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The summer league difference

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On draft night, there was a big difference between what Danny Ainge thought of his rookie class and what fans wanted/expected. After six summer league games in Utah and Las Vegas, that gap is getting smaller.

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For many, the 2015 summer league won't make a big difference. It's a mainly an avenue for undrafted players to showcase themselves one last time. There's the case of summer Celtic C.J. Fair. After a promising college career at Syracuse, he went undrafted last year and after completing a decent season in the D-League and showing flashes in Utah and Las Vegas, it's doubtful he'll find an NBA team this summer.  Colton Iverson never even played a game in Celtic green before signing another overseas contract for his third straight season abroad. The hard truth for a large majority of these players is that the summer league won't be a ticket to the NBA.

But for some, summer league is an opportunity to prove why they may be difference makers for the team that drafted them. Ninety-one underclassmen and international players declared early for the draft this year and that's not including the dozens of graduating seniors eligible, too. #16. #28. #33. #45. That's the implied value that Danny Ainge and the rest of the NBA GM's gave Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, Jordan Mickey, and Marcus Thornton at June's draft. They'll sign contracts later this month that will quantify their value even further, but ultimately, they'll separate themselves even further when they start making a difference on the floor.

So much of the difference lives on defense. Ainge has not drafted a star--Rondo notwithstanding--in his GM tenure in Boston, but he has found success in the mid to late first round selecting defense first players like Avery Bradley and Tony Allen. Rozier and Mickey are of that mold.

Since being the surprise reach in the draft, people have been pointing to Rozier's speed as the primary reason that Danny picked him so high. He's shown they burst in spurts this summer, but his ability to finish just isn't there yet. His jumper is a work in progress as well, but what's remained consistent has been his doggedness on defense. Paired with Smart in the back court, opposing teams have struggled initiating their offense. Summer league squads run stripped down versions of the pro club's playbook. In a set, you might see a team generate three good looks in 24 seconds; with Rozier pestering the front court, you're seeing unprepared teams settling for 4th and 5th options that just don't exist.

Mickey has been just as impressive on the back line. After leading the nation in blocked shots, he's averaged 2.5 blocks this summer along with a double-double in Vegas. At 6'7, he doesn't have traditional rim protector size, but he's long and very athletic. What I've found most impressive with him is his ability to not only clean up his teammates' mistakes on defense, but his own, too. And the simple threat of him coming from the weak side to contest a shot has made a big difference. I don't know how many times I've seen a player drive hard, catch Mickey in the corner of his eye, pump fake, and have his defender regain defensive position. Without actually making a play on the ball, Mickey is making a play on the ball.

The difference hasn't only been on D. This is not to say that R.J. Hunter isn't a good defender because he's actually held his own, but Hunter is a shooter. He started in Utah with two 0-for games but made a splash in the team's final game against the Spurs, hitting 4-for-4 from behind the arc. For a guy with his stroke, seeing it go through the net a few times made a big difference because since arriving in Vegas, he's been a different player. He's only shot 6-for-19 from three, but he's been more of a playmaker and got to the line 23 times in just three games. For Hunter, the difference maker is his jump shot, because it not only opens up the rest of his game, but it then subsequently creates for the rest lf his team. That's Brad Stevens 101.

If that final game in Utah was Hunter's coming out party, Marcus Thornton's was against Miami on Tuesday. He played sparingly in the first five games, but in the finale of Vegas' opening round, he showed why Danny took a flyer on him at #45. The William & Mary product is a decent size at 6'4, but he has the water bug game of somebody smaller. Thornton's strength doesn't fit the prototypical NBA difference maker. He's not extremely quick or strong. However, he is patient. He'll wait you out until you make a mistake. If you're a big man that gets caught up in a PnR switch, you'll get toasted. Back up too much and Thornton will hit you with his J. Bite on a pump fake and he'll zip right pass you. He's probably a Eurostash or full-time Red Claw next year, but the kid can play.

The difference also comes in time. The Celtics are flush with talent this season. There may not be a stand out superstar in the bunch, but there are enough returning players from the team that finished last year 24-12 and a few look-see vets that these rookies may be a year away from actually contributing. But if they progress as quickly as they have over the last six games, who knows?

I will say this: after getting a chance to see this team up close in Vegas, you can see this team gelling under the leadership of guys like Smart, Rozier, and Hunter. They're vocal in the games and maybe even louder on the bench, calling out coverages and cheering on guys that they probably won't see next week. Ainge and Stevens always talk about the importance of creating a culture and forming a foundation for the rebuild with high character players. This may just be the summer league, but you can definitely see the difference here, too.