Rockets’ Johnson aims to go from second round to the top


VIDEO: Nick Johnson closes out Summer League with big performance

LAS VEGAS — Summer League is a place in transition, where you see players with shoes that don’t match their uniform, where coaching staff members can outnumber active rosters, where players have to flip their uniform waistbands over to keep their oversize shorts from falling down during play. After one game, I saw a player exit the locker room shirtless with only a backpack, because the trainer had accidentally packed away the shirts before he was finished dressing.

That player was Rockets rookie Nick Johnson. While the Rockets quickly issued Johnson a long-sleeve T-shirt to solve that problem, his path to getting an NBA jersey of his own has been a bit less direct.

“The last few months have been pretty long, pretty wild,” Johnson says. “But it’s been good.”

Last season, as a junior at Arizona, the 6-foot-3 Johnson averaged 16.3 points, earning him consensus first-team All-American honors as well as a Pac-12 Player of the Year nod. Feeling he’d proven his worth, Johnson entered the 2014 NBA Draft. Leading up the Draft, Johnson had fifteen different workouts for NBA teams. “It was a grind. I was going from city to city, going for two weeks at a time.”

Then, on the evening of the Draft, Johnson sat to wait for his name to be called. The first round — with the accompanying guaranteed contract — came and went. Eventually, the Rockets drafted Johnson in the second round, 42nd overall, and the eighth player from the Pac-12 selected.

“It was a long night,” Johnson admits. “I’ll tell you, there’s not 41 players better than me in this year’s draft. And I don’t know anywhere the player of the year has seven players in his same conference get picked before him.

“But overall, it was a good process for me,” he continues, “because I went to a good organization, right now they’re going to the playoffs every year, and I think we have a lot of potential to go pretty far. I’ve always been a winner, always been about winning. So I’m happy I went to an organization that wins.”

Johnson — who is, coincidentally, the nephew of Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson — may be considered undersized at the two, but in Houston’s system he projects at either the one or the two. During Summer League, his athleticism has been a prominent asset in Johnson’s game, and he flashed it Monday during a loss in the Summer League final with a reverse alley-oop dunk en route to a team-leading 17 points. At least initially, that athletic ability should go a long way toward helping him find a place in the NBA.

“I think my game fits really well,” Johnson says. “In the NBA, I have the ability to use my athleticism a lot more than I did in college. I believe that the floor, the spacing is a lot wider with so many shooters around. I saw that a little bit in both of these summer leagues. And with my ability to make plays and get after it on the defensive end, I feel it will translate pretty well.”

“His athleticism is at an elite level, so it’s always going to allow him to compete and he’s a competitor,” says Houston’s summer league coach Chris Finch. “I think he’s right, I think he’ll find more space on the floor provided he gets out and runs, learns to play real quick off the catch where he can beat his man. His athleticism will help near the rim as long as he gets there quickly.”

Besides athleticism, Johnson excels at many of the things that don’t show up on draft previews, such as toughness and leadership. And it’s exactly that kind of hard-minded approach that will help him go from 42 into the upper echelon.

“It’s not where you start it’s where you finish,” Johnson says. “I’m going to make sure to work my hardest, to do my best, to finish at the top.”

Reports: Sterlings, Ballmer meet for ‘friendly talk’ about Clippers

Sketchy information on a dodgy situation. That’s all anyone is working with at the moment, so it’s hard to know what the real significance might be. But a reported meeting Monday between cantankerous Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, his estranged wife (and opposing litigant) Shelly and aspiring NBA franchise owner Steve Ballmer suggests movement in some direction in the delayed sale of the team.

Depending how friendly the reported “friendly tak” was, it could represent a possible break in the legal wrangling and grinding court battle between Donald and Shelly Sterling, which has been holding up the $2 billion sale longer than the NBA would like. Or it could be a ploy by Donald, a casual chat of no great importance or a waste of time all around.

We’re past the point of clear, straight, discernible plot lines in this Hollywood tale.

So for now, it’s just worth noting that there presumably was some outside-the-courtroom conversation, based on Beverly Hills updates from TMZ.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com. Ramona Shelburne’s work for the latter offered more insight:

The meeting was arranged Sunday night following a three-hour meeting earlier in the day between Donald and Shelly Sterling, sources said.

