LAS VEGAS – Deandre Ayton approached the media scrum after his second NBA Summer League game and mused, “I told you all those butterflies (were) gone.”
The Suns’ No. 1 pick struggled in his first game. He he looked lost and exhausted. Saturday, he outdueled second overall pick Marvin Bagley and the Sacramento Kings, dropping 21 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
“My teammates talked to me after the game, telling me to slow down. ‘Everybody has those moments in the first game,’ ”Ayton said. “Every game or every possession, (Josh) will say, ‘Dre, slow down.’ ”
‘Josh’ is Josh Jackson. Phoenix’s fourth overall pick in 2017, Jackson is making his second summer league appearance. In one world, Josh Jackson is a is a 21-year-old with only one year of NBA experience under his belt. In the NBA Summer League, he’s a hardened veteran.
Summer league is primarily designed for recent draftees and undrafted players, but sprinkled in are second- and third-year players and older players coming to the NBA from Europe who can also find value in the competition.
Jackson is the highest pick from last year to play in the summer league this year, and one of only five lottery picks from 2017 to play every summer league game with his team so far. It’s even more rare for a player to make three summer league appearances, like Phoenix’s Dragan Bender is doing.
“I’m a lot more comfortable. Coming in this year, I’m feeling more like a leader, like I’m more knowledgeable about how things are supposed to go out there,” Jackson said. “I think I’ve been trying to be a little more vocal with the guys out there, making sure they’re in the right position.”
Communication seemed to be a point of emphasis preached by more experienced players. Ayton stressed how the veterans are vocal on the floor and the bench. From a sideline perspective, it’s easy to hear Jackson and fellow summer league sophomore Davon Reed communicate calls and line up teammates on defense.
“Me, being a little bit older, a little more experienced I got to go out there and kind of lead by example,” said Harry Giles, a first round pick by Sacramento in 2017. “You’re letting them know it’s OK to talk. It’s smart to talk.”
Although Giles sat out last season due to prolonged knee issues, just the impact of being around an NBA team and learning how to be a professional helped him be a leader the first time he was able to step foot on a professional court.
Part of the professionalism angle is simply where the summer league is played. Las Vegas isn’t exactly the ideal place to gather a group of 19- and 20-year-old kids who have just come into money. Having a group of established “veterans” helps in guiding the younger players off the court as well.
“You’re in Vegas, but we have some young guys that can’t really go out and do anything,” said Zach Collins, a second-year forward for the Timberwolves and Las Vegas native. “Be prepared, just try to be prepared, take it seriously. Summer league is no easy league to play in, so take your time, have fun, and be professional.”
Suns coach Igor Kokoškov joked that he doesn’t know how the veteran leadership parlays itself off the court, and onto the Vegas Strip, because he “doesn’t go out with them.” Like Collins, Kokoškov just wants his players being professional, on and off the court.
“As long as they’re on time (we’re good). This is a professional world, and they’re a bunch of professionals,” Kokoškov said. “They’re here for a reason. This is a beautiful city. It’s an entertaining city, but we’re here for business.”
Although Kokoškov may be unaware of how the leadership works away from basketball, when his players are in the facilities, the impact by Jackson, Reed and others is apparent.
“I can feel it. The way they interact with the players, the way they talk. They put them on their lap, and just support them. It’s huge, really,” Kokoškov said. “They’re growing as players, too.”
Ultimately, summer league and the NBA regular season aren’t the same thing. A lot of the sets, plays and defensive looks are similar, but a large gap exists between recently drafted 19-year-olds and first-team All-NBA players with considerable experience.
“The concepts are kind of the same, but not a lot (translates), in my opinion,” said Donovan Mitchell, a second-year guard for the Utah Jazz. “The talent’s a lot different. The players are used to the game. So it’s a little different, but the concepts are still the same.”
Michell isn’t playing in summer league this year, but was one of the standouts at summer league in 2017, dropping 37 points with 8 steals in his final game. He rolled that summer league performance into a rookie season that culminated in a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. Mitchell credits confidence he built in the summer league as a big factor in his early-season NBA success.
“I told them to have fun, (and) enjoy the process,” Mitchell said. “It’s summer league, you’re in Vegas playing in front of fans. Just enjoy it.”
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