Stephenson Is Turning Into A Leader

After a sophomore campaign that saw just 10 minutes per game and 42 appearances overall, Indiana Pacers’ guard Lance Stephenson has set himself a goal for this Summer League.

“Being a leader on the floor,” the 6-5 guard told Tuesday evening. “That’s the big thing. I know I got the game, and I’ve got the physical body, I’ve just got to get people in the right spots to make good plays.”

He certainly took a good step in that direction on Tuesday in Orlando. Stephenson was integral in the Indiana Pacers’ Summer League win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, going off for 28 points. He also played aggressive, physical defense and dished out seven assists to his teammates in the win. Several times, his passes created easy looks around the rim, and he was robbed of an assist more than once by a quick foul that prevented a basket.

“I just let the game come to me,” he said. “I looked for the open spots and tried to get my teammates involved. Just trying to win the game. Everybody played good. That’s what opened things up for me. Everybody was hitting shots and I was trying to get everyone involved.”

Showcasing a jumpshot that has clearly seen some work since Indiana’s season ended in the second round of the playoffs, Stephenson was very efficient from the field, dropping 10 of 14 shots, including 2-4 from three point range. His mechanics were noticeably improved. Where as before his body twisted going into his jumpshot, on Tuesday his feet were squared to the basket on spot up opportunities, and his stroke appeared fluid.

“[I've been] working on my jumpshot off the pick and roll,” Stephenson said. “I’m feeling good, I’ve just got to keep working hard.”

The Pacers have a team option on the third year of Stephenson’s contract, so even though he has more NBA experience than many of the players in Orlando, Stephenson has to prove himself equally. If the Pacers decide that he isn’t worth a contract on their team, they can decline his option, sending him into free agency.

But Stephenson certainly doesn’t lack confidence. After draining one three pointer in the face of an Oklahoma City defender, Stephenson skipped backward down the floor and screamed “Buckets!” at the Thunder bench.

His handles appeared fluid, and he looks more comfortable finishing shots around the rim with contact.

“I’m feeling good,” Stephenson said, “I’m trying to show my teammates how to get better. Get in the gym every day, and the game becomes easier.”

Spoken like a true leader.

O’Quinn Quick To Adjust To NBA Game

Orlando Magic center Kyle O’Quinn has had to make a lot of adjustments, coming from tiny Norfolk State in Virginia, to being drafted in the second round of the NBA draft, and now to the NBA Summer League in Orlando. But perhaps the biggest adjustment has been figuring out an entirely new offensive system.

“Oh man, [I've learned] probably 20 plays,” O’Quinn said. “I had to throw out my whole college playbook.”

How many does he have down?

“I’m not gonna tell you,” he said, laughing.

Not twenty?

“Not twenty, but I’m working on it.”

O’Quinn broke onto the national scene last year when his 15th seeded Norfolk State defeated heavily favored 2nd seed Missouri in the National Tournament. O’Quinn destroyed the Tigers for 26 points and 14 rebounds, so for many fans, that game was his introduction. But he doesn’t enjoy being defined by it.

“I really hate when people say that game developed me,” he said, with emphasis. “I had to be pretty developed coming into that game, you know?”

Regardless of how developed he was then, O’Quinn is certainly developed now. In his first summer league game Monday morning, O’Quinn put up 16 points on 8-10 shooting, showing not only a nice mid-range shot but also a proclivity for diving to the basket at exactly the right time in pick and rolls.

“I’m more comfortable shooting mid-range shots,” O’Quinn said. “My post game is a little immature. At school a lot of plays ran through me, so I didn’t have to use a lot of post moves. But that’s something in the making, just like my jumpshot. So hopefully in the next year or two both will be down pat.”

Though his body is a little underdeveloped (a common theme at Summer League games), O’Quinn has a good frame that should fill out with an NBA regimen. He was a vocal defender, talking constantly, warning his teammates of screens, alerting them to switches, and calling out rebounds. He also displayed excellent defensive timing, recording two blocked shots and utilizing his monstrous length and athleticism to swat the ball away.