Donald Sterling had been preparing to file a new suit in state court on Monday morning before he and his wife spoke at length Sunday evening and he agreed to meet with Ballmer, sources said.

While Sterling famously called his wife “a pig” after she testified in the civil case against him two weeks ago, he was emotional when speaking about his love for her during his own testimony.

Shelly Sterling is due to testify again in the civil suit between the Sterlings on Tuesday. At issue in that case is whether Shelly Sterling was authorized to sell the franchise to Ballmer.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, speaking at the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting July 15 in Las Vegas, acknowledged that Donald Sterling still might own the Clippers by the start of the 2014-15 NBA season, based on his desire to fight the process and the pace of the proceedings. The initial deal with Shelly Sterling set a July 15 deadline for the sale to close, with the possibility that it might be extended to Aug. 15.

Silver said the NBA could resume its termination process according to the league’s constitution and by-laws if the Sterling’s probate battle drags on.

The Hang Time Podcast: Vegas Impressions

LAS VEGAS – The Samsung NBA Summer League might be winding down, but the offseason storylines never end.

Will Kevin Love join LeBron James and the revolution in Cleveland or will Andrew Wiggins get his chance to play his part in the coming home movement? And speaking of Summer League action, who stood out in Vegas? Who needs to get busy and crank up their workouts between now and the start of training camp? When are the Lakers going to get a coach? And what team has the most work to do coming out of the busiest portion of the summer?

The Hang Time Podcast crew offers up some Vegas impressions, plenty of them as always, after our stint working the broadcast booth (fine, the table) during the Samsung Summer League:


VIDEO: The Hang Time Podcast crew in Vegas

Morning shootaround — July 21


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played July 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Cavs to ink Wiggins to deal soon | Report: Knicks looking to move a guard | Bird still puzzled by Stephenson’s departure

No. 1: Report: Cavs to sign rookie Wiggins soon — Normally, a first-round pick closing in on signing his first contract is not news in this space as the deals for all first-round picks are predetermined and basically just need pen to be put to paper. But in the case of the No. 1 overall pick — Andrew Wiggins of the Cleveland Cavaliers — and his ties to trade talks dealing with Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love, we’ll make an exception. As Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com points out, the Cavs’ expected signing of Wiggins would, if nothing else, significantly delay any kind of Love-to-Cleveland deal:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are planning to sign No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins to a contract in the coming week, according to sources close to the process.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Cavaliers’ delay in signing the former Kansas star has nothing to do with the prospect of Wiggins being dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of Cleveland’s ongoing trade discussions for Kevin Love.

The Cavaliers, sources say, are merely exploring options for using their estimated $1.4 million in remaining cap space before signing Wiggins to a contract that will pay him in the neighborhood of $5.5 million as a rookie.

The Cavs and Timberwolves have been discussing a Love trade since the return of LeBron James, with sources saying that Minnesota is insistent on getting Wiggins back in any deal that sends Love to Cleveland.

Once Wiggins signs, though, league rules stipulate that the Cavs must wait 30 days before trading him.

The Cavs’ delay in formalizing Wiggins’ contract has garnered extra attention because of the Love factor, but the reality is that this process is a fairly routine bit of salary-cap management that takes place this time of year with draft picks.


VIDEO:
Andrew Wiggins talks about being in the thick of the Kevin Love trade talks
 

For Rockets’ Motiejunas, what happens in Vegas should not stay in Vegas


VIDEO: Donatas Motiejunas has been a load for defenders in Summer League

LAS VEGAS — There were 50 seconds left and the Houston Rockets trailed the Charlotte Hornets, 80-79, in the semifinals of the Samsung Las Vegas Summer League. Rockets guard Isaiah Canaan cleared out the left side of the court, then lobbed the ball inside to center Donatas Motiejunas. Motiejunas caught, leaned back, wheeled toward the center of the court and dropped in a soft hook shot to give the Rockets the lead and the win.

Motiejunas finished the game with 18 points and 13 rebounds in 31 minutes, another strong performance in the seven-foot Lithuanian’s brief history of terrific Summer League showings. Just two years ago, a 25-point, nine-rebound showing in his Summer League debut caused NBA TV’s Chris Webber to exclaim, “I came to Vegas and fell in love!”

