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I love the NBA Summer League. I know, I know. We're supposed to tune into the summer league for the first minute or two, check out our team's first round pick, say Oh he looks good, then turn the TV off and wait until the season starts. But I can't stop. I'll admit it - I'm addicted. For the past two weeks, I have come home from work and watched all the summer league games that I recorded throughout the day. It's my cocaine. When it ends in a few days, I will be lost. If you see someone who resembles me, in a dark alley buying some tapes on the DL from a sketchy drug/summer league tape dealer, it isn't me.....
...But anyway, one of the best aspects of the Summer League is the fact that - outside of the high draft picks - everyone is playing for their lives. No one is safe. Guys like Tim Abromaitis and Andy Rautins are fighting for their NBA careers. While most of these players will never be more than the 10th or 11th guy off the bench for NBA teams, there are usually a few who can make a name for themselves. Below are five guys who aren't receiving a lot of publicity, but can make a roster and play a role for a team in the future.
Jarvis "Blocknado" Varnado, PF/C - Summer League Team: Miami Heat
Have you seen the commercial featuring Dikembe Mutombo? The one where he runs around blocking everything in sight, crumpled up paper, laundry, groceries, etc? NOT TODAY!!! Well, Jarvis Varnado is the living embodiment of that commercial. I know Varnado blocks everything in his life. He wakes up in the morning and swats the shit out of his alarm clock. He probably gives really hard high fives. Varnado does everything in his power to get a hand on every single shot that goes up throughout a game. He will full-out sprint back down the court to pin a fast break layup. He will come flying across the paint for a help side block. He will let his man take him in the post, only to reject him time and time again. It's truly a sight to see, which is why I have coined the nickname "Blocknado" for him. I really think it will catch on, people seem to love 'nados.
We're not going to over complicate things here. Varnado is a defensive force and an offensive liability. He fits the definition I created when Tyrus Thomas was drafted - players who should not be shooting the basketball unless their hands are on the rim. Simple. He is 6'9" and does not have a true position, and lacks any semblance of a jumper. His offensive game is pretty much limited to setting screens for others and grabbing offensive rebounds.
If Blocknado can add any kind of a jumper or post up game, he would be a valuable asset in the NBA. Every team needs a rim protector, and Varnado is one of the best out there. Plus, it's fun to scream BLOCKNADO!!!!
Gal Mekel, PG - Summer League Team: Dallas Mavericks
Whenever Mekel is on the court, he becomes the clear cut leader of his team. He is the orchestrator of the offense, even when the ball is not in his hand. In the Mavs summer league games there have been quite a few times where Mekel will be in the high post or in the corner, and shout directions to the rest of the team (where a player should go, where the pass should go). That is rare to see in the summer league, where players are unfamiliar with their teammates and offenses consist of guys trying to beat their defender off the dribble. He has a good feel for the flow of the game, knowing when he needs to jump start the offense and when he should slow the pace down. His summer league teammate Jae Crowder said, "He has that Euro swagger about him, like Ginobili, so he won't back down from nobody." Since neither Mekel (Israel) nor Ginobili (Argentina) are from Europe, this is a peculiar observation. Apparently Marquette offered neither Geography nor English classes for Jae to take. That's a shame.
Pick 'N Roll Proficiency
Maybe Mekel's biggest strength. In a league dominated by P&R's, Mekel excels at using picks to his advantage. He has the Tony Parker pocket pass in his arsenal, so pairing him with a big man who can hit an 18 foot jumper would be deadly. Expect Mekel-Dirk pick 'n rolls early and often in 2013, which makes for an awesome, weird, Israeli-to-German hookup.
There aren't many fancy/Steve Nash like passes from Mekel, but his court vision is clearly one of his strengths. He pushes the fast break well, usually by throwing a long outlet pass instead of trying to beat defenders with his speed. A lot of these plays don't end in assists for Mekel, but it's obvious that he is the catalyst. He is slightly above average in size for a PG, listed at 6'3," which helps him see over the top of the defense and find teammates on cuts. He is probably never going to win an assist title in the NBA, but expect him to be an above average distributor.
