LAS VEGAS — Typically the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas signifies the end of the NBA calendar. Typically it’s a lively event where people come from all over to get a glimpse at the brightest new prospects of the league and where reporters are able to hobnob casually with scouts, agents and team executives as the games are played.
But, things aren’t quite typical yet.
The NBA is doing its best to get back to normal after a year of everything being turned upside down, but there is work yet to be done. There was no Summer League last year and this one wasn’t quite normal, not only because it began a month later than it normally would.
Masks were required and while vaccinated reporters were allowed some short, socially distanced postgame interviews with players and coaches, there were reminders everywhere that we aren’t there yet.
The league is hoping that by starting the 2021-22 season on schedule, that this time next year things will be closer to normal. There’s no way of knowing if it will all turn out that way, but for the sake of doing something normal, we might as well go over how the Utah Jazz fared in Summer League play and what we learned.
The Jazz have continued to put their faith and trust in Trent Forrest, signing the guard to a two-way contract and giving him another chance, and there seems to be good reason.
I won’t deny having had my doubts about Forrest. A point guard that shoots below 20% from beyond the arc definitely raises some red flags. But there are a couple of reasons to still believe he has real potential in this league.
First, Forrest does not shy away from his jump-shooting deficiencies. He owns his flaws and by all accounts has been working really hard to improve his shot. He’s putting the time in and taking shots during games, even without the likelihood of them going in, and hopefully with more time on the court and more reps he’ll be able to improve.
Secondly, it’s hard to find a flaw in any other part of his game. He’s creative and fast and smart on the court. His passes are crisp and he is surprisingly athletic while being able to finish with both hands around the rim. The fact of the matter is that Mike Conley is not getting any younger and Conley and Joe Ingles won’t be around forever, so the Jazz are going to have to have a backup point guard capable of being a solid playmaker and Forrest looks like he could be the real deal.
While Forrest had the best showing for the Jazz, Udoka Azubuike wasn’t far behind.
The second-year center knows what people say about him. He knows that he wasn’t the draft pick that fans might have wanted for the Jazz and he knows that not being able to play for the majority of his rookie season was another disappointment.
But Azubuike can’t change which team drafted him at what spot and what the perception of that selection was. What he can do is stay motivated to prove that he belongs in the NBA and there are very few players I have encountered who seem more motivated.
Azubuike does have areas where he needs to improve, but the majority of his mistakes seem to come from his overzealous nature on the court. He sometimes is out of position for rebounds because he chases blocks like he needs them to stay alive. He’s inconsistent from the free-throw line and doesn’t have a great percentage, but he’s big and strong and never shies away from contact, and when he has the ball in his hands close to the rim it’s a rarity that he misses.
As far as developing centers go, Azubuike is a very intriguing prospect. With Hassan Whiteside on a one-year deal with the Jazz, it could leave the door open for competition at reserve center or at least clear the way for Azubuike to assume that position in the 2022-23 season.
Elijah Hughes’ commitment to improving on defense is admirable. It’s also the kind of thing that doesn’t really stand out through five Summer League games.
He’s right to want to get better on that side of the ball. He has the frame and athleticism that would lend itself to being a versatile NBA defender, and with his pure scoring ability it could make him the kind of well-rounded player that always has a spot in this league.
Even though Hughes wasn’t making big flashy plays, there were some new sides of him on display in Las Vegas.
Hughes is a lot smarter on the floor than he gets credit for. He knows how to come around screens tight and create his own space. He’s also pretty adept at drawing fouls, which shouldn’t be an undervalued skill.
Wait and see
There are other players that were on the Jazz Summer League squad that are definitely capable and worthy of a shot in the NBA.
There’s Juwan Morgan, who Jazz Summer League coach Bryan Bailey described as the glue of the team, but whether a team takes a chance on him remains to be seen. There’s Jarrell Brantley, who has a chance to be a lock-down defender capable of guarding all five positions depending on the situation. He just needs to be a little more consistent on the offensive end.
Dakota Mathias is about as pure of a scorer as there is. Nate Sestina is strong and plays to every bit of his 6-foot-9 stature while being able to knock down outside shots. And finally, MaCio Teague could probably find a spot as a reserve guard given the time to develop a little more.
The Jazz still have one more two-way contract at their disposal and they will want to send some players to the SLC Stars and keep an eye on their growth. For many players on the Jazz’s summer roster, as with every other team’s summer roster, we’ll have to just wait and see what happens.