The Las Vegas Summer League tips off for the Summer Pellies in around four hours - New Olreans is facing the D-League All-Stars at 9:30 CT. You can't watch it on TV, though, so you'll have to watch it online. If you do tune in, you'll likely be asking who the players are - the guide below should be able to help you out. I've separated the players into familiar faces, fresh faces, and wrinkled faces, provided each player's backstory, strengths, and weaknesses.
The Familiar Faces:
Jeff Withey - C, 24 years old, 7'0", 234 lbs.
Jeff Withey was a fan favorite last year for good reason - he was third in WS/48 among all rookies that played at least 100 minutes. Plus, he was an outstanding shot blocker, ranking in the top 20 rookies in the three-point era in block percentage. Throughout the year, we gushed over his raw defensive athleticism - he has the ability to quickly jump several times in a row to either block shots or nab rebounds. His defensive positioning is what he's missing, and that's what we'll be looking at in summer league. He has the potential to be an elite defender, and hopefully he'll show progress in Vegas.
On offense, Withey is limited. Don't get me wrong - he's incredibly useful, as his 54% field goal percentage and 122 ORtg indicate. But he can't create his own shot (83% of his field goals were assisted last year) and his average shot was taken 3.5 feet from the basket. Here's his shot chart from his rookie season, via Basketball-Reference:
On offense, he creates the same spacing problem that Stiemsma did - his defender doesn't have to follow Withey very far from the hoop, which clogs the lane for players that rely on driving, like Tyreke and Jrue. So let's watch to see if he has developed a midrange shot in the offseason.
James Southerland - G, 24 years old, 6'8", 215 lbs
After playing just 27 minutes for the Pelicans during the last throes of a dying season, it might be a bit of a stretch to call Southerland a "familiar face". Oleh wrote a nice article about Southerland earlier this week - I highly recommend reading it to learn about him. He's one of the options the Pelicans have to plug into the problematic SF position. He's an above-average shooter that doesn't display any other great skills. I think we'll have to be looking to see how he plays on defense in Summer League - if he can play serviceable defense, he could be a useful option off the bench.
The Fresh Faces:
Russ Smith - G, 23 years old, 6'0", 165 lbs
As the Pelicans' lone draft pick, Russ Smith's pro debut must be the most anticipated part of Summer League for New Orleans fans. Now, we've certainly talked about Russ a lot, but we haven't done a thorough analysis of how he's played in college. The more I learn about Russ, the more I like him - he seems like a genuinely good guy that has proved doubters wrong at every stage of his development - something like the David Eckstein of basketball.
Despite his slight frame, he projects to be a defensive stopper in the pros, based on his athleticism, lateral quickness, and surprising wingspan (6'3.5" on a 6'0" frame). He rated highly in steals throughout his time in college, and steals in college translate well to defensive ability in the pros. He shows a ton of effort on defense, and it's lots of fun to watch him slither over screens and hound ball-handlers. I'm somewhat concerned that his steals numbers were a bit of a mirage, since Rick Pitino loves having his guards press opposing point guards in the backcourt, but I think his defensive activity will enable him to be a plus defender in the NBA. He has always been lethal in transition, as well, thanks to his excellent speed, ball-handling, and fearlessness around the rim. In his junior season, Louisville scored 1.37 points per possession when he took the ball in transition, and many of those opportunities were with him charging at two defenders.
His offensive skills in the half-court set, however, have been the big question mark over the past few years for scouts. He has improved his shooting significantly (39% from three his senior season, 40% overall on catch-and-shoots), but he still gets tunnel vision in the half-court set, missing open teammates and taking on triple teams while barreling towards the basket. He was a poor distributor in his junior season at Louisville when he was playing as the off-ball guard alongside Peyton Siva. When Siva left, however, Russ took over as the primary ball-handler. He improved his distribution significantly, boosting his PPR from a woeful -2.6 to a vaguely acceptable 0.79.
Russ is a strange player - a pint-sized defensive stalwart, a point guard that doesn't distribute well, and a great shooter with terrible shot selection. He's proved all the doubters wrong throughout his career, though, and I'm excited to root for this guy. In summer league, I think it's key to watch how he distributes the ball, something he was keen to display at the NBA Combine, where DraftExpress called him "one of the most underrated prospects in the draft."
Patric Young - F/C, 22 years old, 6'10", 247 lbs
Like Russ Smith, Patric Young is a bundle of paradoxes, this time wrapped in the body of a Greek god. His strong and athletic body made him an elite defender at the college level, but he doesn't have the height to match up against NBA centers. He lacks the offensive game to match his defense, though, and his perimeter skills are such that it's extremely difficult to imagine him playing as a PF. His main offensive tool is his ability to crash the glass on offense, but his main defensive weakness is his historically low defensive rebounding rate.
