1. McCollum Shows A Nice Touch For Blazers
LAS VEGAS -- CJ McCollum just put the finishing touches on a B.A. in journalism at Lehigh University, so we'll let the former school newspaper editor and scribe-to-be dictate the direction of the lede for his first game as an NBA player.
"I'd keep it [simple]," he said. "I haven't even thought about journalism since I got to Vegas. I'm just in straight basketball mode."
Simple works: The 21-year-old combo was impressive in his first summer league action, finishing with 22 points on 9-for-19 shooting, three rebounds and four assists in the Portland Trail Blazers' 82-69 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
But a bit more might be in order to fully describe what has been far and away the best performance through two days here by a member of the unheralded 2013 lottery, which was already thinned out by injuries long before summer league, and even the draft, began.
Playing in his first game since Jan. 5 because of a broken foot that sidelined him for the Mountain Hawks' final 18 games of the season, the rookie stood out amongst two rosters with more talent that will actually see an NBA court (Thomas Robinson, the Morris twins, Kendall Marshall, Meyers Leonard and so on) than most teams here. Though not particularly quick, the four-year college player flashed an advanced feel on the court, particularly in traffic, and a sharp jab step that allowed him to get open looks and do what he does best: score.
He certainly wasn't as dynamic or as dominant as Damian Lillard, the reigning rookie of the year who took over Las Vegas last year after coming out of little-known Weber State, but he's crafty, as Blazers summer league coach David Vanterpool would say. And after forgettable performances from Otto Porter, drafted No. 3 overall, and Ben McLemore, No. 7, earlier in the day, that alone allowed the former Patriot Leaguer and 10th pick to at least win the day.
"[McCollum is] a crafty, crafty player," Vanterpool said. "He's a crafty person. I think it's part of his personality -- he's very smart, very intelligent. I think he studies things as they happen. So it's not a situation where he's out there playing, running around. He's paying attention to what's going on and looking to take advantage of the next opportunity if the same situation arises."
He displayed that all in one play Saturday. With 8:16 to go in the second quarter, McCollum stumbled as he attacked from the top of the key, losing his dribble on a crossover and watching the ball drift away from him to his right. As a bypassing teammate and a defender tried to snatch it off the hardwood, McCollum poked the ball away, regained possession as he wrapped around his own defender and then pulled up a foot inside the free throw line for a floater that was near-automatic on the day.
His first mark in the stat sheet came on a dump-off pass wrapped around a hard-charging defender to second-year center Meyers Leonard for Portland's first two points, and the highlight plays kept coming as he found a flow on the court -- a pull up 3-pointer about a foot outside the line, a sharp crossover at the top of the key that left Phoenix's Archie Goodwin well in the dust, a well-timed and in-step spin move around a defender in the paint for an easy 2.
"Coming into the NBA, I knew I'd be able to score the basketball," McCollum said. "I'm not worried about that. It's more about defending, keeping your turnovers low and finding the right guys on offense."
That proved a bit more difficult for a guard who some projected as a point in the NBA but looks best suited at off-guard; as Leonard noted, Lillard is a point guard who can score, whereas McCollum is more of a natural 2. McCollum totaled four turnovers and struggled with some of the nuances while taking heavy reps at the 1. But with free-agent pickup Earl Watson in the fold to back up Lillard, McCollum will likely be called on less to dictate the offense and more to provide some extra scoring punch and floor-spacing.
"He can definitely score the ball," Leonard said.
When Vanterpool, a former scout with the Thunder, saw Lillard from afar last year, "I thought to myself, 'Woah.' He was special. It made me even more excited when I got to work with him."
McCollum's opening performance might not have elicited the same shock and surprise, but his knack for scoring, particularly when stacked against his draft-class peers, at least deserves an "oh."
2. Best Of Vegas? Could Be Jonas
LAS VEGAS -- "Who's the best player at NBA summer league?" is always a popular parlor game for insiders and media gathered in Las Vegas each July. And with two days in the books, Toronto Raptors 21-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas is making a strong claim to the title.
Summer league was made for big men with even semi-refined post games, because Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard aren't walking through that door into the Thomas & Mack Center. Accordingly, Valanciunas had his way with the Miami Heat's summer league squad in Toronto's 81-73 loss on Saturday night. He scored 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field, and grabbed seven rebounds.
