What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.
Take the Las Vegas Summer League, for example. Players such as Klay Thompson and Derrick Williams are trying to parlay strong performances this summer into eventual NBA stardom with their teams.
The Las Vegas Summer League is a golden opportunity for players to earn an increased role in the NBA. For young players, their summer performance can earn them a rotation spot. For players hooping overseas, the summer is a chance to show NBA executives and coaches they belong on this side of the pond.
One needs to be put in a position to succeed, and the Las Vegas Summer League is among the primary avenues a player can take to put himself in that situation.
With 24 teams comprised of draft picks, young NBA players, D-Leaguers, international players and former pros, here is a look at the 10 players likely to benefit most from their exposure in Las Vegas. Golden State, Minnesota and – believe it or not – New York each have two players on the list:
1. Klay Thompson, G, Golden State: Thompson has been the most impressive player by far through the first four days. He proved he could roll with the big boys after Monta Ellis was shipped to Milwaukee last season but has come out slinging in Vegas. His confidence in his jumper is sky high, and he has shown far more craftiness off the dribble than he displayed as a rookie. Not only will he start for Golden State next season, he could emerge as the team’s top scoring threat by the All-Star break.
Shooters can only go as far as their confidence takes them, and there are only a handful of players in the world right now whose confidence rivals what Thompson displayed in his two games in Vegas. According to sources, Thompson will be shut down for the rest of the summer league so Frank Robinson and Kent Bazermore can get the opportunity to battle for an invitation to training camp.
2. Derrick Williams, F, Minnesota: Last season’s second overall pick looks like he has a far more polished offensive game than he displayed as a rookie. Williams was one of the players whose season was affected the most by the lockout as he wasn’t given the opportunity to get comfortable through the summer league and training camp experiences. As the leader of Minnesota’s summer league team, Williams has displayed more focus in the halfcourt to add to his excellent abilities in transition. He looks more athletic than he did last season and appears more capable than before of being a full-time small forward. If he can continue to display this type of penetrating ability, Minnesota will flourish having him next to Kevin Love.
3. Eric Bledsoe, G, LA Clippers: With one of the deepest backcourts in the NBA, it would appear tough for Bledsoe to crack the rotation in Clipperland. But if the summer league is any indicator, this kid needs to play. Despite already being one of the most well-conditioned players in the league, he appears to be even faster and stronger than before. His defensive IQ has finally started to catch up to his instincts, which will make him a valuable asset guarding the Tony Parkers of the world come playoff time. Many folks may forget about him because of LA’s guard-heavy roster, but if he keeps it up, coach Vinny Del Negro will have no choice but to give Bledsoe some burn.
4. John Jenkins, G, Atlanta: The Hawks plan on replacing one JJ for another at under 10 percent of the cost. Jenkins may not be able to fill Joe Johnson’s shoes as a leader or all-around player, but he is a better and more consistent shooter. This rookie has a knack not only for making crunch time 3-pointers, but also always seems to make shots at key momentum points. Whenever teams go on runs against the Hawks, Jenkins will knock down a bucket to keep Atlanta in the game. He can’t carry an offense like Johnson, but he is an outstanding weapon to have in your arsenal.
5. James White, F, New York: White hasn’t been able to stick in the league since becoming a second-round pick in 2006, but it appears he is finally ready to establish himself. He left for a second tour of Europe three years ago after failing to distinguish himself as more than a dunker in the NBA and really learned to understand the game in Russia and Italy.
While White may have battled it out in Russia with Gerald Green in arguably the second-best dunk contest of all time, he spent most of his time honing the art of the pick-and-roll on both sides of the ball. His overall understanding of the game has gone up tremendously, a testament to his once-questionable work ethic, as he has managed to become a far headier player without losing any of his athleticism. With Iman Shumpert set to miss a significant amount of time next season, look for White to emerge as an important player for the Knicks in the first half of the season.
6. Evan Fournier, G, Denver: Fournier displayed an NBA-style game while competing in France’s first division this past season. At just 19 years old, he seems to be far ahead of schedule. He is a natural pick-and-roll player who has no difficulty understanding angles and making quick decisions. He may struggle a bit with man-to-man defense, but his instincts in the passing lanes will give him some value as a team defender. Many viewed Fournier as a Eurostash candidate, but he has rapidly shown that his feel for the game may be at a level that already may warrant some backup minutes as a rookie.
7. Donatas Montiejunas, F-C, Houston: Despite all the uncertainty in Houston right now, one thing is for sure – this kid can play. At 7 feet and 222 pounds, Montiejunas may look skinny, but he set the Euroleague record for defensive rebounds in a game with 18 during his time with Asseko Prokom in Poland. His NBA career will benefit from the Lithuanian national team coach’s refusal to guarantee Montiejunas minutes in the Olympics, as the extra time in the U.S. now will ensure the 2011 first-round pick is ready for the upcoming season. Whether he is part of the potential blockbuster trade coming in Houston or remains with the Rockets after the dust settles, his long frame and tremendous skill level will be causing fits in the NBA for years to come.
8. Lior Eliyahu, F, Minnesota: While Eliyahu has become a known commodity in Europe during his time with Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Israel and brief stint with Caja Laboral in Spain, he is a relatively unknown player in America. Despite every scout, player and coach in Europe knowing that Eliyahu will attack with his awkward mid-range floaters, nobody has figured out to stop him. His game may be very herky-jerky, but in a 15-minute role off the bench playing next to Kevin Love or Nikola Perkovic, Eliyahu will be a nightmare for opponents.
9. Draymond Green, F, Golden State: How is it possible for a player such as Green to slip out of the first round? To succeed in the NBA you need to have one defined skill, and Green possesses three with his low-post scoring, ability to take you off the dribble and effectiveness on defensive switches. Add his mental toughness and you have a guy who clearly can be an NBA rotation player right away. Yes, 34 guys were picked ahead of him on draft night. Only a handful will contribute more than Green throughout their careers.
10. Chris Copeland, F, New York: The leading scorer and best player the last two seasons in Belgium, Copeland may have the best opportunity of his career to crack an NBA roster after landing a non-guaranteed contract with the Knicks. The 28-year-old can get to the basket using his bulky 6-8 frame, and he has a relentless motor. Over the last two years, Copeland played for a coach who has a knack for growing players’ understanding of the game, better preparing him mentally for the rigors of the NBA. Copeland may have gotten used to being a superstar in Europe, but he has the humility and sense of self to establish himself as an NBA role player. He may not end up sticking with the Knicks because of their roster situation but has shown that he deserves to crack an NBA squad and might even find a way to sneak into a rotation.
AJ Mitnick is an American currently living in Israel and working for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A recent graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also maintains a basketball blog, http://mindlessdribble.net, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel. Follow him on Twitter.