Coach: Evaluating Summer League Performance
Summer League Performance Evaluation
Evaluating talent in a single tournament or short-term competition setting can be treacherous. A tendency creeps up on many coaches and evaluators, not to mention fans, to look at statistics or some measurable production value. This approach is short-sighted and ultimately fails to tell the proper story of the player being evaluated.
Instead, anyone trying to gauge the performance of a player in a setting like this would do better to look for a few specific things on the floor. These items may not be objectively measurable, but in such a small sample size as five or six games, data is largely irrelevant anyway.
Here are four things that I look for in such an evaluation opportunity:
Chess vs. Checkers
It comes down to a simple question at the professional level: Is the player still playing checkers, or have they at least shown signs of playing chess? Many players, via a reliance on athleticism and talent, have been able to succeed by just playing checkers, meaning they react everywhere on the court, their moves are largely determined by their opponents and they have not actively engaged the game with a strategy or plan in mind.
A player who has moved beyond the simple movements of checkers on the basketball floor is valuable. Their athleticism and talent is obviously at an elite level, but using their intelligence and cunning on the floor can take them to the next level. Evidence of such players can be found in how they approach screening action, what they do in penetration situations and how they attack in the post.
In screening action, look for players who understand that it isn’t just about speed when using screens, but about change of speed. This can be in any type of screen – pindowns, ball-screens, whatever – the real key is not just going fast, but shifting and flirting until a sudden explosion leaves a defender behind. Players who not only use change of speed in this situation but also vary their tempo are of particular value.
In a penetration situation, nearly any player of note can get past his on-ball defender. The challenge is whether that player has already accounted for and is prepared to deal with the second- and third-line help defenders who are moving into position. Basketball players who operate on the “chess level” limit their concern with the defender assigned to them, and focus on what the help is doing and how they can take advantage.
The post-up can be a special case study in players who read and strategize. Great post players are guys who go to one great, nearly unstoppable move, and then have a counter or two for when the defender overplays that move. They are constantly trying to get to their bread and butter – and if no one stops it, they go to it again and again. Too many players on the checkers level try to do too many things – for the vast majority of summer league post players, having a single go-to move and a simple counter, but setting them up in a balance, is the key to success.
Do something special, twice
In such a small sample size, a player needs to do something that has a “wow” factor. Then, at some other point, they have to do it at least one more time. This not only draws eyeballs, but if you get wowed by the right things, you can get a sense of how that player will impact production on the floor.
One example: A player is in traffic, and fights two, three or four times in a single possession for an offensive rebound and finish. Repeated, active and aggressive action under the rim is valued at the NBA level. Do that twice in a game, and you impress people, and it shows you have some potential workhorse attributes.
A wow factor can come on the defensive end as well. If you are able to go out on an island and force a ball-handler to one side of the floor, locking him on that side and preventing him from entering an operational area via the dribble or pass, that is a special kind of play defensively. Prove it time and time again and you can be a game changer on that end of the floor, even if the rest of your talents are mediocre at best.
If your thoughts when I mentioned “wow” factor went to a high flying reverse windmill or a jaw-dropping block when the defender’s armpit is above the rim, it’s an example of how easy it is to get caught up in things that largely have no practical import but look cool.
Engage every possession
One of the most common (and detestable) attributes for younger, less experienced players (and some older ones) is the tendency to drift off mentally during the action. This, in turn, leads to missed opportunities on the offensive end, and lack of positioning and physicality on the defensive end. Players who remain locked in more often than not catch my eye, and players who drift but are able to catch themselves and correct that poor behavior in the middle of the action are even more impressive for me.
On the offensive end, you often see this with perimeter players who take that description too seriously, and never venture inside from the perimeter unless there is a driving lane. The reality is that if a player is locked in, they can constantly find holes in the defense. Forcing oneself to cut through the lane at least twice on each possession is a good way to start.
On the defensive end, it can be easy to get lost. Players often commit to a possession for the first five to eight seconds defensively (three passes), and then their defensive engagement has ended, and they move on. Which guys stay focused on their rotations throughout the shot clock? Who is ready to slide in and help a teammate in trouble? These are not hard items to observe in a summer league game.
Most of the above observations can apply whether the player is a rookie or a second-year player getting an opportunity at more minutes. However, one item that it is valuable to look for from players who have had a small taste at the NBA is how they have or are attempting to progress their games.
Are they using summer league to put up big numbers but still do all the same things that didn’t work the year before? That is largely a waste of time – even if the player puts up crazy numbers, there is no reason to think the same approach will work the following season. However, if they are using summer league correctly, you will see significant differences in their approach. They will be pushing the edges, the margins, of their game in order to expand their talent base, or they might be focusing on just one or two details repeatedly in order to gain refinement.
Expanding a talent base might include a commitment to working on shot fakes at the end of moves. In other words, the player noticed that their defender was often off-balance because of the players’ change in speed to a pull-up, but they couldn’t take advantage of it because they were off-balance as well. Now, if the player spends time shot-faking at the end of a dribble move, they can use the shot fake to gather their body and rise for the shot, and the defender remains off balance.
Refining an already present skill is seen most often in shooting form. A player might have had a hitch in his shot during the year, or perhaps an inconsistency with regard to his follow-through after the shot. In either case, a smart player will use summer league to work on these weaknesses, and polish those skills. Demonstrating growth from one year to the next is an extremely attractive trait, and one that dovetails nicely with an appropriate use of summer league.
Have questions for Coach Macri? Be sure and drop by HOOPSWORLD on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. ET for the Coach’s weekly basketball chat! You can also follow Coach Macri on Twitter @AnthonyLMacri.
Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Macri is the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of the ASEAN Basketball League (the first regional pro sports league in Southeast Asia), setting and executing a strategic vision for basketball and business development, league operations, and marketing. Previously, Macri served as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, as the business manager at the IMG Basketball Academy, and has coached at two nationally ranked high school programs. The Coach’s Notebook is a weekly feature on HOOPSWORLD.