Going into this year's NBA summer league in Las Vegas, I really had no idea what to expect. Of course I knew there would be some of the top prospects in the league playing, and even some breakout performances by players we'd never heard of. But, there was no telling who exactly it would come from.
The same was true of the Spurs, who went into summer league with one spot on the roster to fill, and not knowing whether they would bring back Gary Neal, if they would sign another veteran free agent, or if someone on the summer league roster would impress enough to be signed.
The Spurs also went in hoping that the three summer league players already signed to the team (Cory Joseph, Nando De Colo, and Aron Baynes) would be able to improve themselves in increased playing time over the week. Those players didn't get a lot playing time over the season, but it's imperative for them to continually develop to help the Spurs get another shot at the Finals next year.
With those storylines in mind, we can take a look at what happened in Las Vegas and how it translates to what the Spurs will be doing for the rest of this offseason on into training camp.
Already on the roster
Summer league is a great time for an organization to experiment with players; to see if a new role or setting will help them maximize their talents. And, that's just what the Spurs did with Joseph, De Colo, and Baynes. The increased minutes gave them a time to shine, and an environment to figure things out.
By far, the best player on the summer league roster was Joseph. He didn't play much in the last few games, because he was a little banged up, but before that he played exceptionally well. He showed great poise and leadership, which is something we hadn't really seen yet from the man who's looking to solidify his hold on the backup point guard spot. In the late regular season and playoffs, when Joseph was moving past Patty Mills and De Colo, Cory tended to be tentative and unsure of himself. He couldn't find the balance of when to defer to his teammates and when to take shots himself, almost exclusively giving teammates the ball, even when he was wide open. But in Vegas, he was extremely aggressive, using his speed to get down the court in a hurry, and showing he was able to successfully run the pick-and-roll which is crucial for a San Antonio guard. You could often see him communicating with coach Ime Udoka, and instructing his teammates where to be on the floor, as well as other point-guard-y things that would made my heart go a-flutter. I'm confident that Joseph will continue to do well in training camp and in the preseason, as he gets ready for his first full year playing behind Tony Parker.
De Colo's time in summer league, also shortened due to a minor injury, was largely spent as a science project as he attempted to morph from last year's backup point guard, into a Manu-esque role off the ball. He struggled a bit, committing turnovers and not having his shooting stroke in order through most of the week. He had one good game, where he was at his Ginobili-lite, whirling dervish best; cutting through traffic and making tough passes at ridiculous angles. If the Spurs do intend to transition De Colo to shooting guard, the road will be bumpy. He does have that potential though, to attack closeouts and whip passes to the corner as we've come to expect from another Spurs reserve shooting guard who made his name in Europe.
Heading into summer league, I had no idea what to expect from Aron Baynes. Since he was signed so late in the season, and never really played, I only saw him in that Game 4 start vs the Lakers, where he was solid. That's it. One game. It's really hard to get a feel for what someone can do in that amount of time. After summer league? I'm pretty much at the same conclusion. I need to see him more. At times, he looked unsure of himself out there, committing fouls and making mistakes. Then at the next moment, he would be backing a defender into the paint for a basket. I still don't know what Baynes can do, and I'm not sure how much of him we'll see of him again this year. The Spurs will, of course, rest Tim Duncan a lot, but even last year Baynes never left the bench during those times. It will be interesting to see how much Baynes plays this year, and how well he does in those minutes.
Trying to make the cut
The 15th roster spot remains unclaimed, as the qualifying offer to Gary Neal was rescinded on Tuesday. And, the front office still hasn't signed anyone. Perhaps they're waiting on Greg Oden to make a decision, and if he chooses to sign with another team, going from there. Maybe they're being their normal Spurs-y selves, and waiting too pick up someone completely out of the blue. Maybe they don't want to sign a 15th player at all. Or, maybe they liked someone enough on that summer league roster.
