The Cleveland Cavaliers spoiled the summer league debut of rookie point guard Kendall Marshall beating the Phoenix Suns 89-74 Tuesday night at Cox Pavillion in Las Vegas. The game was close until the Cavs seized control in the third quarter, outscoring Phoenix 33-17. The Suns failed to continue their winning ways despite 24 points and 17 boards from Markieff Morris. Cleveland was led by Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller, and former Louisville product Samardo Samuels.
In the Vegas Summer League, the final score of the game isn’t nearly as important as individual players’ performances. Coaches, like Suns assistant Dan Majerle, try to promote team play from the sideline, but a player’s future with the team depends far more on his individual talents and production then his ability to play within a system. At this level, players are fully aware of what’s at stake in each and every game. They play to show the organization what they can do. They play to prove they belong in the NBA. Thus instead of breaking down the ebb and flow of this game from a team standpoint, let’s focus instead on the individual players and how they fared in this matchup.
Tonight marked the NBA debut of the Suns’ first-round draft pick. Marshall sat out the Suns’ first Summer League game because his contract had not yet been signed. He officially signed his contract yesterday was included in tonight’s starting lineup. He got his first career assist early, hitting Morris in transition for a layup and giving Phoenix an early 5-0 lead. This was an indicator of things to come for Kendall. When he was on the floor, Phoenix looked to push the ball in transition unceasingly.
At 6-foot-4, Marshall sees over other point guards quite well. This vision allows him to see his teammates get behind their defenders in transition, and Marshall was not afraid to throw the long pass. They didn’t all lead to buckets, but it was great to see the rookie not afraid to make mistakes. The biggest thing that stands out about Marshall is his unselfishness. On one hand, it’s difficult to complain about a point guard who is dedicated to getting his teammates involved. On the other, Marshall passed up several opportunities to take or create his own shot (he missed his only shot attempt.)
By the end of the game, the Cavs were playing a few feet off him like teams do against Rajon Rondo in crunch time. In order to keep his passing lanes open and his turnovers down (he had five TO’s to go with his five assists), Kendall will have to shoot the ball when he’s open. I’m not advocating he jack up 20-footers with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. I’m simply saying that he’ll have to make the defense respect his scoring ability to be an effective point guard in the NBA.
There’s no better way to say it: Markieff was a beast tonight. He scored from any spot he wanted to on the court. He got out in transition. He showed athleticism and versatility in the post. He scored twice on jumpers from the left block, and it’s clear that the touch on his jump shot has greatly improved from last season. The ease with which he scored was quite impressive.
As I watched him, I constantly had to remind myself that this was a summer exhibition and his points wouldn’t come quite as easily in October. That being said, Morris seems like a much improved player both physically and mentally. He relishes being the offensive focus of the team, and seems far more comfortable with the ball in his hands than he did as a rookie.
The clearest improvement I see in Markieff is his quickness. On numerous occasions he was able to blow right by his defender and either pull up for a jumper or take the ball to the rim. He could get wherever he wanted to on the floor, and he was looking to attack each and every time he caught the ball. He’s covering a lot of space with his steps and jump stops, making him a tough cover not just for his defender but also the defenders coming over to help. Morris has always had height and strength. By adding quickness and agility to his arsenal, he has made himself into a dynamic offensive threat. If he can carry the buckets of confidence he’s playing with right now over to this upcoming season he will be a big part of the Suns offense.
While his box score was really impressive, Morris could have had even more points. He missed a few easy buckets inside and had at least three jumpers go in-and-out. That being said, his most impressive stat was his 10 free throw attempts. Summer League whistles are more difficult to come by than the regular season variety. I watched every possession of this game, and Markieff drew honest to goodness contact each time he got a whistle. Ten free throw attempts show he’s asserting himself physically and inviting contact. This is a crucial development for someone who wants to make a living banging down low with NBA power forwards.
The Suns’ roster is already full of point guards (Dragic, Marshall, Telfair) and power forwards (Scola, Frye, Morris, Warrick, Beasley). The biggest team need Phoenix has right now is depth at the wing positions. Thus the players with the best opportunity to get a training camp invite are shooting guards and small forwards. The best of those so far have been Marcus Landry, DeShawn Sims, and Carlos Garcia.
Landry and Sims are inside-outside threats. Both have the range to knock down shots from beyond the arc, and both can post up smaller defenders on the block. Sims is the better penetrator of the two, but Landry is the more experienced and polished player. It will be interesting to see if either guy distinguishes himself over the next three games as it could easily come down to a choice between these two to see who gets a ticket to training camp.
As for Garcia, he has more quickness than ability. He has no problem getting past his defender, but finishing after the blow by is not his strength. He has the most athleticism of the three wings, but he is also the least polished. If he can find a way to put the ball in the bucket over the next three contests, he could be a dark horse in the race to get a training camp invite.
Despite the loss, there are some definite positives to be taken away from this one for the Suns. The team played well except for the sizable lapse in the third quarter when no one cared to box out on defense or close out on perimeter shooters. The confidence displayed by Marshall and Morris is a sign of good things to come. We will see if both of them can continue their strong play when Phoenix takes on Austin Rivers and the New Orleans Hornets tomorrow night.