July 20, 2018, 6:58 pm
The Portland Trail Blazers’ undefeated run to the Summer League championship, thoroughly impressive as it was, shouldn’t exactly have been hard to see coming. Portland entered Las Vegas with eight players on its roster who had previously logged NBA experience, including six former first-round picks – not counting rookie Anfernee Simons. What they lacked in top-tier star power in Sin City, the Blazers made up for with unparalleled depth.
Career Summer League scoring leader Archie Goodwin and title-game MVP K.J. McDaniels, for instance, were considered likely rotation players in the early stages of their careers, but received less playing time over the summer than all but four of their Blazers’ teammates. Georgios Papagiannis, a 2016 lottery pick picked up off the waiver wire in March, notched just 7.2 minutes per game in Las Vegas, still an indication of Portland’s embarrassment of Summer League riches despite the giant center’s immense struggles in Las Vegas.
Papagiannis, unsurprisingly, was released shortly after Portland dethroned the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers in the title game. For the majority of incumbents and recent draftees hoping to use Las Vegas as a proving ground before training camp, though, the results were far more encouraging.
The 26th pick of last year’s draft hardly looked the part at Summer League. Rising sophomores with a first-round pedigree routinely use Las Vegas as an opportunity to show off traits they weren’t able to exhibit as rookies – whether due to the confines of role, or ongoing development. The Atlanta Hawks’ John Collins, perhaps the summer’s best overall player, confidently launched threes from all over the floor before being shut down after two games, while the Lakers’ Josh Hart took complete control of his team from the opening tip in Las Vegas, displaying the type of all-around game that should make him a seamless fit next to LeBron James.
Swanigan, on the other hand, did nothing to suggest he’ll be a meaningful part of the Blazers’ future this season or going forward. He shot 39 percent from the field, struggling immensely to finish over length inside, and committed three turnovers per game. His utter lack of burst and quick-twitch mobility reared its ugly head, too, especially against the Hawks’ Omari Spellman, another ultra-productive college big man who slipped on draft night due to concerns about his mobility and overall athleticism.
If there’s a silver lining to Swanigan’s performance, it’s his 10.7 rebounds per game, sixth in Vegas, and 23 total assists. He also shot 4-of-9 from deep, a troublingly small sample size over seven games that nevertheless leaves some room for optimism concerning his nascent 3-point shooting ability. On the whole, though, Swanigan did more at Summer League to cast doubt on his viability as an NBA player than he did all last season to prove the opposite. As the game gets smaller and faster, there just might not be a place for ground-bound, traditional bigs like Swanigan anymore.
Noticeably thicker through his chest and shoulders, Collins’ numbers in Las Vegas don’t accurately convey his on-court influence. He averaged just 8.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, shot 41 percent from the field and garnered nearly twice as many turnovers as assists. Collins’ PER was 13.6, per RealGM, a subpar number some seven points lower than Swanigan’s.
But for all his struggles on offense, Collins almost made up for them on the other side of the floor. He tied for eighth in Las Vegas by swatting 2.7 shots per game, making life hard on the opposition as both a primary defender and help defender. He fared well when switched onto guards outside the paint, and fought hard on the interior against players with a strength advantage. Collins looks the part of a stalwart defensively, blessed with length, quick feet, innate timing and a motor that never stops running. He’ll be even more valuable in 2018-19 as a defensive spark plug than he was as a rookie, and not just because he should be playing center something close to full-time.
Collins’ lack of discernible growth offensively, however, is what Portland fans will remember most about his play this summer. He was easily pushed off his spots on the block, a major problem last season, and didn’t finish with the consistent authority one would expect from a seven-footer with plus athleticism. Collins also took just four 3-pointers and eight free throws over six games, a ghastly combination that doesn’t lend itself to efficiency nor the more interior-oriented style Neil Olshey said he hopes to see from the 20 year old as a sophomore.
Summer League is somewhere between partially instructive and altogether meaningless. Collins, who flashed a tantalizing skill set as a rookie, looked more comfortable against NBA defenses last season than he did against Summer League ones in Las Vegas. Is that cause for concern? Sure, to a point, but it will only last if he fails to show clear growth offensively again come October.
