Hey there, ladies and germs, it's your old pal Stampler. I've got some time on my hands due to being a humongous loser, so I thought I'd take in the first couple of Spurs summer league games and report my findings. Those of you looking for that sunshine and lollipops merriment and optimism that I'm known for may be sorely disappointed, so fair warning.
Obviously we start with Kawhi Leonard. It's almost like cheating, having a guy of his caliber in games like this. It reminds me of the rec games I play in, where every now and then some guy who played in college shows up and he just dominates the rest of us like it's nothing. These are games to 22 where the guy will score 20 of the points in a 4-on-4 or 5-on-5 half-court game, even though he's being doubled at all times and the only time he doesn't score is if he feels like being merciful and getting his teammates involved or happens to brick a long three. Really, there isn't much cardiovascular exercise to be had in games like this, because I'm just basically standing behind the three point line, hoping the guy will pass out of the double. It's like every Miami Heat game, basically.
And that, in a nutshell, is the Spurs summer league: A homeless man's Miami Heat, with Leonard as LeBron James' stand-in.
There was this moment, I don't know if anyone else noticed it, in the first game against Atlanta where I want to say it was late in the third or early in the fourth quarter. It was after a commercial and the Hawks had some guy on the bench who had these humongous ears that stick out way to the side like open car doors. I don't know who he was, but it doesn't matter. The guy was just sitting on the bench and looking at Leonard, and to me it looked like he was in complete awe of him. Maybe I'm crazy, but I imagine it was a "come to Jesus" moment for this anonymous young fellow, a grim dose of reality or a bucket of ice water poured all over his dreams of becoming an NBA player.
I mean, the kid wasn't even involved in the three or four minute spurt of carnage that Leonard had just laid on the Hawks. He was on the bench, like I said, an innocent spectator. But he had a look on his face like, "Crap, you are so much better than I'll ever be."
I picture Mr. Dumbo Ears on the phone with his agent after the game, "Um...are there any jobs open in Israel? I can't play in this league."
Where was I? Right, Leonard. The typical cliche in pro sports is that guys, regardless of sport, improve the most between their first and second seasons and whatever advancements they make beyond that are incremental compared to the quantum leap between years one and two. It was certainly the case for Tim, Manu and Tony.
To the untrained eye it certainly appears that Leonard has improved by leaps and bounds with his handle, his pull-up jumper, and his playmaking. However, it's impossible to know how much these individual skills have markedly improved in the off-season and how much of them were simply there all along and just unused within the Spurs offensive hierarchy. It's inarguable that the whole point of Leonard's involvement in this summer league (and the injury risks therein) is to give him a relatively safe environment to build and showcase his game as an all-around point forward, but it's impossible to know how Pop -- who's not exactly known for his creativity and open-mindedness -- will ingratiate this shiny new toy into his offensive sets with three ball-hungry stars. I guess the best scenario is that Leonard becomes the guy Richard Jefferson was supposed to be when he signed, an athletic slasher who can attack the basket relentlessly from all angles, benefiting from the attention opposing defenses will be focusing elsewhere.
The positive news is that Leonard certainly hasn't been shy about being the man out there. You get the sense, both from his comments in interviews and his body language on the court, that he's got a chip on his shoulder about not being utilized more last year. He definitely doesn't look at himself as a rebounder/energy guy who can chip in with the occasional corner three. He wants the ball, he wants plays and sets run for him and he has no intention of waiting for Tim or Manu to ride off into the sunset for those things to happen. To me, that's excellent news, because last season's playoffs proved once and for all that this big three is no longer good enough to carry the team to a title. They're just too far past their prime, and will be even more so next year. The one, tiny, infinitely small chance the Spurs have of surprising us all and winning a ring next year is if Leonard makes the leap to full-fledged star, someone who's their most consistent, most valuable player through the course of the season simply because he has the legs and the energy to be. He has to be a guy who averages about 18 and 8 in the playoffs for us to have a shot. He really does have to be a poor man's LeBron.
Now this is the part where I ruin your parade.
The odds are highly against Leonard developing into the guy we want him to be. This is not a knock on him in any way. I love him as a player, love his temperament, love almost everything about his game. I'm beyond delirious that I was so wrong about him. I'll say it a billion times from now until I exit this mortal coil: I couldn't have been more wrong about Kawhi Leonard.
Still, there just aren't that many guys who can be stars, you know? What are the odds that the Spurs lucked into another one? It'd be almost unfair, right? While Leonard has dominated large chunks of these past two games, I can't stress enough how MEANINGLESS summer league is. This competition is a joke. These players are horrendous. It's like watching a freaking college game. And even in this environment there have been times where Leonard has been out of control in the lane, where he's committed bonehead turnovers, where he's tossed up horrendous shots. He's been great, but come on, it's not like he's been GREAT, you know?
