They’re not rookies, but Clippers duo knows importance of Summer League
When Daniel Oturu went job hunting last year, he was in many ways an outlier.
Despite a beaten-down economy, he landed work in his chosen field — and at only 21, he earned a first-year salary of nearly $900,000. No work-from-home required, either: The 6-foot-10 center for the Clippers was required to go into the office every day.
Like so many of his peers fresh out of college, however, Oturu endured a difficult adjustment from entering the working world at such an unusual time. COVID-19 concerns pushed back his start date five months, kept him from playing a competitive game for nearly eight months, and canceled his first chance for on-the-job training.
Instead of making his career debut at the NBA’s annual, but COVID-canceled, Summer League in Las Vegas against players generally around his age, he was thrown directly into the figurative fire at the Clippers’ Playa Vista facility and expected to keep up. Within days of signing his contract, he was practicing against veterans such as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George before playing in televised preseason games.
“I would definitely say it was tough, for sure,” Oturu said. “It was definitely a completely different game coming straight from college.”
For Oturu and the rest of the NBA’s 2020 draft class, their first year in the league is now officially ending at the place where a rookie’s career typically begins: Las Vegas. All 30 teams will play five games until an Aug. 17 championship game, and while the strong play of many top rookies last season essentially allowed them to test out of playing again this summer — 2020 No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards of Minnesota watched one Timberwolves game in Las Vegas from a courtside seat in street clothes, not a sideline chair in uniform — this remains an important proving ground for others whose first season provided an education, if few opportunities to show what they’d learned on the court.
Five things to watch during Summer League play that will impact the Clippers roster.
The latter group includes Oturu, who played 161 total minutes in 30 games last season, and guard Jay Scrubb, both of whom were acquired in draft-night trades. Scrubb missed the season’s first five months while recovering from surgery that inserted a screw into his right foot, before returning to play four games. They are part of a summer roster also featuring three Clippers rookies in Keon Johnson, Jason Preston and Brandon Boston Jr.
“For them it’s the opportunity to show what they can do, show they can compete at this level and show that they should be playing with us in our [regular-season] rotation,” said Clippers assistant Jeremy Castleberry, the team’s Summer League coach. “It’s a big opportunity for them to show what they’re capable of doing. Daniel showing that he can rim-run, showing that he can guard multiple positions one through five, showing that he can get rebounds and affect the game on defense.
“And the same thing for Scrubb. He’s got to be great on defense every night and that’s what we’re challenging him to do. It’s not such a big part about him about offense, I need him to be great on defense every night.”
Each, at times, has flashed the upside that led the Clippers to acquire them. Each has also played unevenly during an 0-2 Clippers start.
Scrubb’s 24-point, 10-rebound performance in the opening game, in which he made 10 of his 18 shots, displayed the scoring knack that made him the first player in 16 years to be drafted out of junior college and underscored the value he said he gained from having his NBA introduction come during the regular season.
“Those few games that I got to play during the regular season definitely helped me, with my pace and understanding the game more,” he said. “The little things. So, when I come out here in Summer League and play with guys that’s closer to my age it’s a lot easier, the game’s slowed down, I can make plays for everybody else and keep myself involved, as well.”
His lack of an assist Monday, however, and his four-for-20 shooting night Tuesday against Portland, also showed the work still to be done. As his coach wishes, Scrubb arrived in Las Vegas determined to display his progress as an “elite defender.”
Like Scrubb’s, much of Oturu’s first season was spent observing or playing five-on-five games in practice against older Clippers reserves. The condensed G League season in February and March was supposed to be a prime opportunity for playing time; instead, a quad injury kept him sidelined. When he recovered, he rejoined a Clippers roster whose championship ambitions left little time for rookie development.
If his first season went backward — playing in a regular season before ever appearing at Summer League — it wasn’t without benefits. He had seven months to practice against and observe the habits and preparation of older, decorated teammates.
“The feedback I got was good,” Oturu said. “Just continuing to put in the work and trusting the process and believing in yourself and just continuing to have that confidence that you can go out there and compete. And regardless of whatever you work on in the summer or stuff like that, every time you step on the floor you’ve got to give your best effort.”
Oturu was “kind of struggling a little bit” in the first half of his summer debut Monday, said Castleberry, who added that a talk at halftime appeared to relax the big man. In three halves since, he has made a combined nine of 14 shots, with 17 rebounds, six blocked shots and only two turnovers.
“I think we saw the real D.O.,” Castleberry said.
Oturu “shows a lot of spurts of what he can do and if he can get consistent in that and rim-run, protecting the rim, switching one through five, guarding multiple positions and sitting down [defensively], then his future is very bright,” Castleberry said. “And that’s what we see in him.”
Given a chance at last to play consistent minutes at Summer League, Oturu said he hasn’t felt any added pressure to perform up to his expectations. But the Clippers remain in win-now mode and need contributors to emerge. It can’t be forgotten that the Clippers traded up to snagcenter Mfiondu Kabengele with a first-round pick in 2019, only to trade him away less than two seasons later.
It’s why, even though the draft class of 2020 has already grown used to the rigors of a real NBA season, their time in Las Vegas is anything but meaningless. Nine months after starting their first jobs, they are coming up on their annual review.
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