Doug McDermott, through form and function, shines in Summer League
LAS VEGAS -- Doug McDermott has yet to play an NBA game, but one can already trace his sphere of on-court influence. When the 6-foot-8 forward comes curling around a screen at the Summer League, defenders abandon their principles in a moment of pure panic. When McDermott hunkers down into a screen, he nags at the attention of multiple opponents. He is so efficient with his timing and his movements that every step must be followed closely, lest the ball swing his way and splash through the net in a single, fluid instant.
This, even against the backdrop of Summer League, is where the 11th pick in last month's draft intrigues most. His NBA career will assuredly not be one of direct NCAA translation; he likely won't be a scoring champion, as he was at Creighton last season, nor will not be asked to approach shot creation in the same way. McDermott's days as a first-option scorer should well be finished by the time he wears a Bulls jersey for the first time in the regular season.
Some have interpreted that need for reinvention as proof that McDermott will be "just a shooter" in the pros, an assertion McDermott himself actively rebuts whenever possible. To even make that distinction, though, risks losing sight of the larger point: What matters most is not whether McDermott piles up points or merely helps to space the floor, but the extent to which he's capable of making a tangible and consistent difference.
That he's done so in Las Vegas on a makeshift roster with limited preparation signals something, even if the more precise implications therein should be tabled until McDermott plays in a setting truer to the NBA level. This summer stage is an intermediate step, as McDermott well knows. But within that step is room for instruction and illustration, hinting toward the player that he might become.
"The speed of the game is a lot different," McDermott said of adapting to Summer League basketball. "College is kind of a slower process, but in the NBA, 24 seconds goes by fast. You have to be able to think on your toes and make quick reactions on defense. It's something I'm still trying to adjust to."
That speed is something that all first-year players must grapple with, yet McDermott's related challenges are often discussed in more concrete terms than those of other prospects. McDermott's limitations are easily identified after four years of college basketball: His lateral movement will be a problem on the NBA level, as will his defense of wings in general. These are issues that must be understood and addressed on a team level, and they do not escape the Bulls. Those flaws, though, are not yet any kind of discernible omen, particularly when the speed that so complicates the NBA game works very much to McDermott's advantage on the other side of the ball.
The best players aren't those who merely make the right decisions, but those who arrive at decisions quickly. In that regard, McDermott is an ace prospect, a tremendous shooter who doesn't hold the ball and a bright facilitator who does a great job of exploiting opponents with the pass. He's not a full-time playmaker by any means, but McDermott has an intuitive feel for the positioning of his teammates and the distortion of the defense that allows him to execute crisply. During his Summer League term, that preemption gave a sloppy offense an occasional and precious sense of rhythm.
"I've always been really good at seeing things before they even happen," McDermott said. "So that's been one of my bigger strengths, just making really quick decisions [in the passing game]. I think that curl play is something good for me because I know how to react quick to certain things."
The staple curl play turned out to be something of a showcase for McDermott here. He runs an arc around multiple screeners, proving that he can brush by the pick and lose his defender. After the catch, McDermott's great footwork and snap release generally allow the defense little room for error. He made an uncanny percentage of such looks. In the case that another defensive player (usually the man guarding McDermott's final screener) does step over to help, however, McDermott consistently isolated the right passing angle and moved the ball to the open man for an easy score. That's a level of sophistication unusual for a Summer League setting, and because of it McDermott -- who averaged 20.3 points and 3.7 assists in his first three games -- seemed to play off his teammates as if they had years of cooperative experience rather than mere days.
In some sense, that's what an offensive player with this specific skill set, whether tabbed as a shooter or scorer or whatever designation is convenient, can provide. Elite floor spacing and sharp decision making, when applied in the right ways, function much in the way that slow-building, hard-earned team chemistry does. Passing lanes materialize out of thin air. The transitions from action to action within sets are noticeably cleaner. Most every part of running an offense trends slightly easier, all because of players who share in a particular skill set with McDermott.
These are the grounds in which popular comparison to Kyle Korver, another Creighton alumnus, are most apt. The two have been linked by their alma mater, their shooting touch and, not least of all, their race. (As McDermott says of the reasoning behind his frequent comparison to shooting specialists, "It's pretty obvious.") McDermott, though, is potentially most like Korver for the way he might shape his team's offensive baseline. Last season the Hawks scored 5.1 more points per 100 possessions with Korver on the floor, according to NBA.com. The season before Atlanta's offense was 6.9 points better with Korver than without him. Such was also the case for Korver with the Bulls (+2.0 in 2012, +2.3 in '11) and the Jazz (+3.0 in '10) in his previous stints, all in which Korver was regarded only as a role player.
McDermott may not have that kind of juice in his first season, but he should aspire to it in his own way. He'll create more than Korver ever has and score in ways that Korver never did. The underlying goal of his presence, though, should be one in the same.