Nearly three months after the Utah Jazz ended its 2013-14 with a thrilling double-overtime defeat of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Jazz at last took to the court in the first competition against another team Saturday night. Though the Las Vegas Summer League has a fraction of the collective talent of the NBA, with half the participants long shots to register a single minute in the NBA next season, the first Utah Jazz contest following the long layoff was an oasis in the desert for thirsty Jazz fans.
I’ve been a huge fan of Summer League basketball ever since attending my first of several Rocky Mountain Revues in the summer 0f 2007. Though Jazz fans turned out in droves to see hot-shooting rookie Morris Almond, the highest-profile player at the Revue was a gangly, baby-faced Supersonics rookie named Kevin Durant. The day I attended the Revue, the Jazz just happened to be playing Durant and his Sonics.
Honestly, I was underwhelmed by Durant as well as his performance. Perhaps it was the massive hype heaped upon the fabulous freshman who was fresh off wowing fans of the Texas Longhorns basketball program that increased my expectations, but nonetheless, not much about his game jumped out at me. He didn’t knock down many of his shots, seemed almost timid at times, and was not at all memorable on the defensive end of the floor. Maybe everyone was wrong about Durant. Conversely, I remember being very excited with second-year Jazz point guard Dee Brown, and also thought rookie center Kyrylo Fesenko and his bull-in-a-china-shop style was just what we needed.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
It’s not exactly a CIA-protected secret that Summer League performances, both great and poor, can have way too much importance foisted upon them. Rookie jitters, inexperience and bad match-ups can and have made future all-stars look quite shaky compared to their defenders who had much dimmer NBA futures. Hot shooting and good match-ups can grossly over-inflate a given player’s perceived skills. Sure, it’s reasonable for someone who sets the record for scoring in an NBA Summer League game to be christened the newest discovered diamond in the rough, ready to burst out of fringe NBA obscurity and make a splash in the Association. Though he has gone on to have a respectable NBA, the record-holder in question, Anthony Morrow isn’t even a current NBA starter, let alone All-Star or household name. A quick perusal through the top 10-20 scoring performances in summer league history will confirm that, other than a few names here and there, the vast majority of names on the list are current role-players, first-round busts, has-beens and never-weres.
So if statistical performances on either end of the spectrum are rarely indicative of future NBA performance, what aspects of Summer League are? Can anything about how a player does in Summer League give us a sneak peek into that player’s future? While that’s difficult to say, it seems that certain things lend small clues as to how a player may do later on against stiffer competition. One thing that translates most directly is hustle. If a player has the drive to sprint down the court at full-speed to attempt a chase-down block or dive for a loose ball in front of a handful of fans and executives in a small gym, you can be damn sure they’ll be amped up enough to put forth the same effort against world-class competition in front of 20,000+ fans during the regular season/playoffs. Certain other basketball skills that aren’t significantly affected by a higher level of competition are more likely to translate from summer league to regular season NBA competition as well. Things like speed, foot work and jumping ability are constant regardless of competition. For example, let’s take our very own Dante Exum and his blazing speed, over which we’re still all drooling, for example. Exum is just as fast running from one end of the court to the other virtually regardless of who’s guarding him. Yes, defenders in the NBA will be more able to impede Exum’s path and keep up with him, but going from a end-of-the-bench summer league defender to an NBA elite defender will not make Exum’s speed anything less than elite.
Even still, the fact remains that nearly everything will be much easier in Summer League than it is in the NBA due to the inferior level of competition. Good performances, and more specifically certain aspects of them, may give us some clue of where a player is now and where he may be able to get to some day with enough hard work, dedication and luck. Sadly, we have yet to concoct a formula that will definitively predict the caliber of NBA player a player will become. We still have to wait until the games are played, the stats are compiled and the contests are won or lost. NBA Summer League basketball is what it is: an opportunity for fans to get their first looks of their team’s shiny new toy. It’s a proving ground for hungry players trying to break through to the plane of NBA relevancy. It’s a refreshing proverbial drink of water to slake the thirst of parched NBA fans and tide them over until the preseason begins. It should be consumed, enjoyed and even celebrated.
Just don’t take it too seriously.