Sunday, July 5, 2015

Pistons Summer League: Games 1 and 2

The playoffs are over and the draft has come and gone, which means NBA Summer League is here, the time for wild exaggerations and unbridled expectations. Having been terrible for approaching a decade, the Pistons have used Summer League to display their lottery picks' potential. Andre Drummond dominated the glass and threw down monstrous dunks in his stint in Orlando. KCP scored at will last year. This season, the Pistons have draft picks Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard, as well as last year's second round pick Spencer Dinwiddie on display.

The caveat that always accompanies Summer League columns is not to read too much into performances, but I find that to be reductive. Raw numbers won't tell you much about how a player will perform when the regular season begins, but watching individual players reveals clear strengths and weaknesses that will display themselves throughout the season. Ignoring what happens in Summer League is willfully ignorant. But because you (understandably) don't want to watch Summer League, I do. Here are some observations.

Stanley Johnson

The Pistons' first-round selection has performed up to or above all expectations. Through two games, Johnson looks like one of the better players in the league. Johnson is averaging 18.5 points per game, but more impressive is his efficiency. In his first game, coming off the bench, he tallied 13 points on 5-8 shooting. In today's tilt, he scored 24 points on 10-14 shooting. He has shot 2-5 from outside and a disappointing 5-10 from the free throw line, but as aforementioned, raw numbers don't mean much in Summer League.

Here is a real caveat: Johnson was  destined to look like a men amongst boys in Summer League. Because of his superior physique, his ability to bully smaller players and sub-NBA talent is unsurprising. But the way Johnson has scored his points is impressive. Though lacking in elite athleticism, Johnson has taken contact well and scored at the rim on countless possessions. He has also displayed a consistent and nuanced inbetween game, using both hard jump stops and floaters to score on a variety of drives.

Johnson's greatest strength is his spatial and physical awareness. He understands his superior physique and finds avenues to use it on the court. He is adept at shielding defenders around the basket with his body, as well as using his size to brush off help defenders on drives. Johnson shows a savvy indicative of players with far more experience and age. That his understanding of the game and his physicality are already at this level means good things for his future.

The biggest positive surprises have been his passing and offensive rebounding. Given how Johnson excels at getting into the lane, his ability to find cutters and spot-up shooters is a major asset. Johnson has shown the ability to pass off the dribble and see the floor in traffic, and while Reggie Jackson projects to be the primary ball handler, when Johnson drives off of close-outs this season, his passing will prove a major asset. The other surprise has been his nose for offensive rebounds. Johnson has pulled down 5 offensive rebounds in two games, a skill that looks somewhat replicable in the NBA. He'll never dominate the glass, but he could be an exceptional rebounding shooting guard/small forward.

Not all has been positive for Johnson, however. Notably, his handle looks barely functional. Because he uses his strength to attack defenders, his need for effective moves has escaped him. His go-to move appears to be an in-out dribble with his right hand that no defender is fooled by. Compounding issues is his balance while dribbling. Johnson plays too much on the insides of his feet rather than the balls of his feet, causing him to slip frequently while trying to break down defenders. The other notable negative in Johnson's game is his lateral defensive foot speed. It may be a small sample size issue, but several times, the man that Johnson is defending will blow by him from the perimeter for an easy shot at the rim. With the replacement of Greg Monroe with Ersan Ilyasova, and Drummond's continuing struggles as a rim defender, Johnson will need to be sharper on the perimeter if he is going to earn significant minutes.

Spencer Dinwiddie

Dinwiddie was Detroit's only draft pick last season and was a potential draft steal as a lottery talent that dropped to the second round because of a college knee injury. Last season, Dinwiddie fluctuated between overwhelmed rookie and promising future contributor. This Summer League, Dinwiddie has been atrocious. He is 5-16 from the floor, has 9 assists to 12 turnovers, and allowed Nate Wolters to shoot 7-12 and Keith Appling shoot 4-7 (scoring 17 points, mostly on Dinwiddie fouls). On both ends of the floor, Dinwiddie has looked unprepared for competition, especially troubling since he is a second-year player. This was Dinwiddie's time to show his improvement and ability to contribute in the NBA. His utter regression has been the worst part of the Summer League.

There may be a reason why Dinwiddie has performed so poorly. Without actual insider knowledge, my guess is that the coaches have tasked Dinwiddie with getting to the rim. He turns down open three pointers, the kind that he took with abandon last season. Instead, he opts to attack the rim and drive into traffic. This has produced the results you see above. Dinwiddie is another player who relies on his physical attributes to get his points. Unlike Johnson, however, Dinwiddie utilizes his superior size (he is a 6'6" point guard) to score. Asking him to work between the tackles (as it were) has shown his limitations, both in his dribble moves as well as his ability to take contact and finish.

How this translates to the season is unclear. What is clear is his total inability to finish at the rim. He expects more foul calls than he receives (though he's shot 12 free throw attempts in the two games) and hasn't changed his attack plan to compensate for this. Dinwiddie lacks the inbetween game that makes Johnson so effective; he's a straight line runner. Seeing over the defense and spot up shooting are his two most marketable skills. His Summer League marching orders have stripped him of those benefits and it shows.

Darrun Hilliard
The Pistons drafted Hilliard, a four-year point guard with Villanova, 38th overall in this draft. There's little to discuss with Hilliard, who looks like a prototypical four-year, second-round draft pick. Overwhelmed athletically but crafty, Hilliard doesn't project for a long NBA life. He is 5-20 from the field (2-5 from 3) and doesn't offer any skill that can't be found elsewhere. Expect him to spend this season with the Pistons but not to be re-signed in 2016 as the team tries to make some splashy moves in free agency.

Next Up
The Pistons are 1-1 after their first two games and play the Miami Heat tomorrow. If you're going to watch any game of the Summer League, tomorrow's is the one to watch. Johnson takes on Justise Winslow, the SG/SF that was available to the Pistons and who many talking heads believe will be a better player. Watching the two of them play head-to-head will be exciting, putting on display two of the better wing prospects from the draft. Aside from feeling better (or worse) about who the Pistons drafted, seeing how Johnson stacks up against elite-level talent (of which he hasn't seen in the first two games) should tell a lot about how his strengths and weaknesses will translate to the regular season.

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