But in two NBA seasons since then, Motiejunas hasn’t been able to consistently find the same kind of minutes or production with the Houston Rockets. So what is it about Vegas that brings out the best in Motiejunas?

“I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Do you like Vegas?” the man they call D-Mo says with a smile. “First time when I play it was just after the draft. I came here to prove to everyone I’m not just a simple European guy, a typical one, that I can fight and play. This year, I came here to get into shape for National Team, because the guys started training camp July 7, and my team said they prefer me to stay here and play a couple of games here. We lost two games in a row, I was pissed, and then we start winning, winning, winning. I could not say no, not to play. I just wanted to win.”

The Rockets’ winning streak has pushed this Vegas trip to the limit — after Monday’s championship game, Motiejunas will take an overnight flight to Houston, unpack and repack, and then hop on an evening flight to Frankfurt to join the Lithuanian National Team.

“It’s intensive, but I’m happy. I’m playing, I’m getting a lot of touches, I’m enjoying these guys. Like I said, they did an incredible job the last couple of weeks, separate players becoming team, not easy to do.”

Along with Canaan, Motiejunas has been Houston’s best player in Vegas, averaging 17.7 points per game to go along with 7.7 rebounds through six games. And with Houston trading away Omer Asik, as well as whiffing on Chris Bosh in free agency, the opportunity for Motiejunas to become a regular Rockets rotation player is there for the taking.

“His homework for Summer League was tougher post defense and rebounding, and I think he’s done both those things,” says Houston Summer League coach Chris Finch. “He’s very skilled offensively — he’s a guy that can score in the post and make plays off the dribble as a big guy. And those are things we can do with him in our offense with the Rockets once we can get him a consistent role. But the defense and the rebounding is what is going to get him that. He did a good job last season of working his way into the rotation, so he’s on the growth path.”

In other words, Motiejunas will have to fight and show toughness to earn minutes. Which is something he says he’s not afraid to do.

“I’m trying to show toughness! Trying to get there!” he laughs, grabbing my arm. “I don’t know, how is going on? Is it getting better?”

You look pretty tough to me, I said.

“OK! It means it’s working out.”

“D-Mo is tough. He is a fighter,” says Finch. “He works hard — you’re never going to find a guy who out-works him. He needs to learn to play with physicality without fouling, physicality without getting out of position, that kind of stuff. That’s why we’ve asked him to be more physical this year defensively and on the glass.”

For his next act, Motiejunas has to translate his Summer League showings into the regular season, finding a way to perform in the regular season as he has in the summer season.

Clearly, for the benefit of both Motiejunas and the Rockets, the trick to going forward is going to be getting what happens in Vegas to not stay in Vegas.

Kings say they are still behind McLemore


VIDEO: Ben McLemore scored 11 points as the Kings beat the Bulls

LAS VEGAS – Here’s a statement. Two of them actually, packaged into one big picture: Ben McLemore, the shooting guard the Kings drafted in the lottery in 2013, insisted he didn’t read too much into it when the Kings used another lottery pick on another shooting guard in the 2014 draft, and team officials, naturally, say they remain committed as ever to McLemore’s future in Sacramento.

It’s all good, right? McLemore came to summer league with the proper attitude, if pressing at first, and followed that up by playing well, making 52.2 percent of his attempts and averaging 14.6 points in five games as a major part of the Kings reaching the Sunday evening semifinals of the tournament format at Thomas & Mack Center, which concludes Monday. He is doing a lot of the right things and saying all the right things.

But, look. There’s Nik Stauskas.

The Kings just drafted someone who plays the same position, a year after being overjoyed to get McLemore in 2013, complete with the emotional bends of trying hard to trade up to get him, finding no deal, and then having the Kansas product fall to their laps at No. 7.

The Kings made it a priority this offseason to add perimeter shooting, and that is Stauskas’ specialty, the primary appeal to taking him at No. 8 as part of a portfolio that also includes being able to handle the ball well enough to project as a secondary playmaker and the experience in pressure situations of one run to the national-title game at Michigan and another to the Elite Eight.

In the singular moment, with Stauskas surrounded in positives, the Kings had a good 2014 draft. It’s just that it may also become a new perspective on the direction of their 2013 draft. That is the other statement.

