NBA Summer League Day One Edition

          As anticipated, Trae Young pranced around during warmups of the Atlanta versus Memphis game, pandered to every camera within range and, once the ball was tipped, continued to display his inability to connect to anything bigger than himself. 

            The play-by-play commentator of tonight’s game claimed that the Hawks coaches have been “impressed” by Young’s passing ability.  Unfortunately for the city of Atlanta and the immediate future of the Hawks franchise, not only did Young’s passing ability not matter in this game –it may not matter in general moving forward. 

            Young went 1-11 from the three-point line, and 4 of 20 overall.  As strange as it feels to write this, those numbers don’t even begin to tell the whole story. 

            Young continues to play to a pre-determined narrative rather than play the game which is unfolding before his legacy motivated eyes.  There is a wide, long, and deep canyon between the way Young feels he should play, what his real talent level is, and what the objective reality is on the floor at the NBA level.    

            Young doesn’t yet grasp how often he was bailed out and even rewarded in college by making the wrong basketball plays.  He would either get fouled, dominate the handle and eventually manufacture an assist opportunity for himself, or create and often make tough shots. 

            In the NBA, the definition of a wrong play does not have any correlation to its result.  The model is grounded in data, individual skill, size and strength, and an understanding of intangibles.  Most NBA coaches understand the importance of consciously involving teammates and hopefully, modeling how important it is to play to the game in a communal way.  At least having an awareness that the true art of the game succumbing yourself to the game in order to get the most out of others.

            None of this has happened yet for Young in his basketball life.  The notion of giving up a little of oneself to get more inspiration out of others has likely never entered his mind before. 

            Pundits will make mention of how egregious the air-balls were on Young’s first two three-point attempts tonight but lost is the fact that both of those shots, regardless of their outcomes, were the wrong basketball plays and they were decisions which alienate people.  Young needs all of these teammates in his corner, especially given the fact that he will struggle mightily throughout his rookie year. 

            I felt bad for the University of Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger this past season.  Young committed to Oklahoma as a native of the state – bringing with his decision much fanfare and personal entitlement having grown up supporting the Sooners.  There was really nothing Kruger could do to keep him in check.  Kruger is responsible for a portion of the blame.  Oklahoma’s exit in the first round of the NCAA playoffs after basically not even qualifying on merit says a lot about the star power the NCAA felt Young possessed, but also the dynamics in which Young enters into the NBA equation.

            Oklahoma was on a relatively talent depleted team, so getting Young to buy-into a team concept didn’t necessarily play into Oklahoma’s best interests.  But by not forcing Young to buy-in and commit to contributing to the team’s deeper connectivity, Oklahoma basically became a four-month public NBA tryout for Young.

            Early in the year, when Young was on an absolute scoring rampage, Oklahoma was winning games, but it was destined and proved to be fool’s gold.  The negative equity in basketball karma which Young racked up historic numbers, were born out of a model completely stripped of musicality and was not connected to anything larger than Trae Young.

            This is an issue he faces today and tomorrow and the next day.  What I observe is that Young has no experience making others around him better and, from what I can tell, has no intrinsic motivation to do so. 

            Even the assists numbers at Oklahoma are misleading.  Yes, of course, averaging 8.7 assists is very “impressive.”  Leading the nation in scoring to boot with over 27 points per game is unbelievable.  Many of his assists show his uncanny ability to read the floor, precise skill with both hands, and the ability to improvise and pass guys open. 

            With all that said, the ego dominant way in which he plays makes it incumbent that HE creates the assist, as opposed to fostering a deeper relationship amongst his teammates.  Yeah, Oklahoma maybe scored the bucket, but little by little the inspiration of all his teammates died a slow death.  Young’s statistics are the epitome of a player who is dominating the basketball experiences of his teammates. 

            Young’s 8.7 assists per game is prolific and could not be done without incredible talent and invention given his size, but there are many assists his teammates could’ve accrued if not for Young’s insistence on completely bogarting the flow of play.  His teammates were not authors of their own stories, nor do they get a chance to contribute to Young’s story.  He dictated what was going to be written, wrote for his teammates, and gave them quick cameos when he felt like it and damn it, they better perform well!  Under this dynamic most players aren’t inspired to perform because to their highest capabilities because they are not in enough control of their own destiny, and player development is stymied when it is authorized by a teammate and not by a coach.  Young’s style of play doesn’t enable his teammates to get a deeper understanding of what basketball is all about.

            Nobody played well for Atlanta tonight apart from Omari Spellman and John Collins, the latter playing like a wily veteran after his rookie campaign last year.  Spellman looked and played bigger than I anticipated and although he didn’t get his three-point shot dialed in, the looks he missed were stiff and justified.  He seemed like he wanted to connect more than anybody else out there, and coming from Villanova’s style of play, having Young as a teammate is going to get old quick.

            Contrast this with the Memphis Grizzlies, who looked very connected and defensively engaged.  Jaren Jackson Jr. hit eight three-pointers on his way to 29 points and did it very assuredly.  Although this type of shooting is not an accurate accounting of his ability, it did foreshadow that he will be a reliable enough shooter to alter floor spacing and warp game plans and scouting reports.  Jackson Jr. was joyous and truly wanted to engage others.  Memphis also seemed to be playing a few decibel levels harder than Atlanta.

