Portland Trail Blazers – To React Or Overreact … That’s Summer League!

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The whirlwind that is the NBA offseason descends upon Las Vegas for a couple weeks in July every summer. This year is no different. While there are now summer leagues that play in Orlando and Utah as well, the Las Vegas Summer League is the main attraction.

This season there are 24 teams represented in Vegas, as well as 7 of the Top 10 picks from the June draft.

Portland is one of those 24 teams in the desert, and Blazer fans are getting their first look at Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. There was a ton of anticipation, and through three games, there have been mixed responses to their play.

If you are an NBA player at summer league I have one piece of advice for you, stay off of social media. The overreaction squad has been out in full force.

I get it, fans want to see their teams’ players succeed. They want to carry on that hope that most teams feel when they bring in rookies. Fan bases want to rally around the “future”.

At the same time, fans tend to forget that this is summer league, the NBA’s version of a rec league. There are guys on the court that will never see an NBA regular season, guys that will make a decent living overseas, and guys that will be school teachers in September. The level of competition is not great, and the level of basketball is borderline professional.

With that said, there are certainly things to be taken away from the small sample size of basketball we have seen played in Vegas.

I give you my two reactions… and two overreactions.

Reaction #1 – Pat Connaughton and Jake Layman have not helped their case for a roster spot.

Heading into Summer League, the Blazers only had 4 guys on the roster that are likely to be on the roster come training camp (Collins, Swanigan, Connaughton, and Layman). Collins and Swanigan are both signed to 4-year contracts, two of which are fully guaranteed and the other two years are team options. Layman was a 2nd round draft pick, but his contract is guaranteed for two more seasons. Connaughton, on the other hand, has a non-guaranteed contract.

Portland General Manager Neil Olshey cherishes having an open roster spot and the flexibility that it affords in mid-season trades and roster moves. That leaves Connaughton as the most likely candidate to be cut loose. Connaughton’s contract becomes guaranteed on July 25th, which makes Summer League even more important for the former 2nd round draft pick.

Through 3 games, Connaughton is averaging 6 ppg, 3 rpg, 2.7 apg, and only shooting 36% from the field.

Those numbers aren’t going to solidify his spot on the Blazers, let alone in the NBA. Connaughton has a great fall back with the Baltimore Orioles of the MLB waiting for him to head back to the game of baseball, where he has the tools to be a dominant pitcher.

Personally, I like Connaughton and his athleticism. But basketball is a numbers game, and right now the numbers aren’t in Connaughton’s favor.

Reaction #2 – Caleb Swanigan may be a steal at #26 in the first round.

Oregon Sports News senior writer Bryant Knox wrote a great piece a couple of days ago on Swanigan and how he could potentially be the steal of the draft. Go read his piece, it’s great.

Swanigan is going to be a fan favorite in Portland. He is Ed Davis with a much more complete offensive game. He is Noah Vonleh with a 3-pointer and higher motor. He is a young version of Zach Randolph. Swanigan has endured a lot of comparisons the past week at the Vegas Summer League, but they are not all that far-fetched.

Biggie, as Swanigan is affectionately referred to, has been great. If the Blazers make any kind of noise in the tournament that is starting on Wednesday, Swanigan will be in consideration for some awards in the next week.

His hustle and grit are what separate him. When Swanigan is on the court, 50-50 balls are no longer 50-50. He is the definition of the often overused term “high motor”.

His stats through three games are great. He has averaged 15.7 ppg, 11 rpg, shooting 42% from the field and 93% from the free throw line, averaging 30 minutes per game in 3 games.

Those are incredible numbers that have fans imagining Swanigan starting at the power forward spot next to Jusuf Nurkic to start the upcoming season.

While I want to jump on the Swanigan train with everybody else, I would advise people to pump the breaks a bit. Swanigan is going to be a rookie that will have some speedbumps along the way. He may surprise everybody and command a ton of minutes this season, but the competition will be stiff. Swanigan will likely be battling for minutes with 5 guys; Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins, Ed Davis, and Meyers Leonard.

Overreaction #1 – Zach Collins is the biggest bust of the 2017 NBA Draft.

This is kind of the exact opposite of the second reaction that I gave you about Swanigan, and this is actually a sentiment that I have heard from Blazer fans over the past week. This is insane!

Collins is a 19 year old big man, playing in a summer league, which is a league that is largely dominated by little guys. Collins thrives offensively in a system, with a point guard helping create looks for the big man. At Gonzaga he had Nigel Williams-Goss, in Portland he will have Damian Lillard.

Then there is the defensive side of the game, where Collins thrives! I am not a big reddit user, but I have to give a major hat tip to twitter user @PrimeNurkic for pointing out the reddit thread “Zach Collins is a Defensive Stud”.

Granted, the thread was created after two summer league games for Collins, but it also shows the following stats that jump off the page:

71.5 defensive rating – #1 in all summer leagues

3 blocks per game – #1 in all summer leagues

9.04% block percentage – #8 in all summer leagues

.32 DWS (defensive win shares) – #9 in all summer leagues

2.5 steals per game – #13 in all summer leagues

Those numbers were through the first two games and when Collins was averaging 30 minutes per game and 3.5 fouls per game. Collins is showing his defensive ability from the beginning of his Blazer career. This guy is the real deal.

When Collins gets a bit of a rhythm and gets some training camp time under his belt, Collins could be a really well-rounded basketball player.

Overreaction #2 – The Blazers have lost 2 Summer League Game, they’re terrible.

This is an honest gripe I have seen from some Blazer fans the past week. I feel like continually tweeting “IT’S JUST SUMMER LEAGUE! IT’S JUST SUMMER LEAGUE! IT’S JUST SUMMER LEAGUE!”

Honestly, the pick-up games down at the YMCA may be more important in the long-term than any summer league game that is played in Las Vegas.

There is some value in these games, but in an analysis of talent way. It’s not about wins and losses in the slightest.

Let’s just break down a couple rosters…

The Portland Trail Blazers have 4 guys on their summer league team that will be on their opening day roster. Possibly only 3 if Connaughton is cut before July 25th.

The Sacramento Kings, on the other hand, have 7 or 8 guys on their summer league team that will be on the roster in October. That includes 3 first round picks from this years’ draft, and 2 from last year.

The Boston Celtics, who the Blazers just lost to on Sunday, have a handful of roster guys on their summer league team, but they also boast the last two #3 picks (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown). That is some talent.

I am not excusing the losses that the Blazers have endured the past week, but you have to be able to recognize the level of competition. Other than the 4 roster guys that the Blazers have on their Summer team, there isn’t much of a chance that anyone else makes an NBA roster this season.

R.J. Hunter? Maybe the G League.

Jorge Gutierrez? Likely to play over in Turkey.

Markel Brown? Maybe back to Russia.

What I’m saying is that there just isn’t a ton of NBA talent on the Blazer team. Wait until October until you judge whether the Blazers can compete with NBA talent of not. (Hint, they’ll be just fine.)

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Garrett Thornton

Garrett has been a Senior Writer for Oregon Sports News for 4 years. In that time Garrett has primarily covered the Portland Trail Blazers. He has also started his series “Breaking Vegas with Garrett Thornton”, picking NFL games against the spread. Along with his coverage of the Blazers and NFL, Garrett covers Oregon Ducks football. 

1 Comment

  1. Spot on! Biggie is going to be solid, maybe exceptional. Zach’s defense is shinning through. One other thing, the Blazer’s summer league team is loosing because of roster construction. Namely, NO point guard. Not even a semblance of one. And poor Pat was tasked with being the point while his, as well as Zach’s, performance is predicated on a good distributor.

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