For the first time in five weeks, the Clippers are playing basketball again. At least one version of them, anyway.
The roster coached by assistant Jeremy Castleberry during NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is hardly the same that will begin training camp in late September under the guidance of coach Tyronn Lue, of course. That doesn’t mean that everything that happens over the course of the next week-plus in Las Vegas will stay inside Nevada Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion. The Clippers are hoping that the development shown there carries into the fall and winter.
With the Clippers playing five games during their stay — a schedule that begins Monday night against Milwaukee — here are five reasons to watch their action closely.
Brandon Boston’s scoring
An injured hand hampered the former blue-chipper early during his lone season at Kentucky, but he still shot only 38% inside the arc and 30% behind it for the entire season.
By giving the 51st overall pick a three-year, standard contract with the first two seasons guaranteed — and reportedly $2.5 million is guaranteed, some of the most guaranteed money ever given to a player taken in his draft range, according to Spotrac — the Clippers clearly believe he can play like the prospect said to be very impressive shooting from three-point range during his pre-draft workouts.
One NBA scout said he was most interested to watch Boston’s ability to score and how he influences games in ways other than scoring. Another league talent evaluator — who, like the scout, was granted anonymity in exchange for their candor on the rookies — said he was curious to gauge the 19-year-old’s shot selection and whether he can use his length to disrupt on defense. Boston has a nearly 6-foot-11 wingspan, according to measurements at the NBA combine, more than five inches longer than his height without shoes on.
Preston’s feel for the game
Jason Preston turns 22 on Tuesday and is seen as a more polished product at this point than Boston and first-round pick Keon Johnson, both of whom are only 19, in part because of the point guard’s feel for the game.
“Feel” is subjective and Summer League, with its hastily assembled offenses and rosters full of players on short-term deals hoping to make plays and leave impressions, is often an even more difficult place to evaluate it. Within that chaos, and against physical and fast competition, the talent evaluator and scout both said they wanted to watch how Preston would organize and direct an offense and how often his passing, rated second in the entire draft by the Clippers, will free teammates for shots.
How consistent will his shooting be from the deeper NBA three-point arc after making at least 37% of his three-pointers each of the last two seasons at Ohio? Defensively, there is also interest in how well he will defend quick opposing guards.
Preston, like Boston, has signed a three-year contract with the first two seasons guaranteed.
Johnson, the 6-5 wing from Tennessee, was high on the Clippers’ draft board, which led them to trade up four spots to get him with the 21st overall pick. His athleticism, with a combine-record 48-inch vertical leap and this year’s second-fastest three-quarter-court sprint, commands enormous respect. The next step is knocking down shots consistently to keep defenses honest and not sag off of him in anticipation of a slash to the rim.
However, it should be noted that his opportunity to play rotation minutes during the regular season won’t necessarily hinge on his shooting — it’s his ability to cover ground defensively thanks to that speed and agility that has the Clippers most excited.
The class of 2020
When Jay Scrubb was taken 55th overall last year, he became the first player drafted out of junior college in 16 years — the kind of gamble a team only takes if it sees something unique. Too bad there was no opportunity to see it early, thanks to COVID-19 concerns that canceled last year's Summer League and foot surgery that knocked the 6-5, 220-pound Scrubb out for the regular season's first five months.
He is renowned as an athlete and scorer but this will be his first extended opportunity since entering the league to show either against live competition. Currently the only Clipper on a two-way contract, Scrubb could be headed for more development time in the G League next season. Before then, this is a chance to show off his health and gifts under a larger spotlight.
There are similar questions about what kind of player Daniel Oturu is, and whether he can hold onto the third-string center role. (It was only last season that the Clippers showed, with Mfiondu Kabengele, that they're willing to quickly move on from a former draft pick if they're not persuaded he is a fit.) After being taken early in the 2020 draft’s second round out of Minnesota, a quad injury limited Oturu's time in the G League. He is more comfortable as a pick-and-pop option in pick-and-roll plays, not the rim-runner whose shot was repeatedly blocked in the regular-season finale. Showing off his jumper again in Summer League would be a boost for Oturu entering training camp.
A numbers game
In the background of the Clippers’ on-court action is the numbers crunch happening on their roster. Teams are allowed to carry 17 contracts: 15 standard and two additional players on two-way deals, who can come and go between the NBA and its developmental system. The Clippers currently have 18 players either under contract — including free-agent signing Justise Winslow, whose two-year, fully guaranteed deal is worth $8 million and uses a portion of the team’s taxpayer mid-level exception, a source said — or who have committed to new contracts, including Kawhi Leonard, Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson.
The team also has a qualifying offer on restricted free agent Amir Coffey, one of last season’s two-way players. The possibility remains that he returns.
There is no date by which backup point guard Yogi Ferrell’s contract guarantees next season, which makes him a potential candidate to be waived, but even if that were to occur, it’s still an imbalanced group, with more players capable of playing around and defending the perimeter than the rim. That could suggest more roster movement via trades to slim down the guard options and add more depth in the frontcourt.
Giving all three rookies standard deals, instead using one of their two-way slots, means that they will be along for the ride next season with the Clippers, who are hoping to develop at least one into the type of player who can make a playoff team better in the future. For now, the stakes are lower, but not insignificant. Welcome to Summer League.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.