Lowry leads list of Vegas standouts
Kyle Lowry went 4-0 for the week, winning a battle with the Wizards' John Wall
Marreese Speights and J.J. Hickson had YouTube-worthy dunks on JaVale McGee
Iman Shumpert, Jared Dudley and Wall rounded out the All-Star team in Vegas
LAS VEGAS -- Oh, yeah, the games.
That was why the NBA spotlight had turned to Sin City this week in the first place. But then the lockout did what it does, adding a dour and dramatic tone to the conversation and stealing our chance at even the slightest bit of hoops normalcy. As much as we wanted trainer Joe Abunassar and his well-publicized Competitive Training Series to offer a welcome distraction amid the labor chaos, Tuesday's breakdown in talks between the two sides in New York led to Thursday's passionate players meeting in Vegas, and the main event was no longer the lockout league over at the Impact Basketball Academy on Harmon Boulevard.
But rest assured, the games were played. And there were sights to be seen.
Anyone who saw Melvin Ely kick a full tub of Powerade all over the floor Wednesday, or saw Pacers guard Dahntay Jones and third-year Pistons small forward Austin Daye engage in an extended and entertaining trash-talking session on Thursday, might have thought the CTS was a step removed from the NBA playoffs in competitiveness. But Ely -- a journeyman big man who was most recently with Denver and plans to play in China this season -- was simply reacting to an eye poke that left him in serious pain (and wearing a bandage later). Jones and Daye were apparently tired of seeing each other's faces every day. These outbursts, however, hardly symbolized the intensity level on display during the first week of CTS play.
The motors of most of these players -- who have no idea when training camp might start -- were generally stuck in third gear throughout the week, although the pace had picked up significantly by week's end. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great, and it wasn't anywhere near the raucous and fiery scene I saw during two weekends at the Drew League in Los Angeles this summer.
The operative word here is "training," and the emphasis on methodically getting in a day's work didn't seem to change all that much even with the creation of eight teams and the addition of a tiny scoreboard on the scorer's table. The fans didn't help much in improving the energy level, as the in-house advertising for the event was very minimal, and the crowds never neared triple digits.
For Abunassar, this was about giving the players a chance to run five-on-five against a large group of their peers. And while he was juggling new additions and cancellations throughout the week -- not to mention doing business with Mike Tyson when he stopped by to pitch a celebrity basketball game -- there were more than a few players who emerged from the mediocrity.
After watching many of the games and picking the basketball brains of the knowledgeable and helpful Impact trainers, I present SI.com's Week 1 CTS All-Star team. The format is simple: top six players (since that was the average size of the CTS teams) based on the not-so-scientific method of remembering who, as they say, "jumped out" at me, a few honorable mentions and -- of course -- an MVP.
Kyle Lowry (Rockets point guard, entering his sixth season)
If everyone competed like Lowry, there would be no griping about the quality of play.
Much like he did last season with the Rockets, the bulldog of a point guard took charge every time out and played with a controlled aggression on both ends that always seems to wear down opponents. His teams went 4-0 for the week, including a Wednesday faceoff with John Wall in which the Wizards' point guard won the individual battle (42 points, nine rebounds, eight assists), but Lowry was his stellar self (25 points, 14 assists). He set the high scoring mark for the week Thursday, with 49 points on 13-of-18 shooting (5-of-9 from three-point range).
Lowry has trained at Impact since his days at Villanova, and he was quick to use his seniority to his advantage during his game Tuesday. When Lowry noticed that the length of quarters had been changed from 10 minutes to eight, he insisted that the change be reversed. When Impact officials resisted and said other players had requested shorter games, he clearly didn't care.
"I've been here longer than anyone here," Lowry barked. "Ten minutes."
And sure enough, the 10-minute quarters were back.
Clearly, Lowry is getting used to getting his way. Aaron Brooks had been looking like the long-term solution at point guard for the Rockets, but when a sprained ankle kept him out for more than a month early last season, Lowry stepped in and seized his opportunity. Lowry averaged 13.7 points, 6.7 assists and 2.1 turnovers and showed newfound three-point range in what was his first season as a full-time starter, bringing the Rockets within three games of the playoffs despite Yao Ming's absence. Brooks, who is now a free agent, was traded to Phoenix in February.
Marreese Speights (76ers center, entering his fourth season)
Here's all you need to know about Speights this week: Even his critics became fans.
One reporter, who will remain nameless, repeated his personal anthem of sorts every time the big man played: "I don't want to like him, but I do!" He's not alone, as Speights' body language and look of eternal grumpiness make you wonder how hard he's truly grinding.
But his jumper was falling, and he was merciless on the inside, including a pair of dunks on Wizards center JaVale McGee that went viral online. The Sixers' blog Liberty Ballers reported that Speights averaged 28 points (on about 70 percent shooting) and nine rebounds through three games. The Impact website had him with 24 points (10-of-17 from the field) and 16 rebounds in a fourth game this week.
