At the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, it can be difficult to tell whether the general preference of teams is to win a championship, or to lose in the first round of the playoffs because you can then go home after spending simply too much time in Las Vegas.
The Celtics blitzed through the regular season portion of the league at 4-0 record and secured the top seed in the postseason, only to be upset by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Nevertheless, there were some important takeaways from the 10-day stay.
■ Carsen Edwards, the 33rd overall pick of last month’s draft, was known as a fearless shooter at Purdue, and that has not changed. Edwards looked collected and confident as he fired away from beyond the 3-point line. Over five games he averaged 19.4 points on 48 percent shooting, an encouraging development considering the streaky shooter made 39.4 percent of his attempts for the Boilermakers last season. He showed an impressive ability to knock down long-range shots off the dribble and off the catch, including a few from well beyond the 3-point line. Edwards will probably get chances to come off the bench and catch fire next season.
■ The Celtics obviously liked what they saw, inking Edwards to a four-year contract in which the first three years are fully guaranteed, a rarity for a second-round pick. His defense was more of an unknown, and at 6-foot-1, he will be pressured by opposing offenses. But he is strong and has good instincts, and held up well in this setting.
■ Grant Williams is physically imposing — 76ers center Zach Hankins found that out when Williams leveled him with a forearm in the opening game — but he is not especially tall. At the NBA combine, Williams’s height without shoes was measured at 6-5¾, a half-inch taller than Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver.
Williams was exposed on the boards a bit when Boston went to a small lineup in its playoff loss to Memphis, but he was never a dominant rebounder at Tennessee, either. Over five games Williams averaged 13 points and 6 rebounds, and perhaps the most promising development was his 7 for 19 shooting (36.8 percent) from the 3-point line.
In college, Williams attempted just 103 3-pointers over three years, making 29.1 percent of them from the shorter line. He will have great value if he can stretch defenses out. And if they try to put a smaller, quicker defender on him, he can bully them inside with his strength.
■ Robert Williams missed almost all of last year’s summer league due to knee pain, and had an extremely limited role for the Celtics as a rookie. This summer league was viewed as his opportunity to shine. He did not dominate, but he had promising moments, averaging 9 points and 9.8 rebounds over his four games. The most surprising development was probably his smooth passing, which would be a real asset for a player who will not be a perimeter threat.
“He can make quick decisions,” summer league coach Scott Morrison said, “and he’s pretty accurate with it.”
■ Summer league has become a place for current NBA players to be seen and to support their new teammates. My five years covering the team, the Celtics have had a steady stream of veterans stop in to take a look. But this year, the support was sparse. French center Vincent Poirier, whose deal had not been signed yet, stopped in and sat with Austin Ainge at an early game, but that was it. Jaylen Brown was in Las Vegas for several days and even attended a Knicks/Lakers game, but was not at any Celtics games. With four new draft picks, it felt like a missed opportunity for a veteran to show some support.
■ This was viewed as an essential summer league for third-year forward Guerschon Yabusele. He started the opening game against the 76ers looking to make a statement, as he drove the baseline and attempted a violent one-handed slam. But he had the ball swatted away, and things never improved after that. He was held scoreless against the 76ers, struggled against the Cavs two nights later, was held out of the win over the Nuggets with a pinky injury, then he was released. The Celtics ate his $3.1 million contract instead of having him clog a roster spot for another year.
The Celtics drafted Yabusele 16th overall in 2016 in large part because he was willing to stay overseas for a year since there was no room on the crowded roster, but that pick will go down as a mistake.
■ Yes, all the Celtics draft picks played well. Other rookies did good things for other teams. But this was the summer of Tacko. The 7-6 center Tacko Fall was a sensation in Las Vegas. Once Zion Williamson bowed out with an injury, Fall became the headliner. Fans cheered when he walked to the scorer’s table, booed when he was taken out, chanted his name when he was on the bench, and roared when he reached up and effortlessly dunked the ball.
It was a cool experience for the undrafted free agent from Central Florida. He was patient and accommodating as the attention flowed in, and he played quite well, too. Celtics fans are clamoring for him to get Yabusele’s roster spot, but right now, that is not in Boston’s plans. Fall will likely go to training camp on his Exhibit 10 deal, which would give him a $50,000 bonus if he joins the Red Claws after he is waived.
■ The Celtics rookies had promising moments, and it was easy to forget that their top pick, Romeo Langford, did not play at all. The 14th overall pick is still recovering from surgery to repair a torn ligament in the thumb on his shooting hand. He took part in mostly non-contact shooting drills in Las Vegas, and all indications are that he is progressing quite well. Boston’s roster is currently loaded with wings, so it’ll be interesting to see where Langford stands when training camp opens.
■ Most of the summer league buzz is generated by the debuts of the top picks. The opening-night matchup between No. 1 overall choice Zion Williamson and No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett had Las Vegas buzzing. But Williamson tweaked his knee in the first half and did not return, an earthquake halted the game, and Barrett was the only one of the top six picks to appear again. Summer league has become an extremely popular event on its own, but to keep the attention, the top rookies need to play.
■ The Celtics’ summer league team really had it all. In addition to the three 2019 draft picks and Tacko fever, they had a big man who tossed up underhanded free throws. Chinanu Onuaku has been shooting them this way ever since his sophomore season at Louisville in 2015-16, and it remains a novelty. When he went to the foul line in Las Vegas, there was usually a collective gasp from fans on the first one before plenty of cellphone cameras recorded the second one.
■ Onuaku’s former college coach, Rick Pitino, coached in Greece last season but is reportedly seeking a job with an NBA team, most likely as an assistant. Onuaku, for one, thinks the former Celtics coach and general manager deserves another shot at the highest level.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” he said. “He can do anything.”
■ Tremont Waters was the last player in attendance at Barclays Center to be selected in last month’s draft. The 51st overall pick drove to New York from New Haven with his family because he wanted them to experience his big moment with them. That night, I spent some time with Waters and his crew for a story about his dream coming true. It was cool to see the smiles on both of his parents as they posed for pictures with him, proud as ever. And it was devastating to hear that Waters’s father, Ed, committed suicide in Connecticut on Thursday. Tremont Waters stayed in Las Vegas and played on Thursday and Saturday, and wrote a message to his father on his shoes. It was heartbreaking to think about the harder days that are ahead.
■ When I saw Javonte Green throwing down powerful slam dunks at the start of summer league, I thought he looked like a man among boys. It turns out that, well, he sort of is. Green turns 26 years old next week. The former Radford star was Boston’s most athletic player. He has had a few stints in Europe so far, and Boston will surely try to convince him to join the Red Claws, but it will likely take more than that to keep him.