There are less than a dozen games left in the NBA regular season, and the most dramatic race still going on is a five-team scrum in the Western Conference for three playoff spots. Those five clubs – the Warriors, Rockets, Lakers, Jazz and Mavericks – are separated by five games in the standings.
That was hardly the tight defensive game we expected. The Bulls had seven players score in double figures and still lost by ten. Taj Gibson (10 PTS, 11 REB, 5 BLK) made another start for Joakim Noah (plantar fasciitis) while Carlos Boozer (10 PTS, 5 REB) played just 23 minutes in his return from a sore hamstring.
ORLANDO — For one week in July, a small portion of the basketball universe converges upon central Florida to watch and participate in the Summer League. The Orlando event is always outshined by its Las Vegas counterpart, partly because there is no strip and partly because only eight NBA teams participate.
The Orlando summer league is very intimate, and it is very common to see media, agents, and NBA executives conversing. The basketball is very opportunistic as players try to secure a training camp invite or impress their team enough to warrant increased playing time or responsibilities.
Here are my observations from Orlando, along with some buzz from NBA executives and agents. For more, click over to my site, ProBasketballDraft.com.
Whose Stock Went Up?
Kyle O’Quinn – The second-round pick of the Orlando Magic looked polished and played like a veteran this week. O’Quinn’s signature moment may have been the absolute dismantling of Pistons’ lottery pick Andre Drummond, who O’Quinn outworked and out-psyched. During their matchup Pistons PG Brandon Knight was constantly talking to Drummond, trying to keep his confidence up. Drummond became so frustrated that he and O’Quinn were both warned by officials, and Drummond even swung a low blow towards O’Quinn that didn’t connect. O’Quinn looked like a “player” and should help out right away at the 4 or 5.
Kyle Singler – Singler was almost unrecognizable after spending the season in Spain, but the 2011 second-round pick of Detroit looked like arguably the best player in the entire summer league. Singler is not a star, but should be a quality rotation player for a long time in the NBA. In Orlando, Singler showed the ability to knock down shots from all over the court, a quick release, and the ability to create his own shot. One Western Conference executive told me that in his mind Singler “demonstrated the ability to be a Shane Battier or Mike Miller type.”
Miles Plumlee – The Duke big man was a surprise first-round pick but certainly showed on the court why the Pacers had faith in selecting him over Perry Jones, Arnett Moultrie, and others. Plumlee moved extremely well, was very active around the glass and explosive. Plumlee’s signature performance came against Jared Sullinger and the Celtics when he had 18 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots.
Jared Sullinger – The Ohio State big appeared motivated to prove his naysayers wrong and certainly looked healthy, averaging nearly 14 points and 8.3 rebounds. Sullinger’s post game is very polished and he showed the ability to be a very good rebounder against longer and more athletic bigs. Sullinger always seems to be smiling on the court, and one scout I spoke to said that Sullinger is going to be the next DaJuan Blair — but with a better offensive game.
Lance Stephenson – Stephenson is leading the summer league in scoring and has played very well in Orlando, which is to be expected from a third-year pro. In addition to scoring, Stephenson is averaging over 5 assists a game, which is sure to delight Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard. One Eastern Conference executive said “This is a make or break year for Stephenson in Indiana and the Pacers want to give him every opportunity to succeed.”
Alec Burks – Burks was absolutely brilliant against Philadelphia early this week when he scored 31 points on 10-of-14 shooting and was 10-for-11 from the free throw line. Burks should be in line for a lot more playing time in his second season and is a potential breakout candidate.
Reggie Jackson – In 2011, Jackson was given a draft promise by the Thunder, though the Thunder continue to deny this assertion — even though Jackson only worked out for OKC. On a championship caliber team most rookies won’t seem much playing time, but one OKC official told me that Jackson is going to “wow” people, adding “he has the perfect blend of size, athleticism, and scoring prowess to be a spark off the bench.” In Orlando, Jackson has been solid.
