Each year, the NBA organizes a summer league to enable new draftees and other young players a chance to get familiar with the team's offense and defense. It's important to introduce the concepts to new players, and if you're lucky you've got players from last year's team to help the transition.
Not about winning
"There's a little bit of a hyphen there (on wanting to win)," Phoenix Suns summer coach Mike Longabardi said. "Because development is important. We want to make sure these guys are getting better and are ready to play come November. Thats what's most important."
As much a fans want the tick mark in the win column more than anything else, NBA summer league is not about winning games despite the fact they hold a mini-tournament (that's more about ticket sales than anything else).
The 2013 SummerSuns were an aberration, with a rookie (but really good, as it turns out) coach and young rotation-quality veterans trying to prove themselves. They swept through the first six games before losing to Golden State in the Final game. After a 25-57 season, that 6-1 Summer League team was a dream.
But summer leagues are not built for that, as I found out first-hand this week. Teams rested their best players in "big" games, mentally checked out after 4 games in 5 days of 5 in 7, and felt more relief from being able to go home than they felt bad about losing. You have to realize they did three straight two-a-days, then played all those game in a row. Even 19 and 20 year olds get tired.
It's not the regular season. No one is fighting for team positioning. They are fighting for their individual playing lives. When players are rested, more than anything else it's to give minutes to another player who is playing for a contract.
The Suns wanted to evaluate players this week, not bother with whether they won or lost. That why coach Mike Longabardi said it was a successful week for T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis and anyone who didn't get injured. It's why he was more bummed for Alex Len and Alec Brown personally than anything team-related.
Rookies T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis were supposed to be able to integrate as secondary options to returnees Miles Plumlee (third year), Archie Goodwin and Alex Len (both second year players). But unfortunately, that lasted only one game, as Len broke his pinky finger and would not return for the rest of the week.
T.J. Warren stands out
As it turned out, T.J. Warren didn't need the tutoring. He picked up where he left off in college, pumping in an average of 25 points over his first three full summer league games. Tony Buckets missed most of game two (cut/stitches) and played poorly in the final consolation game when he had to play center. But when put in position to succeed at the small forward position, he did just that.
Warren scored in a variety of ways, with his right hand, with his left hand, with floaters, with pump fakes, with euro steps, whatever it took to get the space to take the shot.
"We just run the floor very hard," Warren said of his scoring, to Seth Pollack at Summer League. "And just having a knack to finish in transition. In the half court the ball just happens to fall around and I pick it up and put it back in."
"I'm sure he's put in countless number of hours working on his craft," Longabardi said mid-week. "He's got it down. That midrange. He's got a good instinct for the ball. He's good on the baseline, no question. I think his three-ball will come. He's just got to practice it and this is great for him."
Warren is not the most athletic of players, but he knows how to score. He cuts behind his defender and finds the open space on the floor for dump offs at the rim. Exactly the kind of offense the Suns were missing last year.
"Just having great balance, body control, just being around the rim," Warren said when asked by Seth how he got his scoring ability. "This is a skill set that just came naturally."
ESPN ranked Warren #2 among rookies over the first five days of SL (before players started "resting" and injuries mounted).
NBA.com has him 3rd on the Rookie Ladder as of today, even including Friday's bomb.
To be a really good option at small forward, Warren still has to develop a consistent three-point shot if only from the baseline like P.J. Tucker did. He has issues with shot consistency - he will float left or right and/or change his release point from shot to shot, a by-product of his unorthodox style at the rim.
Questions about Warren's ability to score at an elite level in the NBA are valid. He is not a supreme athlete. He plays "below the rim", using shot fakes and body control to get the shot off around the defender rather than over or through him. You can't say you can do it. You can only show it on the court.
But questions about his athleticism and drive can likely be put to rest already. While other players wilted under 4 games in 5 days, Warren scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in that 4th game. He ran hard and played hard every minute, from jump ball to final buzzer.
He plays like a grizzled veteran, but the kid is only 20 years old right now. He will play the entire 2014-15 season at 21. At that young, let's just hope he earns a rotation spot at some point this year and look forward to better things in future years.
Tyler Ennis is up and down
While Warren plays older than 20, his first round draft mate Ennis played like the kid that he is at 19. Ennis needs to add strength and stamina. When he's on, he's a great floor general that the coaching staff came to really appreciate.
"I feel very comfortable having the ball in his hands," Longabardi said mid-week. "He has that special ability people just don't have."
Longabardi is talking about the ability to manage a team and an offense, without having his own special offensive skills to fall back on. In the early days of the week, Ennis was a primary reason the Suns went 2-1. He was especially effective in the 4th quarter of each of those three games.
"Tyler did a great job executing pick and roll offense," Longabardi said after the Suns first win, on Monday, "getting in the lane, making the right plays at the right time and we made some shots."
Our own Kellan Olson caught those three games and said this about Ennis after the third:
Tyler Ennis continued to make pretty passes and was generally solid on defense. He missed another three badly and that looks to be the main part of his game they will emphasize for improvement throughout the season. He had a couple of sequences that caught my eye. One was when he got stripped by his defender but was relentless for 10 straight seconds in stealing it right back which set up the T.J. to Archie lob. Two was him starting the fastbreak on a deflection and he had less than a second to react to a loose body/defender in front of him and he put it behind is back so fast like it was nothing. His reactions are insane. Lastly, Ennis had two assists late in his usual "I'm taking over now" fourth quarter special. He's good.
