Here's your grain of salt: the Summer League is not the real NBA. It's not the preseason nor the regular season. Rather, it serves as an indicator, a preview of what could happen in the NBA but isn't necessarily destined to happen. Capeesh?
Let's cut to the chase. What did we learn from the Rockets' participation in the 2010 Vegas Summer League that we may not have known beforehand? Below, we discuss five things that stood out the most.
1. Patrick Patterson has the tools to play right away.
We've been over this. Twice. Patrick Patterson has impressed everyone and has done everything right and is big and strong and hungry. We know this. We also know that this is not the NBA preseason, but in fact the Summer League. The preseason competition will be more challenging for Patterson -- this is where we will really, one-hundred-percent for sure see how game-ready he is -- so we can't draw too many conclusions based on his performance in Las Vegas. But I'd like to reiterate what exactly it is about Patterson's game that has me convinced he can play the backup power forward position.
Patterson plays within himself and within his limits, perhaps more so than any rookie I have seen in quite a while. He knows exactly what he can and cannot do and he fashions his game within his own personal range. Not to say that he isn't constantly working to improve his upon his talents, but rather that he makes the most out of his ability without trying to do too much.
I'll explain further. First, I've noticed that Patterson has yet to require consistent touches to become involved in the offense. He is easily able to recognize a double team and has the fortitude and the wherewithal to hit the open man on the perimeter. On three separate occasions against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, Patterson received a pass in the post and immediately looked to see if a double team was coming. On the first play, he sent the ball to the top of the key to Ishmael Smith, who rotated the ball to the corner for an easy jumper. On the second play, Patterson made a crisp skip pass to the corner, where Gary Forbes caught the ball in stride and sank a wide-open 3-point shot. Rather than try to beat the double team on both possessions, Patterson made the smart play.
On Patterson's third touch, he once again looked to see if the double was coming. The moment he recognized that he was in single coverage, he threw a shoulder fake in one direction (to throw his defender off-guard) and immediately turned his big ol' shoulders in the other direction, squared up to the basket and nailed an easy hook shot off the glass for the bucket. Without ever taking a dribble.
Patterson does still have plenty to work on. He needs to gravitate more towards the paint, assert himself as a help defender (i.e. taking a good charge) and increase his assertiveness on the offensive glass. Thankfully, each of these concerns can be taken care of in time by watching tape. They are typical concerns that tend to float away with experience.
What did we learn about Patrick Patterson? He is ready to play right away. Will that necessarily happen? Perhaps, or perhaps not. GM Daryl Morey has said that he would like to hold off on playing Patterson from the start in order to develop his game in practice over time before ushering him onto the floor. That said, if called upon early, Patterson should do just fine.
2. Jordan Hill's primary concern? Consistency.
Jordan Hill is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get, unless he is being guarded by a 6-foot-8 forward on the defenseless Denver Nuggets. That should be a pretty good indicator that Hill will have a good day.
I don't want to take anything away from Hill's performance on Wednesday against Denver. As the NBA TV broadcasters noted, Hill looked much more assertive and passionate than he did in his previous four games. He grabbed fourteen rebounds in total and must have had three or four dunks. But with the smaller Othello Hunter guarding Hill, it was almost too easy for Jordan to post up a mere foot away from the basket or grab an offensive rebound at will.
That said, Hill did show signs of improvement in his post game, regardless of who was defending him. In the first contest against the Phoenix Suns, Hill looked very hesitant to either go straight up to the basket or pivot his way into an easier shot. He would needlessly pump fake upon receiving a pass in the paint and wasted many possessions that could have resulted in dunks or free throws. Against the Nuggets and the Raptors, Hill used multiple post moves that we might have seen from Rockets assistant Jack Sikma back in his day. He used an up and under (the same that we have seen from DeMarcus Cousins) against the Nuggets and though he missed the reverse layup, I'm more concerned his footwork and his motor, each of which appeared to be on display.
Throughout the week-long schedule, Hill showed flashes of offensive ability. Nothing special, mind you, but rather mere competence. The ability to finish in the lane. The ability to make a one-dribble post move. These are aspects of Hill's game that, if improved upon and exhibited with more consistency, can turn him into an effective, rebound-first power forward capable of averaging 10-15 points per game.
