One of the main goals of the Las Vegas Summer League is giving young players a low consequence opportunity to get their first taste of playing something close to NBA-caliber basketball. But summer league also serves the important function of giving teams a chance to find out just what they have in players recently drafted. That was the case Tuesday afternoon in Tualatin, with the Trail Blazers holding their first summer league practice featuring Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, both acquired by the team in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft.
For Collins, the 10th overall pick who Portland acquired from Sacramento in exchange for the draft rights to Justin Jackson and Harry Giles, Tuesday’s practice afforded the 7-0 center a chance to show off his skills defending at the rim, an area the Trail Blazers have had some issue with in recent seasons.
“I played good, my shot wasn’t falling too well today, but first day, that’s expected,” said Collins. “Just trying to get the feel for the NBA game right now. The shots will start falling, I’m not too worried about that, but I thought I played really well on defense, the defensive schemes, what they’re looking for on defense, I thought I did a pretty good job.”
After coming off the bench in his lone season at Gonzaga, Collins is all but guaranteed to start for Portland’s summer league team, where he’ll quickly learn that the play in Las Vegas tends to favor guards over bigs. Given that, the team focusing primarily on defense in their first practice likely benefited Collins more than his teammates.
“They got on me, they want the bigs to talk,” said Collins, a Las Vegas native. “The bigs kind of got to be the quarterbacks on defense. I’ve learned that my whole life, just to talk more, but especially in the NBA it’s so important. A lot of that, a lot of pick-and-roll defense. The main focus today was defense, I thought. They’re just really striking home on how they play and they want to get up and down, play with a flow. Those are the things they’re teaching me.”
“He’s a really tough kid,” said Jim Moran, one of a number of Portland’s assistants who are running the team’s summer league practices, of Collins. “You forget how young these guys are, he’s a 19 year-old. He’s obviously going to mature and put muscle on. Just seeing him move and the things he can do with his feet, he can guard smaller guys and keep them in front. He does a really good job at the rim, he’s vertical, he offers a lot of rim protection. It’s exciting to see him out there.”
Then there’s Swanigan, who played alongside Collins at power forward for much of Tuesday’s practice. A 6-9 forward selected by Portland with the 26th overall pick, Swanigan brought the hustle and determination to his first official pro practice that he had become known for during two season at Purdue.
“(Swanigan) is a very hard worker, he is in the gym all the time,” said Moran. That’s one thing that’s kind of impressed us as a coaching staff: he works. He comes in, he’s very respectful, he listens to what he’s told, he does what he’s told. Going forward, I think his work ethic is going to take him a lot of places. He’s obviously got the talent, but he loves to put in the time, and when you spend that much time working on your craft, working on your game, you can’t help but get better.”
For Swanigan, the biggest takeaway from the first practice was beginning the process of understanding the need for ball movement in Terry Stotts’ flow offense.
“Be patiently aggressive,” said Swanigan of instruction he received during Tuesday’s practice. “It just means if you’ve got something, go. If you don’t, get right into something. Don’t stand and hold the ball, don’t let it stick. That’s the biggest thing for this first practice.”
The Trail Blazers will hold three more practices before heading to Las Vegas on Friday prior to playing their first game on Saturday, and during that time, the coaching staff will slowly introduce the basics of their sets and system. And in the process, they’ll have an opportunity to get to know Collins and Swanigan both as players and people well in advance of training camp.
“We haven’t — myself and the other coaches — we haven’t seen these guys a ton, so to kind of get them here and put them through drills that we put our guys through and see how they respond to those, it’s fun when you see guys react in a positive manner so quickly,” said Moran. “You just know that, as time goes on, they’re going to get better and more comfortable. I think for us, that’s the exciting thinking moving forward. When these guys start putting muscle on and start getting used to the NBA style of play that they’ll be able to really contribute.”