Defense is where Young shines - he doesn't fill up the stat sheet with blocks or steals, but he has excellent fundamentals and athleticism. He hedges well on pick-and-rolls and is able to stay with even quick guards along the perimeter. Defensive rebounding, however, is a big part of playing good defense, and a dedicated center in the NBA has to be able to gather misses. Here's where Young's incredible body falls short - he has a very short standing reach of 8'7.5" (that's Carl Landry territory) combined with tiny hands, both of which limit his defensive rebounding ability. I watched Jurassic Park last night, so the comparison is pretty obvious - he's a T-Rex in basketball shoes.
Cameron Ayers - G, 22 years old, 6'5", 203 lbs
This is where the previews get fun - Ayers doesn't even have a picture on his DraftExpress profile, much less anything written about him. He won the Patriot League Player of the Year award in his senior season for the Bucknell Bison after averaging over 15 points per game, shooting almost 90% from the free throw line, and making more than 40% of his threes. Think of him as a potential 3 and D player - he was an excellent three-point shooter throughout his career at Bucknell, and he was routinely put on the team's star offensive player on defense and usually limited their scoring. One thing to note - he's the son of New Orleans assistant coach Randy Ayers.
Drew Crawford - SG, 22 years old, 6'5", 203 lbs
Drew Crawford was considered a potential draft pick as recently as 2012, but he had surgery in 2013 to repair a torn labrum and received a medical redshirt. His fifth season at Northwestern was a bit of a letdown - his three point percentage dropped dramatically to under 33%, well under his junior season high of 41%. His points per possession dropped from 1.17 to 1.00, and his PER dropped from 22.5 to 17.7. It's pretty easy to imagine that his shoulder injury cost him a shot at being drafted in the NBA, which is a shame.
What made him a third-team All-Big 10 player was his intelligence on offense - he had great shot selection and avoided turnovers, operating perfectly within Northwestern's Princeton offense. Since Northwestern plays a zone defense most of the time, it's hard to get a good bead on how he'd do as a defender, but since he's smart, big, and works hard, it would be hard to imagine that he would be an awful defender in the pros.
Abdul Gaddy - PG, 22 years old, 6'3", 195 lbs
Abdul Gaddy has had a rough basketball career. A McDonald's All-American in high school and the second-best point guard recruit, he wasn't able to transition to college play. His freshman season at Washington was awe-inducingly poor - he posted a PER of 3.5, scored less than 4 points per game, and logged a PPR of -1.30. He bounced back to start his sophomore season, with a really solid stretch of thirteen games before he tore his ACL. Never a stellar athlete, Gaddy's game was now was significantly held back by his lack of quickness. He posted mediocre seasons at Washington alongside future NBA players Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross and wasn't drafted out of college, opting to play for the Maine Red Claws of the D-League.
He posted a respectable season for Maine, distributing effectively and posting a juicy 3.79 PPR. With underwhelming athleticism, Gaddy has to use deception and gear-shifting to generate open lanes. He's also really improved his shooting - while he never shot over 33% from beyond the arc during a full season in college, he knocked down an astonishing 42% of his threes in his first professional season, posting a 56% effective field goal percentage. As a professional, he's a low-usage, high-efficiency distributing point guard, and those are always in style as backups.
The one question I would have about Gaddy when I look at his stats is his defense - he fouls a lot (4 fouls per forty minutes pace adjusted last year) without getting many steals or blocks. Considering his weak athleticism, this would be an area to keep our eyes on as we watch him at Summer League.
Eric Buckner - F, 24 years old 6'10", 222 lbs
Eric Buckner was just added to the roster yesterday to replace Samardo Samuels. He played two years for Georgia State and was a monster defender, averaging 4.5 blocks and just 3.7 fouls per 40 minutes pace adjusted in his sophomore campaign. He was also very efficient on offense, knocking down 62% of his attempts and posting a 23.4 PER. He drew a ton of fouls (.62 FTA/FGA), but that might have been because teams weren't scared to see him go to the line, where he made only 50% of his shots. He was a good rebounder in college, averaging almost 10 rebounds per forty minutes pace adjusted.
He has played the last two seasons in Turkey, where he has proven to be an offensive load. This article claims he was the MVP of the Turkish league last season, but I can't find any other site that corroborates the report. He certainly played well enough, though, scoring 16 points per game on 69% shooting from the field and nabbing over 10 rebounds per game. His blocks have fallen a tad - to 1.7 per game - but he still looks like a good shot blocker. He improved his free throw shooting to a merely woeful 59.4% last season, which is a big red flag for him. The other one would be his lack of range given his limited height and slight build - if he can't defend NBA centers or stretch the floor, it's tough to see him making it into the NBA.
