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2015 NBA Las Vegas Summer League: Running down biggest winners, losers

Kristaps Porzingis silenced doubters in Las Vegas, while the Lakers and Kings gained a few at Summer League.

LAS VEGAS—The 2015 NBA Las Vegas Summer League will wrap up Monday night, when the Spurs and the Suns face off in the title game, aiming to join the 2013 Warriors and 2014 Kings as event champions. With 10 days and 66 games in the books, here’s a rundown of the biggest winners and losers from Sin City.

Winner: Spurs coach Becky Hammon

It turns out that the best way to squelch incessant “How does it feel to be a woman coaching men?” questions is to just kick a lot of butt.

Summer League should kill any remaining doubt about the Spurs naming assistant coach Becky Hammon to Gregg Popovich’s bench last fall. Over the last two weeks, Hammon has made it impossible for sexists to question her ability or to suggest that her hiring was a public relations stunt. The former WNBA star has made a seamless transition to coaching, guiding the Spurs to the championship game even though her roster is hardly loaded with lottery talent. San Antonio’s best player has been Kyle Anderson, the 2014 No. 30 pick who could barely get onto the court during the 2014-15 season. This summer, he took home Summer League MVP honors under Hammon's tutelage.

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San Antonio’s run to the Vegas final has included three wins by five points or less, including a 95–93 victory over Boston in the quarterfinals that came on a Shannon Scott buzzer-beater. Hammon, of course, drew up the final play on that one, sending three guys in motion across the court before Scott received the inbounds pass.

Even the Spurs’ sole loss, a five-point defeat to the Knicks, saw Hammon bust out a little magic. With less than 10 seconds remaining, a motion-heavy play utilized a fake dribble hand-off, a great back screen and a crosscourt pass to produce a wide-open look at a potential game-tying three-pointer that rimmed off. There’s little doubt that Pop would have toasted to that one, despite the final result.

Traditionally, Summer League has been a venue for up-and-coming assistants to get valuable on-the-job training. This year, multiple coaches floundered so badly with timeouts and late-game situations that they beat themselves up during post-game interviews. Hammon, by contrast, made it look easy. At 38, Hammon is the NBA's first full-time female assistant coach and also the first woman to coach a Summer League team. She appears to be on the fast track to becoming the NBA's first female head coach, as well.


Loser: D-League Select's Hasheem Thabeet

Every year I write that the essence of Summer League is its unpredictable weirdness, and every year the event finds a new way to deliver on that identity.

Hasheem Thabeet—the 2009 No. 2 overall pick who was selected ahead of James Harden, Stephen Curry and many others—is now 28 years old and technically out of the NBA. One of the biggest draft busts in recent memory, the 7'3" Thabeet didn’t play a single NBA minute last season, as he toiled in the D-League, averaging 8.6 points and 6.2 rebounds for the Grand Rapids Drive. He came to Las Vegas to represent the D-League Select Team in hopes of reminding NBA evaluators that he still exists.

Unfortunately, Thabeet didn’t exactly make the most of his showcase opportunity during a July 12 game against the Wizards. With a little more than four minutes remaining in the second quarter, Thabeet received back-to-back technical fouls in quick succession for arguing with an official. Ejections are rare in Summer League, but Thabeet’s story was just getting started.

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​Because the game was being held in Cox Pavilion, the smaller of the two gyms used for the event, Thabeet didn’t have a real locker room to retreat to and let off steam in private. Instead, the event uses large black curtains to wall off corners of the gym as makeshift locker room areas. Anyone needing to “hit the showers” is out of luck; there are no showers to hit.

Thabeet looked around quizzically as he left the court, trying to figure out where he should go, and eventually he made his way behind the designated black curtain. Shortly thereafter, nearby reporters could make out the unmistakable sound of a chair taking a beating. Anger and frustration eventually gave way, presumably, to boredom: the first-half ejection meant that Thabeet was stuck behind that curtain for more than an hour as the rest of the game wrapped up.

To make things even wackier, the Raptors entered the curtained area during the third quarter as they began to prepare for their game, which was the next on the docket. Thabeet could be seen sitting awkwardly as Lucas Nogueira and other Toronto players engaged in their pre-game routines.

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But, wait, there’s more. To Thabeet’s credit, he stuck around to participate in the team’s post-game huddle rather than just bailing out of the gym. He didn’t, however, emerge from the locker room to greet the waiting press contingent. Instead, Thabeet ducked the media by walking underneath the stands along the entire baseline before attempting to exit the arena on the far side. It’s unclear whether he passed any teenage lovebirds hiding from their parents and making out along the way.

As the Tanzanian giant emerged from underneath the risers, ducking his head out of necessity and with oblivious spectators sitting directly above him, he briefly realized he was trapped underneath the stands by a medical stretcher, which was on hand in case a player needs to be carted off with a serious injury. After working his way around this last hurdle, Thabeet pulled on his shiny headphones and slid out a side door to safety. Perhaps this whole scene should be reenacted in the next Beats commercial.


