The NBA’s annual Vegas Summer League would be wrapping up right about now. Young players would be finishing up a week of gambling, partying and hopefully, at least for their coach, getting better.
Summer League has always been sort of approached by most as nothing more than a perk of July, just something to sort of help bridge the gap. Nobody really pays attention to it except for the hardest of hardcore fans, general managers, scouts and coaches. And bloggers. Summer League basically is blogger paradise, because it’s something to write the crap out of for a couple of weeks in mid-July.
Except this summer, because of the you-know-what, there is no Summer League. No rookies to overhype because of a good, random game against a bunch of D-Leaguers. No second-year fringe players to latch onto and get excited about because of a quality week. And no players to completely write off because of a 2-12, five-turnover game. For shame.
And while most just write off what happens in Vegas as unimportant, any time players take the court and compete, there’s something of value there for the players, the organization and the coaches. Basketball is about development. It’s about getting better. Summer League is a vehicle for new draft picks to get a feel of pro basketball and a feel of playing with a couple of teammates. It’s a place for guys to prove themselves a bit. In reality, it’s kind of important, even if it’s generally ignored by the general basketballing public.
But I can guarantee you a good number of teams were mighty disappointed when Summer League fell through because of the lockout. There’s progress to be made, and a week in Vegas is an excellent place to start, especially for rookies. At CBSSports.com this weekend, I looked at the teams that will likely feel the sting of missing seemingly meaningless games in Vegas the most. One team definitely included: The Thunder.
The organization is entirely built around development and a commitment to progressing young talent. It’s one of the reasons the Thunder were the only team to play in both the Orlando and Vegas summer leagues. Not everyone takes these games seriously, but you can bet Sam Presti and the Thunder do. If there’s an opportunity to get better, the Thunder are taking it completely to heart.
Even little things like giving assistant Brian Keefe an opportunity to run the bench is important to the Thunder. OKC isn’t just interested in developing players, but coaches, trainers, scouts and basically anyone involved in the organization.
I think Summer League was a big part in Russell Westbrook’s development from an out-0f-control rookie to a solid second-year player to what’s now an All-Star point guard and one of the best players in the league. After he finished up a rookie season where he struggled with understanding his speed and how his game fit in with the pace and rhythm of a game, he went to both the Orlando and Vegas leagues. In both, he was faster and better than any player lined up against him. He had the ability to just zip right around everyone and play recklessly, but with the ability to score virtually every time down. Instead, he worked on slowing his body down and figuring out how to run an offense without just his speed and dribble to do it all on his own. Obviously that’s something he’s still working on, but there’s no doubt he’s better now than he was a couple summers ago in Orlando.
Same goes for Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Eric Maynor and all the other players the Thunder have sent to Summer League. They all got a little better, all worked on specific things and all are what they are today probably in part of the development that happened over the summer. Most of it comes from individual workouts and practice, sure, but don’t underestimate how much these guys got be applying those things in a game setting where it wasn’t about the final score, but about fine-tuning a few things.
Oklahoma City has two roster players that would’ve likely been participating in Cole Aldrich and rookie Reggie Jackson. With Jackson, Summer League could’ve helped signal a little where he might fit in. Is he a point guard? Shooting guard? Combo guard? Is he a scorer the Thunder want to use off the bench next season? Is he someone that even will challenge for minutes? The Thunder clearly liked Jackson enough to promise him a spot in the first round, but without him working out for anyone before the draft, he’s still largely an unknown for everybody.
Aldrich likely needs a Summer League the most. He didn’t get one last season because his trade wasn’t officially finalized in time and didn’t play much this year other than with the Tulsa 66ers. He just needs to play. Not that five or six games against D-Leaguers and rookies would’ve made all the difference, but getting time on the floor as a focal point would’ve been good for him heading to fall camp. Aldrich is far from a lost cause, and the Thunder are willing to stay patient. But part of that being patient comes because you think a guy is going to improve. And to do that, he’s got to play.
If you think for a second the organization has soured on Aldrich just because he didn’t play much last season, don’t. They love him. Maybe he didn’t walk in and impact things as quickly as some in the front office had hoped, but the Thunder don’t operate in immediate impact terms.
Westbrook moved along at the speed of light, but when he was picked fourth overall, the front office really saw him as more of a developmental project. The Thunder just lucked out because his talent turned out to be so overwhelming that when he put in the worked, everything just came spilling out.
Aldrich probably won’t play much next season either. But he’s in the cards for the future, even if that means in two or three years. Other organizations write off players quickly just because they didn’t immediately live up to expectation (Memphis, cough cough), but that’s not at all the Thunder way. Reason for that is because they value things like Summer League so much. And this year, they didn’t get it, which means a couple young players suffered and didn’t get a chance to move forward. You can be sure that didn’t sit well with Presti.