After several months away from the NBA hardwood, the Cleveland Cavaliers are back. Well, kind of. For about two weeks the Cavaliers will be in Las Vegas for the annual NBA Summer League. Sure, a lot of it is glorified scrimmages but this is a golden opportunity for teams like Cleveland to look at what the future may hold as well. Possessing a roster that features key young building blocks like Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro along with rotation pieces like Lamar Stevens and Mfiondu Kabengele, there was a lot to gleam during the first two games for the Cavaliers.
If you do look over Cleveland's Summer League roster, it's abundantly clear there is a lack of a true point guard on the roster. Well, that and a lack of spacing. But, more on that in a bit. When the Cavaliers opened up their Sin City schedule against the Houston Rockets, Okoro, who is traditionally a small forward, was listed as the team's starting point guard. Technically Cleveland has gone with playmaking by a committee in their first two Summer League games but what coach J.J. Outlaw is experimenting with is huge for Okoro's growth and continuity from last year.
When Cleveland's roster was decimated by injuries towards the end of last season, Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff got creative. Around the midway point of the first quarter or so, Bickerstaff would turn to Okoro to act as the lead guard with the bench unit, and surprisingly enough it worked! So much so that during ESPN's broadcast of the Cavaliers game against the Rockets, Cleveland general manager Koby Altman shared that he wanted the team to continue this trend during Summer League. Altman says he wants to use Okoro as a secondary point guard and in the pick and roll to keep developing the former Auburn Tiger into a legitimate playmaking option.
According to sources, Okoro will only play in a handful of Cleveland's five Summer League games. So there are only a few in-game opportunities for the Cavaliers to test out point-Okoro prior to the start of training camp this fall. So far, the results have been mixed. In two games played Okoro has totaled 5 assists but that number is a bit misleading. In both games, his teammates failed to make shots off of his passes so in terms of potential assists that number could be much higher.
"It’s fun out there. I was just enjoying my time, taking in the moment, trying to lead the team and be the communicator,” Okoro said after their loss to Houston. “I feel like I made the right reads. Feel like I got better at it. Looking to improve next game on that. We need to move the ball more.
“I love doing it. I always did it my past years but never did it in a game. I’m just trying to show I can handle the ball and be a playmaker.”
With all that in mind, it's definitely encouraging to envision Okoro as a playmaker next season. But, it would likely be in more of a tertiary role and would pair nicely alongside a primary creator like Ricky Rubio. Especially since Okoro has not been bashful from beyond the arc in Vegas – he's attempted 7 three-pointers in his limited play. Granted, he's only made 2 of them but Okoro showing confidence in his shot is another sign of growth and will make the theoretical pairing alongside Rubio even better.
So, for now, we'll put a pin in the point-Okoro experience until the start of training camp for the Cavaliers. Much like playing Larry Nance Jr. at small forward, it's an interesting wrinkle that needs more time to properly develop. But, things so far look encouraging for Okoro's future as a playmaking forward for Cleveland. This is a welcome development, especially if the Cavaliers are determined to make Collin Sexton a permanent thing. A playmaking, defensive bigger-bodied forward is the perfect thing to put alongside Sexton. Okoro may be exactly just that.
Evan Mobley is a Cleveland-based unicorn.
Speaking of Cleveland players getting limited burn in Vegas, Evan Mobley made his Cavaliers debut this week. Two games in Mobley has averaged 13.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 2.0 blocks per game. Sure, the counting stats are underwhelming but one thing is abundantly clear so far with Mobley – he will still need time to adjust to the speed and learning curve of the NBA. But, that's to be expected with any rookie, especially for a big man like Mobley.
That, and Cleveland should almost always pair him with a traditional point guard when the games actually matter. At least until he's more comfortable as a shot creator. Since right now having either Rubio or Darius Garland instead of Isaac Okoro, Brodric Thomas or Jaylen Hands will make Mobley's life so much easier. Things have looked rough at times for Mobley while out on offense but there are still promising signs of what's to come.
At times against the Rockets and Magic, Mobley made it clear why he was considered a top player in this year's draft class. He almost ended Jalen Green's career when trying to dunk on him in the post and looked for shots from beyond the arc as well (he went 1-5 on his three-point attempts). Mobley glid to the rim with relative ease, looking like a seasoned guard and also went up with force, looking like a traditional seven-footer as both a lob threat and in the pick and roll. Even though he didn't take a ton of shots (32 combined in Cleveland's first two Summer League games), Mobley showcased a multifaceted offensive repertoire for the Cavaliers which is promising for the future.
Mobley's versatility doesn't just fall on the offensive side of the ball, he also showcased it on defense as well. In Cleveland's contest against the Rockets, Mobley went from guarding Alperen Sengun in the post to switching to Josh Christopher on the perimeter on multiple possessions. Whenever that happened, Mobley didn't look flustered whatsoever. That's rare for any NBA player, especially a rookie.
But, Mobley seems to be a different kind of rookie. Personally, the term unicorn is thrown around far too often for players that do not fit traditional NBA paradigms. More often than not, it feels like a lazy comparison but with Mobley, it doesn't. Much like a unicorn, Mobley is a true one-of-a-kind player with a unique skill set that will only blossom the more times he spends honing his craft at the NBA level. Thankfully, this unicorn isn't based in fairytales but instead is based in Cleveland.
Lamar Stevens could be the real deal?
An area of concern for Cleveland heading into next season is their wing depth or lack thereof. Other than Isaac Okoro or Cedi Osman or Dylan Windler when healthy, things are pretty barebones on the perimeter for the Cavaliers. Especially after they traded Taurean Prince to the Timberwolves to acquire Ricky Rubio. According to sources, Cleveland is remaining active in trade discussions to add wing depth to their roster and can also sign a cheaper free agent option like Alfonzo McKinnie.
But, if nothing were to come to fruition, the Cavaliers do have a quality option already on their roster in Lamar Stevens. Stevens, who went undrafted last season out of Penn State and signed soon after with Cleveland, shared with the media before heading to Vegas that he wanted to make the most of the opportunity and earn minutes in next season's rotation.
Well, so far so good for Stevens who has looked strong in extra minutes, averaging 14.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. If the Cavaliers fail to add any depth on the perimeter then Stevens will be in line to soak up reserve forward minutes behind both Okoro and Evan Mobley. Stevens's ability to be a versatile defensive option alongside Larry Nance Jr. at either forward position is a boost to chances as well.
The only thing holding Stevens back from truly taking the reigns is his lack of perimeter shooting. During his rookie season, the former Nittany Lion connected on a ghastly 16.0% of his three-point attempts. So far in Summer League play Stevens has hit 33.3% of his three total attempts. Stevens has to show Cleveland's coaching staff that he's fully capable of taking the next step. If not, he won't see more than his career average of 12.5 minutes per game for the Cavaliers next season.
Unlike Okoro or Mobley, there's a good chance Stevens plays the remainder of Cleveland's Summer League sleight. With those two out of the picture, head coach J.J. Outlaw will likely lean heavily on the former Penn State star to produce and carry the team. Based on how well he's played so far, there's a good chance Stevens shines. It'll be an interesting development to watch for the remainder of the team's time in Sin City.