NBA Summer League Shootaround: Hope in the Desert

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The Shootaround crew is in Vegas for NBA summer league, hoping to catch a rising star. Here’s the dispatch from the first weekend of action.

Jah Lives

Danny Chau: Saturday’s Sixers-Lakers game was 20 g of cesium dropped into a toilet bowl. There were dunks. There were missed dunks. There were blocked dunks. It was phenomenal bad basketball.1 In the span of an hour, Larry Nance Jr. became a folk hero for a near-capacity crowd of success-repressed Lakers fans looking for any reason to explode. And then there was Jahlil Okafor, in his first game at Las Vegas summer league, the cloak to all the daggers. Okafor knows the geometry of the game. Maybe not in the way that D’Angelo Russell knows it, what with Russell’s bullet-time passing or the game of Whack-a-Mole he plays with both his screeners and the defense, but, I mean, how complicated does that sound? Okafor, he keeps it simple.

The only shape that matters is the circle, and Big Jah understands circumference better than anyone else here in Vegas. Circumference — of his body, of the imaginary circle for which his two feet serve as anchor points — is how he scored 12 of his 19 points. He knows how to leverage his bulk, and he knows how to catch his defender off-guard with his footwork against strong, NBA-caliber defenders in Tarik Black and Robert Upshaw. On one possession late in the third quarter, the latter, and his near-7-foot-6 wingspan, cut off Okafor’s baseline angle going right. So Okafor brought the ball, and himself, back over toward the middle. It shifted Upshaw left. Thing is, Okafor wasn’t really going left, he just needed a new angle to spin back right and make the move he wanted to make the first time around. Upshaw was shook. Easy two points. Philly will need a whole lot more where that came from.

For much of the Sixers’ Vegas debut, Joel Embiid sat on the bench. His stone face doesn’t offer much emotional transparency, but it wasn’t hard reading between the lines. He’s going to have another surgery on that right foot. He’s going to miss another season. The Sixers’ second Dream might be over. It was impossible to watch Okafor’s game without acknowledging the context. We aren’t learning anything new about Okafor; he is almost exactly as advertised, for better or worse (though he didn’t look too bad on defense and found himself guarding D’Angelo Russell one-on-one twice, winning both battles). But the near certainty that Okafor provides is exactly the kind of comfort the organization needs. The process continues. Nothing changes. When asked how his role might change in the wake of the Embiid news, Okafor was quick to note that it doesn’t. (You can’t miss what you never had, right?) “My role is to dominate,” he said.

Signs of Life

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles LakersDavid Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Jason Concepcion: It’s been a lean couple of years for the Los Angeles Lakers. This, of course, follows a fat decade (and change) of star-encrusted rosters and deep playoff runs, dappled by the golden glow of spotlights refracting off multiple trophies.

It’s no wonder, then, that the franchise has reacted so shakily to the drop in prestige associated with losing. Success is addictive; the Lakers’ unbroken run of success was bound to alter their perception of reality. That’s why free agency was such a shock for the team. The Lakers are like a well-to-do, recently divorced 50-year-old who’s trying to get back into dating but has no idea how to dress or converse or use Netflix.

Lakers fans, though, are more than ready to move on. They packed the Thomas & Mack Center to its ancient gills just to get a glimpse of the players who, hopefully, will one day put a ring on it. Like, multiple times. Hopefully.

The team’s squad, in summer league terms, is stacked. D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle are potentially (depending on Byron Scott’s moods) three-fifths of the Lakers’ starting lineup next season. Tarik Black averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes last year.

The vibe in the arena for both weekend Lakers games — Timberwolves on Friday; Sixers on Saturday — was basically the fourth quarter of Game 7 versus the Trailblazers in 2000. The lit levels were off the charts. Fans standing, craning their smartphones to take picture of players. “Let’s go Lakers” chants raining down from the rafters. When Clarkson two-hand-slammed home a Larry Nance Jr. miss, a Lakers superfan to my right celebrated by mimicking Kobe’s exposed-heart jersey-pull-and-scream celebration. It was the first quarter. The Lakers ended up losing 81-68.

Still, it was a great showing for a fan base that may or may not have even known that a thing called summer league existed before the last two years. I’m happy for them.

Better Than Expected (or, Exactly As We Expected)

mudiayGarrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Andrew Sharp: A year ago, Emmanuel Mudiay was supposed to be a top-three pick. Then he went to China and had the kind of up-and-down year you’d expect from a 19-year-old living abroad, and the hype fizzled. But you know all that. I have two new thoughts after watching him in Vegas.

1. Should he start going by “Manny” instead of “Emmanuel”? Can we make this happen? “Emmanuel Mudiay” feels so formal. On the other hand, Manny Mudiay sounds awesome. Quick. Dynamic. Explosive. Manny Mudiay could be a star. And this is important because …

2. Mudiay is GOOD. He had 19 points and 10 assists in Sunday’s game against the Kings, but it’s not even about the numbers. He can get wherever he wants on the court, and his passing is so much better than what you imagined when you heard “streaky combo guard who spent last year in China.” I was pretty blown away. I knew he’d be athletic, and his body is already NBA ready, but his ability to find teammates makes him dangerous. The effect is a lot closer to John Wall than Brandon Jennings.

When you watch summer league, the games don’t matter, and even the stats are misleading. You’re looking for flashes. One or two great plays from a rookie can be enough to talk yourself into believing he has a promising future. But Mudiay had those moments every other trip down the floor. The only other rookies who have looked that impressive are D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns. Before his ankle injury, Mudiay was supposed to be a high pick right alongside them. And right now, he’s showing why.

He’s still 19, he’ll be stuck on a bad Nuggets team, and yes, it’s summer league. But there might be something special here. If Mudiay were a stock, I would have bought 1,000 shares Sunday afternoon. If he starts going by Manny, make it 10,000.

Out Come the Wolves

Shea Serrano: The following sentence is a weird sentence to type, and it’s maybe even a sentence that you won’t believe when you read it. Are you ready? OK, here it goes: The Minnesota Timberwolves, the worst team in the league last year by basically every measure, are exciting now.

I know. I KNOW. Has anyone said that even once since 2004? It’s true. I have literally seen it with my own literal eyes. There were moments during the first three days of summer league when people were actually saying things like, “Does anyone know what time the Timberwolves play,” and, more exhilarating still, “The Timberwolves won.”

They don’t have all the pieces for a playoff run yet, but they have all the pieces they need for you to be able to root for them. They have Andrew Wiggins, who arrived to the NBA a potential superstar and will take another step toward fulfilling that potential this year. They have Karl-Anthony Towns, a prospective dominant center who is very big and a very good passer and is way more athletic than you’re thinking (there was a moment between games when the Wolves were running up and down the court dunking just for fun, and Towns legit went in between his legs during a dunk and it didn’t look all that hard for him). They have Zach LaVine, who jumps like nobody’s told him about gravity and who seems to have grown more assertive offensively (at least within the parameters of summer league, anyway). They have Tyus Jones, who appears to enjoy throwing alley-oops (good) but doesn’t seek them out to the detriment of the team (even better). They have Adreian Payne, who rebounds like Reggie Evans, but — thank god — does not shoot like him. And they have fan favorite Brady Heslip, a 6-foot-2 point guard with hair like a midlevel tax attorney.

I love the Timberwolves already. They won 16 games last year. They’re going to win at least 30 this year.

Filed Under: NBA, 2015 NBA Summer League, Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers, D'Angelo Russell, Danny Chau, Andrew Sharp, Jason Concepcion, Shea Serrano, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets