Young veterans look to summer league to refine skills

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The NBA summer leagues were created, in part, for players like Marcus Smart and Dante Exum. The first-round picks from the 2014 draft — Exum at No. 5 and Smart at No. 6 — were both considered talents that would need some refining. They finished their rookie seasons as starters, but combined they barely averaged 10 points.

Summer league is the first glimpse of rookies, but it’s also a chance for young players like Smart and Exum to work on specific aspects of their games. The two made their summer debuts Monday at the Utah Jazz Summer League and showed a specific focus.

The Celtics and Smart took on Exum and the Jazz in the opening day finale. Smart said one of his summer goals is to get to the basket more often and he took that seriously Monday, repeatedly bullying his way into the lane and finishing with 26 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals. He admittedly took some bad jumpers, but it was clear Smart was working on a part of his game.

“Continue to grow as our primary ball handler, our playmaker, our leader at both the offensive and defensive end of the court,” Celtics summer league coach Jay Larranaga said of the goals for Smart. “He’s still a very young player, but this is a great experience for him getting to play against Exum.

“He’s got to run the team, he’s got to do basically everything.”

Smart’s final line proved that he did just about everything. As a rookie, he started 38 of 67 games and averaged 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals.

The Jazz don’t need everything from Exum. They just want more aggression — something coach Quin Snyder preached during the season.

Exum clearly had his marching orders as he, arguably, played the most aggressive game he’s ever had with a Jazz logo on his jersey. The 6-foot-6 point guard consciously drove the paint and didn’t hesitate when presented with a clean look from outside. This was not the same player who would spend chunks of games camped out in the corner.

Exum also looked stronger and was able to finish at the rim through contact, something his skinny frame struggled with last season. He had 20 points, five rebounds and five assists before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle. Exum started 41 of 82 games last season when Snyder moved Trey Burke to the bench. He averaged 4.8 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds.

“A lot of times you forget he’s 20 years old,” Jazz summer league coach Alex Jensen said. “With any 20-year-old, but especially a point guard, I think we just want him to be a leader.

“This is a great opportunity to do it. Vocally. When we need a bucket, he can be aggressive and he got to the free-throw line a lot tonight, which was something we wanted to work on from last season.”

The summer leagues provide an atmosphere for teams to achieve numerous things at the same time. Drafted rookies are getting their first taste of NBA life. Others are just trying to make a name for themselves and, hopefully, find a permanent home. Veterans who weren’t high draft picks may be carving a role with a team or simply trying to stay in the league. Young veterans with high ceilings, like Smart and Exum, get a chance to develop specific skills without the pressure of the win-loss column.

“We know what to expect here coming into summer league,” Smart said. “It’s to get better. It’s to learn the things and terminology that you don’t know, the new rules. Just go out there and compete.”

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