From inside about 12 feet, Mekel is deadly. He is fearless in the lane, finishing well with both hands anywhere near the basket. In Israel, his favorite move seemed to be an up-and-under from the right to the left side of the basket, switching hands in the process. He has gotten blocked a few times so far this summer, but its obvious he never gets rattled. Mekel also has a nice floater, which he has displayed quite often in the summer league.
3 PT Shooting
The biggest area of concern for the Israeli guard. In Israel, Mekel did not shoot very well from 3, shooting just 32% from deep last season. So far in the summer league Mekel is 1-4 from deep. Shooting 30% from three in the NBA isn't the end of the world (just ask Monta Ellis - 28% last season), but being closer to 40% would be preferred.
The Israeli general doesn't turn the ball over that much, but its the nature of the turnovers that are concerning. Mekel has made the cardinal sin of passing in basketball - never leave your feet to pass - a few times this summer. He would drive baseline, run out of room to operate, and attempt a Jeter-pass back into the paint, resulting in a few turnovers/easy transition buckets for the opposition. He would also picked up his dribble near the paint, run out of options and either put up a contested shot or force a pass that led to a few turnovers. Mistakes like these will only be amplified by the talent level of the NBA.
Mekel is a solid player, and the J.J. Barea comparisons make sense. Barea is much smaller than Mekel, but both play with a certain tenacity and possess the ability to finish at the rim. If Mekel can continue to develop his outside shot, he should be a quality PG for an NBA team for the foreseeable future.
Stefhon Hannah, PG - Summer League Team: D-League Select
Hannah has a very unorthodox style offensively. He is undersized by NBA standards at 6'1" 175, so he has developed different ways to score outside of traditional offense. Hannah has a beautiful floater, capable of hitting anywhere from about 16 feet and in. He clearly picked up a thing or two from Derrick Rose (both are from Hyde Park in Chicago), based on how Hannah finishes around the rim. There are plenty of times where Hannah starts a drive to the rim, and you say to yourself there is no way he makes this shot. Then he twists and turns and angles himself to a spot on the floor where he is able to drop it in.
On Ball Defense
Hannah is a defensive stud, hounding the opposing team's point guard the entire time he is in the game. Hannah has won back-to-back D-League Defensive Player of the Year awards. Against the Clippers a few days ago he registered 5 steals in 25 minutes of play. He is comparable to Avery Bradley, who is the king of the on-ball steal. As an opposing point guard, having to worry about a guy picking your pocket every time up the court becomes draining.
Hannah is 28 years old, and has very little upside left. He has been bouncing around foreign leagues and the D-League for a few years now, waiting for his chance at the NBA. This means that Hannah needs to really "wow" scouts, because what he produces is what a team is going to get, as opposed to a 21 year old guard who can grow into a solid NBA player later on in his career.
Half Court Offense
Hannah is a very good transition player, but needs to work on his half court game. When his team is out in transition, Hannah has been dropping beautiful passes to teammates, finishing at the rim consistently, just looks much more confident. As soon as the game slows down it is obvious he gets uncomfortable. He forces passes, takes ill-advised shots and looks frustrated at times.
It's a longshot that Hannah gets a roster spot, but if he does, he can give a team decent minutes off the bench as a backup PG. Teams know exactly what they are getting with Hannah, and that is an athletic under-sized guard who can give them energy off the bench.
Khalif Wyatt, SG - Summer League Team: Philadelphia 76ers
I know "scoring" is very broad, but it's really the only way to describe Wyatt's game. The dude can just flat out score the basketball. He is so smooth with the ball in his hand, his entire game should be set to 1950's jazz music. He has become proffecient at scoring from weird angles, and even weirder shot types. I can sit here and try (and fail) to describe his offense game all day, but you should really just go watch this video, and save me some embarrassment. Just understand that Wyatt can score from inside, outside, downtown, uptown, underground, around the bend, and anywhere else I forgot to mention.
