Six conclusions from the Wizards' Summer League

I was originally going to do a grades column for the Wizards' Summer League participants, but decided against that because a) the only important players to grade are the five guys who were on the roster last year and b) it's very difficult to grade each individual coach. It also seems like a bit of a waste to just run a grades column because I could have graded these players from home just as easily as I could have in person in Las Vegas. That's no slight on all of you, but I wanted to sum up Summer League in such a way that could incorporate both what I saw on the court and what I experienced/heard/learned/etc. from talking to people affiliated with the team and to other media types.

Hence, we're going back to the "six reasons" template. There may be more or less than six key conclusions in your mind, but six is an easy-to-understand number that has worked here in the past (see this, this and this). It's important to note that these conclusions are inferences and are not to be treated as fact. They're just big-picture senses from what I gathered out here in Vegas. Feel free to add more of them or challenge them in the comments section.

1. This year may be more of a development year than we initially expected.

The one thing that really struck me about the Wizards' Summer League team was how much the key young players on the team were being drilled specifically to play roles in Flip Saunders' system. Javaris Crittenton probably rubbed off the same side screen and roll to initiate the offense 100 times in five games. Nick Young's work at running through screens a la Rip Hamilton has been well-documented by others (and will be documented further here, hopefully). JaVale McGee was running around setting screens and scoring on garbage points instead of catching in the low block. Andray Blatche, when he played, caught the ball in the same spot in the low post or high post repeatedly. On defense, we saw some zone sets at times from the Wizards, though most of those came early in the week.

One could argue this is no reason to praise the coaching staff, since if the guys are on the team anyway, the coaches should be developing them in Summer League to fit the team, but on the other hand, Summer League, as interesting as it can be, is often not a place for organized play. Many of the teams I watched in Summer League didn't seem to have a system that mirrored their head coaches.' Many others were simply run-and-shoot teams, content on pushing the pace rather than running a bunch of sets. The Wizards were one of the few that had some cohesion. That doesn't mean the organization always paid off, but it does mean they were developing their roster guys a little bit more specifically than other teams that simply wanted to see what their prospects could do.

Take this observation with the positive vibe I got from talking to Ernie Grunfeld and others associated with the team, and I get the sense that the heavy lifting is done with this year's roster. Management seems to want to give Flip and company a chance to see how these young players fit into his system before dealing them away for clear upgrades. I could be wrong, but I doubt we'll see any more trades until midseason.

2. The old habits are going away, but only slowly.

It's always difficult to tell how serious Nick Young is when he talks. I figured as much when I read quotes from him and I know as much now that I've had the experience of interviewing him or listening to others interview him. So rather than bash him for this quote, I'm going to use it to prove another point: this development to fit into Flip's worldview is far from complete.

"Eventually [the freelancing] is gonna come back, but I'm doing so good with this, I'm gonna stay with this for right now," he said Friday evening. "This is what they want me to do, I shouldn't change it. I've been working all summer on this."

Proof is also in the pudding for Young. He scored quite efficiently, but he only had four assists in five games. Rip Hamilton, the oft-compared archatype for Young's game, has a career assist percentage of 19.6%, very high for a shooting guard. He's learning new skills and doing well, but there's still more work to be done.

The same is the case for Javaris and JaVale. Javaris is becoming less of a maniac driving to the basket, but he still pushes too quickly a lot in transition and still breaks plays to make ill-fated drives to the hoop. JaVale is still out of position a lot on defense and still calls for the ball in the low post a ton when he isn't a primary option on the play.

The coaches and players all know this stuff to be true. Don Zeirden essentially told me there's still a lot of work to be done with JaVale. Sam Cassell told me after the Clipper game that they're still working with Nick on driving and passing off screens when the situation prompts it rather than just jacking long shots all the time. Javaris himself told me he's still desperately balancing the attack vs. stay efficient dilemma. There's nothing wrong with these guys not being finished products.

The only reason this point matters is its implicaitons. While you have to love the Wizards' commitment to development and a core philosophy, they still have to work to get there. With a team ready to contend and the opportunity for major in-game development minutes for these young guys shrinking, it's going to be tougher than ever to get them all to reach their full potential.

3. Versatility vs. functionality

I'm not too too concerned with Dominic McGuire's subpar Summer League performance. While it was quite terrible -- McGuire shot just 21 percent from the field and committed way more turnovers (3.5/game) than assists (2.3) -- it's not the end of the world. What concerns me with McGuire is the confusion that might be resulting from his supposed "versatility," as well as the implications that may have on the rest of the roster.

"Versatility" is classic Ernie Grunfeldism. No more than three times during our conversation did he laud the versatility of his roster, even going through each position to illustrate his team's depth.

In terms of development, however, it seems the Wizards have a lot of players who almost have too many skills for their own good. The obvious example of this is Andray Blatche. Dan Steinberg quoted a league observer who suggested Blatche needs to focus on one thing he's great at instead of trying to do several things he's good at. The observer is right. The problem is that Ernie and company are simultaneously touting Blatche's "versatility" and may want him to cycle between the center and power forward positions. This has been the problem with Blatche's development under Eddie Jordan, so we're not exactly talking about a new problem here.