Really, there's only one prospect from summer league that I think impressed enough to consider signing: DeShaun Thomas. The former Ohio State Buckeye showed off his range and versatility on offense, as he's able to play both the small forward and stretch-forward positions. Though he showed to be a capable scorer in any setting, he was especially proficent on spot-ups from three and pick-and-pop action. He also showed that he was a more than capable passer, always willing to keep the ball moving, instead just looking for his shot as he did while at Ohio State.
The biggest question mark about Thomas, and one that could keep him out of a Spurs jersey this year, is his defense. He showed his willingness to work on the defensive end, but he's nowhere near being capable yet. Off the ball, he made a habit of losing his assignment. On the ball, he would get beat off the dribble if he was guarding a small forward, and if he was defending a power forward, he couldn't match up physically, getting backed into the post with relative ease.
And the rest...
Here we have a guy like Hollis Thompson, who was unknown before the week but ended up making a bit of a name for himself. Then there's Marcus Denmon, Dexter Pittman, and Ryan Richards; guys that either we've heard of before in the league, or have previous contact with the Spurs.
Out of all these guys, Thompson had the best summer league. He defended, rebounded well, kept the ball moving on offense, and had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. As the starting small forward throughout the week, he was usually a role player offensively, but in the consolation round with the signed players sitting and DeShaun Thomas struggling, Thompson scored 21 points on 8-12 shooting and proved his worth. He's an inconsistent scorer, with an offensive game not nearly ready for the NBA, but I would like the Spurs to keep him in an Austin Toros jersey for a little while to see how he develops. As raw as he is offensively, I believe he has a chance to be a good 3-and-D player.
Denmon's situation is pretty fluid. When he was drafted a year ago, the Spurs told him to go play in Europe for a year and then come back to re-evaluate the situation. Well, with there only being one roster spot left, it's all but guaranteed that Denmon won't suit up for the Spurs this year. He'll probably end up going back to Europe again trying to impress the Spurs (or any other team) that he's worthy of a roster spot. He could also end up in the D-League doing the exact same thing. Denmon showed he has great athleticism for a guard, and also a solid shooting stroke. He's a Gary Neal type of gunner, and will have to learn how to navigate pick-and-rolls better to be an NBA guard.
Pittman is a guy who has no prior experience with the Spurs, but did turn a few heads at summer league. Formerly a member of the Miami Heat, he was traded to and then released by the Memphis Grizzlies this past season. He used his frame well on offense to create shots in the post and served as a good rim protector on defense. On the road to resurrecting his NBA career, this was most likely just a pit stop, a showcase for Pittman to display his abilities. In my opinion, he did that well enough and could likely get a shot in training camp from someone.
Spurs fans were clamoring for a chance to see Ryan Richards this summer league, and there was a lot of interest in what the Englishman could do. That interest was somewhat let down as Richards didn't really get a lot of time, typically being the third guy off the bench. He didn't really shine in the minutes he got, but showed off why the intrigue was there in the first place. He showed his face-up game, and while shots didn't go in for him, they provided a good idea of the stretch-five role he could end up playing in the league. Defensively he was lost, as are most young players when in their first NBA action. It hurt my eyes a little bit to watch, but he'll be fine. He's 22 and athletic, so he could potentially become a mobile defender some day, or at least hold his own. My hope is that the Spurs bring him over to the D-League, so he can develop further and learn the system. He's still a project moving forward, but there has been some progress since he was drafted in 2010.
The San Antonio Spurs used the NBA summer league period well; trying to improve talent and evaluating what they have. It was a long week full of often-uninspiring basketball, but the work pays off in the long run. CoJo is improving. We may see more from DeShaun Thomas soon, and guys like Hollis Thompson and Ryan Richards may have created a better shot for themselves to break into the NBA at some point. Summer league is about giving yourself an edge in the short run, and creating greater potential for yourself in the long run. Both the Spurs, and the players on their roster, were able to accomplish that.