The Toronto Raptors had better hope that what just happened in Vegas does NOT stay in Vegas.
Their five-man roster contingent just finished up a perfect showing in the Vegas Summer League, going 5-0 and seeing each of their individual stocks rise by the end of the week.
Some may laugh off Summer League, and some may even refuse to watch (as if doing so were some kind of achievement), but for a Raptors squad shifting its future to the shoulders of its youth, Summer League can be a vital tool for assessing the development of these future potential cornerstones.
Now, make no mistake, watching Summer League action is very different than watching NBA action. Firstly that's because wins and losses mean absolutely nothing, secondly because the level of competition varies wildly from the top to the bottom and thirdly because every team generally has only a week to get acclimated to each other before they suit up and play.
When watching an NBA team you look for the strength of the unit, you look to see how the various components use each other to make the whole better. You search for fit, for sacrifice, for how each play bleeds into the next as the team looks to win one game, one Playoff round and, ultimately, the Championship.
Summer League is watched differently. You watch for the strength of the individual, the pieces already signed to NBA rosters and how they have developed since the last time they played. You look for indications of stronger ball handling, of increased range on a jump shot, of an improved ability to absorb contact and of more precise defensive instincts. You try and remember where this player's weak points were and you endeavor to see if those areas have been addressed. You also get to look at a player's mental makeup in a way you simply can't at the NBA level.
Against inferior competition, does the player look to dominate or do they look to blend in? For NBA teams, they are always looking for players who want to dominate, who want to thrash inferior opponents and show how much easier it is for them against diluted opposition. The Raptors waited four years to see that from Joey Graham and it never happened, leaving Graham as a fringe player at the NBA level. Anthony Morrow looked to dominate as a non-roster invite two years ago for Golden State, and he just inked a three-year, $12-million deal with the Nets. Some say Summer League doesn't matter, but I bet Morrow disagrees.
For this year's Raptor crop, the results couldn't have been much more positive. Having so many roster players playing (DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems, Joey Dorsey, Ed Davis, Solomon Alabi), as well as having NBA journeyman Bobby Brown running the point, makes things easier, but the team still chose to stay in attack-mode the whole time and the result was some very impressive play all around from the club.
Here is a breakdown of the various contributors:
DEMAR DEROZAN and SONNY WEEMS
These two were one of the most impressive tandems in all of Summer League so it bears discussing them as a unit. Both came into Summer League with similar areas in need of addressing: Ball handling, aggressiveness going to the basket and long-range shooting. After four games (both sat out the final contest), it's safe to say that two of the three areas saw significant improvement, which has to thrill the Raptors brass going into next season. Both players were routinely assigned ball-handling duties and both showed tremendous improvement in this area. They kept their dribbles low, they kept their heads up and they used their dribble purposefully to attack rather than just floating around the perimeter. Weems had a greater tendency to over-dribble, but he also showed a much stronger instinct for making plays for others than DeRozan did. While DeRozan was able to find guys in open-court, fastbreak situations, Weems was adept at moving the ball in halfcourt situations, too, especially in the pick-and-roll. While neither will be lining up at point guard next season, their improved handles and passing will be a tremendous asset in an uptempo attack where you don't always have time to get the ball to a guard before blitzing up the court.
In that area, too, both players excelled. Neither one allowed the team to walk the ball up the court in transition and both were relentless in attacking the rim with force on the break. While Weems was a little more focused on his mid-range game in halfcourt sets, DeRozan was merciless at attacking the rim at all times. He averaged 9.5 free throw attempts per game and shot an astounding 58% from the floor because of his relentless attacking style. He looked to have expanded his ability to find seams in the air to get his shot off around the basket (as opposed to just taking the contact and going to the line) and with his tighter handle he should be able to get a lot more looks around the hoop off of his creation this coming season.
If there was one area where both players still looked weak, though, it was behind the arc. The Raptors imported Linas Kleiza to join Andrea Bargnani, Jarrett Jack and Marco Belinelli as floor spacers, but it would have helped the team tremendously if DeRozan and/or Weems had been more efficient from distance. DeRozan shot a decent 40% from three, but he only took five shots from behind the arc, whereas Weems took thirteen shots but connected on only 23% of them. Knowing that distance shooting was something both were asked to work on, Weems's willingness to let it fly is actually commendable because it showed he was trying to see how he could incorporate that shot into his attack. Either way, it doesn't look like either will be spending much time out that far on offense next season.
At this point it looks like DeRozan has begun to demonstrate some separation from Weems. DeRozan just has a stronger understanding of his game and knows how to make what he can do effective whereas Weems tries to make the game adjust to him. Both will be key players for the club next year, though, and their ability to willingly and effectively take on added responsibility this summer is a positive indication that they can handle larger roles in next year's attack.
If Ed Davis doesn't want to be compared to Chris Bosh every time someone talks to him about his upcoming season, he had better throttle down on his productivity. There is no way he can play with as much poise and smarts as he did in Summer League and not be asked about stepping into the shoes of Toronto's departing All-Star. It isn't that their games are all that much alike (Davis is a much more focused defender and Bosh had more move offensively), but Davis looked a lot more ready to contribute than most expected after not having played ball since breaking his wrist in February, and drawing comparisons to Bosh is certainly better than not, considering the circumstances.
Davis was strong on defense, as expected. He knew where to slide to cut of drives down the middle and along the baseline, he used his length to cover up for his lack of physical girth and his 1.8 blocks per game put him in the top eight in all of Summer League.
However, it was Davis's offense that really stood out. Everyone knew he could play defense, but Davis was extremely silky in his moves around the basket, he shot 63% on the week, and he did so on a variety of offensive looks. Under the hoops he used his lithe frame to fill narrow seems to get his shot up and he had a tremendously soft touch on those looks which give his shots a much greater margin for error. Surprisingly, whenever he was dared to take a mid-range jumper he happily obliged and usually made the shot. Considering this was supposed to be one of his weaknesses it was beneficial to see that the scouting out there on him was betraying his actual ability. Regrettably at this stage, though, Davis's lack of raw strength prevented him from being able to carve out space down low, where he is most effective, so it will take a team effort and lots of movement to get him looks around the basket. All told, though, a strong inaugural outing from Davis that probably affected the front office's notions of how ready he'll be to contribute on day one. He has NBA-ready skills so it's his effort that is going to determine how much he plays this coming season.
SOLOMON ALABI and JOEY DORSEY
Alabi, the one Raptor signee that played off of the bench, saw his effectiveness increase as Summer League wore on. He played smart defense, he blocked some shots and, like Davis, he showed a soft touch on offense both around the basket and out into the mid-range. What Alabi didn't show, though, was much of an instinct for rebounding. He was rarely in position to corral misses and he had a hard time securing boards when he could get hand on them. Dorsey, of course, had no problem in this area, as he led all of Summer League in rebounding with 9.8 per game, but it was his lack of NBA-level skills in other areas of the game that will likely keep him from logging meaningful minutes next season. Between the two, Alabi will probably stand the better chance to see minutes, unless the Raps can acquire the long big man they've been yearning for, but neither figures to be hugely relevant figures for the team next season. However, Alabi showed that he's more than just a 'why not' second round grab last week, and it'll be interesting to see him return to this setting a year from now to see how his game has developed and if he'll be in a better position to vie for minutes in 2011-2012.