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Thoughts on the Clippers and their Performance in the 2018 NBA Summer League

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We discussed the 2018 Vegas Summer League and how various key Clippers looked during the week plus in Vegas.

NBA: Summer League- Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Vegas Summer League is almost over (the championship game is this afternoon), and the Clippers have been out of action for several days already. It therefore seemed an appropriate time to look back at the Clippers’ week in Vegas and discuss the Clippers’ performance there. Lucas and I went back and forth on different topics, but focusing primarily on the Clippers’ roster players. Without further ado, here’s our conversation:

Robert: Summer League is over, and the Clippers won’t be playing organized basketball as a team in any sort of way until training camp (barring any small workout sessions or mini-camps they hold).

The Clippers didn’t do all that well in Vegas, going 2-4, and losing in the second round of the playoff tournament. Still, winning in Vegas isn’t really all that important: it’s about seeing where the young roster guys are at, and scouting out potential professional players who might be ready to make the jump to the NBA.

In my mind, the Clippers had mixed results in those areas. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was one of the best players in Summer League, but the rest of their young players were inconsistent at best, and nobody else on the roster stuck out as a true NBA talent (as Jamil Wilson did last year), though some are definitely on the fringes. What were your overall thoughts on the Clippers’ stint in Vegas?

Lucas: Yeah, I don’t really mind the losses--what’s important, rather than focusing on trying to win Summer League Championships (cough*Lakers*cough), is that you get a look at as many players who could factor into your franchise’s long-term plans as possible, and put them in a position where they’re put in a position to show what they can do. Normally, the most successful SL teams have the oldest rosters: players with more collegiate or pro experience, potentially prior Summer League experience, and more developed bodies. The Clippers had a very young roster this year, and, beyond the five players in their system who were there this week, got to get a handful of other potential G-League or two-way talents in the gym, working with Clipper coaches.

But aside from accumulating young prospects, you need to make sure you’re actually putting those prospects in a position to play quality possessions and show you skills that may be translatable to the NBA game. The Clippers failed miserably in this regard in 2016, when their guard rotation consisted of David Michineau and a bunch of undrafted rookie free agents. The result was a team that could barely get the ball up the court and couldn’t effectively get into any of their offensive action. The team lost every game and there weren’t any quality observations to take away. In 2017, they over-corrected for this, adding Kendall Marshall’s multiple years of NBA experience as a steady hand to guide the offense. They didn’t have any notable success as a team, but they were able to run a real offense. That laid the table for this 2018 summer league, when for the first time in almost a decade, the Clippers had lottery prospects to get a look at. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ran the offense with as much poise as any veteran, and while the basketball was pretty bad when he was off the floor, we got a chance to make some decent evaluations while he was setting the table.

I’m sure we’ll get to Shai in detail--who else stuck out to you?

Robert: Yeah this Summer League team was very different from years prior, but not in a bad way. I think their decision to load up with youngster rather than proven veterans had a lot to do with the fullness of their “regular” roster. The Clippers need to cut players, not add more, so they really weren’t in a position to offer a potential roster spot to Summer League players this year. Last year, guys like Kendall Marshall, Hollis Thompson, and Jamil Wilson knew they had at least a shot at making the roster. I don’t think that w was really in the cards this year.

As for who stuck out to me.... outside of Shai, I think the biggest positive was probably Vince Hunter. Again, the Clippers don’t have room on the roster for him (unless they fail to bring back Montrezl Harrell, who he’s essentially a worse version of), but he definitely earned at least a training camp invite somewhere, maybe even a straight up two-way deal. He was energetic, played super hard, and demonstrated NBA-level athleticism at the big man positions. He’s a bit of a tweener, a power-forward sized player who can’t shoot or handle much, but undersized as a rim protector. Still, he can play, and his finishing around the basket and rebounding capabilities were impressive.

Negatively, I think Grant Jerrett was pretty clearly the worst player on the team who got significant minutes: this was a disappointment considering he was the most experienced veteran on the team, and one of the few players with extended time on an NBA roster (albeit very few minutes of actual game time). However, I was much more let down by the play of the Clippers’ second year players, Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell. Each had their moments, but both also performed well below where I wanted them to. Jawun wasn’t aggressive enough, barely making an impression on the court during most of his stints. He looked hesitant (a possible after-effect of his sports hernia surgery, possibly), and didn’t appear fully comfortable until the last game. Sindarius put up stats, for the most part, but outside of a somewhat smoother and quicker three-point shot, he didn’t seem farther along than his rookie season. He was very shot-happy, and didn’t utilize much cleverness with his moves, instead bulling straight to the rim in a manner that won’t work much in the NBA proper. I wish he’d demonstrated tighter handles, better passing ability, or just a clearer understanding of when to press the issue on offense.