Winner: Spurs forward Kyle Anderson

As mentioned above, Kyle Anderson was voted Summer League MVP after averaging 22 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and leading San Antonio (5-1) to the title game. The man they call “SloMo” has carried the Spurs’ offense, ranking second overall in Las Vegas in scoring and posting 19+ points in five straight games. His deliberate and unpredictable style on offense has been showcased in full, as Anderson has craftily generated good looks in the basket area, unleashed a few floaters, and confidently launched midrange jumpers. That alpha scorer production has been complemented by stat-stuffing work on the defensive end, too.

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Anderson, quite frankly, had a rookie season to forget. The UCLA product averaged just 2.2 points and 2.2 rebounds in 33 appearances, and the Spurs were badly outscored when he was on the court. That body of work led to Anderson spending significant time in the D-League, and he didn’t get off the pine during the playoffs.

The versatile 22-year-old forward’s sophomore season is likely to be a much different experience. Following a busy offseason that included the additions of LaMarcus Aldridge and David West, the Spurs find themselves with a championship-ready core. San Antonio also has a bit of a roster hole behind Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard at the three, and that’s where Anderson could really come in handy. If his comfort and feel can carry over from Las Vegas into a second-year leap, coach Gregg Popovich and company will be tickled pink.

Loser: Sixers center Joel Embiid

For the second consecutive summer, 2014 No. 3 pick Joel Embiid was not able to compete at the Las Vegas Summer League due to foot injuries. Early in the week, the Sixers announced that Embiid would undergo another surgery that would likely cost him the 2015-16 season, delaying his pro debut for at least another year.

Embiid did show up in Las Vegas though, wearing a pretty sweet customized soccer jersey with his own name on the back, and mingled somewhat awkwardly on the sideline in a very 2010 Greg Oden type of way. With Oden, the awkwardness only increased as time went on. Was he supposed to be around the team? Was he a distraction? Did he feel like he belonged? How long could he hide from media members? When would the fans turn on him?

These are all difficult questions that can only be resolved with a full return to the court. In the meantime, one can’t help but wonder whether Embiid, stuck watching the action from the sidelines, will follow the same path.

Winner: Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay

The general reaction to this year’s two most eagerly anticipated rookie point guards is a good cautionary tale. Summer League has a way of warping reality: good becomes great, bad becomes horrible and first impressions stick.

Here, Nuggets guard Emmanual Mudiay (No. 7 in this year’s draft) generated a lot of positive early buzz while Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell (No. 2) suffered the opposite fate. By tournament’s end, here’s how the two guards stacked up numbers-wise. Can you guess which is which?

• 12 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.5 RPG, 5 TO/G, 38.5 FG%, 14.3 3P%

• 11.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 5.2 TO/G, 37.7 FG%, 11.8 3P%

Mudiay’s stat line is the first one listed, and there’s little doubt he had the better overall showing. Known primarily as a downhill, attack-minded point guard, Mudiay also made a number of breathtaking, complex passes and generally showed good command of the offense. He took wild shots in traffic at times, he piled up a bunch of turnovers, and his three-point stroke didn’t make the trip to Nevada, but those shortcoming weren’t all that surprising.

Russell, on the other hand, never quite found the same comfort on offense, his set-up skills often went to waste, and he disappeared for longer stretches than his lottery colleague. He started to make a little progress by the end of the tournament, though, finishing with 21 points in his final game. By then, most everyone had already crowned Mudiay at his expense.

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Even if the two players produced similar statistics and even if the difference between their weeks was often exaggerated, there’s little question that Mudiay leaves Las Vegas on a better note. The biggest difference between the two players had everything to do with their respective situations rather than their performance. While Russell must share minutes and touches with the likes of Jordan Clarkson (a promising second-year player looking to take a step forward), Lou Williams (signed in free agency), Kobe Bryant (never going away) and Nick Young (never not shooting), Mudiay will inherit a Nuggets team with far fewer competing interests.

Smartly, Denver GM Tim Connelly traded Ty Lawson, an alleged repeat drunk driver who had been the starting point guard for the last four-plus seasons, to the Rockets on Sunday. That trade opens the door for Mudiay to learn on the job, with every touch he can handle, and it sends a message that Denver isn’t clinging to false hopes or trying to force a Mudiay/Lawson pairing that doesn’t make a lot of sense. In terms of organizational direction and positional opportunity, Mudiay hit the jackpot.

Loser: Kings coach George Karl

Since Vivek Ranadive took over as owner, the Kings’ power balance has seemingly spun like a slot machine. This season was no exception, with multiple coaching changes, a front-office change, trade rumors surrounding franchise center DeMarcus Cousins, and a host of off-season moves aimed at short-term improvements.

Las Vegas provided the perfect setting to overcompensate in the face of the turmoil, as Ranadive and front office executive Vlade Divac tried to present a united front by bringing together Cousins with a number of their off-season additions, including Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Kosta Koufos, and Caron Butler. While eyeing the collection of random parts is certainly a bit disorienting, there’s a “can’t turn away from this madness” factor that should make Sacramento a must-watch team early in the season.

