The NBA’s offseason is a time for improvement, and there is no better place to kick-start that improvement for young players than the NBA’s Summer League, which gets started in Las Vegas on July 11th. It’s a great opportunity for players to showcase their abilities while teams evaluate talent and try to fill needs for the upcoming NBA season.
For Portland, the summer league is incredibly important this offseason. As the Blazers are “win now” mode, it’s time to find out which young players are ready to step into new roles with the team and which players might be better off somewhere else. It’s harsh, but it’s all part of the biz. The Blazers have virtually no cap space now, and will have less in the future if they decide to keep their starting five in tact for the next few seasons. Barring a major trade, the five or six best players on Portland’s summer league team will be the core of the second unit next season and for the foreseeable future.
Of the players on Portland’s current roster, it’s been reported that Thomas Robinson, C.J. McCollum, Will Barton, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, and Joel Freeland should all be participating in the summer league, along with two players Portland just signed from China, Jonathon Gibson and Bobby Brown, and a handful of young free agents and undrafted rookies.
Based on the eight players Portland has on its summer league roster currently, it is realistic to believe that the Blazers will have a great showing. In fact, I’d even go as far to say the Blazers have a good chance of winning the summer league championship. The Blazers’ summer league team is like a JV team full of juniors playing against freshman. They should destroy! But, let’s just say if this group isn’t successful, there are going to be some major lineup changes by the time next season rolls around.
As important as it is, NBA Summer League isn’t about the wins and losses. It’s about taking the time to work on different aspects of the game to become better, trying players in different roles, and evaluating who deserves a spot on the roster. It shouldn’t be over-hyped. If a player doesn’t perform well, they’ve got the entire offseason to work on their game. This is just the beginning of the work for next season. Keep that in mind when watching the games in Las Vegas. Another important thing to keep in mind: The players are in Las Vegas, cut them some slack if they appear a little “sluggish” or “dehydrated.”
Heading into the summer league, each player has to make the necessary improvements to solidify a spot on the team:
Strengths: Energy, athleticism, and hustle
Robinson must develop offensively. Portland needs him to continue to develop his midrange shot and become a threat in the offense. Look for the coaching staff to get the ball to Robinson in ISO situations around the elbow to help him improve his game.
Strengths: Athleticism and scoring
Weaknesses: Defense and decision-making
Athletically, Barton is good enough to play 20-plus minutes per game in the NBA, but his decision-making and defense has to improve, if he wants to earn Terry Stotts’ trust. Knowing when to attack, when to shoot, and when to play off other players is something Barton is still working on, but the only way he can get better is by playing more. Barton will get his shot this summer, and based on his last few games of the season against the Spurs, I’m expecting him to be the breakout player for Portland.
Weaknesses: Defense and experience
McCollum averaged 21 points per game last summer. His offensive ability is there, but he needs to show that he is capable of leading a team and managing the game. Portland needs McCollum to be the back-up point guard next season, and McCollum can prove he’s up for that task by performing well, limiting turnovers, and getting teammates involved in Las Vegas. Like Barton, McCollum needs more minutes to get into the flow of the game and show what he can do. Last season, I’m not certain he was given total control with Damian Lillard and Mo Williams handling most of the point guard duties.
Strength: Shooting Touch
Weaknesses: Defense and toughness
Freeland needs to get stronger and better defensively if he wants to cement his place in the rotation next season. Offensively, Freeland can do some good things, and he has good touch for a young big guy. Defensively, Freeland got pushed around too often. Summer league isn’t the place to improve defensively for bigger players because the game is much more transition-heavy with fewer set plays and post-ups. Still, Freeland’s rim protecting skills need work and he will get plenty of minutes in Las Vegas to work on that aspect of his game.
Honestly, I’ve seen very little of Crabbe. He barely left the bench during his first season in the NBA, and I only saw him a few times while he was at Cal. Word on the street is he can score with the best of them and has a good outside shot. I’m excited to see if he can bring that to the summer league because Portland desperately needs bench scoring next season. Right now, Crabbe is behind Barton and McCollum on the depth chart, but proving he can score in bunches could move him into the rotation next season.
Strengths: Size and athleticism
Weaknesses: Toughness and defense
For a player so young, Leonard has upside. Just look at him. He’s huge and athletic. That’s what Portland needs to protect the paint, but Leonard’s minutes basically evaporated this season with the addition of Robin Lopez. Leonard wasn’t that bad as a rookie, but Stotts reluctance to play him makes it seem like there is something more going on. His offensive game isn’t terrible, and he’s not that bad of a shooter. Personally, I don’t think Leonard is ever going to be a starting center in the NBA, but as he was 11th pick in the draft, you can’t just let him sit the bench rotting and losing all confidence. Leonard has a lot of prove in summer league. If he flops, I have a feeling Leonard will be on his way to another team before the season, which may be the right solution for Leonard and the Blazers.
Listen, I hear your doubts about my optimistic view that Coach Stotts will start playing young players next season. He does have a proven record of leaving young guys on the bench. But, I’d just like to point out, once again, Portland has very little cap space to work with. It’s going to be difficult to sign veteran scorers because the entire league needs scoring. Plus, the Blazers stayed relatively injury-free last season. That doesn’t happen every year. Barring a trade, at least one of the younger guards (Barton, Crabbe, McCollum) will have to see major minutes next season. That’s a fact, and it’s why summer league is so important for the Blazers.