Whose Stock Went Down
Adam Morrison – It’s sad to see how far Morrison has fallen. While playing for Brooklyn, Morrison is averaging 6 ppg on 36% shooting. Neither of those stats will endear you to NBA GMs. While Morrison’s best skill is knocking down open looks, it is hard to see him making a NBA roster this year.
Andre Drummond – As previously mentioned Drummond, looked overwhelmed and one Detroit official told me that he was shocked at how little basketball IQ Drummond had after playing one season at UConn. Drummond is averaging 8 ppg and 6.5 rpg and is shooting 52% from the field while flashing an occasional wow moment to everyone in the audience. However, Drummond is shooting 25% from the free throw line and had one of the ugliest misses I have ever seen, short and to the left. One Italian coach said “Whoever works with him on his free throws must be fired.”
MarShon Brooks – Perhaps Brooks was struggling because of the rampant trade speculation about him or maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to be in the Summer League but either way Brooks looks bad shooting 32% from the field and averaging on 11 ppg. For a player that is seen as a big trade chip Brooks must do more against the competition.
Orlando Johnson – Johnson’s shot selection looks awful as he is shooting 23% from the field, 20% from 3, and 60% from the FT line. Johnson’s poor summer league was highlighted (lowlighted?) by an 0-for-10 performance from the field against the Thunder earlier this week.
Deandre Liggins – The Magic forward has been underwhelming thus far, averaging 6.5 ppg and shooting under 44%. One scout said that Liggins “looks lost and struggles to run and dribble.”
Too Soon To Tell
Andrew Nicholson – The Magic PF is averaging 15 and 7.5, which on its face is great for a rookie, but he looks slender and has deferred a lot to his teammates. One agent said “Nicholson doesn’t look like he has it and looks unathletic.” However, one executive told me that he thought Nicholson would be “a borderline All-Star” and said that Nicholson would be more efficient is he was defended one-on-one.
Tornike Shengelia – Shengelia looks great out there banging down low, crashing the glass, and moves well off screens. Seems like a guy who could be a very good rotation player in Brooklyn, whenever he ends up in the NBA.
Tyshawn Taylor – Taylor looked brilliant at times offensively and distributing the ball, but has also looked awful at times. Taylor had 7 turnovers in one game, which is disturbing in the summer league, and one scout questioned his decision-making, a common knock on Taylor before the draft.
Justin Holiday – Holiday has been great in Orlando and secured a roster spot in Vegas with the Cavs. Jrue’s older brother is longer and a bit of a swiss army knife on the court. There is no denying he can offer NBA teams something, but is he talented enough to stick?
Enes Kanter – Kanter is leading the Summer League is rebounding but his offense leaves something to be desired. He looks solid offensively not dominant, which you would expect from a player with his physical attributes and skills.
Obviously the biggest buzz all week has been about Dwight Howard and whether the Magic center will finally be traded. To this point no deal has been made, but one former colleague of Magic GM Rob Hennigan told me “Rob will do what is best for Orlando and doesn’t give a shit about where Howard wants to go.”
While Brooklyn is a participant in Orlando, Nets GM Billy King has been away focusing on free agency and trades to improve the roster right now. The latest spec is that the Nets are targeting PF Antawn Jamison in a sign-and-trade deal with Cleveland.
While the Magic have yet to hire a coach, Mark Price has handled summer league duties but Brian Shaw has been very visible throughout the week. One division rival tells me that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hennigan give Shaw the nod.
Joe Kotosh is the Editor-in-chief of Pro Basketball Draft, a leading scouting service in the world of professional basketball. Before Joe created PBD he served as an NBPA & FIBA certified agent and scouted players all across the world. Born and raised in Cleveland, Joe also contributes to Fox Sports Ohio and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. You can follow Joe on Twitter @Probballdraft.