As a post player looking for a roster spot with the Orlando Magic, it’s tempting to wonder what O’Quinn thinks about the ongoing Dwight Howard saga. But O’Quinn is focused on the task at hand.

“We go off what’s going on today, and [Howard] needs a reliable backup. I’m think I can be that,” he said. “[General manager Rob] Hennigan and Scott Perry are always looking for young talent and you want to be in those type of situations.”

But first he has to make the roster. Like every player in the Orlando Summer League, O’Quinn has to prove himself, and today, he took one step toward doing so. But he recognizes that one step isn’t nearly enough.

“You constantly have to prove yourself,” he said. “Everything someone thinks about you, you’ve got to make them believe it. They see it one time, you’ve got to show them again. They see it twice, you might have to show them a third time.”

Let’s count Norfolk State’s big victory as the first time. Today was the second.

Ware Is Okay With Being An Underdog

It would probably be fair to call Casper Ware an underdog. At 5’10, the Detroit Pistons point guard is the shortest player to get an invite to the Orlando NBA Summer League, but he hasn’t let that stop him from competing.

“I just play hard, play with my heart, you know?” Ware said. “Most people don’t like to get active and do the dirty work, but that’s what I have to do because of my size.”

He certainly does get active. At 5’10, Ware’s height would seemingly be a problem defensively at the NBA level, but he excelled at that end on Monday. Ware was a pest to ball-handlers, frustrating his defensive assignments all game by crowding their space and giving them no room to dribble or pass.

Though his stat-line didn’t stand out (five points on 1-5 shooting, four rebounds), his defense was undeniably effective, and his quickness and ball-handling skills were also evident.

“I had an alright game,” Ware said. “I didn’t hit my shots, but I think I controlled the game well. I penetrated for my teammates sometimes. So when my shots start falling I think my all-around game will be good.”

Hailing from tiny Long Beach State, Ware is no stranger to tough competition. Though the 49ers weren’t in a power conference, their coach made sure they got to face tough opponents every year.

“I really don’t see a difference in competition [here in Orlando] because my coach scheduled big time schools like Kentucky, Duke and Louisville,” Ware said. “So I’ve seen a lot of these players already, it’s just getting used to seeing it all the time.”

But once he gets used to the competition, Ware believes he is in a good position to contribute to a team, perhaps Detroit in particular.

“I think I fit in good because the Pistons like to get up on people and play defense,” Ware said. “That’s my style, getting up and down the court running, so I really feel like I fit in with this squad.”

If Ware finds an NBA home, it will be with a team that appreciates defense, toughness, and the ability to shoot from deep. And perhaps one that appreciates a good underdog story.

Wolves Acquire Budinger

When news broke that the Wolves had exchanged their 18th pick in the draft for Chase Budinger, the focus of the media’s attention was mostly (and understandably) on the ramifications for Houston’s pursuit of Dwight Howard. Howard is, after all, a much bigger fish than Chase Budinger.  For most fans, the pursuit of a megastar like Howard is more interesting than the transition of an unremarkable role player like Budinger from one city to another.

But for Minnesota, Chase Budinger is a solid acquisition, one that will improve the Wolves immediately.

It was no secret last season that the Wolves were weakest at the wings. Michael Beasley, Anthony Tolliver, Martell Webster, Wes Johnson, Luke Ridnour, JJ Barea, Derrick Williams, Wayne Ellington and Malcolm Lee all spent time at the shooting guard or small forward positions and none were effective.

Ridnour was particularly out of his element, guarding the likes of Chandler Parsons, Metta World Peace, and many other bad matchups for his size (6’2). It should be duly noted, however, that Ridnour performed admirably, given the circumstances.

One of the strongest aspects in Ricky Rubio’s highly entertaining skillset is his ability to find open shooters on the perimeter. Too often last season, Rubio would drive into the lane, attracting the attention of a perimeter defender, and pass out to an open man, only to watch the shot hit the rim and carom away.

