Young stars shine in Vegas Summer League

BY foxsports • July 23, 2012

LAS VEGAS – It's been one thundering dunk by Damian Lillard, an appearance by Jimmer Fredette in which he seemed unable to pass and a sighting of Adam Morrison without his questionable facial hair. It's been 10 days of scorching heat and dozens of players who'll never see a minute of NBA action. It's been the first glimpses of top picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bradley Beal, some Bobcats victories (Who'd have imagined?) and one Mavericks-Spurs game so boring that overtime drew boos.

And with that, Las Vegas Summer League is finally over.

A total of 342 players appeared on the rosters of 23 NBA teams and the D-League Select Team. Some will make NBA rosters in October. Some will become household names, and many will never get their big break. Summer league is a chance for young players to begin to prove that their teams did the right thing in selecting them. It's not where stars are made. It's not where careers are destroyed.

"It's summer league," the Bucks' John Henson said after a 22-point performance Saturday. "You don't want to put much stock in it."

Sure, John, you're probably right. But still, here's a roundup of the most impressive performances of those 10 days in Las Vegas:

(1) Damian Lillard

Lillard, the sixth pick in this year's draft, was the highest pick from a little-known school since Michael Olowokandi was picked first out of the University of the Pacific in 1998. That's a lot of pressure for a player who excelled for Weber State in the Big Sky Conference and never appeared in the NCAA tournament.

But for what it's worth, Lillard lived up to the hype at summer league. He averaged 26.5 points per game, best among summer league players, and his 31-point performance against Atlanta on Thursday was probably the best game of any player in Las Vegas, for his scoring as well as his memorable dunk.

After the Trail Blazers' final game on Saturday, in which Lillard did not play, the point guard said that he gave his summer league performance a B grade overall. Whether that grade is a mark of humility or nonsense or even a sign of his dogged work ethic remains to be seen; regardless, Lillard did what he needed to do for the Trail Blazers in Las Vegas.

"I thought I played consistent, scored the ball," Lillard said. "I finished well around the rim. I thought I defended better every game, and I got guys involved."

"I try not to worry about pleasing anybody but my team. I just try to do what I can for the team, and I knew that would be enough."

(2) The Portland Trail Blazers

As an alternative to Portland's young team taking over this list, let's treat them as one player. Obviously, Lillard stood out more than any other player, but after Las Vegas, Portland presented a pretty good case that it should be known this offseason for something other than its Nicolas Batum tug-of-war with Minnesota.

Along with Lillard, rookies Meyers Leonard and Will Barton both stood out. Leonard, selected just five picks after Lillard in June, averaged 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, making him the 10th-best rebounder in Las Vegas. Leonard has also forged a close connection with Lillard already, and it shows on the court. The two work well together, better than two rookies with just weeks of experience playing with each other should.

Barton, the Trail Blazers' second-round pick, averaged 15.0 points per game, appearing in all five of Portland's contests. He scored 27 points in Saturday's 81-55 win over the Heat, and with both Leonard and Lillard sitting, Barton proved that he too can be a formidable scoring threat for the Trail Blazers when called upon.

The best thing about Portland at summer league was undeniably how fun the team was to watch. They averaged 86.6 points per game while shooting 43.9 percent, a high percentage for a summer league squad. They're young. They're exciting. They have name recognition. They won four games. There's little more a team could want in Las Vegas.

(3) Markieff Morris

Morris, selected 13th by the Suns in 2011, put up the best across-the-board stat line at summer league, further validating his selection one spot before twin brother and Kansas teammate Marcus Morris.

Morris averaged 9.8 rebounds, third-best among players in Las Vegas and best among those who averaged more than 15 points. (He finished averaging 19.8.) His twin continued to struggle, averaging just 8.0 points and 5.0 rebounds after a season spent mostly in the D-League.

Morris averaged 30.6 points at summer league, up from 19.5 during the season. After missing summer league due to the lockout before his rookie season, Morris had never played so many minutes in the NBA; even in his one year as a consistent starter at Kansas, he averaged just 24.4 minutes per game. The fact that he was able to play consistently and for as long as he did was a good sign, and Morris also said that he knows he needs to get in better shape if he's going to eat up so many minutes consistently at the professional level.

(4) Kemba Walker

The second-year Bobcats point guard averaged 15.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Those numbers were slightly better than what he posted last season (12.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game), but Walker did an excellent job at commanding the court for Charlotte. His 5.8 assists per game was the second-best average of any player at summer league, behind Kendall Marshall.

But what was most notable about Walker is his team's record. The Bobcats finished summer league with a 4-1 record, and their four wins in five games were just three fewer than their win total in 66 games last season. Of course this is summer league, and of course none of this might transfer to the NBA, but it's worth noting, especially because Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played in only one game. One.

Walker is still far from being an NBA star, and the Bobcats are still a long way from a winning team. But they're one of the most intriguing squads to watch at summer league, one with the most to gain from it's young players, and they delivered. That in and of itself warrants recognition, for both Charlotte and its best player at summer league.

(5) Tobias Harris

Harris' summer league performance was without a doubt the most redemptive of any second-year player who struggled last season.

In five summer league games, the Bucks forward outperformed even highly touted rookie John Henson. He finished averaging 20.8 points and shooting 53.0 percent from the field, impressive especially when compared to his 5.0 points per game average from last season. Harris also showed a remarkable poise, sealing an 88-87 win over Boston on Saturday with two free throws in the game's final seconds.

Summer league provided the first real opportunity for Harris to play consistent minutes. He played more than 20 minutes just eight times on Scott Skiles' team in 2011-12 and averaged just 11.5 minutes in 42 games.

"That's the main thing, when the opportunity is there, go take it and take advantage of it," Harris said. "That's what I look to do, and just playing a lot of minutes, it's good, just because you're getting a feel for the game, getting a feel for your spots on the floor."

The Bucks finished summer league with a 4-1 record, impressive especially for a team that hasn't done a lot to improve itself aside from the draft this offseason and should be looking to its young players next season.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.

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