You had to enjoy watching the Jazz fight off the Suns and the Rockets for the West’s final playoff spot. They have been playing playoff-atmosphere basketball for the better part of April, but they are about to go up against a machine of a team that Tim Duncan described as the deepest he has ever played on. That’s a mouthful right there. Here are five things to watch for in the first-round playoff series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz:
- THE EXPERIENCE FACTOR: The four members of the Jazz with the most playoff experience are Josh Howard (62 games), Paul Millsap (44), Devin Harris (38) and Jamaal Tinsley (37). That adds up to 181 games, or just five more than Spurs forward Tim Duncan has played by himself. Utah is back in the playoffs after a one-year absence and has five rotation players – rookies Alec Burks and Enes Kanter, and DeMarre Carroll, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward – who never have been to the postseason. In addition, Al Jefferson has not played in May since 2005, when he was a 20-year-old rookie with Boston. The Jazz are usually fundamentally sound, but their lack of experience makes them susceptible to playoff jitters against a pressure-tested Spurs squad.
- THE COACHING FACTOR: Experience isn’t just an issue on the court. It will be a factor on the sidelines as well. This is Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin’s first postseason, and he will be trying to match wits with perhaps the best in the business in Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who is entering his 15th straight playoffs with four championships and a 108-73 lifetime mark. Popovich is at or near the top of the profession in making in-game adjustments and drawing up late-game plays. He has a decided advantage over Corbin, who may be facing a painful lesson about experience.
- THE RED-HOT FACTOR: As the postseason begins, there is no team playing better than the Spurs, evidenced by their 38-7 record since late January – a stretch that somehow includes three double-digit winning streaks — two 11s and a 10 — and their visibly unselfish fluidity on the court. Formerly a defensive-minded team that was entirely content winning 85-80 games, San Antonio is averaging a staggering 117 points per game during its current winning streak, an unfathomable number in this grind-it-out season. It also is an impressive 16-10 when allowing 100 or more points, a scenario where few teams succeed. Yes, the Jazz also are playing well, having won five in a row to end the regular season. But no one is clicking like the Spurs.
- THE GINOBILI FACTOR: Despite their playoff excellence over the last generation, the Spurs are just 7-14 with two first-round exits in the last three postseasons, which has led many to say that their time has passed. But things may be different this time around because Manu Ginobili is healthy. Over the last three years, San Antonio is 6-9 with Ginobili in its playoff lineup and 1-5 without him. Once dubbed “El Contusion” by former teammate Brent Barry for a reckless but highly effective style that often led to injuries, Ginobili missed 31 games this season due to a broken hand, strained oblique and occasional rest, which almost may have been a blessing. He is basketball’s Derek Jeter, consumed by winning and saving his best for the biggest stage.
- THE SIZE FACTOR: One area where the Jazz appear to have an advantage over the Spurs is their size and depth at power forward and center. Only the Bulls and Lakers had a higher rebounding percentage this season than the Jazz, who start Jefferson and Millsap at the big spots – both of whom have consistent mid-range jumpers and interior passing skills in their arsenal – and back them up with the young but frighteningly long duo of the 6-10 Favors and 6-11 Kanter, who can control the paint for brief stretches. San Antonio has the 6-11 Duncan and 6-11 Tiago Splitter, but after them, its size drops off quickly. The Spurs start inconsistent 6-7 widebody DeJuan Blair on the front line and will try to counter the Jazz’s size by using Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw – who can stretch the floor with their shooting – at the 4 spot. It Utah is able to capitalize on its size advantage, it will stay in this series longer.
SHERIDAN: Spurs in 4.
HUBBARD: Spurs in 5.
HEISLER: Spurs in 6.
BERNUCCA: Spurs in 4.
HAMILTON: Spurs in 4.
PERKINS: Spurs in 5.
ZAGORIA: Spurs in 5.
PARK: Spurs in 5.
For the complete first-round NBA playoff schedule, click here.
OTHER SERIES PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS