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Five things learned from the Clippers at NBA Summer League

Five things learned from the Clippers at NBA Summer League
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After spending nearly two weeks in Las Vegas, Jeremy Castleberry couldn’t wait to leave Monday night after the Clippers’ fifth and final game of NBA Summer League.

But before departing, the assistant coach on Tyronn Lue’s staff who served as the lead coach of the summer roster imparted a message to the young players hoping to use this summer as a launching pad for the regular season.

“As a rookie, your leash is a lot shorter than other people,” Castleberry said. “Just letting them know that, and understand that, and the leash was a lot longer with me. Up there, it’s going to be a lot shorter.

“One mistake gets you pulled out and one mistake might not just get you pulled out for a game, you might miss the whole week until someone trusts you again.”

That gulf between Summer League and the regular season is one reason why so many view the summer showcase as something akin to a funhouse mirror when it comes to evaluating a player’s potential — the highly unstructured summer game can both display and distort performances, good and bad.

NBA employees cite summer standouts who later flamed out and eventual stars who at first looked only average as reasons to judge what happens in Las Vegas with a healthy amount of skepticism.

Yet in the case of the Clippers, there was reason to watch closely: With a roster built around 2021 draft picks Keon Johnson, Jason Preston and Brandon Boston Jr., and 20-year-old Jay Scrubb, this was one of more fascinating summers in recent memory. Las Vegas represented the first professional proving ground for a young group the Clippers hope will one day be ready to complement their established core. The first step to doing that, Castleberry added, is following another piece of advice:

“We got a lot of guys in place, we got a lot of pieces in place, so if they’re going to want to see time on the floor it’s going to come on the defensive end,” Castleberry said. “…That’s what I’ve kind of let them know. This was a lot of fun and a lot of these guys got to shoot shots that they probably wouldn’t shoot with our big team so it’s understanding where they’ve got to hang their hat on and that’s got to be on defense.”

With little more than five weeks before training camp opens, five takeaways from Las Vegas Summer League:

Brandon Boston Jr. outperforms some expectations

Boston Jr. laughed after his fourth game upon hearing a media member begin his question by remarking that the lanky, long-armed 51st pick had a “great” season at Kentucky.

“Great season at Kentucky? Whew!” Boston said.

It was a self-deprecating response for the 6-7 forward whose projections as a top-10 talent were derailed, at least in part, by a broken finger on his shooting hand. Summer League was his chance to show why what transpired in Lexington wasn’t the same player entering the league, and the most obvious difference was his scoring. He shot only 44% overall and 33% on three-pointers, but the comfort he gained during his stay in Vegas was obvious and over his last three games made 19 of 37 shots, including 14 of his 21 attempts inside the three-point arc.

Kentucky’s offense served him plenty of catch-and-shoot opportunities that just didn’t fall; this summer he was determined to show off his handle and the way he could get to his spots by attacking close-outs. It was notable, then, that perhaps his most impressive basket was his scooping, right-handed layup against Utah that finished a drive that began about 27 feet from the basket and was made possible by a crossover and hesitation dribble.

There is still work to be done on both ends. He made just four of his 10 free throws. His off-ball defense is hit-or-miss, but as one NBA talent evaluator said, Boston outperformed expectations.

Jason Preston showed he can get downhill

The point guard’s knack for reading the game as it unfolds is why the Clippers wanted Preston, who counts LeBron James, Chris Paul and Steve Nash among the passers he studied most growing up in Orlando, Fla. Even while struggling to get past his defender in his summer debut, he still had eight assists and only one turnover in 24 minutes.

But drawing compliments as a “cerebral” player also can have a downside, as seen during his first two games in which Preston was perhaps overthinking how to manipulate defenses. His breakthrough arrived during the second half of the third, when a directive from the coaching staff finally clicked: Defenders wouldn’t help, and passing lanes wouldn’t open, unless he was aggressive in finding ways to dribble into the paint.

