If CJ Elleby really had the goods to cement himself as a likely contributor for the Trail Blazers next season or down the line, Summer League was bound to be his coming-out party.
The No. 46 overall pick in last year's draft, Elleby was the only player in the gym with a guaranteed NBA contract when Portland began its preparations for Las Vegas. Greg Brown III eventually got one, and there was some expectation—though completely unfounded—the Blazers would use Summer League as an audition before signing Michael Beasley, Kenneth Faried or Emmanuel Mudiay to a minimum deal. Other prove-it veterans like Antonio Blakeney and Kobi Simmons were on Portland's summer squad, too.
The composition of the Blazers' roster always ensured shots might be hard to come by in Las Vegas, basically. But at least the presence of so many veterans around him would allow Elleby to serve as a suped-up version of the role player he is in the league, while occasionally stretching his limits as a primary scorer and on-ball creator.
Portland would also play a facsimile of the movement-based, read-and-react style offense championed by Chauncey Billups, one ostensibly well-suited for Elleby's game. Summer League is annual catnip for roster-worthy guards, too.
Sin City was poised to be Elleby's basketball playground, basically, the perfect environment for him to prove his bona fides as a fixture for the Blazers. Instead, it's been the setting of his abject disappointment.
The eye test is always more important than the box score at Summer League, but Elleby's numbers are ugly enough to tell the story anyway. Through four games in Las Vegas, he's averaging 6.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals in 24.9 minutes. Elleby is shooting 21.4 percent on twos, 3-of-16 from beyond the arc and has taken only six free throws, making five.
Maybe most discouraging? That Elleby's eight-to-five total assist-to-turnover ratio isn't even explained by much additional usage or aggression as a scorer. His usage rate at Summer League is 19.1, per RealGM, not high for a combo guard, and Elleby has taken Portland's fourth-most field goal attempts despite leading the team in minutes.
Elleby's estimated -31.0 net rating, according to RealGM, is worst among Blazers regulars. His 35.5 true shooting percentage and 3.5 PER dwell at the bottom, too.
The alarming extent of those statistical struggles isn't the result of Portland's oddball Summer League roster, either. Though not quite featuring Elleby, Roy Rogers and the Blazers' summer coaching staff have still afforded him plenty of opportunities to impress. Elleby has just consistently looked out of his depth in Las Vegas regardless.
His handle, noticeably high and a bit loose during his brief stints as a rookie, doesn't seem any tighter.
Elleby isn't playing with much more speed, strength or explosiveness after a full year in an NBA training program, and hasn't compensated by adding craft or nuance as a finisher.
The elongated, spread-legged release on Elleby's jumper is pretty much the same. It's also produced multiple airballs from three.
At least Elleby has played with the typical engagement and energy we've come to expect from him defensively. Still, a concerted effort hasn't made him immune from several obvious lapses on that side of the ball.
Long, fruitful NBA careers are never made in Summer League, and very rarely lost. But the immediate, necessary pushback to drawing ironclad takeaways from Las Vegas is far more often about optimistic appraisals than otherwise.
There's only so much to glean from a surefire NBA player looking the part in Sin City. Someone already on the fringes laboring to Elleby's depths, though? That's at least notable, and even cause for varying levels of concern—especially for a player about to enter his second year in the league.
To be clear, all the caveats you've heard before still apply to Elleby's performance. Summer League is essentially meaningless, and not a reliable predictor of a player's coming success. Elleby is playing with new teammates, in a new system. Any four-game sample size, no matter where it comes from, isn't big enough to be a real indicator of growth or decline.
Portland even has one more game left to play in Las Vegas! Maybe Elleby's cold hand gets hot in Tuesday's finale against the Houston Rockets, and he leaves Summer League on a high that renders his previous lows an afterthought. It wouldn't be all that shocking.
Player development, remember, isn't linear, replete with starts and stops, steps forward and back. For his sake, here's hoping Elleby's arrow points upward for a while from here.