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Chisholm: Breaking down the Raps' summer league performance

Tim Chisholm
7/17/2009 5:43:08 PM
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Mercifully, the Raptors entry into the Summer League is over. As theoretically enjoyable as it should be to experience the new class of NBA players playing basketball in July, the actual quality of the games never ceases to underwhelm. Nonetheless, the Raptors had one of their more intriguing Summer League entries, and it is worth looking back on it now that they have played their final game.
 
First of all, understand that the best way to watch Summer League, at least as it pertains to evaluating players, is to ignore stats and scores. As much as everyone is hardwired to gravitate to those areas, both are exceptionally misleading in Summer League settings. These are games played by teams that are hastily assembled and mixed with both rookies trying to get a feel for pro ball and veterans desperate to land a job in the NBA or elsewhere. That means that the inevitability of individual agendas making scores and stats irrelevant lies somewhat at the heart of the Summer League experience. What one can glean, though, is how a player feels his way through a game. How does a player react on the court to different situations? How well do they move with or without the ball, and how much purpose is there in those movements? How well do point guards control their teams? How well do bigs fight under the basket? These are the sorts of areas that can start to lead one to making useful conclusions about a player in Summer League.

Of course, the cardinal rule remains, and that is Summer League doesn't tell who can play in the NBA, it only tells you who cannot. Even if a player looks completely at home on the court in Summer League, they still have to prove that they can maintain that comfort against NBA-calibre competition before they earn a spot in an NBA rotation.
That said, there were some good things to report from the four roster players the Raptors sent to Vegas, and there are some not-so-good things to report. Obviously the interest lies with rookie DeMar DeRozan, and so he makes for as good a starting point as any.

DeRozan looked surprisingly composed on the court in Vegas, and that bodes well for the Raptors. His ball-handling skills were better than advertised, and he got to handle the ball a lot more than he did at USC. The club was looking to see what he would be able to do in different situations offensively, and while he wasn't able to beat his man off of the dribble all that often en route to the basket, he did show a remarkable ability to keep his dribble alive and create when cut-off. He was tremendous at moving without the ball to get himself open for mid-range jumpers, and after some first day jitters, that jumper looked about as smooth as you could ask for. It isn't always a case of whether he hits all the shots or not (though his .493 shooting clip was very impressive) but where and when he chooses to shoot. He rarely forced his offence, even in situations where the team was isolating him and asking him to create, and he was very active rebounding the ball and, of course, he finished with some thunderous dunks before the week was out.

There were pitfalls, too, though. His defence was certainly a work in progress, as was expected after one year of college ball. He looked lost A LOT off of the ball, rarely moving or using his length to disrupt plays, and he was beaten by his man frequently. While this isn't a huge issue for a rookie like DeRozan, who was seen primarily as a scorer/athlete, it probably affects the plans of the Raptors going forward.

Head coach Jay Triano has spoken of wanting to start DeRozan right out of the gate; no doubt having romantic notions of replicating the success he had handing a long leash to Andrea Bargnani last winter. However, DeRozan is simply not up to par defensively to start games against the league's best shooting guards, especially not on a lineup as defensively limited as the Raptors. That probably means that Antoine Wright has the inside track to the starting five, as he's defensively minded and won't take touches away from the big ticket starters, and DeRozan becomes the first guard off of the bench. This arrangement probably works in DeRozan's favour by easing his defensive assignments while increasing his offensive role and may actually be closer to replicating the Bargnani situation that Triano thinks.

The key to Bargnani's emergence last winter had more to do with a defined role and a trust that allowed him to play through his mistakes. Were DeRozan - a scorer first and foremost - to start with Bargnani, Bosh, Turkoglu and Calderon, he'd be a fourth or fifth option and would probably feel lost as to how to help the team early in games. By coming off the bench as a scorer, like J.R. Smith would for Denver, the offence can focus more on getting him shots and letting him play through mistakes that way. If a second-unit lineup looked like Bargnani, Evans, Turkoglu, DeRozan and Jarrett Jack (more on him later), then Hedo would be running to offence and DeRozan and Bargnani would be the big-small combo responsible for the bulk of the scoring. The club would still have proven scorers all around DeRozan to keep him from feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility to score (like Jason Kapono was at times last year), but he would still be given the green light to explore the offence and push himself as an NBA player. Summer League hinted at a player who might be ready to play such a role without handcuffing the rest of the team by getting into trouble with the ball, and it might be the best way to get him comfortable as an NBAer. Plus, if he shines early, there is nothing preventing him from being promoted to the starting five at any point in the season.

As it pertains to bench scoring, another Summer League attraction made the Raptors situation a lot more interesting, and that was Quincy Douby. With Carlos Delfino looking less likely to sign (an injured shoulder and obscene money demands have quieted Colangelo's typically effusive praise), the club could use another scoring option in the reserve crew and Douby is going to be given a shot to prove he's it. When he was on the floor for the Raptors this summer he looked every bit like a veteran who had been around and learned some tricks to help him stick in the league. Douby was the Raptors' most effortless scoring option, and he hit two game-winning shots in Vegas. His confidence with the ball in his hands was obvious, and ran in stark contrast to that of Roko Ukic, who still doesn't seem to have a grasp on how to manage a team on the floor. The Raptors, though, were more interested in Douby as a scoring guard and very few fringe players (i.e. players who aren't guaranteed spots on a roster next season) could better him in that regard.

