Candace Buckner: What happens in Vegas …




Final dispatch from Las Vegas, where the slots are looser than the Portland Trail Blazers’ summertime offense.

Lillard The Leader

The bulk of the Blazers’ young bench for the 2013-14 season has played major minutes during the NBA Summer League tournament. But even more revealing than the action on the court has been the star who reported to Vegas to take a seat on the sideline.

Want proof that after unanimously winning the Rookie of the Year award that Damian Lillard has changed? Look no further than his actions during the Blazers’ two opening games in Summer League.

Lillard has changed — for the better.

“I want to establish myself as a leader,” Lillard said, explaining his presence at Summer League.

Lillard sat on the Blazers bench, in the first chair between the coaching staff and his teammates. At times, he stood around the perimeter of the huddle, listening to every word. During substitutions, Lillard often greeted the player coming off the floor and offered a few words.

Though Lillard did not play in the games, he decided that a trip to Vegas would be the first step in growing into a leader on the team for next season.

“Last year, I was a rookie, and I wasn’t afraid to do it, but I felt like it needed time,” Lillard said. “And now this summer, I feel like we’ve got Meyers, Will, Vic, Joel and CJ who are all on the team and they’re playing here, so I’m young just like them. I didn’t have a reason not to be here.

“It starts right now.”

The sight of dressed-down NBA superstars watching games inside the two arenas was more common than tourists snapping photos in front of the Fountains at Bellagio. But while these young standouts like Washington’s Brad Beal and John Wall attended as courtside observers, Lillard remained involved and active with the team. His team.

With reports still surfacing that LaMarcus Aldridge wants to be traded, the Blazers could belong to Lillard quicker than expected.

Equal opportunity hero ball

This week, Blazer assistants David Vanterpool and Nate Tibbetts have alternated as head coach, and they have also done a nice job in changing up which player gets the last shot in close games.

Since Summer League is a showcase when players can operate outside of their regular-season roles and display more skills, the coaches have provided late-shot opportunities for CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Will Barton.

On Tuesday, near the end of regulation against the Chicago Bulls, Vanterpool drew up a catch-and-shoot play for McCollum — the successful result sent the Blazers into overtime. Then in the final seconds of the extra two-minute period, a botched play designed for Leonard did not get to his hands in time and the Blazers lost.

By Wednesday, it was Barton’s turn. So, with nine seconds remaining in overtime against the Atlanta Hawks, Tibbetts gave the ball to Barton to play to his one-on-one strength — another successful moment and the game-winning shot led the Blazers to the 70-69 victory.

Fine job by the coaching staff in allowing the young players to grow in confidence.

Robinson needs to recognize

As several games in Summer League have suggested, the sooner that Thomas Robinson understands his basketball identity, the better his basketball future will be.

Admittedly, Robinson tried to change his game during his rookie season instead of leaning on his best attributes — his force, rebounding and defense. Trying to get too pretty made him a disposable draft pick and Robinson has vowed to return to his roots.

“I think that was the problem, me trying to change my game. I think that’s what hurt me,” said Robinson, who has averaged 13.3 rebounds this summer. “If anything I say that I’ve got smarter and I think that’s what would make me a better player, but I need to be the player I was (in college) and that’s what I’m getting back to.”

The Robinson who keeps jacking up and missing jump shots needs to stay in Vegas. But the Robinson whose greedy on the backboards, hedges strong to slow down the pick-and-roll and screams after dunks will be welcomed with open arms in Portland.

Sim no-show in Vegas

Garrett Sim, who started for the Vancouver Volcanoes during their International Basketball League playoff run, made for a feel-good story as the long shot on the Blazers’ Summer League team. Sim participated in practices but held realistic goals that a good performance in Summer League could help him garner more international exposure. But turns out, the dream ended even before the team left Portland.

The Blazers cut Sim along with three others last Friday, leaving the former Oregon Duck off the Summer League roster.

“Now I’m pretty much waiting to hear stuff for overseas mainly,” Sim said. “Hopefully, get some offers soon.”

Candace Buckner covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. She can be reached at 360-735-4528 or email at Her Twitter handle is @blazerbanter