Summer league is a time for basketball unknowns to battle for a roster spot, and NBA pine-riders to prove they can still fill it up. Rarely does a team go into a summer league with four or five roster players who all have the potential to play major minutes during the upcoming season; this year the Suns were an exception.
Heading into the five-game Vegas Summer League competition, Suns fans and coaches alike were looking to see if their second-year players have made strides in their respective games, and whether or not their rookies can be effective against some NBA talent.
Leading up to the 2009 Vegas Summer League the questions were endless:
Is Goran Dragic truly on his way to being the heir to Steve Nash’s point guard throne or will he continue to struggle with self-confidence?
Will we see a Robin Lopez that can actually catch a basketball and finish or a Lopez who continues to drop balls and get pushed around down low?
Are the knocks on Earl Clark’s aggression going to turn him into Boris Diaw version 2.0 or will he come out with fire and intensity and prove he belongs in the rotation next season?
Is the other Griffin (Taylor) really talented enough to earn a spot on the Suns’ roster?
Will any undrafted rookies or basketball journeymen outplay Taylor Griffin on their way to a Suns roster spot?
When it comes to summer league, the wins and losses sort of go out the window. Yes, the Suns finished with a respectable 3-2 record, but the real story here is player development.
After five games in Las Vegas, it was clear that Goran Dragic truly does have what it takes to be a starting point guard in the NBA some day. While battling sickness and a groin strain, Dragic shot an atrocious 2-for-13 from the field after the first two games. Dragic looked a step slow and was lacking the confidence that he needs to be an effective player.
Just as Suns fans thought to themselves, “here we go again,” Dragic came into game three with a ton of confidence and aggression. Dragic acted like he belonged on the court, certainly an encouraging sign.
During the last three games of the summer league, Dragic dissected defenses with his quickness and used his vision to kick out to open teammates or dump it down to Lopez.
Over that three-game span Dragic averaged an impressive 18.3 ppg and 5.7 apg in just over 25 minutes per game. Yes, it is summer league, the same summer league in which former Sun Marcus Banks once scored 42 points.
But regardless of the competition, Dragic still showed that when his head is right, he is as talented as any second-year point guard in the NBA not named Derrick Rose.
He ran a terrific pick-and-roll with Lopez and even connected on a few alley-oops to the big man. In the Suns’ final game against the Clippers, a 87-70 victory, Dragic showed his court vision and creativity when he came off a Lopez screen and fired a bounce pass between his own legs into the hands of Lopez who finished with a ferocious slam. Later in the game Dragic got a dunk of his own as he drove baseline and finished with an emphatic two-hand flush.
If I had to say what I was most encouraged about from the 2009 Vegas Summer League it would easily be the development of second-year point guard Goran Dragic.
While Dragic proved his worth in Vegas, fellow rookie Robin Lopez left a sour taste in the mouths of Suns fans and Suns management. After getting my hopes up by way of a 24 and 16 performance in the Suns’ first game against the Mavs, Lopez fell back to earth the final four games.
He ended up averaging a solid 11.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, and 2.0 bpg over the five-game stretch, but his numbers are certainly deceiving. During the four games after Lopez’ 24 and 16 performance, the seven-footer averaged only 4.3 rebounds per game. If you are seven-feet tall you usually get at least five rebounds just from being seven-feet tall, but Lopez has absolutely awful basketball instincts and continues to get pushed around down low.
While Lopez’s rebounding has seen better days, he continued to show that he is uncomfortable on offense and really has no go-to move. He did show that he can face up and put the ball on the floor, but he has so little sense of spacing that he often doesn’t know where he is until he rises up to shoot.
We all know that Lopez is an active defender with great size and length, but his problems have always been on the offensive end. Lopez may need to invest in some stick-em because he simply cannot catch. Dragic hit him with several passes within five feet of the rim that he couldn’t come up with. When Lopez was lucky enough to handle the pass, he went up with a weak layup and was usually rejected by someone several inches smaller.
Lopez did show some flashes of improvement, and the good thing is that all he needs to do next season is play defense, rebound, and catch Steve Nash passes for dunks and layups. But for as much hype as Lopez gets about his new and improved offensive game, I was not impressed.
Outside of Dragic, rookie Earl Clark’s play may have been the only other positive thing the Suns could take away from Vegas. He proved he can stay in front of point guards and guard big men down low just as effectively.
In the Suns’ summer league finale against the Clippers, Clark held No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin to 6-for-16 shooting by constantly disrupting Griffin. Clark stole the ball from him out on the perimeter twice and used his length to block his jump shot on a separate occasion.
Although Clark’s talent is endless, he still needs to master the mental aspect of the game. In fact, in the VSL finale Clark actually passed the ball in bounds to the same referee that just handed him the ball, talk about a mental lapse. Summer League coach Dan Majerle has been adamant about Clark’s need to play with intensity, but if he can get that down, everything should come together for Clark.
Aside from his defense, his offensive game is quite impressive. He showed he could knock down the 20-footer consistently, although he did settle for the outside game too much. Clark can also get to the hole off the dribble, but he needs to work on what to do when he gets to the rim. Clark finished with 11.3 ppg and 7.0 rpg in four games. Once he gets it mentally, the sky is the limit for Earl Clark.
As for the other rookie, Taylor Griffin was what he has been his whole basketball career: solid. To reference the memorable Denny Green, Griffin is what we thought he is.
Griffin showed his athleticism with some strong two-hand flushes throughout the five-game stretch. He proved he can knock down the mid-range pullup, but his shooting ability ends there. He continuously passed up spot-up threes and opted to put the ball on the floor.
Because Griffin is an athletic, 6-foot-8, 235-pound swingman who can defend and rebound, he should definitely make the Suns’ roster, but I wouldn’t expect much out of him next season.
There are usually a few basketball journeymen or undrafted rookies that stand out in Vegas. For the Suns, point guard Zabian Dowdell and swingman Micah Downs were those guys.
Dowdell proved he can run the show and is capable of creating his own offense. Downs is long, athletic, and can knock down the three with the best of them.
Dowdell averaged 9.4 ppg in only 17.6 minutes of action. Downs was very inconsistent but managed to put together a 19-point, five steal effort against he D-League select team. Although I think Griffin will ultimately be the Suns’ 13th man, if any of the Summer Suns were to beat him out, it would be Dowdell or Downs.
We learned a lot from the 2009 Vegas Summer League. Goran Dragic does have the talent to thrive in the Suns’ system next year, Robin Lopez still has a long ways to go before he can be a productive NBA center, Earl Clark has the talent to be a top-five rookie next season, and Taylor Griffin is as advertised, a rock-solid swingman.
Hopefully players like Dragic, Lopez, Clark, and Griffin are not done improving their games this summer, but as of now, I like what I see.