            The Warrior game against the Heat tonight didn’t showcase any tangible draft talent since Jacob Evans, the Warriors first round pick, was unable to play due to some kind of stubbed toe.  He is expected to play tomorrow night.  Bam Adebayo looked very good for Miami, and his ball handling ability seems to have drastically improved.  He rebounded the ball physically as well. 

            Jordan Bell looked a bit out of sync without the usual cast of characters around him, and his attempts to go and create offense seemed disjointed and lacked a true conviction.  Given the players surrounding him tonight though, none of which I’d heard of, it’s hard to connect.  Warriors still won. 

            The most intriguing part of tonight was the matchup between the Sacramento Kings and the Lakers – a day after LeBron’s signing.  There was an exuberance in the arena coming from both teams, and the Lakers are all of a sudden now playing for something different than they were when they woke up yesterday morning.  Everything now will be scrutinized and filtered through the lens of LeBron. 

            The Kings have an assortment of players who, when they were in college, were some of my favorites.  Frank Mason is a guard I have always admired.  Fox is another guard who has looked stunning at times.  Add Marvin Bagley and my man from Wisconsin and current Head Advocate of college players getting some sort of financial compensation, Nigel Hayes, and the Kings continue to tug at my heartstrings.  Hayes plays like an old soul and he’s skilled.  He likely won’t do one thing good enough to warrant making an NBA roster, but he does Everything so well and with such grace.  He has unique intelligence and feel.  He is musical. 

            They have the kid from North Carolina, the second-year player…Justin Jackson, although I’ve never been into him or his shot selection.  Harry Giles is an under the radar player who still has never really done anything that hits the mark.  He attempted and missed a three pointer tonight which looked as encouraging as anything I’ve ever seen from him.    

            Just in the last two draft classes the Kings have two Duke players, a North Carolina player (Jackson), a Kentucky player (Fox), and a Kansas player (Mason).  When you add Vince Carter (North Carolina), Skal Labissiere (Kentucky), and Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky)…basically Sacramento has an NBA team chocked full of college blue bloods, and yet…

            Bagley is going to provide an excitement in Sacramento.  He yearns to connect and not only plays hard, he looks like he’s playing hard.  He got up and dunked on Wagner tonight authoritatively, the Lakers first round pick, and did it with power and passion.  It was not only a genuine display of Bagley’s athleticism, but also showcased a fearlessness which will only get more validated the more he plays.  Right after the dunk he stepped into a three and hit it.  When he finds his real confidence, he will be their most important player.

            I still don’t see how Sac is going to piece it all together though.  I only half-way tuned into the first half and, yeah, the pieces are sexy on paper and in warmups it all makes sense but, there’s always something missing. 

            Maybe it is lack of a cohesive vision when drafting.  The Buddy Hield pick stands out as one where they could have nabbed someone with much more durability.  It must also be said; the Giles pick needs to be given the opportunity to roost.  Sac is on track to develop a deep and versatile frontcourt of young players.  The guard-play is what will continue to be the question though, particularly at the point.   

            I think some of the Sacramento malaise has been coaching, coupled with the roster each coach had at their disposal.  Mike Malone would have had success with the last few rosters – but even Rick Adelman would have been fired over the last 10 years given some of the roster compositions.   

            A few thoughts on the Lakers:  Wagner will certainly be able to stretch the floor and can get loose from three.  The question will be can he rebound his position well enough and obviously, defend?  He seemed to be making more of a conscious effort to be physical, but he still does not understand how physical the league is.  I think he has the temperament to figure it out, but he might need some tough love.  His quickness seemed to be an issue tonight early in the game.

            The Ukrainian kid from Kansas who I’ve always had an insider affinity for came out and blasted a three right off the get go.  He’ll easily be able to shoot the ball in the NBA.  I think it’s unlikely he makes the roster.  He does have a chance though.  It will be interesting to see how he develops playing against more D-league type of guys.  There were moments tonight where he looked like he was playing in a college game with a bunch of college players on a floor with different dimensions, but I want to see him against older guys.  He’s still young, 20 I think.

            My last shout-out goes to Jonathan Williams – the Gonzaga power forward who is left handed, crafty and skilled, and has an original and still undecipherable personal disposition.  He’s from Memphis and has old man game.  I want to see how much of his NBA three-point ability has been explored.  He had kind of a set-shot from three in college and it looked reliable.  He has defensive intangibles and snatched a rebound tonight that looked big-time NBA.  I really want him to make the roster.  Again, it’s unlikely.  He wasn’t even drafted, and I’m kicking myself for not having him on my draft night list if, for no other reason, I’ve always loved his game.  He will be good in Europe if he ends up over there.   

            In the end, the Lakers have picked up a bunch of players I like which include Wagner and the Ukrainian kid.  Jonathan Williams obviously I love.  They pick up LEBRON which is a good move.  They pick up JaVale McGee which is hard to poo-poo, and the Lance Stephenson pickup for the price tag seems like a shrewd move and something LeBron is likely cool with.  All these players they are signing are on one-year deals, which creates maximum flexibility moving forward. 

            But the Lakers acquisition of Rajon Rondo is a move which troubles even the most unattached basketball observers.  Let’s all get together, those of us who truly love basketball, and raise a couple hundred thousand dollars and commission a well-respected production company to produce a documentary on Rondo’s time in LA titled, “Confessions of an Argumentative and Physically Declining Cynic.”