For Douby, though, it's a process. He knows that Ukic has a guaranteed contract and he doesn't. He also knows that the team is likely bringing in Jack as a free agent, and he'll be getting serious playing time at both guard spots next season. Still, Triano likes him and he'll no doubt be given a shot in training camp and preseason to prove what he could do for this team (after all, the roster is already significantly different than the one that he ended last season with, and there are no doubt changes yet to come). For Douby the job is to make it impossible for the club to keep him out of the rotation, and to do that he'll have to be highly efficient at scoring the ball without disrupting the team offence to do it. If he could develop into a Jannero Pargo-esque weapon off of the bench, the Raptors will be all the stronger for it. If he can't, he'll probably be cut before the season starts. It's a ruthless game, and the onus is on Douby to make himself invaluable to the club.
 
Which brings us back to the aforementioned Ukic. For a stretch last year it looked like Ukic might be benefitting from the unexpected surplus of minutes he was receiving after Jose Calderon went down with injury. By the end of the year, though, he just looked lost. He is a man right now with tremendous skills but an uncertainty as to how to utilize them. In Vegas he was uninspiring. He showed he was able to improve his shooting against weaker defences, but he also showed an inability to balance his offence with the team's. He didn't demonstrate any control over the club when he started games and he often simply blended into the background, which is never good as one of the few players playing with real NBA experience on his résumé. Colangelo has already demonstrated a comfort level with Ukic as a pro prospect by committing (potentially) almost all of his mid-level exception to Indiana's Jarrett Jack, perhaps the league's preeminent backup point guard. If Indiana doesn't match Toronto's offer sheet, and so far they have given no indication that they will, then Calderon and Jack will both be under contract as the team's point guard tandem for the next five years. Where would that leave Ukic? Toronto overpaid a bit in their attempt to land Jack, too, so they are serious about not giving Ukic meaningful minutes next year unless injury absolutely forces them to.

What does that mean for Ukic going forward? Well, it really depends on a lot of factors. With Hedo being able to play point-forward in the event of injury, the team only really needs one healthy point guard and one combo/point guard in reserve of Calderon. If Jack is that point guard, then Ukic, Douby and Marcus Banks are basically eyeing a single spot, and that role barely brings any guaranteed playing time. While the Raptors would happily rid themselves of Banks, his contract might make that too difficult to execute. In that case, does the club look to move Ukic and his guaranteed $2.8-million over the next two years? Colangelo has certainly been up front with his indifference to retaining Ukic, and surely his play in Summer League did little to inspire faith (it was Douby, after all, who had the ball in his hands down the stretch of games). Still, there are some who believe now would be too soon to give up on a prospect with so much raw talent.

Then comes Patrick O'Bryant; the second-coming of Loren Woods...or Jerome Moiso...or Jelani McCoy...or Mamadou N'diaye - he of the seven-foot frame and intoxicating wingspan who actually can't play a lick of NBA basketball. O'Bryant played Vegas like he was Kris Humphries but, sigh, without the talent. He wanted to shoot long jumpers all day long and gave only a passing glance to defence or rebounding. He would run the floor like a bull on offensive leak-outs, but couldn't possibly be bothered to apply the same energy to getting back on defence. He showed no growth in cutting off paths to the basket, instead insisting on trying to block whomever he let into the lane. One could count the number of times be boxed-out on one hand and he showed absolutely no grit despite averaging 6.4 boards. It's a deceiving number culled more from his height than his effort.

Plus, what good are all those jumpers going to do to help the Raptors evaluate him, anyway? Is that really what he thinks the team is looking for from him? He thinks his team, with three guys 6'10" and over who are capable of dropping twenty on any given night, need their third string big man to focus on his mid-range shooting? He thinks this team, so in need of defence and rebounding, is secretly clamouring to know how many points he can put up in a Summer League game? Does he really think that this team, built for ball movement, wants him to channel his inner Humphries and become a new offensive black hole on the elbow?

It's sad to think of the amount of players who would work themselves to the bone if given an NBA contract only to have O'Bryant take their place because of his elongated body. When the Houston Rockets pushed the Lakers to seven games in the Playoffs this year it really seemed like the unofficial death of the unskilled seven-footer as the small forward sized bigs for Houston (Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry) matched-up fine against LA's colossal front line. Yet, Patrick O'Bryant will make $1.6-million this season and a workhorse like Pops Mensah-Bonsu remains unsigned.

Besides, if Rasho Nesterovic (or some comparable veteran big) is signed soon, does the team really need O'Bryant? The only factor working in his favour is his size, but with Bargnani, Bosh and possibly Nesterovic, does O'Bryant's size really make up for his total lack of a feel for the game of basketball? Sorry folks, just seeing someone so indifferent to working out on the court while surrounded by players killing themselves for a shot with a European or D-League team makes me really uncomfortable.

So, basically this last week has taught us that DeMar DeRozan is, in fact, a player to watch, that Quincy Douby's hope of making the roster is still alive, and that Ukic and O'Bryant have a lot of work left to do to become contributing members of the Raptors' hopeful resurgence.
 
If the Pacers do as expected and allow Monday to pass without extending Jack's contract then there will be more to talk about then, both with regards to Jack and the ability for the team to nail down the last elements of their roster. Until then, have a good weekend.




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