Why Lonzo Ball may be part of the best rookie point-guard class ever

LAS VEGAS – News, notes and insights as the NBA’s summer league comes to a close …

Quickly to the point
With the understanding that evaluating a player based on summer-league play is akin to liking clothes because they look sharp on a mannequin, the buzz in Sin City this month is that this playmaking class has a chance to be special. Top pick Markelle Fultz bowed out early with an injury, but the dynamic Fultz is considered close to can’t miss. Lonzo Ball had stretches of brilliance – as chronicled here – while De’Aaron Fox flashed the speed and midrange game that made him a star at Kentucky.

Who could put this crop among the elite: Dennis Smith Jr. The Mavericks’ point guard drew rave reviews last week, with rival executives praising his athleticism and polish. There were several reasons Smith slipped to ninth on draft night – a rocky season at North Carolina State that was plagued by inconsistency being the most influential – but his talent was never in question, and Dallas officials are already talking about Smith as a Day One starter.

Asked what Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told him to focus on over the next three months, Smith was succinct.

“Efficiency,” Smith told The Vertical. “He’s been telling me to be efficient on both ends, make the right plays, get my teammates involved and be a great leader.”

Lonzo Ball is defended by fellow summer-league sensation Dennis Smith Jr. (Getty)
Lonzo Ball is defended by fellow summer-league sensation Dennis Smith Jr. (Getty)

Ranking a point-guard class is subjective – the 2008 group, headlined by Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, has a pair of MVPs; the ’09 class, led by Stephen Curry, had nine that developed into starters – but there is no question this group has the talent to compete. Of the five point guards drafted in the top nine, four are likely opening-night starters and New York’s Frank Ntilikina projects to get plenty of playing time on a rebuilding team. Throw in Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, another summer-league standout, and this lottery class is loaded.

“Coming in, we knew it was going to be a great point-guard class and in summer league we proved it,” Fox said. “None of this matters at the end of the day. What matters is what we do when we actually get in the league in the regular season.”

Jayson Tatum shines
If Lonzo Ball was the biggest star at summer league, Tatum, a sinewy 6-foot-8 forward, was arguably its best player. Tatum dazzled scouts with his footwork and polished midrange game, while reminding Celtics coaches of a former Boston great.

“He really reminds me of Paul Pierce,” Celtics assistant coach Walter McCarty told The Vertical. “With the footwork and how he scores, just lulling you to sleep. With Paul, he could get to his shot no matter who was guarding him. Tatum plays the same way.”

In coach Brad Stevens’ position-less system, Tatum has a chance to make an immediate impact. The Celtics are crowded at the wing positions, but Tatum has the size and length to make an impact as a small-ball power forward. And while strength, particularly in the lower body, will be an issue early, Tatum has the offensive skills to be a matchup nightmare in his first season.

“He just has a natural ability to score,” McCarty said. “Right hand, left hand, rise up and finish, shoot over you. He has it all. The footwork is impeccable. The one-legged jump shots, the step-throughs, the in-and-outs. He really has a chance to be special. And he wants to be a great.”

It figures to be an interesting season in Boston. The addition of Gordon Hayward fortified a top-seeded roster, while dismal seasons by the Nets (who will fork over their 2018 first-round pick) and Lakers (who owe Boston their ’18 pick if it falls between Nos. 2 and 5) will help the Celtics continue to build for the future. In addition, rival executives expect Boston to be keeping close tabs on New Orleans, which is entering a critical season. The Pelicans are committed to seeing if an Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins frontcourt can work, but if the season goes awry, it’s widely believed the Celtics will make a strong run at Davis, who is under contract through 2020.

Reseeding shelved … for now
A frequent topic among team executives was the imbalance of the conferences, with an Eastern Conference talent drain this offseason widening the gap.

“You might need 50 wins to get into the playoffs in the West,” said a Western Conference exec. “In the East, 37 might get you in. I’ve never seen it like this.”

The possibility of reseeding Nos. 1-16, regardless of conference, has been floated before, but seems to have picked up new momentum. Everywhere, that is, except the league office. Speaking to the media after the NBA’s owners meetings last week, commissioner Adam Silver said the league’s position on reseeding has not changed.

