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Youngsters shining at summer league

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Royce White

Rockets rookie forward Royce White has been turning heads with his elite passing ability. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)

I’ve been in Las Vegas since Monday, watching the youngsters play and chatting up scouts, executives, agents and all the other NBA diehard types. Here are some quick thoughts, informed by those conversations, on the players I’ve seen over the last 72 hours.

• Royce White, Houston Rockets

Some summer league teams are random collections of draft picks, fringe players and veterans given a charity invite. Then there are teams like the Rockets, loaded with first-round picks and other guys who should play pivotal roles on next season’s roster. When Houston played Portland on Tuesday night, there were stretches in which all 10 players on the floor had guaranteed roster spots for 2012-13.

White has created as much buzz as anyone, a credit to his intoxicating passing game from the power forward slot. And it’s addictive. White tossed multiple no-look, underhanded scoop passes at least 20 feet on Houston fast breaks, most of which led to scores or decent looks. White’s passes are productive, and he will enter the league as an elite passing power forward. He can pass from the high or low post, as well as on the move in pick-and-rolls. He sees both simple and complicated passes all over the floor.

It will be interesting to watch how quickly White can add real substance to the rest of his game. Teams are already playing off him, daring him to shoot jumpers that he is reluctant to take. He also has a Boris Diaw-like tendency to over-pass around the rim and is a low-to-the-ground player that has trouble finishing around the basket at times.

And he obviously has a lot to prove on defense. He’s stout in the post and generally understands what’s going on, but he’s a bit upright in moving to cut off ball-handlers on the pick-and-roll. White also has had foul issues, racking up a whopping nine in Houston’s last game.

• Jeremy Lamb, Houston Rockets

Lamb has been explosive and efficient, though a 6-of-17 outing in Houston’s finale against Chicago on Wednesday dropped him to 35-of-75 (47 percent) from the floor and an underwhelming 8-of-27 from three-point range. But he has managed to earn a decent number of free throws and seems to be looking to score every time he touches the ball — especially in transition. Lamb has also helped himself by hitting the defensive boards fairly well. Executives in attendance are generally very positive about him.

Lamb already looks comfortable curling around picks for catch-and-shoot and catch-and-drive opportunities, though he’ll need to improve his passing on those plays. He goes through stretches in which he gets a bit carried away, hoisting up contested shots out of pick-and-rolls and forcing runners, attempts he generally won’t be able to take in the NBA. Physical defenders who deny the ball will give him issues when the real games start, and Lamb will have to work to find an efficient role within Houston’s half-court offense. Still, the tools are there.

Defense will be a struggle, as it is for most young players. Bigger two-guards with post-up skills will be a problem, and Lamb has had issues negotiating off ball screens.

• Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets

I can’t wait to see how Jones fares in the real show. He did very well in Vegas, shooting 50 percent from the floor, scoring 18 points per game, dominating the offensive glass and flashing a jack-of-all-trades game that scouts covet. But Jones is master of none of those skills, and some of the things that worked for him here won’t work nearly as well in November.

On further reflection, Jones isn’t so different from White. Both are strong forwards with advanced off-the-dribble games and decent passing skills (though Jones has looked a bit better defensively and generally leans more toward small forward, while White is clearly a “big” in the NBA). Both have shaky jumpers, and defenses played off Jones exactly as they did White. Jones adjusted by breaking out a wicked pump-fake that fooled just about everyone and opened up driving lanes. But that move figures to be a bit less effective against real NBA players armed with detailed scouting reports. Defenders won’t bite as often, and the helpers will be quicker and bigger. The offensive rebounds won’t come as easily, either.

But Jones has a lot of tools, and he was a willing and helpful defender against the pick-and-roll. He projects as a useful role player.

• Scott Machado, Houston Rockets (undrafted, unsigned)

After a slow start, Machado finished strong and gave himself a chance to make a team — whether it’s the Rockets, in need of a backup point guard behind Jeremy Lin, or someone else. He’s short for his position and his jumper his shaky, but Machado is a delightfully clever passer in transition and in the half court, with a sense of where everyone is at all times and a knack for using hesitation dribbles to create space. Machado told SI.com that Houston has given him no indication of where he currently stands, and joked that the waiting game “is not fun at all, man.”

• John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks

Henson made his much-awaited debut on Wednesday, and it went very well, with Henson scoring 20 points, grabbing nine boards and working as a constant long-armed threat on the offensive glass. But some of the moves he made — his post-up scores and awkward off-the-bounce attacks — won’t carry over into real competition, and his jumper is clearly not ready for the show. And though Henson is long and bouncy enough to snag a lot of offensive rebounds, opponents in the NBA will body him up and test his physicality on both ends.

However, one thing was extremely promising: Henson’s footwork against the pick-and-roll was fantastic. He showed real skill in sliding off the screener, containing the ball-handler and rotating back to the screener on pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll plays. “We wanted him to stop the ball, and he stopped the ball,” Jim Boylan, the coach of Milwaukee’s summer league team, told SI.com. “He’s a quick study, and he’ll be a very, very good defender in the league.”

Henson also showed deft touch on a tricky lob pass to Tobias Harris on a last-second possession that gave Harris a chance at a game-tying bucket.

• Tobias Harris, Milwaukee Bucks

We’re mostly focusing on rookies here, but Harris’ performance against Washington on Wednesday deserves mention. He lit the Wizards up for 24 points and 12 boards, and absolutely bullied Chris Singleton (a bit of a disappointment in Vegas) on the block when the two second-year combo forwards were matched up. Boylan told SI.com that Harris has lost weight in the offseason, and that the post game that looked effective in flashes last season should be a weapon this year when Harris serves as a small forward. “He worked his ass off this summer,” Boylan told SI.com. “When he puts the wood to someone on the block, they feel it.”

