Our decision to make the trip out to the NBA Summer League may not have been the most financially prudent business call in the history of KSR. On paper it seemed like a good idea…after I made a mistake and scheduled the KSR Radio Tour around the wrong date for the Peach Jam (we thought it was this week and it was last week), I was left with two days off and nowhere to go. The NBA Summer League offered the Peach Jam crew (me, Drew and Tomlin) the ability to go to Vegas and potentially see some interesting sights. Plus, with Kentucky players on eight different NBA Summer League teams, there would be plenty of time to see lots of our guys in different games, with tons of material to fill up our website during an otherwise slow time of year. It was glorious.
Well at least that was the plan. As it turns out, virtually all of the UK guys in the Summer League have either lost already or have had odd occurrences move them from the premises. Karl Towns, Julius Randle, Willie Cauely-Stein and Trey Lyles have all seen their teams have early winner’s bracket exits (they do all play one more game tomorrow), Doron Lamb hasn’t gotten off the bench and Darius Miller left to go get married (and odd reason to leave, but one that will likely get him major brownie points in the future). Thus for Thursday and Saturday, our entire NBA Summer League/UK connection is left to one team, the Phoenix Suns.
While most of the attention next season from UK fans will likely follow Sacramento and their three-headed strong UK personality monster, the closest thing Kentucky has to an actual NBA Team may be the Phoenix Suns. The entire Suns backcourt is made up of Cats…Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Archie Goodwin and Devin Booker provide a thorough overview of the backcourts of the Calipari era, with players of all pedigrees making the jump to play for Jeff Hornacek. Just in time for the NBA Summer League, the Suns decided to add Josh Harrellson to their roster, giving the Cats five players in the Valley of the Sun and a chance to rally around one franchise on the other side of the country. For our game today, three of those players were on the court and watching them up close did allow me to reminisce about times past. Every time each of the three did something on the floor, my mind immediately went back to the days of yesteryear when the plays occurred with blue on the uniforms and a smile crept to my face. The more things change, the more they stay the same and all three are just in advanced stages of their UK selves:
If I asked you to recount your memory of Archie Goodwin’s time at Kentucky, it probably goes something like this…Archie taking the ball on the other side of half-court, dribbling aggressively while weaving through defenders and then taking the ball to the basket, flailing after getting hit by an opponent, landing on the ground and either making the shot/getting fouled or looking with a scowl at the referee wondering why he didn’t get the call…rinse and repeat. As a matter of fact when I look back at Archie’s time at Kentucky, I remember virtually nothing beyond those drives. To me they epitomized the Archie Goodwin experience…aggressive, frustrating, body-sacrificing and ultimately exhausting. After watching him in person in Summer League today, I can tell you that all of those adjectives still apply. In fact NBA Archie is just an advanced version of Kentucky Archie. He shoots all the time, plays with 100% energy/commitment and can be dazzling or frustrating at any given moment, often on the same play. The Archie Goodwin of the Summer League today was likely the best player on the floor in his battle versus the Milwaukee Bucks. While out in transition, he was a step faster than anyone and could get to the basket at will. But he also still showcased the qualities that make NBA teams hesitant…he isn’t a good passer, doesn’t make great decisions and spends more time leering at officials than running back on defense. But when at his peak, he is a force. He defends extremely well, makes plays that seem impossible and had 18 points, keying a comeback that the Suns used to pull away. I am not sure what his NBA future projects to be, but in the role he will likely have this year as a 2nd team scoring spark plug, his skill set remains perfect.
During part of his time at Kentucky, Devin Booker looked like a perfectly made creation for the new NBA…deadeye three point shooter, with a good first step towards the rim and the ability to take contact. At other times however he looked less ready, missing some shots badly, unable to defend against penetration and drifting in and out of play. NBA Summer League Devin had a similar performance. In the first half, I mentioned to Tomlin that Devin was being outclassed by a player at his position taken after him. Rashad Vaughn, formerly of UNLV, had the better of Booker consistently and looked the better player. Booker had no ability to guard him and the constant nagging defense was causing Devin to miss shots that during February in SEC play were automatic. Vaughn was clearly playing with a chip on his shoulder and I wondered if Booker would be able to compete. But then the second half came and Devin hit his stride…he shot in rhythm, made good decisions and Vaughn retreated…it was February Booker and his 19 points became a game high out of nowhere. It is hard to imagine Booker failing and when he is good, it will be like at Kentucky…he can become the biggest scorer on the team and the most consistent offensive threat. But will that Booker become March Devin where it was easy at times to forget he was on the court? That will be his challenge as his first few years in the league begin. After the game was over, I spoke to him for a minute and he gave the Booker smile while saying, “hey, I am coming back to Lexington after the Summer League. I miss it and am going to work out at UK.” The ladies of Lexington will certainly be happy.
Jorts is Jorts. When he saw Tomlin and I in the crowd, his face lit up and he waved in the middle of the game…there has never been a UK player who was more appreciative of KSR. He waved as UK fans in the crowd (and there were many) screamed “Jorts” at him and he had 13 points doing what Jorts does…setting high screens, bouncing off and hitting threes, pounding the glass and getting putbacks for buckets. His defense was like it was in Lexington…physical and hard (he had seven fouls), but also lacking against great athleticism (West Virginia’s Kevin Jones had his way with him a few times). But watching Jorts again, you saw why we loved him so much in Lexington. He recreated his most famous UK play, diving for a loose ball and saving it off an opposing player with a bullet (this time off the guy’s knees instead of Jared Sullinger’s chest). He gave constant affirmation to the rest of his team and at the end, was a key part of a big victory. After the game we talked for a bit about his future and he told me that he hoped for good things in Phoenix, but didn’t know what was ahead. He has played well down here…after a rocky first game, he is 7-9 from three point land and has often outplayed the starting Center Alex Len, who he was brought in to backup. Whether there is a future with the Suns will be determined in the coming weeks but Jorts has shown once again that he can play at this level and the rest may be up to him…and he will do it all with a big smile on his face.
All three of the UK players had a big game today and at the end of the day, they probably were the three best Suns on the court. But for me it was more than this one game…all three showed that they remain exactly like what I remembered from their time in Lexington. While the setting has changed and the fans aren’t nearly the same (Summer League crowds are basically silent), the UK guys are better versions of their Lexington selves. If you close your eyes, the Suns jerseys can morph into UK ones and all the memories of their top BBN moments can be repeated. It might be the thing I like best about seeing UK guys in the Summer League…it is the NBA, but not quite…and thus it remains just connected enough to college to still bring out my UK fandom. When Anthony Davis becomes the world’s best player, I will still be proud of his UK connection…but it will be while playing at a different level than he did at UK. But in Summer League, the guys are still versions of their UK selves and that remains my favorite part.