ORLANDO — Trailing by a point with the clock ticking down, Pistons summer league coach Bob Beyer drew up a play for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. That kind of thing didn't happen all that much, if ever, during KCP's first season with the Pistons. Playing on a team with Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith will do that to a rookie.
But this is summer league and summer league is all about players like KCP who are trying to build a little confidence and show what they can do without their veteran teammates around. Caldwell-Pope has been the talk of summer league so far. He scored 56 points in his first two games and played with the kind of bouncy confidence that made him a lottery pick in the first place.
Tuesday's game against the Miami Heat began differently. He turned his ankle in the first half and scored just two points. His jumper was off and he seemed out of sorts. But in the second half, KCP came back strong, and as Beyer drew up his play, there was no question where the ball was going.
KCP shines in Orlando
•Detroit Bad BoysKentavious Caldwell-Pope is the talk of the town in Orlando, a player quickly growing into a leadership role on and off the ball.
"You could just tell," Beyer said. "He wanted the ball. He had reads based on how the defense was going to come at him, but to his credit he made a big time play. I think it's great. Any time you can get a key player and put him in a difficult situation and he steps up and makes a big play like that, I think it's great."
Pope drained a three to finish with 26 points and the Pistons improved to 3-0. None of this means a whole lot in the big picture, but it means quite a bit for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
"I needed a fresh start," Caldwell-Pope said. "My summer workouts helped me get to this point right now. I'm more relaxed on the court than I was my first year. I was kind of frustrated and rushing a lot of things. Now I feel comfortable on the court with the ball in my hands making plays."
You probably didn't think about KCP all that much last year, or if you did, it was in the context of one of the most forgettable rookie classes in recent memory. So far in Orlando, it's been the second-year players who have made the best impression, from Caldwell-Pope to Orlando's Victor Oladipo, who slimmed down noticeably, to Philly's Nerlens Noel, who is a rookie in everything but his contract status.
The usual caveats apply. In summer league, the guards have more freedom, the tweeners match up with other undersized competitors and the true big men look like monsters. But the trio has offered a bit of hope among their respective teams who are in various states of rebuilding.
Take KCP, who did appear in 80 games while starting half of them for an underachieving Pistons squad. That in and of itself was an achievement considering only half the top 10 logged as many as 1,400 minutes as rookies. His shot was hit or miss — mostly miss — and he struggled to carve out any kind of niche playing alongside the aforementioned mess of a lineup the Pistons ran out on the floor.
His play this week has been encouraging, obviously, but new coach Stan Van Gundy is looking beyond the gaudy numbers when assessing his youngest player.
"I like what I've seen so far," Van Gundy said. "Obviously he's putting up big numbers but what's a lot more important is he's playing at a very high-intensity level. Bringing great energy, doing a lot of other things. He's getting after it defensively, he got on the boards the other day. Those things are more important right now than the numbers he puts up. He's been very aggressive and I want to see that continue throughout the week."
Caldwell-Pope's rookie season had very little of the flash that Oladipo provided, but the Magic guard can relate to the first-year blues. Playing on a team with little hope of winning, Oladipo had to learn how to manage his frustrations.
"I just keep it even keel, man," Oladipo said. "Last year there were days when I cried, days where I was frustrated. This year, it's the game of basketball. You're going to have ups and downs, you're going to have good games and bad games. You've just got to learn from the bad ones and minimize them. As a young vet, I learned that last year."
Wait, there were days when the losing brought you to tears?
"No question," Oladipo said. "It's no fun losing. When you feel like you have a big part in losing it doesn't sit right with me. I'm a competitor. I want to win. When you're not performing to the level you want to perform, it's tough. That could affect you in games over and over again."
Oladipo, Photo credit: Sam Greenwood, Getty
Oladipo said he dropped 20 pounds, and it shows. He seems quicker and livelier this summer, and he's taken to mentoring rookie point guard Elfrid Payton, who is happy to soak up any and all knowledge as he makes his own way in the league.
"He told me that it doesn't happen overnight," Payton said. "You got to continue to put work in and it will show. Most importantly, just try to stay even keel. It's all experience. That's the only way you can do it."
Things are ever so slightly looking up for the Magic, who are in Year Three AD (After Dwight). General manager Rob Hennigan's reconstruction project has gone slowly, but with a purpose. He's built the team through the draft with an emphasis on character and high-upside athletic potential. There doesn't appear to be a franchise-changing prospect on hand, but there are so many on the roster that the word ‘intriguing' fits as well as any other.
With more than a half-dozen players still on rookie contracts, including Oladipo, Payton and athletic freak Aaron Gordon, Hennigan dealt steady two-guard Arron Afflalo to Denver for yet another young player in Evan Fournier. The Ben Gordon signing was a puzzler, yet he brought in a much needed veteran shooter in Channing Frye, which had Oladipo beaming.
"It's going to spread the floor," Oladipo said. "It's going to open up the lane, finally. People can't sit (in the paint) anymore. There's going to be better reads on the floor, so I'm excited for him to get here."
Then there's Noel, who has offered tantalizing glimpses of a player many projected to be the top pick during his one-and-done season at Kentucky. Noel dropped 19 points in the opener, but if his Game 2 stat line was sedate, it was more indicative of the player they hope he'll eventually become. He had eight points, six boards, two steals and three blocks in 24 minutes.
"As the anchor of our defense there's going to be times when doesn't rebound well," said 76ers assistant Lloyd Pierce, who is coaching the summer league team. "He's protecting on penetration and he may not get the boards and we'll continue to stay on him about that. He will change and alter shots. He will get blocks. You guys are starting to see his quickness with his hands, where he gets a steal every game. We're always talking about discipline, but you can't channel a guy that has quick hands and quick feet. We're asking a lot of him on the defensive end. That's where he'll make a name for our team and himself and he'll continue to grow and develop offensively."
This is what summer league is all about. It's a chance for a fresh start and an opportunity for overwhelmed rookies to take what they've learned and graduate to young vet status. For them, the new season can't get here fast enough.
But there's work to do this summer, and it starts here.