Nobody else really made much an impression, though I think Desi Rodriguez, Reggie Upshaw Jr., and Thomas Wimbush all flashed at least elements of NBA-level play during their stints. Did anybody really stand out to you, one way or another?

Lucas: Summer League rosters also aren’t just based on who the team wants to bring on board--a lot of times top players can be very selective with which teams they want to join. Sure, you can impress scouts by playing well in games no matter which SL roster you join, but the chance to work with coaches in practice and get to know them can’t be overlooked. A player who knows they’re one of the top fringe NBA point guards is likely to join a team that has an open roster spot and only two PGs on the roster. Players know that the top 1-2 performers at summer league have a chance for a training camp invitation, and if they’re able to earn that, they want to be in a camp where they have a shot at a roster.

I think that Upshaw and Hunter are the two non-roster guys who stood out the most to me. Vince has actually been in several NBA training camps, and I think the evolution of the game has really upped the probability that he has an NBA career. He was on a two-way contract during the beginning of the season with Memphis last year, and released around when the Clippers released Jamil Wilson (though he didn’t play nearly as much as Jamil did). Five years ago, Vince is a 6’9” 3/4 tweener with no jumper--basically, a guy with no NBA shot. But in today’s game, he’s an athletic, rebounding 4/5 who can protect the rim and switch out on perimeter players. Is he good enough at those skills to be productive in the NBA? It’s not clear. But the archetype is at least there, and I’m pretty sure he’ll get another shot.

Upshaw probably has less upside towards having a real NBA career, but I could see him getting a two-way somewhere. If you’ve got wing shortages, as a lot of teams do, he’s a hustler 6’7” SF who shot 39% from three in Germany last year (4 attempts per game in 30 minutes a night). I don’t think he has the well-rounded two-way skill or consistent jumper that he’d need to be a real rotation piece, but I could see keeping him on a two-way and calling him up when someone rolls an ankle. It’s far more likely that his career stays in Europe, though.

I’d also keep my eye on Wimbush. He was beyond dreadful in the Summer League, but Clippers SL coach Casey Hill (who also coaches the Agua Caliente Clippers) told us it was a real letdown for Thomas, who had impressed the staff a ton in their mini-camp. He was a G-League backup last year, so the Clippers might look to get his G-League rights so he can keep working with the Agua Caliente coaching staff.

I’ll also say that I didn’t see much from Angel Delgado that really stood out to me. The Clippers immediately targeted him with a two-way contract after he went undrafted last month, but I’m not really seeing the upside here. I’m actually a fan of using the two-way deal on a true center, since you don’t need that traditional third 7-footer that all teams used to carry anymore, but you also don’t want to only have two centers going into an 82-game season. Putting a center on a two-way deal allows you have that extra depth at center without using a third roster spot on the position. But at least this year, the Clippers already have three centers, with big expiring deals for Gortat and Marjanovic, and the hopefully-soon-to-be-resigned Montrezl Harrell. Because of that depth, Delgado seems to bring little short-term depth value, and I don’t know that he’ll ever really be an NBA player. I think by the time the season rolls around, they’ll have more interesting options for their two-way slots.

I agree with you on Jawun, but sort of differ on Sindarius. To me, a “somewhat smoother and quicker three-point shot” is all I need to see from him. He’ll probably actually play fewer minutes in year 2 than year 1, and I think the rotational skillset is already there if he can increase his quantity of 3PA without dropping off too much in efficiency. I don’t mind him struggling in Summer League when the ball is in his hands a lot, because he should really almost never have the ball in his hands at the NBA level. He’s your 5th offensive option (maybe 4th depending on what C you have in the game) whenever he’s on the floor, so a lot of the times when he struggled in Vegas don’t project meaningfully into that role. Jawun, on the other hand, doesn’t have very many uses without the ball in his hands. His defensive pressure is good, but his lack of size and versatility limit him to a bit player on that end rather than a net positive, and he’s done nothing to show that offensively, he’s either A) worth trusting with the ball, or B) capable of being competent off the ball. And unlike Sindarius, I don’t see any sort of results to indicate he’s moving in the right direction.

Speaking of Jawun, I’m actually at a point with him where I don’t really mind the Clippers cutting him to keep Milos Teodosic around--I’m far more concerned about Milos’ presence keeping Shai and Jerome from getting some burn during their rookie season. What do you think about those rookies so far?

