Past NBA Summer Leagues have been characterized by a distinctly midnight basketball feel. Stripped down strategic approaches; players unfamiliar with each other and their systems; the deep desire to show and prove–all of these things have typically led to a kind of league-wide Nellie-ball fever. Breakneck pace and hypertrophic scoring were the rule. But the vibe was different this year. Perhaps the presence and success of the D-League Select team, a group of grown men playing for their lives, added a note of seriousness to the proceedings. Perhaps it was the fact that teams like Phoenix had loaded their roster with experienced NBA players. Or maybe it was simply as David Thorpe suggested: The vogue for strongside pressure defense took the air out of the ball. But for whatever reason, defense (and competitiveness) enjoyed a bit of a renaissance while offenses were less manic.
As for the Wolves, their Summer League contingent shot the ball well, especially from distance (47.7% overall, 42.5% from three) which was an incredible relief to see from any team wearing a T-Wolves jersey–and I don’t care if those jerseys are ridiculous short-sleeved practice jerseys that make the players look like eight-year-olds or if none of those players ever step onto the Target Center floor. They defended energetically and frequently well; they turned the ball over at an incredible volume. That’s pretty much the recipe for a 3-3 team, which, ultimately, who cares. In any event, here are some observations from the week.
First Round Blues
I actually felt, early on, that Shabazz Muhammad acquitted himself rather well. He didn’t set the world on fire in the first games, but he impressed me by not forcing his own offense and by making solid passes within the flow of the half court. He was active on the offensive glass. He showed solid defensive effort, even if his skills and navigating screens aren’t nearly there and he didn’t seem to be harshing anybody’s mellow with any kind of surly attitude. But as the week went on and he started struggling with his shot, things started to look a little uglier.
In the manner of gunners everywhere, he started hunting for looks. And in this context, we started to see many of the warning signs that followed him through his college career: poor shot selection; insufficient creativity and athleticism in creating a shot; trouble getting his shot off in traffic. Compounding these problems, he showed some suspiciously Beasley-esque ball-stopping behavior. Once his head was down and he began his move, that shot was going up. Even worse, the frustration was clearly affecting him on the defensive end, where his effort and focus flagged as the week went on.
In his courtside interview, Flip Saunders suggested that Muhammad’s struggles were a function of his being asked, for the first time, to play within an offensive structure. This is probably true; and its still quite possible that Muhammad, with a lot of work and guidance, can develop a niche NBA game that plays to his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. But this was not a good start.
On the bright side, Gorgui Dieng looked ready to step into an NBA backup center role tomorrow. Granted, in the Summer League, being a long-armed seven footer with Pitino-fueled defensive hunger will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go–but those things are pretty helpful in the NBA, too. As with Muhammad, and everybody else, Dieng’s weaknesses were on full display. In outmuscling Dieng on the block and easily moving him out of rebounding position, the D-League Select Team’s wide-bodied Darnell Jackson exposed Dieng’s slight build and lack of physical strength. This is, without a doubt, going to be a problem for Dieng next season; along with his shaky post game, its the main reason we’re talking about him as a backup rather than a starter
But Dieng displayed his skill in containing the pick-and-roll (which, in today’s NBA, is perhaps even more important for a big man than defending the post), he blocked or altered just about every shot that came is way, and he even showed that nice touch from 15 feet. That was nice.
Men and Boys
One thing about Summer League that has not changed: Older players and players with NBA experience look like men among boys. We saw it all over the place in Las Vegas. Jonas Valanciunas, John Henson, the Morris twins–these guys were sonning kids left and right. That was true, to a lesser extent, for the Wolves. Chris Johnson and Othyus Jeffers looked like dudes who were too grown up to be playing this game. This is not to say that either one should make the Wolves’ roster and both players showed off their weaknesses as well as their strengths–in Johnson’s case, his spindly frame and lack of a post game; in Jeffers’, his difficulty creating his own shot. But there’s got to be a place in the league for an energetic, long-armed seven footer who loves to dunk and block shots, even if he does weigh 150 pounds (or whatever). Similarly, I’ve got to believe that some team out there could use a strong, massively competitive, perimeter defending two. That seems like something that every team could use.
At the Point
There was an interesting side battle going on between the Wolves’ three point guards, Kee-Kee Clark, Lorenzo Brown and Demitri McCamey. All three shot over 50% from three, which, again, was strange and wonderful. All three played about 20 minutes per game and turned the ball over 1.8 times per contest. Brown, the Wolves’ second-round draft pick from NC State, had the better assist numbers, with 2.2 a game, while Clark was the most efficient scorer at 54% (though he did not attempt a free-throw). Still, Clark seemed to me to be that a member of that awesome terrifying club: the undersized, shoot-first point guard (and the Wolves already have one of those). And despite his nice numbers, Brown looked very much like a rookie in his first professional action. He was susceptible to traps and he made some strange, hurried decisions in traffic. For my money, though, of the three, McCamey was the most solid defender and the most poised captain of the offense. It’s not even clear that the Wolves will carry a third point guard on their roster (although their injury history suggests its not a bad idea) and if they do, I would think that, since they drafted Brown, they will want to see what he can do. But I wouldn’t mind seeing McCamey at their pre-season camp either.