Summer League First Person

Kurt —  July 12, 2007

One of my favorite parts of this blog (and I think some of the better stuff) came from my first-hand reporting of the Lakers happenings at the Summer Pro League in Long Beach the last couple of years. But, the Lakers have joined most of the rest of the NBA in Las Vegas, and I couldn’t get out there this year. Fortunately, commenter Reed lives in Vegas and he provides a front-row view from the game against Portland. Enjoy.

I finally found my way to the NBA Summer League last night. I had high hopes to see Oden and Durant, but, of course, they were busy with tonsillectomies and the Espy’s. If you swing through Vegas this weekend, make sure to stop by. It is a really, really different NBA experience – very informal, unregulated, open, intimate. Everywhere you turn there are NBA coaches, GM’s, players, foreign scouts, recognizable media, etc. Sam Presti looks all of eighteen. Aaron Afflalo likes a lot of ketchup. Nate McMillan is very, very sober.

I sat right behind the Sonic’s bench for their game against Milwaukee. Robert Swift must have spent the summer with Scott Pollard — has a long red pony tail, tattoos up both arms, and an assortment of lip and ear piercings. He spent most of the game leaning over and whispering awkward jokes to Jeff Green, who tried hard to ignore him.

I also sat directly behind the Lakers bench during their game. Close enough I could observe the coaches and players, hear trash-talking, and read Tex Winter’s stat sheets. Thoughts on the game:

• Kurt Rambis is eminently likeable. He reminds me of Larry’s agent in Curb Your Enthusiasm – the kind of person you would enjoy being around. He spent much of the first half playfully making fun of the players to Brian Shaw. When Jabari Smith forgot to jump for the opening tip, he sarcastically yelled, “Great Jabari, way to just stand there, that’s just what we need.” Rambis also has “presence,” more so than Shaw. He seems to command the players respect. Though, that may not be hard to do with a roster of desperate journeyman and rookies. He never stops teaching the fundamentals during timeouts and dead balls. He’s an asset as an assistant coach.

• Coby Karl is an interesting case. He really is too small and unathletic to play shooting guard, and not a good enough ball handler or fast enough to play the point. Martel Webster (the sixth overall pick in 2005) ate him up on offense — just too big, fast, athletic, and powerful (Webster looked incredible, a real breakout candidate). Webster blew by him and rose up over him for easy jump shots consistently. Yet, Karl still managed to positively impact the game. He has a quick shot with deep range, sees meaningful passes before most players, and plays with real tenacity. At one point, after Karl’s over-intense defense on Webster led to a deflection, Webster turned to him mockingly and said, “You better save some of that energy Coby.” Intentional or not, I was happy when the two got tangled in transition a few possessions later and Webster took a nasty fall — destroying his rhythm for the rest of the game. Karl’s basically a smaller, better shooting Luke Walton. If he can be hidden on defense by tracking a non-threatening opponent, he can be a solid rotation player in the league. Smart, well-schooled, and fundamentally sound. But, he’ll get absolutely dominated by the league’s better wing players. Tough call. I think he’s worth signing and putting in the D-League.

• Besides Farmar, Crittenton, and Karl, no one else has any chance of making the team. The bigs are… big. Nothing more. Jabari Smith is long and he tries hard, but he makes Kwame Brown look like Kevin McHale on the block. Just no game. He’s the type of player that approaches every timeout by smashing something on the bench after picking up a cheap foul or blowing an easy putback, followed by the coaches gently encouraging him. High on intentions, low on results. Larry Turner is massive. He’s has a Kwame physique, yet is even less polished than Jabari. White, Graves, Patterson, Gay, and the rest have little to offer at the NBA level. It’s a three man show with the big men around to get rebounds and feed the guards.

• Farmar and Crittenton look fantastic. Although it is only summer league, they clearly got the better of two skilled first round point guards in Sergio Rodriguez and Petteri Koponen. The two combined for 43 points on 15-28 shooting, 7 rebounds, 3 assists (some statkeeper wasn’t counting diligently…), and, most significantly, zero turnovers.