Olshey hasn’t exactly tempered expectation for Trent since the Blazers, who didn’t originally own a second-rounder, traded back into the draft to nab him with the 37th pick. Trent lived up to that billing on the whole in Las Vegas, demonstrating poise and knack on both ends of the floor normally reserved for Summer League returnees, not teenagers who played one year of college basketball. His bloodlines, it turns out, really do matter.
Trent was drafted as a shooter first and foremost, but connected on just 9-of-30 from beyond the arc at Summer League, perhaps still adjusting to increased length of the NBA 3-point line. There’s not much reason to worry about that becoming a long-term problem, though. Trent’s release is quick and repeatable, his balance is consistent and he made all 15 free throws he attempted in Las Vegas. It might take some time for Trent to grow comfortable gunning threes with the accuracy of a marksman, but his struggles shooting the ball in Summer League are hardly cause for legitimate concern about his jumper going forward.
In fact, that Trent never quite found the range yet remained such an integral cog for the Blazers is a ringing endorsement of his NBA viability. He creased the paint with ease in Las Vegas, not with a lightning-quick first step or highlight-reel handle, but a keen sense of pace and angles that allows him to wrong-foot or get a shoulder past his defender. The problem for Trent, at least through his first month as a pro, is that he’s missing the length and leaping ability to finish among the trees. The craft needed to mitigate that weakness is hard to come by for a lot of players; that Trent is already showing such comfort with the ball in his hands hints he has the goods to develop it.
All that said, let’s pump the brakes on Trent emerging as a rotation player at some in 2018-19. He barely averaged more points per game than field goal attempts in Las Vegas, and shot 35.4 percent from the floor. While he fared better than advertised defensively, the same physical limitations that inhibit his finishing ability was also manifested on the other end, and will be a target for NBA opponents. If Trent isn’t knocking down open shots as a rookie, the rough edges of his game are moot for now anyway. Stotts, after Portland signed Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, has too many other shooters at his disposal to allow Trent rookie-year growing pains.
Trent probably won’t play much, if at all, this season. Still, his play in Las Vegas certainly reenforces Olshey’s proud, bandied about belief that the Blazers might have drafted a second-round steal.
God-given gifts aren’t an issue for Simons. Portland’s controversial first-round pick doesn’t just possess elite burst, quickness and vertical explosion, but is also longer than Trent despite standing two inches shorter. Once he adds some meat to his understandably lithe frame, Simons could emerge as a rare athletic force – the kind even Blazers fans would have to admit isn’t Damian Lillard. But at Summer League, it wasn’t his raw physical profile that made Simons a quiet favorite among scouts, analysts and the most dedicated fans.
His numbers weren’t all that impressive on the surface. More notable than Simons’ 11.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per game is the fact he left Las Vegas with just three total assists in 120 minutes of play. The bright side: He also committed just five turnovers despite spending a lot of time at point guard, evidence of his innate poise and overall feel with the ball in his hands. Simons didn’t show much natural playmaking chops for his teammates in Las Vegas, but that barely renders his play any less impressive. Not many players in the league have the physical tools and mental understanding to make plays like these, let alone a guy whose highest level of competition before Summer League was high sc
Maybe the most encouraging specific aspect of Simons’ play, though, was his long-range shooting. He shot just 9-of-26 from three, good for 34.6 percent, yet had the look of a player who will grow far more comfortable with the NBA arc the more time he spends playing with it. Simons made threes with his feet set, on the move and off the dribble, displaying a quick release and repeatable stroke. Even if he never becomes a bona fide lead guard, it seems likely Simons will evolve into a quality 3-point shooter, which, combined with his athletic profile, would make him well worth a late first-round pick.
The problem for the Blazers, of course, is that Simons is more than half a decade away from reaching his prime, and Lillard is squarely in the thick of his right now. Las Vegas made it obvious Simons is well ahead of where most thought he would be on both ends of the floor against professional competition. He has the athletic verve to produce offensively right now, and exhibited enough effort and commitment defensively to put long-term worries about his influence there to rest.