Robert: Yeah I agree with you on most of that. Delgado had a few nice moments, mostly in the post on offense and on the glass, but he didn’t really look like an NBA player to me, and he is not an NBA archetype that is very valuable any more. I think he’s an ok signing, but I concur that there are more interesting players available for the two-way deals. Upshaw looked like a classic “Quadruple A” guy to me, to use a baseball term: very good at the European or G-League level, but without the athleticism or skillset to really make an NBA impact. Wimbush, on the other hand, was really bad in Summer League, but just watching him play, he moves like an NBA player: he’s super quick, and has plus athleticism for a guard his size. If he can get the semblance of a shot down, I think he could hang around the NBA for a few years as an energy guy off the bench (smaller James Ennis, maybe?).

I’ve been trying to tamp down my hype for Shai since his last game in Summer League a week ago, but it’s hard. He looked so effortlessly good in Vegas, and in ways I think should translate quite clearly to the NBA level. He glides when he moves, and despite a lack of John Wall burst or Jamal Crawford handles, he was able to get to the rim at will against all manner of opponents. Obviously that will be harder in the NBA, and finishing around the rim against true behemoth defensive centers will be more challenging yet... but I think Shai is up to the task. He can finish around the basket with either hand, and has a variety of shots and spins in his bag already to play angles and work his way around defenders.

However, I was most impressed with the poise Shai played with. He was always under control, always talking to his teammates, and never got flustered, even after getting blocked around the basket a few times. The SL squad was noticeably worse with him off the court, and that’s a great sign for a rookie point guard. His defense, too, stood out, as he is laterally quick and his long arms are always in passing and driving lanes. His shot is a work in progress, but even that seemed to improve as the week went along, and he displayed a couple very smooth step-back and pull-up jumpers. He was one of the five most impressive players in Vegas, and that’s counting all guys there who played in the NBA last year.

Jerome Robinson was more difficult to evaluate. He got banged up in the Clippers’ mini-camp before SL started, and his role was therefore reduced in Vegas. He didn’t play on-ball much, and that’s where I think most Clippers’ fans were excited to see him. I did like his shot: it’s easy, quick, and looks like it’s going in almost every time. However, he didn’t actually make it all that frequently, and just failed to stand out in general when he was on the court. I’m going to give him a bit of a pass due to his injuries and Shai’s excellence pushing him to the side a bit, but I would have liked to have seen a lot more from a lottery pick in Vegas, especially one whose game should excel in such a setting. He didn’t look bad by any means, and he had a couple of nice plays (a block here, a couple strong rebounds there) that suggest he can do more than score at the NBA level. But still, I wish he’d jumped off the screen or court more.

Are you just as enthusiastic for Shai as I am, or are you still a bit hesitant? And would you accredit Jerome’s somewhat disappointing play to the injuries?

Lucas: I think Summer League showed us a lot of what we thought we were going to get with Shai--perhaps nothing groundbreaking, but it was really reassuring to see him perform so well. I think Shai is ready for NBA minutes right away. He’ll probably have some struggles, as you’d expect from any rookie, but I’ll be seriously disappointed if he isn’t getting serious nightly minutes. I think he’s going to be a good starting point guard in the league for a long time (though it might be safe to bring him off the bench to start), and maybe a fringe All-Star during his prime. But I’ll stop a little short of some of the crazier hype--I’ve seen some Clippers fans saying SGA should be untouchable in a potential Kawhi Leonard trade, which is sort of silly. Shai is going to be a good starting PG in the NBA, but there are plenty of good starting PGs in the NBA, and a handful come out of the draft every year. Kawhi Leonard is a top-5 player, defensive player of the year, and Finals MVP in his prime. I’d love to keep Shai (even more than Tobias) to pair with Kawhi, but let’s not act like it’s reasonable for the Clippers to trade for Kawhi without giving up anything of value.

Jerome’s Summer League may as well have not happened, as far as I’m concerned. Not only was he limited by various injuries, but those bumps and bruises kept him out of most of the Clippers’ pre-SL practices, which reduced him to a smaller role when he was on the court. I think that, as much as any rookie, Jerome looked a little uncomfortable in Summer League: the game is faster, the players are bigger, the action is quicker. I think he will need more of a learning curve to adjust to the NBA, but the one thing I’m sure of (poor efficiency in a minuscule, disorganized SL sample aside) is that he has an NBA shot. Devin Booker only shot 34% from three as a rookie because he was taking high-difficulty shots (moving off of screens) and adjusting to NBA pace and physicality. Jerome might similarly need a burner year before really being ready to be a high-level NBA shooter, but I think that it’s definitely his future. The real question is what he’ll be able to do on the ball and defensively, and while his SL on-ball skills were actually somewhat underwhelming compared to his collegiate hype as a three-level scorer, his defense exceeded expectations by not standing out in a horribly negative fashion.

Robert: Just to wrap up— I am super high on Shai, but I still think that if Kawhi Leonard is available, the Clippers absolutely have to include him. Regardless, I’m excited to watch him on the Clippers, hopefully for many years to come.