The Las Vegas Summer League kicks off today and features 24 of the NBA’s 30 teams including the San Antonio Spurs. For less successful, rebuilding teams, Summer League provides a time for parts of a young core to get familiarized with one another before offseason workouts and Training Camp get going. The Cleveland Cavaliers, for instance, will send reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving and fellow 2011 lottery pick Tristan Thompson to play with this year’s first round picks Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller. For the Spurs it’s to figure out what they’ve got in some of their young players and maybe find a diamond in the rough (Exhibit A: Gary Neal).
Lucky for me I’ll be in Las Vegas for the opening weekend of Summer League covering the games for Project Spurs, which includes the Spurs first game Sunday versus the Atlanta Hawks. Here’s a couple of things I’ll be looking for:
-What happens when Kawhi Leonard is the best player on a team, even a Summer League team? Here’s what shouldn’t happen. A rookie who didn’t have a real training camp shouldn’t be the starting small forward on a team that was two wins away from the NBA Finals. That’s what happened with Leonard though. Now we get to see what he’s been working on this so far this summer. Has his ability to create his shot developed at all? Has his ball handling improved? How much better of a defender has he become? Leonard’s development in year two could very well be the difference in how far in to the 2013 playoffs they go.
-How will Ryan Richard’s roller coaster ride last couple of years manifest itself? Will he come out with a chip on his shoulder and try to prove he belongs in the league? Or will his lack of consistent time on the court hurt his conditioning and overall play? Richard is a complete enigma. He could be the best player on the Spurs Summer League team and he could also be some big dude who parks it at the three point line and just tries to shoot 3’s. Some people see Richards as a diamond in the rough who could be the Spurs’ next great big man. That’s probably taking it a bit far, but he has the size and skill to be a Robert Horry type player (I’m talking Houston Rockets Robert Horry). He could also be former Clippers big man Brian Cook, who somehow is still in the league despite having no discernible skill. We really have no idea what Richards will be, but Vegas will at least give us an idea of his desire to be an NBA player.
-Is there a Gary Neal on this year’s team? Two years ago Gary Neal was one of those guys you saw on the roster and had no idea who the hell he was. Two weeks later everyone thought “this guy might make it” and after the preseason we were pretty sure the Spurs had found something in him. I have no idea if that guy exists on this team but according to True Hoop’s Kevin Arnovitz, it looks like Alabama forward JaMychal Green is an early candidate to be the Spurs’ breakout player.
“If you want to play the old parlor game “Who was the best prospect not to be drafted?” the power forward out of Alabama isn’t a bad answer. Green turned heads at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament by setting up shop on the baseline and never letting go. If he can refine his face-up jumper, Green is a candidate to come into the league through the side door.”
-Is the Spurs’ 15th man on this Summer League roster? Assuming they keep DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal around (both have non-guaranteed deals) the Spurs roster sits at 14 right now. They’re also pretty close to the luxury threshold. They could probably use another big man and they could definitely use a point guard. A real point guard, not the 97 combo guards currently on the roster. While most people, myself included, think Kawhi Leonard will be this team’s best player what happens if it’s James Anderson? Anderson, a free agent, didn’t leave San Antonio when the season ended and has been in the gym all summer with assistant Chad Forcier, Cory Joseph and a handful of other guys. If Anderson really impresses will the Spurs try to convince him to stay? Will some team looking for some bench scoring swoop him up before the week is up?
Like the NBA Draft, Summer League is a time for optimism. We want our favorite team’s young guys to do well. We want to find the diamond in the rough. We want to believe that inside every young guy is a future All-Star. They rarely are, but the idea that one could be hiding in any player is the fun part. Will we find that future All-Star this year? Probably not, but it’ll be a lot of fun spending the week searching for one.