Regardless, Simons definitely won’t be earmarked for a rotation spot as a rookie. He’s likely to spend more time in the G-League than he will in the NBA. A couple years down the line, Simons could very well project as a foundational piece for Portland. Where the team will be at that point in terms of contention, though, is anyone’s guess.
One of the Blazers’ first moves of the summer was, at least at first, arguably their most head-scratching. After renouncing the rights to Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton in the days leading up to July, making them unrestricted free agents, July 30 came and went with Portland taking no action on Layman – guaranteeing his contract for 2018-19. Summer League, thankfully, made that decision far more defensible.
Layman, who made 32.6 percent of his 3-point attempts last July, was shooting flames in Las Vegas this time around. A whopping fifty-nine players attempted at least 20 triples, and Layman’s 54.2 percent accuracy came in second among them – behind teammate John Jenkins‘ 60 percent. If there’s a path toward a legitimate role in the NBA for Layman, it will undoubtedly come as a marksman, brought off the bench to juice a team’s offensive attack as a stretch four who also provides some value as a cutter and transition finisher.
The same issues that have plagued Layman throughout his brief career did in Vegas, too. He was quiet in the knockout stage after a dominant stretch in group play, failed to make many high-level plays off the dribble and had his relative lack of lateral quickness defensively exploited – especially when playing small forward. Portland doesn’t need its wings to be all that dynamic with the ball; Stotts’ team will almost always be better off with it in the hands of Lillard or C.J. McCollum. But the capacity to defend multiple positions is crucial for the Blazers’ wings, and Layman, despite all of that ballyhooed vertical oomph, is still limited athletically in that regard.
That’s fine. The Blazers were never counting on him to be a starter; most reserves are inherently less versatile than their starting counterparts in the modern NBA. Just imagine if Stotts had the confidence in Layman’s jumper to bring him off the pine in the first round of the playoffs, knowing his presence would help create extra space for Lillard and McCollum to operate. That’s the role Layman should be focused on filling, and he seemed more than ready for it in Las Vegas.
Portland’s only player in Las Vegas who will get more playing time than Baldwin next season is Collins. Considering he entered Summer League competition fighting for his job, that alone is a massive win for Baldwin, whose contract was guaranteed by the Blazers two days after he led them to a championship in Sin City.
Baldwin was far better than his numbers suggested. Playing point guard full-time and usually checking the opponent’s most imminent perimeter threat, he averaged 13.4 points, an LVSL-best 7.4 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. More importantly, at least with respect to his NBA sticking power, is that Baldwin shot 45.1 percent from the field and drained half of his 16 3-point attempts. His true shooting percentage suffered nonetheless, however due to a truly putrid performance at the free-throw line. Baldwin went just 12-of-27 at the charity stripe in Las Vegas, despite shooting 83.8 percent from there as a rookie with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Assuming his woes at the line are a blip, there just aren’t many negative things to say about Baldwin’s play at Summer League. He pushed the ball with a controlled, relentless pace in transition, frequently finding easy opportunities for his teammates early in the clock, and managed to get to the paint at will in the half court despite clearly taking pride in his responsibility to run the offense. Baldwin had several highlight-reel finishes, too, and looked more comfortable pulling up off the dribble from mid-range.
It wasn’t all roses for Baldwin. Like Layman, he was more effective early in Las Vegas than late. He shot 2-for-13 and committed nine turnovers in Portland hard-fought semifinal win over the Memphis Grizzlies, hounded by rookie Jevon Carter, drafted almost specifically for his defense. But it would be remiss to not mention Baldwin’s play on that end, too. He helped force Summer League MVP Hart into 3-of-12 shooting and 0-for-6 from beyond the arc in the championship game, and, save for a few mental lapses, showed the same type of ferocity on defense that made him a fan favorite for Portland down the stretch of last season.
Baldwin was the Blazers’ best player in Las Vegas, and it wasn’t particularly close. With Napier gone, Curry at his best next to another ball handler and his team lacking a designated “stopper” of opposing guards other than Mo Harkless, also deployed on wings, Baldwin has a golden opportunity to carve out his NBA niche with Portland next season. And if Summer League is any indication, he’s primed to do it.