Learning from their mistakes

Updated: July 26, 2004, 1:37 PM ET
By Marc J. Spears | Special to ESPN.com

SALT LAKE CITY -- The majority of the NBA's players weren't at Salt Lake Community College. Instead, there were hopefuls, the highly drafted and the unproven. And these contests were played before a couple hundred fans, not 20,000. But for prep-to-pros prospects like Sebastian Telfair, Josh Smith and Robert Swift, the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league was a good first look at what they got coming their way in the NBA and what they still need to work on just months after getting their high school diploma.

Sebastian Telfair
Sebastian Telfair will have to work hard to hang with the big boys.
"It's not just summer league," said Telfair, who was selected 13th overall in this year's draft by Portland. "This is the biggest part of our rookie season right here. This is where we can go out and show we can play. You learn a lot of things about being an NBA point guard."

After one of his summer league games last week, a group of kids in similar age swarmed Telfair for autographs. The Sports Illustrated cover boy has had a lot of hype surrounding him since his prep days in Brooklyn. But that hype won't help him get on the court initially on a Blazers squad in which Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson and newly acquired Nick Van Exel are all capable of playing the point and scoring 20-plus on any given night. All three are also 30 years and over, which means Telfair is the Blazers' point guard of the future.

Telfair's biggest attribute is his eyes and instincts that give him rare Magic Johnson-like passing ability. Blazers star forward Zach Randolph and shooters coming off screens will love getting those passes. Telfair also displayed the quickness that earned him the nickname "2 Fast, 2 Furious" on the New York playgrounds.

Telfair, however, will also have to adjust to his lack of height, leaping ability and shooting range. The 6-foot, 165-pounder has a knack of drawing fouls during drives, but opposing big men also easily timed his layups for blocks since he doesn't get far off the floor. Telfair needs to study how Stoudamire and Van Exel make up for height by using runners or pull-up jumpers. Also, while Telfair can hit the college 3-pointer, he is not in college and needs to add NBA range.

"Telfair is obviously learning," Portland coach Maurice Cheeks said. "He's quick. He has the ability to get to the basket. He has to work on his jump shot, but he's learning. We need to not forget that the kid is learning, and the more he plays out here, the more he is going to learn, and that is the purpose of these summer camps."

Telfair tied with Pacers guard Jamison Brewer for the assists lead in Utah with five per game. He also averaged 13 points on 42.1-percent shooting, missed all three 3-point attempts, shot 65.4 percent from the free-throw line and averaged 1.2 steals.

"You pick up so many little things, like playing the pick and roll, how a point guard has to rebound and leadership," Telfair said. "The main thing is you get to be with the coaches and start a relationship from there. By the time you get to the season in the fall, you're comfortable."

Smith has the potential to become the most exciting Atlanta Hawk since Dominique "The Human Highlight Film" Wilkens. The 6-9, 210-pounder's acrobatic power slams make him a shoe-in for next year's dunk competition and he showed he isn't scared of trying to dunk on the likes of Dallas' 7-foot-5 rookie center Pavel Podkolzin. Smith also showed he can block shots, finishing third in the Rocky Mountain Revue in blocks per game at a 2.5 with several being tossed like a spiked volleyball.

Yuta Tabuse and Josh Smith
Hawks rookie Josh Smith sure didn't play like an 18-year-old in Utah.
Smith averaged a team-best 14.7 points (on 46.4-percent shooting), 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists in Utah. The 17th overall pick also showed he can hit the NBA 3-pointer by nailing seven of 18 attempts, but he needs to improve from the free-throw line (58.6 percent).

"It's a whole different game," Smith said. "It's much more physical and you got to play every night because you're stepping on the court with someone that could have as much game."

While Smith was statistically one of the top players in Utah, the Hawks still consider him to be very raw.

"He can make the plays with the dribble. Right now, he's very unorthodox with his play. He's raw," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "He does things off of instinct, and that's a good thing. But I tell these young guys, this is a thinking man's game. You got to absorb and learn as much as you can ...

"He's got a wonderful situation here, and I'm not going to baby him. I know he's 18. But I get paid to coach the team and that's what I'm going to do."

The Sonics don't have any of the NBA's elite centers, but do have some adequate veterans in Jerome James, Vitaly Potapenko and Calvin Booth. In other words, the Sonics' center depth gives Swift time to develop. The 7-foot, 245-pounder already has a respectable inside game, toughness and shot-blocking ability. But, the teen needs to add at least 20 pounds of muscle, get in better shape and learn how to deal with the physicality of playing men that can be as much as 100 pounds heavier.

Robert Swift
Seattle's Robert Swift showed off his moves in the low post.
"I'm learning what to expect and what to work on in the summer and what I need to do to help the team," said Swift, the 12th overall pick. "I'm getting practices in before the season. I really know what to expect now. Luckily before the summer league, I got to play a little with Jerome James. He's 7-2, 300 (pounds), out of shape and out there playing with us. ... I can only imagine what it will be like (guarding him) when he's in shape, and seeing that shows me how strong all the big men are."

Swift's averages in Utah weren't dazzling: 4.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 0.5 blocks. But considering his current skills, size, potential and that he has former Sonics star center Jack Sikma as a mentor, expect a strong center-power forward combo of Swift and Nick Collison in Seattle in a couple years.

When asked what he liked about Swift, Sikma replied: "Size."

"He plays long. He plays around the hoop, which we like with bigs," Sikma added. "I thought his footwork is pretty good in the low post. And he plays weak-side defense where footwork, vision and fundamentals help you get to where you need to go. He's not afraid to fail. He's in there. He's willing to work, he asks questions and wants to get better."

Toward the end of a Blazers' summer league game against Seattle last Tuesday, Telfair got caught helping defensively and left his man, guard Mateen Cleaves, wide open. Cleaves ended up nailing a late jumper that gave Seattle an 82-80 win. Nobody will remember that sequence when the NBA season begins, but for Telfair -- and his fellow teen rookies -- the lessons learned from such mistakes won't be forgotten.

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA for The Denver Post, is a contributor to ESPN.com.

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