Even if it’s not totally clear how Sacramento’s chain of command works, it sure looks like George Karl is on the outside. The longtime coach has been pitted against Cousins all summer long, and their relationship in the gym was frostier than frosty. One memorable scene saw Divac, Cousins and former Kings coach Michael Malone embracing and laughing like hyenas on one sideline, while Karl looked on from the other side of the gym. Cousins’s “I think I left my iron on in the hotel and I need to leave right now” response to Karl’s approach, captured in a perfect Vine, wonderfully summed up the state of coach/star affairs.

As all of this unfolded—even while reading Karl’s olive branch-type statements throughout the week—it was hard not to think back to Karl’s infamous golf course comments. If Cousins has forgiven Karl for publicly questioning his commitment to the Kings, it absolutely didn’t look like it.

Winner: Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis will release its official All-Summer League selections shortly. Spoiler alert: Knicks lottery pick Kristaps Porzingis didn’t make the first or second team. 

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​​​​Nevertheless, both Porzingis and the Knicks should be very happy with his showing in Las Vegas. The 7'3" Latvian forward averaged 10.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 20.5 minutes over four appearances, solid numbers that were suppressed by coach Derek Fisher’s decision to intentionally limit the rookie's minutes. Porzingis also shot 48% from the field, topping fellow rookies Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Emmanuel Mudiay and D’Angelo Russell.

The big win was how Porzingis handled himself in the face of significant media attention. He kept up a happy-go-lucky approach all week despite crowds of reporters, constant demands for interviews, and other obligations like fan meet-and-greets. Porzingis spoke freely and at length about his play, provided accurate self-assessments and allowed his passion for the game to come through in his answers. Although his list of areas that need improvement is a long one—strength, play-making for others, range on his shot, rebounding in traffic, strength again, even more strength—Las Vegas amounted to a nice start to his NBA career. Porzingis got his feet wet without sinking, and he left fans and media members alike wishing Fisher would give him more burn.

Losers: 2014 lottery picks

Porzingis and his fellow 2015 lottery picks generally enjoyed strong, but not spectacular, weeks. Towns, Okafor, Mudiay, Willie Cauley-Stein and Devin Booker in particular all had positive showings in Las Vegas.

The same can’t be said for the 2014 class, which continues to be absolutely ravaged by injuries. Remember, just two of the 14 lottery picks from 2014 played at least 2,000 minutes as rookies (Andrew Wiggins and Elfrid Payton), while six dealt with significant injuries (Jabari Parker, Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh and Doug McDermott).

That injury bug just keeps striking: Parker (knee), Embiid (foot) and Dante Exum (ankle) all missed Summer League entirely due to injuries. Smart (fingers) and Zach LaVine (finger) both had their weeks cut short due to injuries, and Randle (leg) was still on a minutes restriction as he works back to 100%. To make matters even worse, Gordon reportedly managed to break his jaw this week while “horsing around with his older brother.” It just never stops with this group. Hopefully Dario Saric is somewhere in Europe, fully encased in bubble wrap and marshmallow goo.

Winner: Pelicans guard Seth Curry

The best word to describe Seth Curry’s week: busy. The younger brother of reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry led Summer League in minutes played (198), points per game (24.3) and shot attempts (111), while finishing second in steals per game (3.2). His six straight 20+ point games helped New Orleans reach the event’s semifinals.

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After spending three years at Duke, Curry, 24, has played a grand total of 21 NBA minutes over two seasons with the Grizzlies, Cavaliers and Suns. His Summer League performance hardly hints at stardom, but he did a nice job of looking like an off-brand version of his brother, splitting double teams, applying constant pressure to defenses by keeping his dribble alive, and launching at a moment’s notice when necessary.

The arrival of former Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry as the Pelicans’ new head coach represents an intriguing possibility for Curry. New Orleans has its starting point guard in Jrue Holiday, but Curry is seemingly worth a low-cost shot as a reserve scorer who would feel at home in Gentry’s up-tempo, free-flowing offensive system. The Pelicans reportedly have interest in signing him, and that’s how it should be: Seth looks like he belongs on the court facing off against Steph, not in the stands cheering with Dell and Riley.

Losers: Lakers' Tarik Black, Anthony Brown

You might be guessing that Lakers center Tarik Black finds himself on this list because he managed to foul out in his debut even though there’s a 10-foul limit in opening round games. Remarkably, and sadly, Black finished just one point shy of a non-traditional triple-double with nine points, 13 rebounds and 10 fouls against the Timberwolves. No question, that was a sight to behold.

However, Black finds his name here because he is this year’s “Ben McLemore Award” winner, which goes to the Summer League competitor who plays the most minutes without registering an assist. For Black, a 6'9" dunk machine who is supposed to be a finisher and not a playmaker, this isn’t that dubious of an honor. Still, he managed to play 116 minutes without an assist while shooting 26 times and committing eight turnovers. 

The plot thickened, though, as Black’s teammate, Anthony Brown out of Stanford, managed to play 108 minutes without getting an assist. The 2015 second-round pick took 24 shots along the way.

To drive home the scope of their assist-lessness, no other player has logged more than 76 minutes without tallying an assist. Lakers Summer League coach Mark Madsen should probably get some sort of trophy for this accomplishment.