As a team, Minnesota shot 36% from behind the arc in the corner, well below the league average for one of the most efficient shots in basketball.

This is where Budinger can make an immediate impact for the Wolves. Budinger had one of his best seasons shooting from deep last year, dropping 40% from three point range, including 48% from the corners. Budinger is also extremely athletic and should be a fun weapon for the Wolves offense with Rubio in transition.

While Budinger fills one need for the Wolves, other questions remain regarding his defense. Budinger is an average defender, but he tends to get lost on rotations. Perhaps this can be attributed to his youth (Budinger is just three years into his NBA career), but Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman still hasn’t found his perimeter stopper.

Nor have the Wolves found the shot creator they desperately need. When a possession broke down for Minnesota last season, they often had no choice but to allow players like Michael Beasley or JJ Barea attempt to create a shot. Budinger is a catch and shoot player from behind the arc and rarely attacks the basket.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and last season the Timberwolves were indisputably impoverished on the wing. Budinger immediately improves the Timberwolves, and he fits well with Minnesota’s pieces that are already in place. Also worth noting: he is a known entity, which is considerably more than the Wolves could boast about whoever they would draft with the 18th pick.

Admittedly, draft picks can be fun. Draftees are unknown quantities, a characteristic which allows fans to dream about what they could be. But sometimes a team gets burned by a bad pick. Acquiring Budinger is safe, solid and a good start to the offseason for the Wolves.

Minnesota Has A Three Year Window

For followers of the Timberwolves, there is a point in the future that is fixated in the back corner of the mind: repressed, but never forgotten. As the Timberwolves prepare for another offseason and begin their search for the ideal compliment to Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and Nikola Pekovic, fans begin forming trade scenarios and free agency talk begins in earnest.

But behind all the talk, one thought remains: three more years.

When David Kahn signed Kevin Love to a four-year maximum deal, the contract included a player option after three years, meaning that in the summer of 2015, Love can choose: play another year at maximum money for Minnesota or test the waters of free agency. Not so conveniently for the Wolves, Ricky Rubio’s rookie contract is up at the same time, meaning he too will be a free agent that summer.

To make a long story short, the Wolves have three more years to convince Kevin Love that they are a franchise worth sticking around for. Next season will be the first of the three year window.

Several factors may be involved in Love’s decision. The new restrictions on other teams chasing high profile free agents will make it more difficult for a larger market to steal Love from the Timberwolves. But undoubtedly, Minnesota’s success on the court in the next two years will play a huge role in Love’s decision, which is why this offseason is so crucial.

The Wolves need more than a flashy signing; they need one that will help them continue to turn their franchise around. And they need to accomplish this turnaround as soon as possible.

Minnesota isn’t exactly getting a lot of help from their original franchise player. When LeBron James was considering his free agent options in 2010, Kevin Garnett had some advice for him.

“Loyalty is something that hurts you at times, because you can’t get youth back,” Garnett said. “I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I’d have done it a little sooner.”

Not a ringing endorsement for Love’s future in Minneapolis. He still has his youth.

Garnett, eventually fed up with continually missing the playoffs with the Wolves and desperate for a chance to contend again, finally requested a trade. It seems he would advise Kevin Love to do the same.

The part that really turns the stomachs of Minnesota’s long suffering fans is that Love actually wanted a five year deal. But the Wolves were offering him four years, presumably to leave room for a Rubio contract, and without knowing what the new CBA would look like, Love took the safe money. Wolves fans now have to hope that Love’s displeasure with the negotiations doesn’t last until 2014.

A winning season and a playoff appearance would go a long way toward convincing Love that the Wolves have a bright future, and that if he stays, he will be a part of a franchise that is committed to winning.

Otherwise, Garnett’s latest quote on the state of the Timberwolves franchise might be most poignant Minnesota’s fans: “It’s always special to come back to true fans…But as far as that franchise, I have nothing positive to say.”