The best part of any sporting event that matters is determining a champion. I mean really, that's how we judge success right? By the number of titles you've won? Lebron isn't better than Jordan (or Kobe) because he has less rings. Tiger isn't better than Jack because he has less majors. Hell, Friday Night Lights isn't better than Breaking Bad because it won less Emmys. Success, it seems, isn't gauged by anything these days except "what have you done when it mattered most." Look at Eli Manning. Middling quarterback with an uncanny knack for post-season success.
So, it came as no shock to me that the level of intensity in the two summer league games tonight ratcheted up more than a few notches. You see, not only is this the playoffs, but the games were being televised. Live. Amazing what the fear of being embarrassed on Olelo will do for defensive intensity. In any case, a few things stood out for me tonight:
The first, and probably the most shocking: Garrett Nevels smiles! Really, he does, I swear! I saw it with my own eyes (and probably wouldn't have believed it otherwise.) The perma-scowling guard had a hell of a game tonight in a close loss to Keith Shamburger's Clark Hatch Fitness and really, was the sole reason that his team was even close at the end. I know that I've written this briefly before, but Nevels' athleticism really stands out as explosive. Like when he jumps, it's so forceful that I'm terrified he's going to tear all the muscles in his body explosive (sorta the same feeling you get watching Russell Westbrook.) Comparisons were thrown around to Monta Ellis, but I'm not really interested in that. Moreso, I'm wondering where he fits into our offense for next year. He told me that he's worked hard on his ball handling, which becomes obvious when you watch him play. I think he'll be deadly on the pick and roll with Fotu, both because of his shooting, as well as because the vacuum created by his first step will suck in the defense to the point of disintegrating its spacing and balance. The most impressive thing about him though, was how much he cared about getting the win. Someone on the message boards made the astute observation that he looked like he would have killed himself if it meant advancing. And I absolutely believe it. In the aftermath, it looked like the disappointment from the loss nearly did the trick itself.
The next thing that stood out were the two different versions of Aaron Valdes' that appeared on the court. I've waxed poetic about my infatuation with his game (props to Mama and Papa Valdes!!) but I think tonight really put all of that on display. Last year Valdes was, for the most part, just an athlete. Now, after a summer of working on his shot and his ball handling, he's becoming a more complete player. He told me afterwards that he trained with Niko and Stefan (who were both on his club team in high school) and credited getting close with them as one of the main reasons for his staggering improvement. In the first half, we saw freshman Valdes. Tentative, uncertain and raw. He didn't really look to shoot and instead was more focused on getting his team involved. He didn't aggressively rebound. He didn't leak out on the break to try to get something going towards the basket with the defense on its heels. And he ended with 2 points. Then, for whatever reason in the second half, the light turned on. He started bombing threes. He started hitting everything in and around the low block (the majority coming from the left side.) He started dunking! This assertive, confident Valdes looked like, and for all intents and purposes was, a star. Trust me. People noticed.
The last thing that I observed was how much Mike Thomas continues to baffle me. He has all the talent in the world. He's big. He's got long arms. He's got a really nice shooting stroke. He's a lefty (which James Harden has stated is worth at least 6 extra points a game). He's got the legendary practice stories (guys swear that one time he dunked on Stefan like Lebron. They dropped Lebron!). So why hasn't that translated into the summer league yet? I mean, it's not as though he COULDN'T dominate. It's almost like…he chooses not to? As though he prefers to defer to his teammates, even when many of them couldn't hold a can to his ability. C'mon Mike! Ain't no time like the present time. If Clark Hatch is gonna have a shot at advancing (and beating a Solar Universe team with Spearman) I think Mike will have to change his focus. It's not being selfish. It's just winning.