As barometers of NBA success go, the Summer League isn’t always going to give the most accurate forecast. It’s perfect, really, that it switches from Orlando to Las Vegas, where all bets are made with the hope of a big payoff and the reality of the house usually winning. That house on the hardwood is the concrete fact there are only 450 roster spots available for opening night. Someone’s gotta go. The NBA’s summer school isn’t to be relied on at face value because you’ve got second- and third-year players as the top options for summer squads where they might barely be the fifth option on once the regular season begins. If Wesley Johnson played well most nights for Minnesota this month, it won’t be without gain — but it also won’t mean he’ll be shaking off a Kevin Love pick-and-roll anytime soon. Out of this haziness step players whose success will best translate to the regular season.
Here’s my pick for the best five who can have an immediate effect on their teams next season.
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DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND
The lottery pick from Weber State needed to show he could handle non-Big Sky competition, and he did that by earning co-MVP honors in Vegas with Memphis’ Josh Selby. But where Selby will be an eighth option in Graceland, Lillard is a top-three guy for Portland. The already pronounced starting point guard in Rip City needed to instill confidence in his future teammates — LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews were in town cheering on the team — that their new cat at the point could hold his own. Whoever becomes Portland’s head coach will ask Lillard to be a scoring point in the manner of Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, so his average of 26.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists in four games bodes well. Let the highlights keep coming.
JOHN HENSON, MILWAUKEE
The Bucks’ top pick of 2012 was the second-best player on his team, next to small forward Tobias Harris‘ 21.5 points and eight rebounds per game. Much like a Selby, though, Harris’ spot on the regular season roster will be dimmed considerably, unlike Henson’s. Defense is the calling card for head coach Scott Skiles, and Henson will provide that first in the regular season with his 6-10 frame and 7-5 wingspan. Plugged in at forward, Henson will battle Larry Sanders for minutes next season but showed that he can produce on offense more than what was asked of him at North Carolina, too. His games included performances of 16 points, 22 points and 9 rebounds, 15 and 8 and 20 and 9.
KEMBA WALKER, CHARLOTTE
This is crazy, but the Bobcats only lost once in Vegas, and a rejuvenated Walker was a primary reason for that success. As one of the best college players in the last five years, you knew Walker thrived in that kind of system, and new coach Mike Dunlap has obliged by putting in traps like this is 40 Minutes of Hell all over again. The Bobcats forced 69 turnovers to 41 of their own, according to the Charlotte Observer, and got 82 points off those TOs to just 32 for opponents. Walker was the point man on the traps from his place on top of the defense, and then was able to cut and move alongside Jeff Taylor on offense. It remains to be seen whether the defense that worked in Summer League will have any effect this season (or can be sustained with this thin roster), but Walker has an ally in Dunlap, who watched Walker from St. John’s bench, to let him play his game.
JAE CROWDER, DALLAS
The Mavericks are going to be grouped into three categories next season: Dirk Nowitzki, one-year rentals and young prospects. The young prospects group is the most interesting, and Crowder, the former Marquette wing, is the most interesting of that group. It’s not a given he’ll make the roster, but if he does it will be because of his value as an energy player off the bench who can give spot defense and scoring. He went for 16.6 points and 5.4 boards per game on a still disappointing 41 percent shooting. The scoring will go down and rebounds up in the regular season, but the energy will stay the same for Rick Carlisle. If O.J. Mayo can be a black hole for possessions, Crowder can keep them alive. He could have the kind of rookie year Wes Matthews, another Golden Eagle, did in Utah.
DONATAS MOTIEJUNAS, HOUSTON
There’s been talk of the big Lithuanian — just signed in July after being a 2011 first-round draft pick — replacing Luis Scola but really? Motiejunas is a 7-footer who is comfortable playing the mid-range and banging down low like Scola, but he’s also about four inches taller than Scola and has range from that Scola couldn’t match. He’ll build on his Summer League averages of 16.3 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting 63 percent playing for Kevin McHale, another former rangy big man. How about this for a debut? Twenty-five points on 11-of-13 shooting and two made threes. He’s been a pro since he was 15 and won a Lithuanian league title at 18, and that has translated into what Houston’s Summer League coach Kelvin Sampson called a high basketball IQ to the Houston Chronicle, praising his ability to switch defenses and expectations on the fly. It’s tempting to see him step out on pick-and-rolls with Jeremy Lin next season and shoot the three, but there’s a big IF there — if he’s not traded as part of a package for Dwight Howard.
Who stood out to you?
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