“I told him,” coach Michael Malone said of McLemore, ” ‘Listen, we drafted Nik Stauskas. That’s not any slight on you. We still believe in you. You’re still our guy and we still expect great things from you from Year 1 to Year 2.’ I think he came out to Summer League after one year in the NBA thinking he had to score 20 points a game. It’s not about that. It’s playing the right way as we try to instill more ball movement.”

Playing the first couple games like someone hearing footsteps, although saying he didn’t have a problem with the Stauskas pick, McLemore responded by scoring 18, 22 and 11 points the next three outings while shooting 64.3 percent and adding six rebounds on two occasions. Stauskas has also had a good summer, at 48.6 percent from the field in five outings, 57.1 percent from behind the arc, and 10.4 points.

Their play has been a key factor in the Kings reaching the semifinals against the Wizards. The winner of that game faces the winner of Hornets-Rockets on Monday night for the title.

Wizards’ culture shift in full swing


VIDEO: Glen Rice Jr. ties the game with a 3-pointer from the corner for the Washington Wizards

LAS VEGAS – That breakthrough season and playoff run was just the beginning for the Washington Wizards.

That flash we saw from the John Wall and Bradley Beal-led Wizards in the Eastern Conference semifinals is still going strong into both free agency and here in the Samsung NBA Summer League, where youngsters like Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. are busy doing work with their veteran peers keeping a watchful eye.

Wall and Beal were in attendance at the Thomas and Mack Center Saturday night when Rice went off for 36 points in a triple-overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs. Veteran free agent Al Harrington is working the sidelines as a volunteer assistant under Wizards assistant Sam Cassell, keeping his finger on the pulse of a team whose culture shift is clearly in full swing after years of building to this point.

“We’re trying to get our hands on that trophy,” a smiling Harrington said after the win over the Spurs. “It’s just a good vibe all around since the season ended. All of our guys, the young guys and the older guys, are grinding and trying to get to that next level. Everybody recognizes the opportunity that is staring us in the face and we have to be ready. Everybody has to be ready.”

In a summer that began with the Wizards making the first big splash by keeping free-agent center Marcin Gortat on $60 million deal, the hits have kept on coming for this crew. Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker departed in free agency, but  Wizards boss Ernie Grunfeld went to work and rebounded by acquiring former Finals MVP Paul Pierce on a two-yer deal and veteran big men Kris Humprhies and DeJuan Blair in sign-and-trade deals to bolster the bench.

And for anyone dismissing the moves — the Pierce deal in particular, due to the mileage Pierce has piled up over the course of his stellar career — his coach in Brooklyn last season, believes the Wizards have taken a major step forward this summer with the acquisition of these veterans.

“Washington got better,” Kidd told reporters here last week. “You’ve got a veteran guy who understands what it means to be a professional, comes to work every day and understand what it takes to win a championship. … He won’t have any problems [fitting with the Wizards]. He’ll be fine.”

The Wizards will be, too, based on the busy work they have done this summer. Teams either get better or worse with their offseason work. Staying the course, for anyone other than the champion Spurs, simply doesn’t work.

“It’s just a matter of the process of getting better,” Kidd said. “You see that with Gortat coming back. The backcourt is very talented. So they lose a player, a piece, but they’re not afraid to go out and get a player that can help them. They’re going to be one of the top teams in the East.”

That’s the plan. Harrington said that was the vision of all involved when the season ended. They felt like they let the Pacers off the hook in the playoffs. “Trust me, it won’t happen again,” he said. “Our guys are better now because of what we learned about ourselves in that series.”

LeBron James heading home to Cleveland leaves a void at the top of the Southeast Division. And much like the work the Wizards’ summer league squad is putting in to capture top honors, when the regular season begins the varsity crew will battle for the No. 1 spot with the Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets.

“It’s there for the taking,” Harrington said. “You see the way we are working now in the middle of the summer. We changed the culture. And now we’re feeding the beast, making sure everybody knows what goes on when the lights come on in the regular season. We need [Rice Jr.] and Otto ready to go from the start. Our depth is going to be our strength. It’s go time from the first day of training camp.”

