LAS VEGAS -- The word "sleeper" isn't applied all that often to players taken in the top half of the NBA draft. Most players are preceded by their reputation.
Enter Rodney Stuckey, a promising rookie guard taken at No. 15 by the Detroit Pistons, just one spot out of the lottery last month. He is what the Pistons have to show for Darko Milicic after they traded the former second-overall draft choice for the pick that became Stuckey. He may have been one of those oft-photographed faces who shook commissioner David Stern's hand on draft night, but lots of folks are still trying to find out more about him.
Such as: How he can run a team so well, yet tiny Eastern Washington didn't even make the Big Sky Conference Tournament last spring?
And: How can a guy who has a great-looking midrange jumper hit 31 percent from college 3-point range?
Perhaps those questions shed light on why, even when the word got out two weeks in advance that the Pistons were seriously considering taking him at their first opportunity, other teams didn't get serious about him.
"Once everyone heard [Pistons GM] Joe Dumars was high on him, we got more calls," said Aaron Goodwin, Stuckey's agent. "But I still don't think people know how good he is."
Stuckey closed an impressive Vegas Summer League performance Saturday with 18 points and six rebounds in a victory over the Lakers in which he had a nice battle with fellow first-rounder Javaris Crittenton, who had 21 points. In Detroit's summer games, Stuckey averaged 19 points and nearly four rebounds. As a combo guard, he spent time at the point and turned quite a few heads in doing so, running the offense effectively. He also showed off a good jumper at times and the ability to guard quicker players.
"I think there were a lot of teams that liked him. He was on our board, but there was a lot of uncertainty with him," said one Eastern Conference general manager. "I don't know exactly where he fits in his league, but he's shown here how talented he is."
"He's a tweener, not a pure point and not a classic wing so I'm not sure where he fits with the Pistons," said one Eastern Conference coach. "He's shown a lot of potential here – he's a gutty player."
With Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Flip Murray, Will Blalock, draft pick Arron Afflalo and perhaps Lindsey Hunter (if he does not retire), the Pistons are stocked at guard. That means Stuckey may have an uphill battle to get playing time as a rookie. Still, it would be unwise to overlook him.
Speaking of the Pistons' summer team, big man Jason Maxiell impressed some with his developing offensive game. Everyone knows he can dunk, but in Vegas he shot 54 percent and showed a nice touch on short jumpers. He also shot 76 percent at the foul line, a massive improvement.
"It looks like he's been working a lot with Rasheed [Wallace] to me," an Eastern Conference scout said. "He's developing a nice baseline turnaround."
Summer league scoring averages can be overrated. Players who are efficient in these foul-ridden, shot-happy, sloppy games can stand out.
Which is what Daniel Gibson did Saturday, closing his summer league for the Cavs by scoring 16 points on his first six shots in a loss to the Washington Wizards. (He put up two desperation 3-pointers in the final seconds that shouldn't be considered.)
Don't forget, Gibson scored 31 points on just nine official field-goal attempts in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals fast month, pretty much wiping out the Pistons.
Gibson's summer league was reduced by a cut under his eye and a twisted ankle, but he again validated the Cavs' belief in his future. There's a reason the Cavs, despite an apparent need at point guard, have been on the sidelines in free agency. Rather than signing a mediocre player, general manager Danny Ferry would like to explore the talents of his find in last year's second round.
The reason Gibson can be so effective is not just his outside-shooting prowess, but his developing inside game. He is honing an effective floater and has shown he can get into the lane and draw fouls. And in fact, the free-throw line is where Gibson may be most deadly, based on his 89 percent shooting there in the postseason.
The Grizzlies and Timberwolves put on an entertaining display Saturday. The Wolves pulled out a 102-91 win, which speaks to the level of defense that was played considering the games are 40 minutes long. Then again, there were nearly 70 fouls called.
Randy Foye, the darling of last year's Vegas Summer League, put up 28 points on just 17 shots and didn't take a free throw (there's some more efficiency for you) and Rudy Gay basically matched him with 26 points on 15 shots. Their futures are bright, which most NBA observers already know. But the guy who really made this game and others over the last week was Wolves second-year big man Craig Smith.
Smith, a 6-foot-7 wide body, had 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting and is averaging 22 points and 6.5 rebounds per game with 64 percent shooting in Vegas. His rough-housing style earned him a spot on the Wolves roster last season and overpowers the lightweight big men in Vegas.
"He is the type of player who could have a long career because he knows how to use his body to his advantage," said one NBA head coach. "He has the ability to create space, which makes up for him being undersized somewhat."
Marco Belinelli will likely be honored as one of the top rookies in summer league when it ends Sunday, but he won't be here for that. Belinelli, who averaged 22 points and shot 44 percent on 3-pointers in four games, missed the Warriors' final game so he could return to Italy to fulfill national team obligations.
Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal