Summer League Preview: Old Mistakes and Fresh Beginnings

Morris: "That backup spot behind Steve Nash? I'll take it now. Thank you so kindly for leaving, Ramon." (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Using summer league as a means to project draft picks and other prospects is always a difficult endeavor because the low level of competition often creates results that simply end up being fool's gold. This is the time of year when Adam Morrison can blow his opposition away to the tune of more than 20 points a game, or Derrick Caracter appears to be a serviceable big with a fair amount of potential. Half of the rosters are stocked by players from the D-League and elsewhere who have almost no chance of even getting a training camp invite, and in many cases, are auditioning less for NBA squads than international teams far more likely to give them a paycheck. Even among the draft picks and those with roster spots, there is a large disparity with blue chip prospects, those who edged in at the end of the second round, and everyone else in between. Still, when it comes down to it, tape is tape and it would be deeply incorrect to say that there is not significant value we can take from the proceedings that begin today.

This is especially the case since the Lakers have an abnormally large amount of draft picks and young players, present and former, on the squad, six of whom, tentatively or otherwise, have spots on the official roster. These include Devin Ebanks, Christian Eyenga, Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock, Darius Johnson-Odom, and Robert Sacre. Those of you with long memories will recognize the names of Chinemelu Elonu and Ater Majok, very late second round picks whose rights the Lakers own and have been playing in Europe until now. Aside from Reeves Nelson, a familiar name for followers of UCLA basketball, the rest of the roster is essentially made up of the aforementioned group of players who very likely face no chance at making the roster. There are success stories that rise out of this bunch such as Gary Neal, but by and large, the names that should interest you are the ones listed above. After the jump, we will examine each player on the team, their expected performance, and how summer league could change their role on the parent squad.

  • Devin Ebanks -- To put it simply, Ebanks should dominate every single game. He is by far the most polished player on the team, and his two years of NBA experience should be on view whenever he is on the court. Whether via attacking the rim on cuts or the drive, displaying his decent midrange stroke, or ably defending the opposition's biggest wing threat, he definitely has the ability to pass up the decent numbers he put up as a rookie in the 2009 summer league. While he is likely not deserving of the starting spot he received at the start of last season, he certainly has shown that he could be a good rotation player, his memorable defensive effort against Kevin Durant near the end of the regular season being the most prominent example, and the best thing he can do for himself is to go out and prove he is deserving by thoroughly showing that he is a few notches above everyone else.
  • Christian Eyenga -- Eyenga is here to show that he is more than a stiff with a lot of hops, and to his credit, many of the Lakers beat writers have reported him tirelessly working on his game thus far this offseason. If he can channel that raw ability into some real basketball skills, whether it is his handle, jumper, or defensive prowess, he very well could edge into the wing rotation due to the dearth of athleticism on the roster. Much like Shannon Brown, another high-flier who was a supposed throw-in as part of a larger trade, the Lakers are hoping that Eyenga can become a part of the rotation, especially since he is on a cheap rookie deal with options going out until 2015, something that could make him a valuable asset to the cash conscious Lakers. Eyenga certainly has much farther to go on his development curve than Brown did, but the potential is there nonetheless.
  • Darius Morris -- The stakes couldn't be higher than Morris, who is on the last year of his rookie deal and has an golden opportunity to claim the backup point spot Steve Blake currently occupies, as well as a chance to learn at the feet of one of the best floor generals to ever play the game in Steve Nash. It is unlikely that Blake is leaving the Lakers anytime soon, but that makes the bar Morris has to clear to claim his rotation spot a much lower one given Blake's ineffectiveness last season at running the offense. With Nash changing the dynamic of the Laker offense to an even more pick-and-roll centric attack, it would behoove the team to see if Morris, who displayed excellent court vision as a sophomore at Michigan, can provide similar strengths off the bench as a traditional distributing point. It is likely that Morris will be given a starting gig and the ball in his hands every game to prove if he is capable of this.
  • Andrew Goudelock -- While Goudelock's long-term position is likely at the point and displaying good court vision and passing ability is important for his prospects, his immediate concern should be proving that he can be an able catch-and-shoot specialist in the Lakers' offense. More than ever, the Lakers need players who can space the floor, and for a brief stretch last season when he filled the spot of an injured Steve Blake, Goudelock appeared as if he could be a consistent contributor in that regard. Past this, if Goudelock can successfully integrate his shooting ability, the tremendously accurate floater he displayed last season, and enough point guard skills to pass as a backup, he could have quite the long future in the league.
  • Darius Johnson-Odom -- DJO is likely Goudelock's chief competitor for a rotation spot, as his athleticism, longer wingspan, and toughness make him generally a better defensive prospect than Goudelock, something that is likely to endear him to the defensive-minded Mike Brown. As we wrote in the initial reaction article on draft night, DJO is essentially a prototypical two guard who happens to be three inches shorter than the average player at the position. Nevertheless, his solid athleticism should shine in the relatively free flowing summer league game, and if he can demonstrate the catch-and-shoot ability that was a staple of his game in college, he could make significant inroads into the mindset of the Lakers' brass before training camp even starts.
  • Robert Sacre -- Sacre's biggest objective is basically to drive home that he isn't another in the endless line of seven foot stiffs who have been corralled onto a basketball court. There is a clear need for a backup five in the frontcourt rotation behind Andrew Bynum, and Sacre needs to show that he can (1) adequately defend the pick-and-roll, something he did very well in college due to his smarts and lateral quickness; (2) find a way to score despite his floor bound game, whether in the post or via capitalizing on his superb free throw accuracy by breaking out a midrange jumper, especially off the pick-and-pop; and (3) be tough around the rim, both offensively and defensively, as he was a bit timid about throwing his weight around against smaller bigs in college. Of all the six players mentioned thus far, Sacre is the one most in danger of being left off the roster, but he will have his chance to prove that he is deserving.
  • Ater Majok -- Oh, Ater Majok. Yours truly ripped this pick a year ago for not being Isaiah Thomas (good call) or Ben Hansborough (not so good), and Majok certainly hasn't done anything to dispel that impression through his mediocre European play. Now, he definitely is a physical marvel: a 6'10'' forward with a 7'7'' (!) wingspan -- that's the same wingspan as Shaq for comparison -- and solid athleticism. In that regard, one can understand why the Lakers' front office would say, "Why not?" and take a leap of faith here. His pitiful statistics at Connecticut and everywhere else are working very hard against this notion, as is his extremely raw game, but either way, it will be interesting to see which view is validated when he steps onto the court.
  • Chinemelu Elonu -- The Lakers' second round pick in 2009, Elonu has been toiling in Europe since then and has been putting up decent numbers in the highest division of the French national league. At Texas A&M, Elonu's game was fairly unpolished, and while he had the physical attributes of a NBA big, he didn't have the skill set. Honestly, there has been precious little to connect Elonu to the Lakers ever since he was drafted, so this summer league will essentially determine whether he remains in Europe for the rest of his career, something fairly likely to come about.
  • Gary Flowers, Lawrence Hill, Julian Khazzouh, Toure Murry, Kevin Palmer -- Grouping these five guys together because they basically, for lack of a better word, constitute the scrub portion of the roster. You never want to say never, but it is very unlikely that any of these five have a shot at getting a camp invite, and are really more or less here to fill out the roster. Of the five, Lawrence Hill, a 6'8'' power forward who played his college ball at Stanford, is likely the most interesting prospect, as he performed respectably in the D-League last year, averaging 12.9 points per game on 49% shooting while pulling down 7.9 caroms per contest. Impressively, he maintained that high field goal percentage while hitting 43.4% of his threes, so he has some promise as a stretch four in the league. As for the rest, Flowers averaged 3.8 points per game for the D-Fenders last year, Khazzouh is an Australian center who portrayed a Wookiee in Star Wars: Episode III, Murry went undrafted out of Wichita State last month, and Palmer had a decent season last year in the D-League for the Austin Toros.
  • Reeves Nelson -- Nelson deserves some special attention, both for his interest to UCLA fans aware of his checkered past and since he is very different from the five players above. To give a better account of Nelson's situation, I will defer here to Dex, who was far closer to the situation at UCLA and what Nelson perpetrated there:

I like that the Lakers are looking at Reeves Nelson, and not because I like Reeves Nelson. In his two-plus years at UCLA he set new standards for being a hideous teammate and almost singlehandedly brought down the Ben Howland regime. But the kid can play some, and if he’s straightened himself out he could be a sneaky-good addition to the Lakers’ roster. I should probably start from the beginning.

Reeves is a 20-year-old power forward from Modesto. He’s listed as 6’8" but I don’t think he’s that tall. Let’s call him 6’7". He joined UCLA in 2009 as a four-star recruit and had a very promising freshmen year on a sub-0.500 team. He shot 65% from the field and, per 36 minutes in a slow-paced system, averaged 17 points, 9 rebounds, a block and a steal. His sophomore year was even better. Reeves became the Bruins’ primary offensive option, led the team in scoring and rebounding and made first-team All Pac-10. UCLA finished second in the conference, reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, and Nelson’s steadily evolving play was a big reason the Bruins entered last season a top 25 team.

During his first two college seasons, rumors about Reeves began circulating in UCLA circles. Word was, the kid was kind of a dick. A "locker room cancer," in typical hoops parlance. But he was a cancer who produced on the floor and happened to arrive in Westwood during a down cycle in program, so Howland apparently felt he had to coddle the guy. The situation combusted early in Nelson’s junior year.

UCLA began the 2011-12 campaign with a shocking home loss to Loyola Marymount. During the game Nelson went into heavy sulk mode. He tuned out Howland in team huddles and loafed around the court. Three days later Howland suspended Nelson indefinitely. After a short sit Reeves was reinstated until the Bruins lost at home to Texas on December 3, dropping their record to 2-5. Howland benched him in the second half of that game, and while his teammates were struggling down the stretch Nelson was seen laughing and pointing at a few people in the crowd were chanting his name. This is not what he should’ve been doing. After three days passed, Howland bum-rushed him right the hell out of the program.

UCLA observers could only guess at how it all went wrong until February of this year, when Sports Illustrated dropped an incredible story that peeled back the curtain. The article detailed an epic run of misbehavior on Nelson’s part, including repeated fights with teammates, intentionally injuring other players and – I kid you not – pissing on one of his teammate’s clothes. Reeves now has a defamation lawsuit pending against Time, Inc., the parent company of SI, and George Dohrmann, the author of the piece. After his dismissal from UCLA, Reeves played for a professional team in Lithuania but was total crap. BC Zalgiris released him after five games in which he shot 28% from the field. And now he’s on the Lakers’ summer-league team.

Nelson’s career went off track in hideous fashion. Back when he sort of had things together, though, he showed skills that could someday give him an NBA career. The guy he most reminds me of is Matt Barnes, and not only because they’re both from UCLA and tattooed from head to foot. Like Matt, Reeves is at his best in the paint, beating guys to the rim by outworking them and getting up off the floor fast. Nelson looks like an "energy guy" and he is, but he’s not just that. He’s a good all-around athlete. He can handle the ball a little and has a few post moves, though he’s too short to play in the post regularly in the NBA. He has a midrange game and was starting to develop outside range when his time at UCLA came to a crashing end.

From the Lakers' perspective, he's a scratch-off ticket. If he's straightened himself out he could be a low-cost, medium-upside bench addition. If not he's easy enough to get rid of.

And there you have it. This would go down fairly easily into the "talented headcase reclamation project" folder, although what Nelson did at UCLA to piss off his teammates -- literally and figuratively -- and coach is truly impressive. Of course, as Dex indicates, throwing Nelson onto to the team is essentially a no-risk proposition unless he starts fighting one of our rookies or something, an offense that would likely terminate any hope he has of entertaining a professional basketball career. My suspicion here is that he is going to flame out fairly miserably on the court production-wise, but it hardly is a loss should that occur.

The scene at summer league is ultimately going to be far more focused on the top six players mentioned and how they will possibly impact the Lakers' rotation. After the initial curiosity of watching the other players wears off, chances are that we will be begging for them to get off the floor so we can get more time to adequately evaluate the prospects who will matter more for the Lakers in the long-term. This is only a small part of the overall process the Lakers brass is going to utilize to view these players, but it is a start and the road to training camp and possibly a real role on the team begins today.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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