1. Rivers Searching For Rookie-Year Redemption
LAS VEGAS -- Minutes after playing in his first organized basketball game in more than four months, New Orleans Pelicans guard Austin Rivers found his coach, Monty Williams, along the far wall of Cox Pavillion, and the two hugged.
Williams is a meticulous tactician, and before he even let go of Rivers, the coach brandished a list of play sequences from the Pelicans' 77-72 win over the New York Knicks that he'd scrawled on the back of a summer league media packet. With his signature combo of encouragement and intensity, Williams offered a critique of Rivers' pick-and-roll defense before enumerating some of the key possessions on which Rivers delivered.
On Friday, Rivers' highlights outshined his shortcomings, as he poured in 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting from the field, collected seven rebounds and dished out six assists. Though he was humble after the game, Rivers was also clearly proud of his effort, especially after the long layoff caused by a broken bone in his right hand in March.
"I haven't played in so long since I got hurt," Rivers said. "I got to watch a lot of film and see my weaknesses and how I need to change speeds instead of going a hundred miles per hour. And it kind of showed today -- just kind of like getting to the lane, changing speeds and getting it high off the glass and pulling up for shots and getting people open."
There's no overstating the misery of Rivers' rookie season in New Orleans. Though a standout performance in a summer league game has about as much spending power as a $25 chip from a Strip casino does in the Crescent City, it had to provide a measure of reassurance for Rivers and Williams that the second-year guard was the best player on the floor.
Rivers and Brian Roberts alternated primary ballhandling duties for New Orleans on Friday. When Rivers was at the controls, he displayed that aforementioned change of speed and was crafty in the pick-and-roll. He decisively rejected screens to get a step on Iman Shumpert or Tim Hardaway Jr. and had plenty of burst attacking the basket.
The latter is one of Rivers' biggest challenges. He shot a wretched 40.7 percent in the immediate basket area during the 2012-13 season, a number no NBA team can tolerate from a guard who is neither an elite perimeter shooter or defender. On Friday, Rivers was far more efficient getting to the rim. For example, to close the first half, Rivers unleashed a vicious crossover on the Knicks' Eloy Vargas and got bumped but still finished with a silky floater for the and-1.
Working methodically with the ball, slowing down to size up the floor, making smart decisions in penetration -- these were the top bullet points on Rivers' to-do list coming into summer league.
"They gave me a, it's kind of like a discharge paper of what you need to work on when you come back," Rivers said. "One is to trust my work. Everyone knows how hard I work. When I go on the floor, sometimes I can be too unselfish. They want me to go out there, be aggressive within the team's concept, and just be aggressive and have fun. Don't think too much. Getting back to my ways."
So far as the team's concept, Rivers did a particularly nice job as a floor general. With Jon Brockman and Cameron Moore as his primary roll men, Rivers routinely found himself trapped by the Knicks but responded well to the ball pressure. He threaded needles, initiated ball reversals and generally stayed out of trouble, recording only a pair of turnovers in 35 minutes.
Down three inside of five minutes against a double-team, Rivers swung the ball to Darius Miller for an open 3-pointer that tied the game at 68-all, a disciplined decision. On the very next possession, Rivers found Miller again for a 3-ball against pressure to put his birds up for good.
These midsummer heroics will have little impact back in Orleans Parish, where Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans figure to claim most of the minutes on the perimeter. With the Pelicans determined to make a playoff push, Rivers' pedigree and potential no longer command the benefit of the doubt. If Rivers wants to claim meaningful minutes in the New Orleans backcourt, he'll have to replicate Friday's poise and judgment in training camp and when NBA arenas open their doors this fall.
After the game, Rivers insisted the talent the front office imported along the perimeter didn't bother him. Rather than take it as a referendum against him, Rivers maintained the logjam will be a source of motivation.