Harris looks too good to be in the summer league, which is exactly what you’d want from a player entering his second season. Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard have given off the same vibe, and Thompson was so good in Golden State’s first two games that the Warriors simply shut him down.

With Harris thriving, Henson developing and both Ekpe Udoh and Samuel Dalembert now in the fold, it is going to be very hard for Larry Sanders to get real minutes for the Bucks this season. Sanders has struggled mightily through two games in Vegas: He scored just eight points on 4-of-13 shooting, earned zero free throws and didn’t really distinguish himself on defense.

• Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Here’s one word to sum up Beal’s performance so far: steady. He has been solid on both ends of the floor, and his 42 percent field goal percentage undersells his offensive game a bit. For one, like nearly every rookie in attendance, Beal is battling conditioning issues. Coaches have repeatedly mentioned the so-so conditioning of the rookies, pinning the blame on the fact that they don’t see five-on-five action between college and summer league games. Beal has also had the freedom to test himself with difficult shots, earning 36 foul shots over a five-game span.

Beal has shown a very diverse offensive game, with Wizards coach Sam Cassell allowing him to run pick-and-rolls and even man the point at times. He got into the lane effectively on the pick-and-roll, using both hands and smart change-of-pace dribbles to get defenders on their heels and attack the rim. He sometimes pulled up a bit early for long jumpers when more probing would have created better chances and passing lanes, but he was mostly in attack mode. That also goes for plays in which Beal curled off screens in the style of Richard Hamilton or Ray Allen, the veteran to whom Beal is so often compared to. Beal rarely settled for long jumpers on those plays, choosing instead to catch and take a dribble into the middle of the paint for a floater. Those are tough shots, and Beal was hit-or-miss in terms of spotting open teammates — especially the screeners who set the initial pick to spring him. He’ll get better at those shoot-or-pass choices, and at the more complex parts of NBA defense.

Beal lost track of his head-to-head matchups at times, especially Milwaukee’s Doron Lamb, on a few off-ball cuts, and he is still learning NBA pick-and-roll coverages. But he’s a willing worker on defense and appears to understand general help concepts. Beal is going to be good, and he said on Wednesday that he thinks he can thrive as an off-the-dribble attacker when John Wall runs a pick-and-roll, draws the defense and kicks to Beal on the perimeter — with a defender closing out on him in a panic.

• Meyers Leonard, Portland Trail Blazers

Leonard has moments in every game during which he reminds you that he’s a far cry from the stiff that you might expect upon first seeing him. He jumped off screeners on a few pick-and-rolls to trap ball-handlers all the way out to midcourt, and he managed to scramble back to his original assignment in time to contain things in the interior. Plays like that, from a seven-footer, stand out. Leonard also runs the floor well for a guy his size and got to the free throw line 10 times in Portland’s first two games.

He also committed 13 fouls in those two games, however, and has occasionally found himself out of position after chasing blocks that he had no chance to make. Leonard hasn’t been nearly as polished as Cleveland’s Tyler Zeller, his frequent pre-draft workout partner, but there’s certainly an NBA player here somewhere.

• Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Lillard has drawn so many rave reviews that it almost makes you nervous. He’s averaging 26 points per game and has shot 7-of-17 from three-point range despite clearly having the green light to gun and stretch the limits of his game. He has appeared very comfortable in control of Portland’s offense, running pick-and-rolls, directing guys to their spots and fighting through contact with surprising strength. Lillard goes left a ton, and he’ll have to mix that up more when the real games start. But he has been very, very impressive — he’s the first name that most executives and coaches mention when picking their brains about the best players this week.

• Jared Sullinger, Boston Celtics

The Celtics need one of their young bigs to provide some useful minutes behind Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, and it’s already clear that Sullinger has overtaken JaJuan Johnson in the competition to be that player. Entering his second year, Johnson has looked very deliberate on both ends of the floor, taking just 10 shots in 53 minutes over two games in Vegas. Holes open and close quickly in the NBA, and when Johnson catches the ball on pick-and-pops, he hesitates long enough that holes close by the time he begins to operate. Johnson’s jumper is solid for a power forward, but not solid enough to overcome his other deficiencies.

While Sullinger has only shot 7-of-23 in Vegas, he shot better in the Orlando summer league, and he has continued to earn free throws and grab rebounds at very high rates. He’s also experimenting with long jumpers that Doc Rivers probably won’t let him take in the regular season. Sullinger has an effective bulk-based post-up game that will result in points, free throws and lots of blocked shots, and, equally noteworthy, he is a hungry rebounder. Sullinger needs to drop some weight and be a bit quicker defensively, but his instincts on that end are good, and he slides his feet well.

• Fab Melo, Boston Celtics

After watching Melo in Vegas, this much is evident: It’s going to take time. Melo is working hard and communicating on defense, but he has struggled to be a consistent presence on either end of the floor. He’s not rebounding much, and he looks unsure of himself on offense, especially when cutting toward the basket on pick-and-rolls. One plus: He’s an intuitive passer, capable of catching the ball at the foul line on a pick-and-roll, surveying the defensive and firing of a a tricky interior pass. Still, it’ll come as a big surprise if he snags a real role in Boston’s rotation this season.

  • Published On 11:14am, Jul 19, 2012
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