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How Tahjere McCall stood out at Las Vegas Summer League

McCall was probably the best player on the Summer League iteration of the Hawks, but how did he do it?

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Day 5 - Indiana Pacers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

After spending two seasons with the Long Island Nets in the G League — including a 10-day stint with their NBA affiliate, the Brooklyn Nets, down the stretch of the 18-19 season — 24-year-old wing Tahjere McCall found himself with Atlanta for the 2018-19 Las Vegas Summer League iteration of the Hawks, searching for the next opportunity.

Though some tipped McCall as the best non-roster invitee on the team, McCall would’ve been overlooked by many heading into the competition, with the likes of 2019 draftees De’Andre Hunter and Bruno Fernando — as well as returning roster members (at least at the time) in the form of Jaylen Adams and Omari Spellman — garnering more attention in the desert.

Which, of course, is to be expected. McCall is not a fixture for the Atlanta Hawks — unless they sign him to a contract — whereas the others are.

But between Hunter’s sore knee limiting him to just one game in Las Vegas, Spellman being traded mid-way through to the Golden State Warriors and Adams struggling throughout the competition, McCall ended up emerging as the standout member of what was ultimately a disappointing Summer League outing for the Atlanta Hawks.

But to McCall’s credit, he earned that mantle from game number one.

Though he tailed off slightly to end the campaign, he was still hugely impressive as he averaged 11 points per game on 46% shooting from the field (despite shooting 0-of-8 in the finale against the Spurs), 7.3 rebounds (leading the team in that department after the departure of Omari Spellman), 2.8 assists and 2.5 steals in a team-high 31 minutes per game.

But how did he do it? How did McCall go from afterthought to standout? Let’s take a look.

It didn’t take long to see that McCall was on a different level defensively than those around him — defense is McCall’s greatest attribute and you’d only need to watch him play for a few minutes for that to become apparent.

It’s his calling card.

As a one-on-one defender, McCall is very impressive, his combination of footwork, decent size (standing at 6’5) and length and just his activity in general makes life difficult for offensive players.

On this drive, McCall sticks with the offensive player, gets himself into a vertical challenge and helps force a miss on this shot near the rim, before impressively grabbing the rebound and eventually drawing a foul:

On this play, McCall displays his ability to switch before preventing the ball-handler penetrating, forcing the pass:

On the baseline drive this time, McCall once again plugs the lane to the rim and forces the offense to look elsewhere:

Again, McCall prevents the penetration, taking the bump before chasing his man — avoiding the screen in the process before forcing the pass:

Defensive plays like this are just fun to watch.

Here was another instance of fantastic defensive activity, this one almost lasting an entire possession as he sticks with his man — picking him up beyond half-court — before the shot is missed:

You can make the argument that McCall got a little lucky at the end as he went for the reach and compromised his ability to contest the shot but everything leading up to that was fantastic.

In the final game against the Spurs, McCall prevents the drive inside and just as the offensive player is getting into his shooting motion, McCall raises his arms and the offensive player has to adjust and pass out of what was going to become a poor shot:

McCall has been described as a ‘defensive playmaker’, which is a fair assessment — he makes things happen defensively, whether it’s as a one-on-one defender, as a help/secondary defender (which we’ll get to), taking charges (we’ll look at some soon) or coming up with steals.

McCall averaged 2.5 steals per game in the four Summer League games he played and these came in a bunch of different scenarios.

Trailing the play on this possession heading down the court after a miss, McCall pokes the ball loose for the steal before receiving the ball and finishing at the rim:

From an out-of-bounds play, McCall surprises the Bucks on the catch and knocks the ball loose before diving to the floor and ultimately coming up with the steal for his side as the Hawks secure possession:

On the drive from the wing, McCall pokes the ball away from behind and the Hawks come up with the ball:

A little risky to reach like that but it paid off on this occasion and the Hawks come up with the steal.

Here, McCall gets a hand in to pry the ball away and takes possession of the ball before drawing a foul:

What I love about this play, besides the steal obviously, is how McCall steps forward to meet his man — just that willingness to step up and set the defensive tone.

In the latter stages of the Hawks’ opening game against the Bucks, Milwaukee heads down the court as McCall trails the play before intercepting the intended pass to the corner and coming up with the steal:

This would’ve been a big moment in the game had the Hawks scored/won the game but, sadly, they could not...