Some whodat named "Josh Selby" scored 35 the other day for the Grizzlies. He's a 6-2 guard. Some schmoe named "Dominique Jones" had 32 for Dallas. Jimmer Fredette lit it up the other night for like 30, I think. Byron Mullens, a backup center on the worst team in NBA history last season, currently has 33 and 8 midway through the fourth quarter for the Bobcats. If you don't kick ass in the summer league, you shouldn't even be allowed to touch a basketball ever again, so please, let's calm down about Kawhi Leonard.
Kawhi's Supporting Cast:
Cory Joseph: The guy who's improved the most on this team isn't Leonard but actually Joseph, and the "Quantum Leap Corollary" applies to him too. He looks faster, stronger, his jumper's got some decent arc and range, and he's added a nice pull-up that I don't remember him having. He's been able to get to the bucket consistently and has even shown some playmaking skills, which is always welcome considering this team hasn't had a legit backup point since the 2005 NBA Finals.
Joseph looks like a guy who should be on somebody's roster (with the obvious caveat that summer league makes anyone with a pulse look good), but unfortunately I can't see how that somebody is the Spurs. They've got Neal, Mills and De Colo behind Captain Tony Sparrow (it was either that or Kareem Abdul-Parker). Even if Joseph is more of an actual point guard than any of those guys, I just think the financial realities will make it unlikely for him to be a Spur. I'd love for us to be able to stash him in Austin for another year, but my ample gut tells me he'll be plucked by somebody else and I wish him all the best.
James Anderson: Still fat, still lacking explosion. His jumper looks less wonky, but his absolute ceiling as a player looks like a 9th man on a crappy team and a 13th man on a contender. He needs to shoot a billion jumpers a day because he's not going to make a living taking anybody off the dribble.
Eric Dawson: You have to admire the perseverance of a guy who's 28, has played in the D-League the past five seasons and is still chasing the dream. Unfortunately, like Anderson, he's just not quite talented to stick in the league, no matter how much he wants it. For all his desire, his professionalism, his willingness to come in early and stay late and all those other cliches, you have to have a baseline of talent to be in the league (on merit, I mean, a GM can always make a mistake) and Dawson falls just short of that baseline.
It's his arms. They're too short and they limit his ability to rebound. He can't compensate with athleticism or anticipation. He simply doesn't have it. He doesn't have Blair's knack for scoring around the basket nor Bonner's range from three. Again, he could be in the league for some crummy team as a fourth or fifth big, but not the Spurs. And at 28, he has zero upside.
Luke Zeller: Speaking of Bonner, it's a popular notion to compare Zeller to the Red Rocket, but I think that does a tremendous disservice to Bonner, and I'm writing that in spite of Bonner's latest pitiful postseason fully in my thoughts.
To me, Zeller getting quality minutes in summer league is Exhibit A that Popovich and R.C. Buford have no agendas or ambitions whatsoever in summer league beyond developing Leonard. Pop even admitted as much in an interview during the Atlanta game where he all but declared that there aren't any roster spots available to be won. I suppose it's theoretically possible that somebody plays so well and surprises them to such an extent that they have no choice but to give him a camp invite, but I'm getting the distinct impression that Pop and R.C. went into this firmly with a "we know everyone 6-8 and taller on this team sucks," mindset.
If there was any, ANY goal of finding a diamond in the rough to supplant Blair or Bonner, they wouldn't be giving 25 minutes a game to a complete scrub like Zeller who has one marginal talent and no upside at all.
Tyler Wilkerson: Today I like him more than Dawson. Tomorrow I'll like Dawson more. I'm fickle like that. Ultimately, he's a 24-year-old who's 6-8, not a plus athlete and won't be able to guard anybody, a la Blair. He might get a camp invite.
Alexis Ajinca: The French Hasheem Thabeet, but not quite as good. A 7-2 monster, but you simply can't coach a guy to play hard, to give a damn, or to have instincts. He's quickly soured every coach he's ever had, and it won't be any different here. He's the personification of a Shakespearean tragedy if you're the sympathetic sort, or a complete waste of talent if you're not.
Ryan Richards: Not too far off from Ajinca. Richards is tall, agile and athletic. He seems to think he can shoot, though I haven't seen any evidence that he can. He also has no clue how to play whatsoever and doesn't seem to have a personality that would mesh well with the Spurs. I was disappointed that the guards never fed him in the post against the Hawks, though none of his misses so far have been close so I doubt he would've done anything if they had. I did like that one graceful power dribble he showed on a cut to the hoop in which he got fouled, and his free throw stroke looked good. It'd be nice if they could bring him to the Toros to see if there's anything to him, but I'm skeptical he'll ever amount to anything.
Marcus Denmon: Too short, short arms, not quick, not a point guard, no idea why he was drafted, even at no. 59.
The quest to find that magical big who'll be the difference-maker for us in the playoffs? Gotta hope and pray that he comes at the trade deadline, because we're not finding him in Las Vegas. They got Boris Diaw* last year, so you never know.
* P.S. I thought it was adorable how Pop said in the interview that his goal was going to be to get Diaw angry and change his mindset into being more aggressive offensively. Sure, because guys change their personality all the time at 30. I'm sure you'll have no problem turning Diaw into a chucker, Pop. And you'll get Bonner to rebound one of these years too.