Speights -- who averaged just 11.5 minutes last season in coach Doug Collins' debut Sixers campaign while playing behind starter Spencer Hawes (who is a restricted free agent) -- became a pet project of sorts for Jared Dudley. The Phoenix forward and resident glue guy could be seen teaching Speights on numerous occasions, imploring him to dive to the rim after setting high screens and play with a more deliberate style. The 24-year-old Speights has potential, whether my anonymous reporter friend likes it or not.
J.J. Hickson (Kings power forward, entering his fourth season)
Kings fans, be very excited.
The athletic big man, who was traded from Cleveland to Sacramento in June, was a legitimate force throughout the week, whether he was dunking on JaVale McGee's head twice in the same game or chasing down a block on the defensive end. His motor never seems to stop, and the Impact folks said his confidence skyrocketed after a summer spent training with youngsters and veterans. Scoring 52 points in a game like he did on Thursday doesn't hurt, either.
The Kings aren't likely to be able to re-sign Samuel Dalembert at center, meaning it could be Hickson filling the forward spot and second-year player DeMarcus Cousins shifting to center. As young bigs go, they're two of the best.
Iman Shumpert (Knicks point guard, rookie)
Someone tell Spike Lee he can go ahead and pick up his Iman Shumpert jersey.
The director/Knicks fanatic didn't look too thrilled when New York drafted the Georgia Tech guard 17th overall in June, presumably because Florida State's Chris Singleton was still available. Singleton was considered the best defender in the draft, and the Knicks certainly need help there.
But there's the thing: Shumpert -- who turned heads all week at the CTS and never came out of fifth gear -- can doggedly defend, too. And fly. And slash. And, from this latest look at it, possibly shoot better than expected (the reports out of Impact are that his three-ball is vastly improved). His overall shooting percentage (40.6) and from three-point range (27.8) raised red flags going into the draft, but his athleticism (predraft-combine-high 42-inch vertical leap), two-way mentality and overall attitude won over the Knicks (and for the record, that last category was deemed incredibly important because of the star-studded New York locker room and wasn't considered Singleton's strong suit).
If Shumpert can shoot and develop some decent point guard skills, he'll go down as an unexpected surprise from the 2011 class. And Lee will be wearing his jersey in no time.
John Wall (Wizards point guard, entering his second season)
It's hardly a revelation that Wall would dominate in this sort of setting. His blinding and constant speed combined with the oft-spotty defense made for plenty of highlight-reel material. He didn't join the CTS fun until Wednesday, then proceeded to put up huge numbers in two games (the aforementioned 42-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist outing against Lowry and 41-point, seven-assist game in which he shot 17-of-24 from the field).
Wall, who missed 12 games because of injury as a rookie (left foot, right knee, sore hamstring) and was hardly ever fully healthy, is well aware that his shooting has to improve (40.6 percent overall and 29.6 from three-point range). It was a focal point of his summer training, but he spent most of his CTS time blowing by defenders rather than working on the perimeter game. We may not know if the perimeter work he's been doing with Impact's trainers has paid off until the real season begins.
Jared Dudley (Suns small forward, entering his sixth season)
When Abunassar and director of player development Andrew Moore queried players about building the CTS teams, a trend quickly emerged.
"Everybody wanted to play with Jared," Moore said.
Steve Nash would be so proud.
Much like the Suns' point guard who has spent an entire career making his teammates smile, the personable Dudley was a favorite among his peers. He scored in rhythm, moved the ball, defended when necessary and brought all sorts of intangibles. He was a teacher (see Speights anecdote above), a politician (one official who was treated fairly harshly by players could be seen thanking Dudley for being "classy") and a spokesman (on the games themselves and, because he's the Suns' player representative, the lockout).
Dudley -- who posted career highs in points (10.6) and minutes (26.1) last season while shooting 47.7 percent overall and 41.5 percent from three-point range -- is looking to be a full-time starter for the first time after playing that role late in the 2010-11.
Nuggets forward Al Harrington: The vet showed up late in the week and instantly raised the level of competition. And while he played only one game, dropping 46 points on 16-of-23 shooting with five threes was more than good enough for this nod.
Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas: The last pick in the June draft became an instant fan favorite Monday, when he jumped at the chance to play in back-to-back games. The former Washington star -- who has a realistic shot at filling the reserve point guard role held by Pooh Jeter last season -- looked NBA-ready in tallying 29 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in the first game. Then when there was a need for another player in the following game, he changed jerseys and went at it again (although he became one of the many opposing point guards to lose to Lowry).
Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan: We all know he's one of the league's bright young prospects, so no surprise here. DeRozan was engaged, explosive and consistently formidable.
Grizzlies guard Josh Selby: The 49th pick in the June draft is considered by many to be a sleeper candidate from the class of 2011, and he showed why. There's no shortage of talent or athleticism here.
Pistons small forward Austin Daye: Consistent offense for the player who will take over for Tayshaun Prince one of these days. His jumper -- specifically his step-back jumper -- is a thing of beauty.
Clippers point guard Mo Williams: He went hard, produced and nailed the only game-winning shot on a step-back, mid-range jumper. If only he could've persuaded Blake Griffin to join the party .. .