Like his offense, Hill's defense was embarrassing at times and impressive at others. He appears to have the Rockets' calling card down as he took at least one or two charges in each game. He also had a nice shot block against the Nuggets that prevented a driving layup. But Hill is no shot blocker, and he needs to realize this. His help will come in the form of quickness and size rather than length. He needs to learn to force players to change shots in the lane rather than to swat at defenders and pick up fouls.
What did we learn about Jordan Hill? He needs to be more consistent and less of a "once a week" type of player.
3. "And the award for 'Most Likely To Become The Third Point Guard On The Roster' goes to... "
Ishmael Smith. Boy, this guy was fun to watch.
I don't think the Rockets need much shooting from the PG position, or at least from a third point guard. That's the ceiling for Smith at this point: third PG. But it's a nice place to be for a player who wasn't expected to make an NBA roster coming out of college. Nevertheless, the way Smith played this week, he certainly deserves a call-up to the Rockets (should he stick around in Rio Grande Valley) at some point. Why? Because he's the best passer I've ever seen come through the Summer League. I haven't seen em all, but I've seen plenty. Ish Smith is atop the list.
Smith has the tempo thing down. He starts up on the break, slows down in the half court. He carefully sets up an offense and lets everything develop around him. Trevon Hughes and Blake Ahearn weren't as patient. They took shots that they shouldn't have taken, made decisions that shouldn't have been made. Maybe the best part about Smith's game are when decides not to do something. He trots around in the half court looking for the best play. And he usually makes it. Whether or not that sets up a good scoring chance is a toss-up, but he won't wreck a possession. That is, unless he shoots it. He's got a nifty floater, but I hate floaters because of all the clanks that Rafer Alston threw up in his day.
Smith isn't ready to play in the NBA just yet, and unless he fixes that shot of his, he'll have a tough time making a roster at all. But he does so many other things well that it would be tough not to throw him into the mix at some point and see what happens. Very impressive week from the Wake Forest guard.
4. Chase Budinger's game is not limited to spot-shooting.
Someone taught Chase Budinger how to dribble, how to slow down and how to find the open man. The shot is fine and will always be fine. But this week was about Chase learning how to do other things respectably and it looks as if he has done that. Nobody's asking him to master every art of the game, just improve enough so that he can see more minutes and not be such a liability. Especially on defense. That looked much better, too.
Budinger belongs on the court. His defense, his intelligence and nearly everything but his shot accuracy from five feet from the basket (no closer, no further) are getting there. We know he can hit the three. He'll keep hitting the three. But wouldn't it be nice for him to come into his own? To become Chase Budinger, the talented player, and not Chase Budinger, the system shooter on the Rockets? I can't wait to see what Budinger will do this year, if only because he appears on the cusp of not becoming an afterthought shooter for the rest of his career. This is no make or break season for Budinger -- just a make season.
5. Alexander Johnson deserves to play somewhere in the NBA.
Nobody wants this more than Alexander Johnson: the chance to find stability with a club, or perhaps just make another roster. We saw him play sporadically over the past few days and witnessed some flat-out barbaric hustle. And for a guy whose calling card appears to be hard work and brute strength, Johnson's got himself some game.
Again, just so we're clear, Alexander Johnson is a very strong, scary man. He could very well be a nice person off the court, but when he's on the hardwood and there's an offensive rebound waiting to be had, he will force you to settle with losing out on the ball due to pure intimidation. If I'm an NBA exec, I want this kind of player on my team.
He rebounds hard. He runs hard. He finishes hard. No wonder the Rockets brought him up to the big leagues near the end of last season. He's exactly the type of player that they love. You want a really bad comparison? He's Charles Gaines, but with talent. Gaines was asked to play on the Summer League team a year ago strictly because he hustled and played big for his size. Apart from that, the two are hardly similar. But these are the type of players that the Rockets enjoy employing. Johnson may not find room on this year's roster. But he's got enough touch around the rim and good enough hands to find a spot somewhere.
Someone give this man a job, or else he might rip apart the NBA with his bare hands.