However, we might be talking about a new problem with Dominic McGuire. Ernie Grunfeld seems to think McGuire can play some power forward next year, in addition to playing shooting guard and small forward. This is going to be difficult for McGuire, who shed lots of weight last year to become more of a wing, but now may need to add weight to be able to play inside at times. In watching him this week, I saw somebody who had too much running through his head. No confidence in his jumper. No sense of when to drive and when to pull back. Too much pushing and losing the ball. To his credit, McGuire found a way to be useful even while passive, but he played like a guy thinking too much. That can happen when you have to learn how to be both a wing and a big at the same time.

This may end up being nothing, but I think it's worth watching the versatility vs. functionality issue. Can our young players learn to be functional role players while also being versatile ones? The answer may provide the key to our season.

4. Sam Cassell is going to be a huge asset.

Sam Cassell sparked a lot of enthusiasm from many of you because he always seemed like a head coach in waiting. I liked the hire too, but a part of me worried about how he might be too fiery and too much of a hollerer. Would he have the proper patience? Wyn from Canis Hoopus and I talked about Cassell a lot this week, with me throwing that point out there as a reason to worry.

I talked to Sam once this week (the second time, he turned down an interview because it was too close to the game) and I watched him coach a lot, and tne thing that really struck me was how complimentary and patient he was with all these young players. Randy Wittman yelled and screamed, but Cassell was always clapping, jumping up to offer words of encouragement and patting people on the back. When I talked to him, he was glowing about all the young players. Even John Edwards, Alade Aminu and Josh Heytfelt (and apparently Jason Rich too). I expected him to be, well, Jamison-like in his words ("he's good but he has to be consistent and work"). Instead, he was overwhelmingly positive and communicative.

It's no coincidence that the team's two best games came with Cassell as coach. He's decorated, communicative and cool. He commands respect. Young guys and vets alike will listen to him. Between the tactician Saunders and the drill seargent Wittman, Cassell's style fits in perfectly.

5. Andray Blatche didn't need to be here.

The Wizards are spinning Andray Blatche's presence positively, but he really didn't need to be playing in these games. That's not to say he played badly, but him playing meant the following:

  • One NBA player had to sit out every game, stunting people's development
  • There were fewer shots to go around
  • There were fewer chances for the non-roster bigs on the roster (Heytfelt, Aminu, Edwards, etc.) to show what they could do
  • There was less time for JaVale McGee to shine

Blatche had two good games and one really bad one, but the consistent thing in all of them was how Blatche scored his points. He dominated the ball and often broke the flow of the offense to do his thing. Again, it's no coincidence the team's two best games came when Blatche didn't play.

I'm very confident about Blatche and I like what he's saying about Flip Saunders. There's also no doubt he needs development. But that doesn't necessarily mean he should have played in games. Why not have Blatche work out with the team, but not play? Why not have him work out in Las Vegas with Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller? Why not keep one assistant coach around to do drills with Blatche? Why not hire a big man's coach (the one thing this coaching staff still needs)?

And that leads us to our final point...

6. We're getting closer to a JaVale McGee/Andray Blatche death match (not literally, of course).

I mentioned this a few times, but JaVale McGee was absolutely outstanding in the two games Andray Blatche didn't play. In the games he did play? Listless, out of it and ineffective. It looked like McGee and Blatche really struggled sharing the low block. Blatche would camp there and isolate, leaving McGee to just hang out on the weakside. And when McGee wasn't active offensively, he was also inactive defensively.

But when McGee had the inside all to himself, he just seemed like a different player. He ran the floor with more aggression. He was more disciplined on defense. He finished more plays. He attacked the offensive glass more. None of that is Andray Blatche's fault, and both of those players can and are very useful. But there's even more evidence now that the two are just very bad on-court fits with each other. That's a problem both this year and down the road.

Some other thoughts:

  • Team cohesion is at an all-time high: We saw Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller and Mike James at the games this week. That's great team cohesion and more players than we saw from other teams.
  • Flip Saunders may not end up being better than Eddie Jordan, but the guys all needed a new voice: The Blatche stuff was the best evidence of this. It's perhaps true that Eddie Jordan shouldn't necessarily be blamed for Andray Blatche, but regardless, these young guys needed a new voice.
  • The other guys didn't really get a fair shake: The unfortunate consequence of using Summer League to really develop the roster guys is that the non-roster guys didn't play much. I left Summer League knowing very little about guys like Aminu, Heytfelt, Edwards, Tyrese Rice and Rich. That's unfortunate, though understandable.
  • This wasn't about wins and losses: I largely left Vegas very pleased with our Summer League performance. Sure, the Wizards lost twice, and two of their wins were against teams that went 0-5. But the important thing is that the young guys were working on new skills and working within the framework of Flip Saunders' offense. Ultimately, any positive film study and development that comes out of failing at times in the Summer League is better than winning every game.
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