“We considered it fairly thoroughly about two years ago through a committee process and at the Board of Governors meeting, and ultimately we concluded that given all the focus on sports science, health of our players, impact of travel, it didn’t make sense, at least at this time, to move to a balanced schedule, because we play an imbalanced schedule,” Silver said. “Teams in the East obviously play each other more than teams in the West, and the notion is if you’re going to seed one through 16, the only fair way to do it is then have a balanced schedule throughout the season.

“So ultimately, I don’t recall the precise calculations, but it resulted in significantly more travel for our teams, especially for those teams on the coast. The conclusion was that at least given the state of travel, the state of science on travel, we’re better off staying in the conference system the way we have it, and of course the same implications for the playoffs; the notion, again, of having teams crisscrossing the country in the first round didn’t seem to make sense to our teams.

“I will say that even since two years ago when we looked at making the change and decided not to make it, there’s only one team that had a top-16 record that didn’t make the playoffs, and that was the Bulls two years ago. So I think when you look at the actual numbers, it’s not as out of kilter as you might think it would be. But will we look at it again? I assume we will. I think for the league, I think many of us felt a one-through-16 playoff made more sense. And maybe there’s also the potential – it’s in some ways a separate issue – should you reseed after every round as some leagues do? I think those are the things we’ll continue to look at, but it’s not at the top of the agenda right now.”

The Carmelo Anthony issue is still hanging over the Knicks. (AP)
The Carmelo Anthony issue is still hanging over the Knicks. (AP)

‘Melo on the move?
The Knicks’ decision to pause trade talks for Carmelo Anthony was likely temporary as incoming general manager Scott Perry gets involved in the process. Portland guard C.J. McCollum caused a social-media stir over the weekend by posting a picture of Anthony in a Blazers uniform, and Portland has been part of the Anthony trade talks, league sources told The Vertical.

With Anthony yet to indicate he would waive his no-trade clause to play in Portland, the Blazers’ early involvement has largely been as a third-team facilitator for New York and Houston, with the teams’ inability to find a fourth team to absorb the contract of Meyers Leonard stalling at least one version of the deal, three sources with knowledge of the talks told The Vertical.

Expectations are that talks between the Knicks and Rockets will resume in the coming days, with Houston determined to pair Anthony with James Harden and Chris Paul. Yet the complicated nature of an Anthony deal – not the least of which is the two years and $54 million Anthony has remaining on his contract – makes it difficult, likely requiring at least one more team to complete.

Quick shots
■ Has anyone had a better offseason than Scott Perry? Fired in the purge in Orlando, Perry was credited with helping Sacramento complete its best offseason in years as the team’s vice president of basketball operations before the Knicks hired him to be their general manger.

The Kings’ draft and free-agency plans were largely in place before Perry’s hiring, but Perry solidified frayed relationships with player agents and improved Sacramento’s reputation among players. In New York, Perry will have to prove himself as a talent evaluator. The Knicks are committed to going young, and Perry will have to continue to build a team around Kristaps Porzingis while avoiding the bad contracts that have hamstrung the team’s cap flexibility for years.

■ Speaking of the Knicks: two years, $8.9 million for Ron Baker? Whom exactly were they bidding against?

■ Speaking of the Kings: Sacramento has yet to say whether it will replace Perry in the front office, but it would be wise to do so. One name to consider: Justin Zanik, the Bucks’ former assistant GM who was collateral damage in a power struggle in Milwaukee. Zanik is widely respected for his work in Utah and has strong relationships throughout the league.

■ It’s been a strong offseason in Denver, which rebounded from a failed attempt to land Kevin Love to sign Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million deal – with a team option for the third season. The Nuggets have been clear: They are building a team around the talents of Nikola Jokic, and in Millsap they see an ideal complementary player.

“The style of person and the style of player,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly told The Vertical when asked what he liked about Millsap. “In Atlanta, they played an offense that was difficult to guard. The ball flew around. [Mike] Malone did a great job last year making us one of those teams. So the style-of-play fit is seamless. Who he is as a guy, his work ethic, his presence is going to be invaluable. We have been chasing him for several years, and we think his presence is going to be huge.”

■ Marquese Chriss packed on some weight this offseason – and not all of it looked good on him. The second-year Suns forward struggled defensively at summer league, and may need to slim down again over the next few months to rebuild some of the momentum he had in the second half of last season.

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