LAS VEGAS — It’s the intelligent approach to not overreact to summer league statistics or performance. There have been many players who have lit up opponents in the warm Las Vegas evening only to find themselves back in the D-League.
The Celtics were dealt their second consecutive loss at the NBA Summer League on Sunday evening, 87-74, to the resurgent Phoenix Suns. While it’s only July and the summer results are in no way indicative of winter proficiency, there are some matters of concern.
One of the Celtics’ major weaknesses that has not been addressed is theie lack of a dependable outside shooter. The organization wants to see if R.J. Hunter can emerge as a player who can consistently hit 3-pointers off the bench.
At the Thomas and Mack Center on Sunday against Devin Booker, Hunter got into several verbal exchanges as he tried to compete with one of the better rookies from last season. Without much effort, Booker scored 24 points and got seven assists in 31 minutes.
Hunter, who needed to improve his defense from his rookie season, struggled defending Booker off picks and became frustrated. He finished with 17 points and drained four 3-pointers. And Hunter is on the top of the list — along with James Young, who got Sunday off — of younger Celtics who need to develop with minutes available this season.
Summer league play is much more about development and confidence than actually winning games. Hunter wants to flourish against his peers. Booker is just 19 years old, nearly three years younger than Hunter, yet Hunter saw the player that the organization envisions he can be.
“He’s a woofer, and he’s going to woof all game, but we already knew that,” Hunter said. “I think I got caught up in it a little too much, and I should have just let it go and played the game. That’s what Devin does. He’s a competitor, and I love it.”
It’s good that Hunter viewed the matchup as a personal challenge. The difference between average NBA players and good NBA players is desire and confidence, in addition to talent. On Friday night, former Providence standout Kris Dunn took his matchup with Nuggets second-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay personally, and the two thrilled the crowd with an entertaining duel.
Watching that duel courtside was Celtics backup point guard Terry Rozier, who has looked to be the most improved player in summer league.
“It definitely motivated me,” Rozier said. “If it doesn’t motivate you, something is wrong. A lot of guys are coming and they’re just not letting you have a free pass, they’re here to give you their best. It definitely motivates me and makes me want to play hard and show what I can do. There’s some great talent out there. It makes you want to work harder and keep playing.”
The Celtics hope Hunter views Booker as someone to emulate. Booker, along with Mudiay, will play for the USA Select Team later this month in Las Vegas, a squad of emerging players that will serve as a training squad for Team USA. Celtics guard Marcus Smart is also on that team.
Sunday’s game was enthralling in watching Hunter’s emotions. He was upset, chirping at Booker, the Phoenix bench, and other Suns players. Although he may have lost this battle, he embraced the challenge. And the hope is he uses this experience to work on those weaknesses.
The Celtics are actively looking for shooters. Hunter considers himself a shooter, but said he is not offended by the slight.
“It doesn’t offend me, because we do [need shooters],” he said. “And I didn’t make enough shots last year, simple as that. I’ve just got to put myself in better position to make shots, and if I make shots nobody says [we need shooters], so it’s all up to me at that point.”
Hunter is 9 for 16 from the 3-point line in three summer league games, and the most important attribute he can take from this experience is confidence.
He said he learned greatly from watching Hawks veteran Kyle Korver run around screens and release his 3-pointer so quickly as the defender closed in. There is not much time to get off a clean look. It takes precision, practice, and confidence.
There are dozens of players here in Las Vegas looking to improve and take the next step. The Celtics need Hunter and Young — who is 8 for 13 from the 3-point line — to develop into more reliable players and professionals.
Rookie Jaylen Brown missed all six of his shot attempts Sunday and dropped to 5 for 26 from the field in three games. He’s struggling, but that is to be expected. A good sign is that Brown has attempted 25 free throws in three games.
The Celtics got a much-needed day off Monday. With at least three more games left in Las Vegas, the focus for Hunter, Rozier, and Young should be on improvement and development, especially in such a competitive atmosphere. Their production will be needed when the games count.