Morning shootaround — July 20


VIDEO: Highlights of the Summer League quarterfinals played July 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lance is the Hornets’ hobby now | It’s about Klay’s defense | The L-Train runs to Brooklyn | Giving World Peace another chance

No. 1: Lance is the Hornets’ hobby now — His talent is undeniable. His persona is irrepressible. And now Lance Stephenson is the Charlotte Hornets’ hope and challenge, a budding, two-way star who might reach his All-Star potential with his new team or yield to some distracting ways with the validation of a new three-year, $27 million contract via free agency. Al Jefferson, the Hornets’ main man up front, will find out (if he doesn’t already know it) that Stephenson is an adept passer and managed to deliver the ball to Indiana’s Roy Hibbert better than anyone else on the Pacers roster. He also might find out why David West, Paul George, George Hill, Hibbert and Rasual Butler stayed so busy keeping Stephenson on task and occasionally talking him down from emotional ledges. Here is some Jefferson quotage on Charlotte’s strong summer move courtesy of ProBasketballTalk.com:

“I’m excited about Lance,” Jefferson said in the hall outside the Hornets locker room at the Thomas & Mack Center, where he had shown up to watch Charlotte eliminate New York from the Summer League tournament. “We’re all going to be on the same page as far as defense, and defense dictates the offense.

“But Lance is a playmaker. That’s the reason he led the NBA in triple-doubles last year. He’s got this nastiness about his game that you want on your team. I was really excited to hear he signed with us and he wanted to do that. I think he’s got a lot to prove, and he wants to show people he can be a great superstar in this league.”

***

No. 2: It’s about Klay’s defense – One of the head-scratching snags in what many see as a helps-both-teams deal between Golden State and Minnesota that would deliver Kevin Love to the Bay Area is the valuation of off-guard Klay Thompson. Thompson became an issue in the haggling early – beyond, as many saw it, his actual capabilities with either team. Turns out, it’s his defense that has been getting short shrift from many of the so-called experts. Golden State’s roster isn’t built to withstand the loss of Thompson’s backcourt defense as long as Stephen Curry is back there handling so much of the offensive load. As USA Today’s Sam Amick writes:

In short, they’re not willing to ditch the defense.

Their recent refusal to include guard and Timberwolves target Klay Thompson in the deal is rooted in this reality, as losing Thompson would not only leave Curry overexposed defensively in the backcourt but is compounded by the fact that Love — much like incumbent power forward David Lee, who would head to Minnesota if this deal got done — isn’t exactly known as a two-way player. From Lacob on down, this is a major part of the Warriors’ internal analysis and something that belies all the initial speculation about how this Kerr era might be defined.
***
Thompson, meanwhile, left a lasting impression on his bosses with the way he played in his most recent postseason. Kerr wasn’t part of the program just yet, but he had a front-row seat as a TNT analyst and was just as impressed as the rest of them.

“Klay guarded Chris Paul the entire Clippers series,” Kerr, who spoke about Thompson but did not discuss the Love situation, told USA TODAY Sports on Friday. “He has allowed Steph to conserve some energy at the defensive end, and to slide over to a shooter. The versatility that we have defensively between Klay and (new point guard) Shaun Livingston and (small forward) Andre (Iguodala), it’s really important for us…We’re excited about our roster.”

In addition to becoming a scorer on the rise (18.4 points per game last season on 44.4% shooting overall and 41.7% from three-point range), Thompson’s task of guarding the other team’s point guard is significant here. The Warriors need Curry to continue playing like the face of their franchise that he is, but overburdening him with a backcourt partner who doesn’t live up to Thompson’s standards defensively is seen as a major threat to this crucial component.

***

No. 3:  The L-Train runs to Brooklyn — Run was the operative word when Lionel Hollins, most recently head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies who spent last season in media gigs, got the call from the Brooklyn Nets to come a-interviewing. Jason Kidd, last season’s coach, had torpedoed his position with a failed power play that sent him in the recoil to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Nets wanted to fill the void fast, and that’s how Hollins went about landing the job. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe had other nuggets from the erudite and candid Hollins that makes him an asset not just to Brooklyn but to NBA reporters’ notebooks:

“Yeah, it was sudden,” Hollins said of the call from Nets general manager Billy King. “Saturday I was sitting at home with no job and Sunday night I’m flying to New York, Monday I’m having dinner with Billy and his staff, Tuesday I’m interviewing, Tuesday night I’m on my way home, and when I get home contract negotiations had already started, and Wednesday it was a done deal.”
***
The Nets still have talent but there are questions. [Brook] Lopez is coming off yet another foot injury. [Deron] Williams underwent ankle surgery during the offseason and there are murmurs that he is in decline. [Joe] Johnson will be 33 when the season begins and the salary cap-strapped club has made no major offseason acquisitions.