"It doesn't intimidate me at all," Rivers said. "I was actually excited when Holiday came over. It's another guard that can help. For me to be able to play against Jrue every day, for us to get to work with each other is going to be nice. Like I said, I'm not really worried about who is there. I just got to show up in training camp ready to go. I just have to show up and play."
2. That's A Stretch
LAS VEGAS -- Summer league used to be a land for bruisers, for guys who made hard rim runs and rarely took detours. High motors almost always trumped high skill in this setting, and when you're in the mud, pretty games and ugly games are all the same.
While there's still a spot here at summer league for the Jon Brockmans of the world, they have become the niche players. The big men who can step out and shoot it have become the norm.
The Miami Heat's model of sacrificing rebounds and a little rim protection for better floor spacing offensively has led to two championships, and many teams have adapted accordingly. It's even trickling down to the rosters here in Las Vegas. Two of college's best post scorers, Atlanta Hawks center Mike Muscala and Charlotte Bobcats big man Cody Zeller, floated around the perimeter and were applauded for letting go of deep shots that would have earned them a quick yank back to the bench in a simpler time.
The basketball might be less polished than what you'd see in an NBA arena, but the strategies and concepts are starting to line up with the big league more than ever.
They used to be found. Now they're being created.
D.J. Foster writes for ClipperBlog, part of the TrueHoop Network. Follow him on Twitter.
3. One-on-one: Jerry West
A brief summer league chitchat with Lakers legend and Warriors consultant Jerry West.
Q: Being on Dwight Howard's short list, and still in the hunt hours before his announcement -- is there a moral victory in that?
West: When people look at you a little differently, it's flattering. But when I look at the younger players we have and the job our coaches did last year, it makes you feel good people are starting to take notice, and for Dwight to have an interest in us. We had a great meeting with him, but at the end of the day, we felt like he had made up his mind where he was going to go.
Q: When did you guys identify Andre Iguodala as a target internally?
West: We have some young people in the front office interacting with people and looking at free-agent lists. We all felt we needed more of a defensive presence and a player that could play multiple positions. He's a terrific veteran. It wasn't hard, to be honest, because of his career. You can count on him every night and pencil him in for two or three positions.
Q: From the perspective of a Hall of Fame guard, what makes Stephen Curry the shooter he is?
West: He's got that baby face, but this guy really likes to compete. Some people have gifts that others don't have. When he shoots the ball, I don't care if it's what I consider to be a bad shot, I think he's going to make it. He's got almost perfect mechanics. You can't have a flying elbow. His release, his rotation on the ball, he shoots every shot the same. That's the most important thing with shooting -- repetition. It's a lever, and he's got a great lever. But even more important, he's got something in his fingers.
4. First Look: Cody Zeller
The concerns scouts have about Cody Zeller's ability to transition to the NBA were on display in his first NBA summer league game. Zeller spent most of his time on the perimeter, shooting an air ball on his first jumper and missing all four of his shot attempts from beyond 15 feet. Zeller had more success in the post, making a couple of off-balance finishes, and used his quickness to create a dunk running the floor in transition.
Zeller's opposite number, former Big Ten rival Deshaun Thomas, scored 18 points. However, Zeller, who finished with eight points and five rebounds, was in the right place as a help defender, and his athleticism helps him recover to his man.
Kevin Pelton is an NBA Insider for ESPN.com.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Friday's Best
Austin Rivers, Pelicans: Pelican fly, indeed. In his first NBA action since breaking his hand in March, Rivers looked nothing like the all-over-the-place rookie who turned in one of the worst rookie seasons ever. He finished with 24 points (8-for-15), seven rebounds and six assists.
7. Friday's Worst
Dion Waiters, Cavs: Waiters earns the distinction as the most translucently bored player on Day 1 in Las Vegas. The second-year guard's time with the Summer Cavs likely will be short, as it is with most big-name vets, but he might have started a little early, turning in a gem in his first game: three points (1-for-11), four rebounds, five assists.