here and work hard on the defensive end. And be a better leader," Waiters said. "I wasn't following through. I hurt myself tonight on my jump shots. I'm going to come back tomorrow better than ever. That's the thing we got to learn from. Come back tomorrow, and get it better."
When you know what you need to do to get better, those unknowns don't seem to matter.
3. Is Ross Draft's Big Reach Or Big Steal?
LAS VEGAS -- Mock drafts cease to matter once the picks have been announced. That became evident on Friday at Cox Pavilion, as Terrence Ross, widely regarded as the reach of the 2012 draft, took to an NBA court for the first time.
Less than a minute into his first summer league game, Ross, the No. 8 overall pick by the Toronto Raptors, effortlessly hit a straightaway 3-pointer. He hit two more from beyond the arc and finished with a team-high 21 points in Toronto's 12-point loss to the Houston Rockets. Suddenly, he seemed like a steal.
But against the Heat on Sunday, Ross wasn't as persuasive. The 21-year-old shooting guard started the game with a travel, the first of his five turnovers. And while there were bright spots -- an acrobatic finish at the rim in the first quarter and a lightning-quick spin move in the second come to mind -- Miami was largely successful in pressuring him. Ross walked off the court visibly frustrated after shooting 4-for-14 from the floor without making a 3.
"First game, you could tell that they didn't really have a scouting report," Ross said after the 71-59 loss. "This game, I think they kind of knew I was a shooter so they tried to trail me a lot and get on my hip and they tried to push me off screens. You could just tell that they knew a little something."
"I thought tonight he pressed a little bit," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who went over tape of the Rockets game with Ross before Sunday's contest. "The first game, he really did a good job of creating his own shot. He was fresher. I think the fatigue factor is setting in a little bit."
One way the Raptors coaches suggested for him to get a few breathers is to get to the free throw line. Encouragingly, he did so nine times against the Heat, to finish with 14 points.
While Ross didn't exactly prove critics wrong, he may have demonstrated the danger of overreacting. "I messed up on a lot of things but at the same time I'm going to look at film tonight and see what I have to work on, talk with the coaches and just really focus on what I need to do better," Ross said.
"Tonight was a great test for him," Casey said.
4. Coach's Corner
Entering the NBA, no two lottery picks better represented the opposite ends of the "ready to play" spectrum than Tristan Thompson and Kemba Walker. Thompson was all raw talent and a little bit of production, while Walker destroyed college hoops and had every skill necessary to be an NBA player. So where are they at now as they try to climb the success ladder?
Incredibly, and perhaps ironically, Walker has had the bigger challenge. As a point guard, and therefore an extension of his coach, working with his third coach in 18 months presents a more difficult transition. Though Paul Silas did not overcoach him, he still asked for things that were different from Jim Calhoun, and are different now from Mike Dunlap. The result is a more stunted player, not always sure when he should drive, pass, shoot whatever.
He has his moments, like pretty much whenever he's in isolation and wants to attack. And he is clearly being asked to be a vocal leader -- easy on a summer league team. But his midrange game looks suspect thus far, and he is still prone to overpenetrating while doing so too fast. That has to change if he wants to join the upper echelon of point guards currently controlling the league.
Thompson benefits from being asked to do less than Walker. We know he can run, jump and be a threat on defense, but on Sunday he showed hints that he's learning how to rebound out of area and use his quick first step to attack good spots on the floor. He still has to learn to avoid getting buried on the baseline on offense and to use quick attacks more in the post. But Cleveland recognizes his immense talent, and will be sure to keep him in "school" mode all week.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. Follow him on Twitter.
5. Cool Customer
6. Sunday's Best
Dominique Jones, Mavericks: Entering his third year in the NBA, the crafty wing looked around the gym, saw no one with his experience and promptly seized control of the game. Jones scored 32 points on 12-for-25 shooting from the field and grabbed eight rebounds in Dallas' win over Denver.
7. Sunday's Worst
Jon Diebler, Blazers: Portland's second-round pick in 2011 got off to a rough start this summer. Diebler, who shot 50 percent from both the field and from behind the arc in his senior season at Ohio State, was 1-for-7 (1-for-5 from 3) in the Blazers' win.
8. Tweet Of The Night
9. Quote Of The Night
"Like I told him this morning, it's kind of like what it's going to be in training camp. You're going to feel like your body's about to fall off."
-- -- Raptors coach Dwane Casey on Terrence Ross' summer league fatigue, as told to James Herbert.
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