“I think that [Lopez], Joe, and Deron are the three big names in the nucleus, and KG [Kevin Garnett] if he decides to come back and play will certainly be in that mix, and I look for him to start and play,” Hollins said.
Hollins has spent the past few weeks trying to find housing in Brooklyn, reaching out to players on the roster, and assembling a staff.

“Yes, I was surprised by the fact that it did open,” he said of the Nets job. “It’s not something that you think. But I always say that every year you go through and all the job opportunities fade away and then something happens where somebody decides to resign, or somebody does what happened in the Brooklyn case. It’s not like I was dead to coaching — I’m watching TV, I worked for NBA TV, I worked for NBA Radio, and so I never shut down from looking and thinking about the game and what I would do in certain situations. It just flows. It’s what I do.”

***

No. 4: Giving World Peace another chanceMetta World Peace‘s greatest NBA success came under Phil Jackson in Los Angeles. The New York Knicks already are on the hook to MWP for $250,000 this season, residue of his brief (29 games, one start) stint with them under coach Mike Woodson in 2013-14. So now that Jackson is running the basketball operation in New York and former Lakers guard Derek Fisher is the head coach, it doesn’t take a super-computer to calculate the likelihood of World Peace (who had asked for his release from the Knicks) being invited to training camp on a make-good deal. Marc Berman of the New York Post did some of his customary pot-stirring on the topic:

“[World Peace] has the utmost respect for Phil and Derek,’’ his agent, Marc Cornstein, told The Post. “There’s a history there. They know he’s out there.’’
The Knicks are trying to add another good-sized small forward to the roster. After Carmelo Anthony, only rookie Cleanthony Early is a true small forward. During summer league play, Early is trying to prove he is ready to be Anthony’s backup, but hasn’t shown he can create his own shot.
The World Peace camp has expressed interest to the Knicks. Under the buyout, the Knicks already are paying World Peace $250,000 for next season. If World Peace were invited and made the team, he’d be eligible for the veteran’s minimum, $1.4 million.
The Queensbridge product was disillusioned with his ballyhooed return to New York, which ended with a buyout Feb. 22 after he was buried in Mike Woodson’s doghouse and needed his left knee drained five times. Woodson didn’t like his offbeat act after signing him last July.
***
If he doesn’t an invite to the Knicks’ training camp, he may become the assistant coach for the Palisades High girls basketball team in Los Angeles.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Lakers had hoped to bring back Kendall Marshall but Milwaukee stymied that plan. … Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving is like a lot of other Clevelanders: Excited about this LeBron guy. … Coach Doc Rivers showed his loyalty by bringing Delonte West to summer league, but the Clippers have “1,000 guards,” so West’s NBA comeback might have to happen elsewhere. … Former Wizards’ big Jan Vesely is headed back to Europe, and no one in the NBA is stopping him. … Don’t expect to see Kosta Koufos on the Greek national team. … It’s not quite of Kevin Love-Klay Thompson proportions but Golden State faces a decision on Nemanja Nedovic.

Payne works to adjust to the NBA game


VIDEO: Adreian Payne gets high for the flush on the break

LAS VEGAS — When Adreian Payne was 15 years old, he realized he needed a summer job. He was, after all, a teenager, and Payne heard the same siren song of commerce that appeals to adolescents everywhere.

“I wanted to be able to buy myself something,” Payne recalls. “I wanted to go to the mall with my friends and stuff like that.”

And so Payne, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, went out and got a job. As a janitor at his own middle school.

To Payne, it was a great gig.

“I swept, took gum off of the desks, mopped. It wasn’t bad, because I knew everybody there at my school, and it was the summer so there wasn’t anybody there. But I knew the janitor, I knew the lunch lady, all the staff. It was kind of fun. Being young I played around sometimes, but it was fun.”