Judging by Kellan's other observations from seeing nearly all 22 teams over three days, we can take away that Kellan is not watching the Suns in a vacuum like most of the rest of us. Let's take that praise for what it is: praise.
"He's (Ennis) a good leader," Seth Curry said mid-week. "Runs the team. Doesn't make too many mistakes. He's always composed even though he's so young."
But Ennis really showed his youth in the final two games, both Suns losses. Ennis was bad offensively and looked lost - likely a product of fatigue, both mental and physical.
Maybe he missed Kellan.
Ennis' biggest weakness appears to be an inability to break a defender down off the dribble. He will need to rely on screens to get open for drives, but that's a staple in the Suns offense that gets executed like 99% percent of the time anyway. Once in the lane, Ennis knows how to dump off the ball to a shooter or take a floater.
He's not going to wow anyone with his athleticism. He's just got to get by on craftiness.
Apparently, this was the draft of crafty.
Suns vets: Plumlee, Len and Goodwin
While this year might have been about crafty, last year was about acquiring high-end potential if given enough coaching.
Miles Plumlee was one of the best summer league players a year ago, his second SL with Indiana, and McDonough snatched him up later in the summer in the Scola deal.
Plumlee spent the week working on his shooting, but otherwise played Plumlee-ball - grabbing an average of 11 rebounds and blocking 2 shots a game to go along with his 8 points on 35% shooting (again, he was trying a lot of 15 footers this week, on purpose).
Alex Len was supposed to have a big week, but he broke a finger in game one after a good showing (6 points, 6 rebounds, several quality defensive plays) and didn't play again. We continue to wait on Len.
Goodwin had a tough week. He wasn't ready to show much more than we already knew about him - which is pretty darn good as a driver - and proved to us that he's still 19. He's only a week older than the Suns youngest player, Ennis, despite being a second-year veteran.
"There was more adversity this year," Goodwin said, comparing this year to last year. "We won a lot last year, but this year we had those injuries that made it tough."
Once Len went down and after Oriakhi was traded, the Suns had no depth on the front line to hold up. Goodwin ended up regressing, in my eyes, to a one-trick pony who drove so often that every team knew they could throw three defenders at him at the rim without fear of him passing off. Archie will have to calm down and become more cerebral as his career progresses.
Defensively, he was even worse, getting caught ball-watching for (what seemed like) constant cuts behind him for easy baskets by his man. Goodwin was aggressive all week in getting steals, and eventually paid for it when the team was struggling.
But an even bigger value to this summer league is for free agents to show their talents, and hopefully get a contract or at least an invite to training camp. Every year, half dozen players get these golden tickets from a great week on an SL team.
Free agent Eric Griffin just signed with Dallas after playing well all week for their team, including putting up 28 points in their finale against the Suns. Don't go thinking that game got him a contract though. He'd already signed a few hours before tip.
As did PF/C/Zeus Patric Young get a contract, in this case with the New Orleans Pelicans. I know there's some Young fans on here, but what I saw of him in one game this week was that he really didn't know how to play NBA basketball. Apparently, NOLA sees more than I did though, so that's cool.
That is how the Suns found P.J. Tucker two years ago. Tucker had been 6 years out of the league, but showed well enough in SL for the Suns that he got a training camp invite and a non-guaranteed contract. Tucker proceeded to earn a starting role by the second month of the season and hasn't looked back, earning a $16 million three-year contract last week.
Last year, it was Dionte Christmas earning a contract. His was guaranteed for the first year, non-guaranteed for the second (decision must be made by later this month).
Christmas isn't really great at any one thing, basketball-wise, but he is good at a lot (10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists per game) and he was the breath of fresh air for the team all week in terms of motivation and effort. As the Suns were melting down on Friday, it was Christmas working bis butt off on every play and encouraging the guys to play the right way. He was in their ears between every possession. Media row loved him, just as we all did last year as he played a key role on the bench and in the locker room for a surprisingly good team.
Hopefully, Christmas will get his contract guaranteed later this month.
This week, the new standout player and roster hopeful is Seth Curry (the younger brother of Steph Curry, and son of Dell Curry). Curry is small for a shooting guard (6'3") and not good enough as a point guard to play for long minutes, but if he can make buckets he can play in the NBA. He played for Orlando in their summer league, and then the Suns here.
"Anytime you step on the court," Seth Curry said to our Seth (Pollack) after one game. "Especially in summer league, you are playing for all 30 teams in the league. Everybody can see what you're doing and nobody has my rights or anything like that so just going out there trying to complete and show what I can do."
Curry showed well in the early Suns games, as did the rest of the team. He teamed up with Ennis to the lead the Suns to their first win by making a bunch of big shots.
Curry realizes he needs to be able to handle an offense at least part-time to get a ticket to the NBA.
"I think that's one of my biggest weapons I can bring to a team," he said. "Handling the ball most of the game and then going in there with Tyler [Ennis] towards the end of the game and play off the ball and spread the court. I feel like that's one of my advantages that I can bring."
Curry faded in the last two games, probably worn out from such a heavy two-week schedule over two summer leagues between Orlando and Vegas.
But maybe he earned himself a shot with the Suns. Coach Longabardi said Seth Curry "helped himself" this week. Of the others, Longo said they might not be NBA players, but would find jobs somewhere (overseas).
Don't hold the Suns' 2-3 Summer League record against them. They didn't come here to win games.
Certainly, the most disappointing development of Summer League was Alex Len's injury. He was on a roll and feeling really good and then this happens. Tough to take.
But we got some good looks at Warren (mostly up) and Ennis (up and down) and that's what we needed to see more than anything.