In his first 10 quarters of Summer League, Preston made two of 11 shots, one of five three-pointers and attempted zero free throws. In his last 10 quarters, he made 16 of 30 shots, including five of eight from deep, with six free-throw attempts. The change happened when he realized he had to step into the paint to be a threat.

He’ll need to get faster and stronger — an area of improvement that is decidedly not unique to him among this rookie class — but Preston’s ability to poke holes in defenses already has been seen.

Utah Jazz’s Jarrell Brantley, right, drives into Clippers’ Jason Preston during the first half of an NBA Summer League game on Sunday in Las Vegas.

(John Locher / Associated Press)

Keon Johnson’s athleticism is undeniable, but can his defense earn him playing time?

Of the trio of rookies Johnson, the 21st overall pick had the most difficulty finding a rhythm offensively, shooting 28% on nearly 12 shots per game. The 6-5 wing, who shot 44% at Tennessee last season, said after the draft that he believed he’d taken a step forward offensively during the pre-draft process. Although he would have preferred to show that, nailing jump shots isn’t his only pathway toward playing time, anyway.

The litmus test for Johnson will continue to be how well he can get out in transition, finish at the rim and, per Castleberry’s advice, harness his athleticism for defensive stops. To some within the Clippers, his block at the rim against Utah in the team’s fourth game was the type of play that could help him earn trust during the regular season because it combined his athleticism and awareness, considering he was a weakside defender on the play.

Amir Coffey’s status remains uncertain but he still impressed in two key areas

Two years ago, Coffey arrived at Summer League without any certainty concerning his NBA career only to leave with a two-way contract from the Clippers. Now that contract has run its course and Coffey left Las Vegas as a restricted free agent without a home. The Clippers still very much like the 6-7, rangy defender and it’s very possible he returns, but Coffey is one of several decisions yet to be settled on a roster that hasn’t been finalized. He’s technically eligible to play another G League season, though. Whether that’s enticing is another question.

Playing amid such uncertainty isn’t enviable. Coffey tried to compartmentalize his focus.

“Obviously it’s up in the air right now but when you get between those lines you’ve just got to compete and try to block that out,” Coffey told The Times. “For some guys it’s tough, for other guys it’s easy, but in my opinion I just try to compete every day and try to stay focused on what we got.”

Coffey said he wanted to display areas he had worked on, such as making the right reads and passes off of ball screens and shooting. He endured a brutal start with his three-point shooting and made 33% of his shots overall, but it didn’t stop him from staying aggressive with his dribble penetration.

Castleberry said it would be a mistake to judge his summer by offensive numbers alone, calling Coffey “locked in” after the coaching staff asked him to take more of a leadership role.

“He was more vocal, he was really good on defense chasing, blowing picks up, being in his weakside spots and being strong,” Castleberry said. “A lot of people would probably suggest that maybe he didn’t have a strong summer as he wanted to due to what took place on the offensive end but if you go look at the film and look at what he was capable of doing on the defensive end, I think it would tell another story.”

Jay Scrubb is a changed player from one year ago, but still needs time

Scrubb is not the same player who arrived as a second-round pick out of junior college last fall and not only because his surgically repaired foot is healthy. The 6-5, 20-year-old guard is drastically stronger after a year in an NBA strength program and his defense, while still behind his offense, has closed the gap. Both have helped him garner support internally and he certainly could earn time with the NBA roster during the upcoming season, but he’ll need more consistency, something that was lacking in five games this summer.

After a pair of performances in which he looked to score, and often looked good using his quickness and agility to get open, he focused on setting up others in the third game in what was, he acknowledged, a preview of how he might operate in a regular-season setting when shots are scarce. In the last two games he had more trouble finding the best possible shots, however, a coda that showed the full spectrum of his efficiency during his Vegas stay.

With the G League expected to return to a more “normal” schedule this season after operating in a shortened bubble setting last winter, it’s the kind of stage where minutes will be plentiful for Scrubb in his attempt to go from a junior college draft pick to a legitimate rotation contributor.





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