Once he saved up enough money, Payne went to the mall and bought a pair of shoes. These days, as the recent first round pick of the Atlanta Hawks, with the requisite rookie scale contract, Payne’s shopping horizons have broadened a bit: “I’m looking for an apartment right now, actually. That will probably be the next thing I get.”

Payne spent the past week in Las Vegas with the Atlanta Hawks at the Samsung NBA Summer League exhibiting the drive and skill that made the Hawks interested in him to begin with. As a four-year player for coach Tom Izzo at Michigan State, the 6-foot-10 Payne developed into a deft outside shooter, knocking down 3-pointers at a 42 percent rate as a senior. That combination of size and shooting ability should fit perfectly into the spread-and-shoot system the Hawks implemented last season under first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer.

“Being able to shoot the ball can translate to anything, any level,” Adreian said. “But [the NBA game is] a lot different, the speed of the game, and the players are more athletic. So it’s just a matter of you just getting more comfortable out there, trying to find the pace of the game so your shots still come and you’re in rhythm, still. So I’m just trying to get my shot off quicker but not in a rush. But just quicker, more efficient, less movement.”

Payne helped lead the Hawks’ summer squad to a 2-3 record in the round-robin format, and played 28 minutes today in the Hawks’ 78-71 elimination round loss to the Houston Rockets. Payne finished with 11 points but struggled from the field, finishing 4-for-15, including 1-8 on three pointers.

“They were telling me to get my shots, try to slow myself down, run the offense and let them come. They was coming, they just wasn’t falling,” Payne said with a laugh.

Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham coached the Hawks summer league squad, and saw plenty to like from Payne.

“It’s one of those situations where you always love the fact you have to tell a guy to slow down as opposed to pick it up. He just needs to know how to be quick but not in a hurry,” said Ham. And then, to emphasize the point, he repeated it quickly and in a hurry: “Quick but not in a hurry.

“He gets going and he’s going full speed and that’s normal for guys coming out of college,” Ham said. “They want to do everything a thousand percent, at a hundred miles an hour, and you can’t fault him for that. He’s from a heckuva program and Coach Iz[zo] did a great job with him. We’re just going to try to refine him a little bit and teach him how to play with a change of pace, so to speak.”

Coming into today’s loss, Payne averaged 12.8 ppg on 40 percent shooting from the field in Atlanta’s five previous games. Ham said the Hawks know he can get his shot going.

“His shooting element is there,” said Ham, “the defensive element is there, making athletic plays, we just gotta get him to stop fouling so much.”

Is that easier said than done with rookies?

“Oh, absolutely,” Ham continued. “Because in college, they actually play a lot more physical than we do in the NBA. At the NBA level, the big key is not to impede progress, so referees are a little more ticky-tacky with how they call fouls as opposed to in the college game, where you can get into guys and put your forearm into ‘em when they face up and all of that. So it’ll take some time, but he’s a smart kid, a smart player, he’ll make the proper adjustments.”

One adjustment Payne has made thus far has been trying to add shotblocking to his defensive repertoire, something he says he wasn’t able to display at Michigan State.

“[Coach Izzo] wanted me to stay on the floor — I was getting in foul trouble. So the rules here are a lot different than they are in college — you have verticality here, in college you don’t. So it’s a lot different.”

Accordingly, another part of Payne’s adjustment has been studying tape of the NBA game to increase his familiarity with the league. While at Michigan State, he said, NBA games weren’t often on his TV — “I watched a lot of college games.” Video games were no help either — “I suck at 2K.”

“I’ve been watching a lot more NBA now, and I love watching it,” Payne said. “Now that I’m here in the league I’ve been watching a lot more film, been watching film with Coach Ham, and just trying to get better.”


VIDEO: Adreian Payne gets the stiff rejection against the Rockets

Countdown is on for optimistic Noel


VIDEO: Noel discusses his play during Summer League

LAS VEGAS – Nerlens Noel gets an “A” for perseverance and patience and for somehow maintaining optimism throughout the most physically and psychologically challenging 17-month stretch of his young life. NBA schedules have yet to be released, but there’s roughly 100 days until the Philadelphia 76ers open the 2014-15 season and Noel is counting down every last one them.

