Like an image reflected in a funhouse mirror, summer-league basketball contains all the elements of real NBA action, only distorted. After practicing together for less than a week, rosters built of players at very different stages of their professional careers play a style that's more like AAU hoops. That can make it tough to put what we're seeing in context.
Over the three summer leagues I've attended -- and others I've watched on TV -- I've developed a philosophy for how to view summer league that differs based on each individual player's status.
Watching draft picks
For rookies who were drafted some three weeks ago, summer league represents their first taste of the pro game. I'm mostly looking to see whether what they did in college translates against bigger, quicker, more-experienced opponents. That can take a couple of games. Cody Zeller, the No. 4 overall pick by the Charlotte Bobcats, was a nonfactor in his debut before putting together back-to-back strong outings.
Summer league offers these newcomers an indication of what they must work on to succeed as pros. For example, C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers has been effective as a scorer so far in Las Vegas -- no surprise there. But he's had more trouble creating shots for teammates and struggled when the Phoenix Suns put a bigger defender on him and blitzed the pick-and-roll. McCollum is gaining needed experience in such situations, which he didn't face as a primary ball handler at Lehigh.
Watching NBA veterans
Besides the rookies, the other summer leaguers assured of roster spots are the second- and sometimes third-year players back to work on their games. We already have an idea of what they can and can't do at the NBA level; summer league is all about expanding their games and trying new things.
It's no surprise that Golden State Warriors defensive specialist Kent Bazemore has locked up high draft picks Otto Porter and Ben McLemore in his first two games. More meaningful is the promise Bazemore has shown creating shots out of the pick-and-roll, something he wasn't asked to do during his rookie season. Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors didn't run their offense through Jonas Valanciunas last season, but they can in summer league, which has allowed Valanciunas to showcase his wares in the post.
Watching fringe players
When it comes to unsigned players, I'm mostly looking at NBA skills that will translate in a specific role. For the most part, spots on the end of the bench don't go to scorers, since NBA teams get that production from their rotation. Instead, they're looking to fill in the gaps with shooters, playmakers, perimeter defenders, rebounders and shot-blockers. A player who does one of those things at a high level and everything else acceptably can find a home in the league.
Last year's best example was Chris Copeland, who played for the New York Knicks in Las Vegas before signing a one-year contract with the team. Copeland's combination of shooting ability and size hinted at the stretch-4 potential that made him a valuable reserve for the Knicks last season.
A year later, Copeland cashed in with a two-year, $6.2 million contract from the Indiana Pacers. This year's summer-leaguers can only hope to do the same.