Valanciunas' growth was visible even before the opening tip. He spent the spring bulking up, and there's now considerable muscle to go along with that length. Command around the basket is one thing -- and Valanciunas displayed that frequently on the offensive end during his rookie season -- but outright ownership is quite another. On Saturday night, the deed to the lane was entirely his.
Valanciunas scored primarily three ways. For sheer style points, his sneaky upfake, single dribble, two-step drive and one-handed tomahawk takes the prize -- an exhibition he unleashed twice in the first half. His midrange jumper is still a work in progress, but it's proficient enough to tempt defenders to bite, especially the greenhorns in Las Vegas.
How's the post game? Coming along very well, thank you. Valanciunas appeared very much at home on the left block, as he did much of last season. The footwork isn't fancy, but Valanciunas knows how to seal an opponent, use his spin move to find space and looks confident moving into lane even when there's oncoming traffic.
There's always plenty of garbage to collect around the basket at summer league, and on Saturday, Valanciunas was the finest sanitation worker in Clark County, Nev. The Heat's squad had nobody to match Valanciunas' size and strength, which allowed him to bully his way in the paint to collect misses and flush them home. Violently.
The Raptors are a fascinating -- if flawed -- team heading into the 2013-14 season. Four of their five starters are known quantities. For Toronto, the margin for significant improvement lies with Valanciunas. With the usual caveat ("It's summer league"), the Raps had to like what they saw on Saturday.
3. Warriors Working Year Round
LAS VEGAS -- In a real sense, the Golden State Warriors' first playoff season in six years started last July at the NBA Summer League. Before the NBA went to a tournament format in Las Vegas, the Warriors were unofficially crowned champions after finishing as the only undefeated team in last summer's competition. Ten months later, Golden State upset the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs before a hard-fought six-game series against the eventual conference champion San Antonio Spurs. Members of the organization saw a connection between those facts.
"I thought it was great last summer to win ballgames during the summer league," said Warriors coach Mark Jackson after this summer's Warriors opened play with a 56-52 win over the Washington Wizards. "We had great draft picks and we were teaching them. It was good for us and it propelled us into the regular season."
Many of the players who dominated the opposition in Las Vegas ended up factoring into the Warriors' resurgent season. Rookies Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green were all part of the team's rotation. Barnes and second-year guard Klay Thompson were both starters. And even undrafted rookie Kent Bazemore saw playoff action against the Spurs, hitting a key 3-pointer in Game 1 of the series.
"Those were guys who ended up getting meaningful minutes for us, not only in the regular season, but in the playoffs," said Warriors general manager Bob Myers. "To give those players an opportunity to experience some success and have some time with them to teach them different philosophies about defense, things like that, was really beneficial for those guys -- kind of a springboard into the regular season."
4. First Look: Ben McLemore
If we know anything about Ben McLemore, it's that he can shoot, so there's no point in fretting over his horrendous accuracy in his NBA Summer League debut on Saturday -- 4-for-23 from the field, including 1-for-11 on 3-point attempts. While the passivity that plagued McLemore at Kansas certainly wasn't an issue, we didn't see him create many opportunities for himself. There was a missed turnaround jumper posting up the smaller Gal Mekel and a drive that got him to the free throw line, but for the most part McLemore was shooting jumpers. As sweet as his shot might be (Saturday's results aside) McLemore will have to do more to become a star player.
Kevin Pelton is an NBA Insider for ESPN.com.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Saturday's Best
Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors: The No. 5 pick from 2011 impressed, dropping in 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor. Toronto will happily take a good fraction of that kind of production come the real season.
7. Saturday's Worst
Ben McLemore, Kings: Even J.R. Smith would shake his head at this kind of serial hoisting. Going 4-for-23 (including 1-for-11 from 3-point range) from the floor isn't exactly the blueprint of efficiency. The Kings' top pick saw his team lose 76-73 to the Mavs.
8. Watch Out
9. Tweet Of The Night
10. Quote Of The Night
"My whole goal is, this is my fourth year and I need to be in the playoffs. There's nothing more, nothing else that needs to be said about that. I just need to be in the playoffs. Leaving the season early every year is not fun. It's not exciting just going home and watching basketball."
-- John Wall, the Wizards point guard, who is checking out his club's summer league team.