The 76ers’ 6-foot-11 center (more like 7-foot-3, seriously, with his trademark flat top now elevating ever higher) sat out all of last season to rehabilitate the left knee he damaged late in his one-and-done campaign at Kentucky. The injury dropped him from the consensus No. 1 pick into Philadelphia’s lap at No. 6. He finally made it back on the floor earlier this month, playing three games at the Orlando Summer League, and he wrapped up an encouraging July tour playing two of five games at the Las Vegas Summer League where paint penetrators were quickly put on notice.

Though still months away, visions of how Opening Night will go down dance in his mind on almost a daily basis.

“It’s going to be something special,” Noel, 20, told NBA.com Friday after watching the Sixers’ final game in Vegas. “I know how passionate those fans are so I really can’t wait to step on the floor.”

Game 1 will be a milestone for sure, but the unanswerable question is how Noel will fare through 82 of them. His conditioning will take time and he acknowledged it “wasn’t great” early in Orlando, but built up as the games came and went. Before the start of Summer League, Noel had not played in an actual game since the night of the injury in February 2013.

“It’s been a process the whole time,” Noel said. “I’ve had to really have patience, not being able to play this past year, and finally being able to play and show what I’ve been working on. I didn’t get to show everything, but I’m going to continue working on my body and be able to come back in the regular season and be better.”

The Boston native will split the rest of the offseason between his hometown and Philly, where he’s stayed since the regular season ended in mid-April to continue working with the team’s coaches and training staff. Noel remains a thin, 228-pound pogo stick, still not strong enough to command the low block offensively, though in four of five games he scored in double figures and overall shot 49 percent (24-for-49).

That side of his game remains raw, even as it pokes through with parts of a multi-dimensional attack — including lefty hooks in the lane, a perimeter jumper that he spent countless pregame workouts with coach Brett Brown reconstructing his release, plus a quick first-step dribble-drive from the elbow. Still his offensive capabilities remain miles behind the type of force he delivers on the defensive end.

In his five summer games, Noel swatted 13 shots and altered dozens more. His quickness to elevate in the paint and meet shots at the rim can be astonishing. He’s so long and nimble that he glides almost effortlessly as a help-side defender. The 76ers, who surrendered more baskets from within five feet last season than only the Los Angeles Lakers, should see a major boost in that category next season.

He also showed he’s going to be difficult to deal with on the boards. In four games, he grabbed at least a half-dozen rebounds. Through it all, Noel said his rebuilt and cautiously monitored knee has passed every test with flying colors.

“I have no problems with it all,” said Noel, who has claimed he can actually jump higher now than before the surgery to repair the torn ACL.

It still likely won’t help the Sixers contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It will be months into the season before Noel will team with No. 3 overall pick Joel Embiid, who has his own rehabilitation to endure following foot surgery. It’s a frontline pairing in which optimists crow about the possibilities and pessimists fret about durability.

“I talked to him a few times briefly over texts, he’s a great kid, great personality,” Noel said. “I’m really looking forward to getting on the court with him and really starting that relationship we’re going to need if we are going to be one of the best tandems in the future.”

Rookie of the Year point guard Michael Carter-Williams, a former AAU teammate of Noel’s, returns with veteran and consummate pro Thaddeus Young. From there, the roster remains perilously thin in Year 2 of general manager Sam Hinkie‘s ground-up reconstruction. It’s a plan that again came under scrutiny on Draft night when Hinkie selected the injured Embiid and then Dario Saric at No. 12. While Embiid hopes to play at some point next season, the 6-foot-10 Croatian will play in Turkey.

Philadelphia won just 19 game last season and Noel watched helplessly through a 26-game losing skid. But again, the optimism of youth sees past these facts that could be depressing and believes the program is in good hands and pointed in a positive direction.

“We have a great vision,” Noel said. “Me and Mike [Carter-Williams] are very close, we’ve known each other for years now, from high school playing with each other on the AAU circuit. “I think with me, Joel and Mike, that would be a great three-person core, and then it’s adding pieces that we need. I think Sam is going to make it all happen for us. We have a lot of faith in him and I think we’ll be fine.”

At least now the countdown is really on.