The game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trailblazers at the Cox Pavilion was scheduled to begin at noon on July 14, and I was there an hour before the game so I could get a good seat behind the Spurs bench, hoping to be able to closely observe the interactions between Coach Becky Hammon and the Spurs players. On my way to my seat, I picked up a rebel dog, it's really just a plain hot dog, but when you add jalepenos, relish and mustard, it's the best food value from the concessions at the Thomas and Mack Center.
By 11:15, the Spurs players were executing organized drills of running, stretching and dribbling as a unit, closely supervised by a bevy of assistant coaches. The Blazers, on the other hand, were content to dribble the ball around and just shoot around for most of the lead up to the actual game.
I ran into some Spurs fans that sat behind me who showed off their Becky Hammon shirt, and an agent who had players on the Blazers sat down next to me, and we had a good talk about a certain free agent that left Portland and joined the Spurs, but she would not reveal which players that she represented.
Precisely at noon, the national anthem was sung, and the teams took the court. The first thing I noticed is that Youssou Ndoye is huge. Just freakin' huge. He's by far the largest player on the Spurs Summer League team. He looks very raw, but I can see why the Spurs wanted to at least bring him onto the Summer League team to see if he could play.
I wasn't able to overhear much of what Coach Hammon said from the bench. She's very organized and direct, but she never seems to yell at players. She makes a hand signal, or walks over to a player and tells them to get into the game, or simply beckons to a player, and they know exactly what to do. It's all very organized and efficient. The way she coaches is exactly the same way Popovich coaches, except with a whole lot less screaming and cursing.
The Summer League Spurs are Kyle Anderson's team. When he's not out there, the team struggles and seems to drift. I don't know if what he's doing in the Summer League will translate into productive play at the next level, but against the players on the Summer League Blazers, he was able to either put defenders into awkward defending position with his length and moves, and that leads to him drawing a lot of fouls. It helps that he is an excellent free throw shooter and can reliably turn those fouls into points. He's adequate on defense, hanging back and using his length to minimize the speed advantage of the player he's defending.
The best player on the court for either team was Noah Vonleh, who looks like he's going to develop into a really good scorer with his speed and slashing moves to the basket.
At the start of the game, Jonathon Simmons looked like he was going to have a bit of a down game. His first two games with the Spurs were spectacular, but his third was starting to look pretty pedestrian as the Spurs pulled to a 34-31 halftime lead, with Simmons contributing nothing on offensive but making a few nice defensive plays, including drawing a charge, but unfortunately picking up a blocking foul on a very similar play a few seconds later. Daniel Orton was able to block a ton of shots for the Trail Blazers.
Things started to pick up in the second half for the Spurs as Jarrell Eddie started to heat up. I've heard people compare Eddie to Gary Neal, but I don't think they're quite the same. Eddie is a very good shooter, and if he gets an open shot, he drains it a high percentage of the time. Neal is also a good shooter, but he doesn't need to be open to shoot it. I think if you could somehow combine the good qualities from Eddie and Shannon Scott, you'd have a pretty good NBA point guard, since Scott has a decent all around game but not a great shot, and Eddie is a dead-eye shot but can't do much else.
Ndoye is intriguing, and he got some time on the floor in the second half, but showed himself to be very raw and will need to improve his footwork and positioning, but his size alone should get him into the D-League to learn how to play. Lalanne played limited minutes but managed to pick up a ton of fouls, and really needs seasoning before he's going to be a useful addition to an NBA roster.
Simmons seemed to find the energy he was missing in the first half and started to demonstrate the role he has filled for the Summer League team, which is the closer. He played aggressively on defense, and started to hit shots and drive to the basket just when he was needed. Kyle Anderson was there to make some key free throws down the stretch that iced the game for the Silver and Black, and they won 79-75.
It wasn't time for my plane to leave yet, so I wandered into the other arena to catch a bit of the Knicks vs. 76ers. Porzingis for the Knicks has looked very good against most Summer League competition, but against Jahlil Okafor, it wasn't quite as easy. He's going to have to get bigger and stronger to handle athletic guys like Okafor, but I think that''s part of the development plan that the Knicks have for him.
One thing I did notice about Summer League, and it was especially obvious in that game, is that not every team in Summer League has the same goals for their Summer League teams. Teams like the Spurs are using the team to evaluate players and also give some players and coaches opportunities to take on a bigger role and learn from doing. Becky Hammon and the coaching staff are getting prepared for the future when Popovich either steps down or takes a different role. Players like Kyle Anderson are given opportunities to take a leadership position with the team and expand their role. Other players are there to learn the Spurs system and get a shot at joining the organization.
The Knicks, on the other hand, seem to be all in on trying to win Summer League. That's it, just win the game and get the summer league trophy, which no one will remember the day after its' awarded. I'm starting to like Derek Fisher even less, and I didn't think that was even possible.
So time ran out, and I had to head to the airport to fly back home. My editor, when discussing this story with me, thought it was going to be all about Vegas hijinks, with a side of basketball. As it turned out, the hijinks pretty much didn't happen. I didn't get a face tattoo, I didn't get punched by Mike Tyson or get married to a showgirl. I didn't even get drunk. Except on basketball. As the plane lifted off, the mountains surrounding the city were bathed in shades of yellow and orange from the setting sun, and the lights from the casinos streamed away, like a dream from a quickly fading past.
It was the best Vegas vacation ever.
I'm glad I was able to share it with you.