Wyatt's numbers at Temple are misleading. His senior year, he shot 41.7% from the field and 31.6% from deep - very pedestrian numbers. But Wyatt was often the sole option for Fran Dunphy's offense, forced to chuck up what would considered ill-advised shots under normal circumstances. For example, lets look at Wyatt's last game at Temple, against IU. Wyatt scored 31 of his team's 52 points, while four of his teammates went a combined 0-22 (!!!) from the field. One of those players was Scootie Randall, who my fellow Game Seven Sports writer Jake Lippe may or may not have driven to depression after his incessant mocking on Twitter. In that game, Wyatt shot 50% from the field and 25% from three. Surround Wyatt with more talent, take the pressure off him having to score every time down the court, and the efficiency jumps - which is exactly what has happened in the summer league.
I wish I could call Wyatt a below average athlete, but it's just not true. Wyatt is a piss poor athlete. At 6'4" 210, he has the intangibles on paper to a decent sized SG in the league. The problem is how that 210 is distributed across the 6'4" frame - meaning, a hefty portion (pun intended) is positioned in the 2-guards middle third. A lot of expert's claim that Wyatt has an "old man" game. They may just be saying that because he has the physique of a 45 year old man. Like I mentioned above, the lack of athleticism does not affect Wyatt's ability to put the basketball in the hoop. But it is the other side of the ball where Wyatt's athletic ability could hurt him, which leads to our next weakness...
Wyatt's ineptitude on defense creates quite a few problems. Guarding other 2-guards in the NBA will prove to be a monumental challenge for Wyatt. Guys like James Harden, Kobe Bryant, and Jamal Crawford should be able to beat Wyatt off the dribble just about every time they touch the ball. Switching Wyatt onto a PG doesn't work either because he isn't quick enough to stay with them around screens. Finding a defensive niche will be key for Wyatt if he plans on sticking around for awhile.
Wyatt has two glaring weaknesses that could potentially keep him off of NBA rosters, but his abilities on the offense end of the ball are too good to be ignored. Having a guy who can come off the bench and pour in 15-20 points in limited minutes is an asset some NBA team could definitely use.
Jack Cooley, PF -- Summer League Teams: Memphis Grizzlies / Houston Rockets
Simply put: Jack Cooley can rebound the basketball. His senior season at Notre Dame, Cooley averaged 10.3 RPG, and so far in the summer league he is averaging 8.1. He finished first in the Big East in rebounds, despite being only 6'9" and playing against the highest level of opposition night-in and night-out. Cooley played against much bigger competition, and usually found a way to impact the game. He posted double digit rebounds in 11 out of Notre Dame's 21 conference games, and had below 8 only four times. It'll be interesting to see if he can mimic this production level in the NBA.
Pick 'N Roll Game
Like Mekel, one of Cooley's biggest strengths is how well he plays in the pick 'n roll game. Cooley shot 60% when rolling towards the basket after picks in college, a skill that will become even more useful in the pros. Cooley is much more proficient at rolling to the basket than he is at popping out for a jumper - think of how Thiago Splitter plays with Parker.
Cooley is a center trapped in a power forward's body. Everything about the way Cooley plays - the rebounding, the high FG%, the lack of a jumper - screams NBA center. But the problem is that Cooley is only 6'9", so guarding guys that are 3 inches taller than him would be an enormous challenge. He has good height to be a traditional 4, but with the league's new found obsession in "small ball 4's," Cooley is a big man without a true position.
For Cooley to make an NBA roster, he needs to add a long range game to his arsenal. At Notre Dame, all of Cooley's scoring came from under the basket. He only attempted two 3's all senior year. It is clearly something he has been working on, hitting a few 3's so far in the summer league. He needs to be able to consistently hit 18-21 footers at about a 35% rate to round his game out.
If Cooley came into the league a few years ago, he would be guaranteed a roster spot somewhere just based on his rebounding rate. But in today's league obsessed with small ball lineups, Cooley really needs to add a few aspects to his game, and prove he can defend either 4's or 5's consistently to be a valuable asset to an NBA team.