• Crittenton is more impressive physically — taller, thicker, stronger. He covers all the point guard skills well: lightning fast penetration, great finisher, good spot up shooter, controlled playmaking. His jump shot gets a little sketchy when he is forced to pull up off the dribble, but that won’t be his role on the Lakers for a few seasons. He scored 26 efficient points in every possible way. Very, very impressive. Yet, you can tell he’s only 19. He seems a little in awe of the situation and doesn’t quite realize how good he is. That’s the difference between watching Randy Foye and him right now — same ability, but Foye knows he’s better than the competition. Javaris seems a little surprised every time he does something well. I’m skeptical he will be ready to contribute against the best teams or in the playoffs this year, but his potential is greater than Farmar’s.

• Farmar was the best player on the court. He got less minutes and didn’t put up the same stat line as Crittenton, but he was the better player. He has the confidence that he’s been there before and knows he’s “the man” (of the summer team, anyway). He has obviously put some time in the weight room, with a much thicker upper body. On the court, he was flawless — patiently running the offense, creating plays in the paint, hitting open jump shots, finishing difficult layups, setting up Crittenton’s finishes, etc. Although the box score only showed two assists, many of Crittenton’s baskets came via Farmar breaking down the defense. Jordan could have scored 25 or 30 without any trouble, but he reigned in his opportunities to control the game. Very encouraging.

• As a side note, Farmar carries himself with quite an attitude. He’s “that guy” we’ve all played with that dramatically smirks when his teammates are out of place, aggressively directs traffic, and pouts when he gets called for a foul. He’s constantly coaching his teammates, giving butt slaps, and chatting/arguing with the coaches. Maybe he’s just filling a needed leadership void on the team, but let’s just say if I were choosing teams for a pick up game, I’d probably go a different direction… Unexpectedly, Rambis started Crittenton over him (I think to try and get Javaris into the flow early after a lackluster game 2), and Farmar incredulously asked why. Rambis just gave him a mischievous shrug and grin, as if to say “You’re not all that yet, so go sit down.” He sulked, but then came in and dominated. (Ed. note: The Lakers have always mixed up the starters at the summer league, changing it from game to game with little apparent reason other than to give everyone a shot.)

• Portland is loaded with young talent. Although Oden and Aldridge didn’t play, they still threw out four recent first rounders (Webster, Sergio Rodriguez, Petteri Koponen, Joel Freeland) and a few underrated second rounders (Josh McRoberts and Taurean Green). Webster has the talent to be a star. Rodriguez and Koponen (two late first round point guards) both really know what they are doing. They are skilled ballhandlers, understand when and how to distribute, have nice range, etc. Portland will probably stash them overseas and bring them up in a year or two when they are really ready. Rodriguez in particular really controlled the offense. McRoberts was a steal. His upper body lacks any kind of definition (in sharp contract to almost every other big man I saw), but he has a great feel for the game. He consistently made impressive passes from the high post and hit nice fall away jump shots from the baseline. He’ll struggle for a few years, but once he fills out and develops the consistent 20 footer, he’ll be a nice power forward in the league.

Final thoughts:

After watching the Laker point guards this summer and tracking free agency, I think it would be a colossal mistake to sign Steve Blake, Mo Williams, or any other top tier free agent point guard to a full five-year midlevel contract. While Farmar and Crittenton are not ready man the point of a contending team this season, they both have the potential to quickly match or surpass the production of Blake/Williams. (I recognize Williams put up big numbers last year and do think he is talented, but I also think it was a case of an above average player putting up big statistics on a terrible, injury-depleted team. Remember, Ruben Patterson also averaged 15 points on that team last year.) Signing a free agent point guards to a five or six year deal makes no sense. What would we do with Steve Blake and his 6M for years 4-6 when Farmar/Crittenton has surpassed him? If we had cap room to pursue Billups that would be one thing, but there isn’t an impact free agent available to us. All we need is a veteran who can give us short term stability at the position while our young point guards are groomed. A placeholder that can immediately contribute. Learning the triangle and how to mesh with Kobe takes time, even seasons. Fisher is the one point guard out there who can seamlessly step in and fortify the position without jeopardizing the long-term growth of our young gems. Farmar and Crittenton are skilled, athletic, well-rounded talents with great instincts for the game. As none of the available free agents has any more upside than our two point guards, signing Fisher, who is ready to contribute now, to a shorter, smaller deal makes great sense. (For more of Reed’s thoughts on the Fisher signing and what it means, be sure to read this.)