The Wrinkled Faces:
Courtney Fells - SG, 27 years old, 6'5", 205 lbs
Though he was highly recruited out of high school, Courtney Fells had a relatively undistinguished career at NC State. From there, he started stamping his passport - he played in Cyprus for a few seasons, then in Israel, then in the Dominican Republic, then back to Israel. He even played three games in a tournament for a team in the Philippines called the Talk 'N Text Tropang Texters. He got some interest at the NBA level last season, playing with the Spurs in training camp and then getting assigned to their D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros. He just signed to play in Venezuela next season.
Fells has the looks of a 3 and D player based on his statistics in the D-League. He knocked down over 37% of his attempts from beyond the arc and logged almost a block and 2 steals per game while only picking up 2 fouls per game. The traditional knock on him is his lack of athleticism, so we'll have to see if he has the defensive chops to keep up in the NBA.
Josh Howard - SF, 34 years old, 6'7", 210 lbs
Yup, it's that Josh Howard. A great defender and shooter during his heyday, we'll call Howard the elder statesman of this Summer Pellies roster. He played for the Austin Toros last year, posting underwhelming stats (like a 105 ORtg on 22% usage and an atrocious 27.7 3pt%). He is an NBA veteran playing at a need position for the Pelicans, but that's about all you can say for Howard - we'll just put him down as Plan Q for us at the small forward position this offseason.
Josh Carter - SF, 27 years old, 6'7", 195 lbs
Josh Carter is another guy that can be slotted into the Small Forward position and shoot threes well - I'm feeling a bit of a trend in this roster. He played four years for Texas A&M, playing well but not able to improve enough late in his career to get drafted. Instead, he headed to Europe, where he has played in Israel, Germany, Russia, and Italy. He appears to mostly be a spot-up shooter, making around 40% of his attempts from beyond the arc. He doesn't get to the free throw line very often and hasn't posted impressive passing statistics. In fact, he rarely appears to operate within the arc - he shoots more threes per game than he does twos and free throws combined.
He's a hustle player on defense, but lacks the lateral quickness to keep up with more gifted athletes. It shows in his limited defensive statistics - he averaged just 0.5 steals per game last season for Sienna. This should be the key area to watch for Carter - we know he can make threes, but can he keep in front of his man consistently?
Keith Chamberlain - Maybe a SF?, 26 years old, 6'9", 240 lbs.
Keith Chamberlain is Anthony Davis's cousin, and one of the few things I know about him for sure. He's listed as 6'9" on the roster, but this article about him trying out for the Iowa Energy last year by Ridiculous Upside says he's just 6'7". He played college ball for the Grinnell Pioneers, a Division III school in Iowa. They're a story on their own - their coach runs a bizarre run-and-gun system that involves a continual full-court press, lots of threes, and an outrageous amount of offensive rebounding. Most interestingly, they do complete shift changes every time there's a dead ball, so every 45-90 seconds you'll see all five players being switched out. Wikipedia has a full rundown of what they call the "Grinnell System".
You can imagine that playing at Grinnell isn't exactly the best preparation for professional basketball. From Grinnell, Chamberlain went to play in Europe, and he's been angling to make a D-League team while working out with his significantly more talented brother in the offseason. I have no idea what his strengths and weaknesses are, but I doubt we'll see a whole lot of him on the court this Summer League - I presume his inclusion was more of a personal favor to the team's cornerstone.
DeQuan Jones - SF, 24 years old, 6'8", 221 lbs
I suppose he's not a wrinkled face at age 24, but DeQuan Jones has already played over 800 uninspiring minutes in the NBA for the Magic, so he'll be lumped in with the seasoned veterans. He was a highly touted recruit out of high school based on his athleticism, but had an atrocious freshman season offensively and didn't improve that much in his sophomore season at Miami. His high-water mark as a shooter was in his sophomore year, when he posted a 46% eFG% and shot 25% beyond the arc. Jones didn't have basic skills like passing or dribbling in college, but he was Miami's lockdown defender on the perimeter, much like Al-Farouq Aminu at Georgia Tech.
After not being drafted after his sophomore season, Jones joined the Magic on their Summer League team, made the roster, and played in 63 games while starting 17 for an atrocious Orlando squad. His statistics in Orlando look just like they did in college - 25% from three point range, 46% eFG%. His ORtg was a measly 93 on just 15% usage. It looked like Jones wasn't an NBA talent.
He played with the Reno Bighorns in the D-League last season, though, and absolutely tore it up. He shot over 40% from beyond the arc, logged a 56% eFG%, posted a 108 ORtg on 20% usage. He had a troubling spike in his turnover rate and continued to not make many blocks or steals, but he suddenly looks like a legitimate NBA prospect. At only 24, with a newfound shooting stroke and his defensive ability, Jones could be the best option at SF on this Summer League squad.