McCall is also willing to put his body on the line to make defensive plays.

On this possession, McCall defends the pick-and-roll really well — showcasing his ability to switch — ensuring he covers both players involved and then proceeds to draw the charge as the ball-handler gets inside:

On the rotation as the help, McCall shows his willingness to put his body on the line. In the end, he had a foot on the line — and the call was a blocking foul — but again, it’s the awareness to rotate and then the willingness to put his body on the line:

McCall is just someone who works his tail off on the defensive end and he further proves this by showing willingness to get back into a play, whether a screen or something else takes him initially out of the defensive play/behind his man.

Off of his own miss, McCall hustles to get back in front of his man in transition:

On this defensive possession, McCall extends the pressure beyond half-court, and after a reach loses his slight ground, he’s able to get back in front and contest the shot:

An example of McCall’s hounding defense if nothing else...

Here, McCall does a good job to avoid the screen and sticks tight to the ball-handler, extending tight pressure before the pass is released:

After a screen puts McCall behind the ball-handler, he sticks with the play and manages to get back in front to contest the shot and help force a miss:

Arguably, McCall is as impressive as a team defender as he is an individual defender — he just knows where to be.

On this possession, when the drive draws Nick Ward over toward the rim, McCall knows he has to rotate the corner shooter to cover off the shooter:

On the possession, Matt Mooney is beaten off of the dribble but McCall rotates over to plug the lane and prevent the layup and force the pass:

Again on the drive, McCall rotates over and vertically challenges, forcing the pass out of the shot:

McCall bails out Spellman on this possession, who had turned his back on the play and is blind to the drive. He rotates to prevent the layup at the rim, but, sadly for the Hawks, it ultimately resulted in a three-pointer:

Against the Wizards, McCall knows when the double as the secondary defender and comes up with the steal:

As the help defender, McCall makes life tough for the offensive player and helps force the miss:

McCall’s defensive awareness is really impressive — he just knows where he needs to be in a team’s defensive rotation, highlighted by this play as he positions himself perfectly as the secondary defender and is in the perfect place when the offensive player inevitably spins, and comes up with the steal before setting up a three-point attempt in transition:

McCall just has a sense of poise when it comes to his defense — he just seems to know what he’s doing, what’s going on around and then the ability and willingness to do something about, seemingly almost all of the time.

Another underrated aspect of defense is rebounding — the defensive possession isn’t over until the rebound is secured.

McCall has a knack for getting in and amongst the rebounds — he led the Hawks in rebounding after Spellman was traded to Golden State.

Despite the pressure from behind — and from a larger body — McCall is able to box-out, leap and secure this defensive rebound:

This next clip was one of my favorites from watching McCall — watch how he just positions himself for this rebound, nudging to the left and the ball just seems to float its way into McCall’s hands, as if it were a magnet gravitating towards a metal surface:

I like to think McCall knew where his man behind him was, and that floating to the left was also his pre-emptive attempt to box-out. It’s beautiful. I know it’s a little weird to be excited over a rebound, but hey...

There is some more to see with regards McCall’s rebounding but we’ll look at that a little more when we’re looking at some offense, because as you can imagine, McCall was able to mix it up on the offensive glass too.

To summarize McCall’s defense...

I would be fairly confident you could place McCall in an NBA game right now and, defensively, he’d do well. He just ticked all of the boxes at Summer League: one-on-one defense, team defense, awareness of rotations, awareness and willingness to plug gaps/driving lanes, bailed teammates out, on and off-ball steals, he made defensive plays that led to offense, his willingness to put his body on the line...

In short, he’s poised, willing, ready and able.

There was a possession that stood out to me showcasing his readiness on defense, and it’s just McCall staying on his tippy-toes, ready to go in case he needs to spring into action:

Often, defenders are caught flat-footed — not sure you can have those fears with McCall in this case.

Tahjere McCall makes defense fun. Again, how that would translate to the NBA against better offensive talent would remain to be seen but I’d feel comfortable knowing that he’d be fine out there.

While defense is definitely McCall’s best attribute he was able to do some interesting things on offense too.

Not near to the level of his defense but enough to accompany nicely, like a pair of shoes can accompany a suit: it doesn’t define the ensemble but can certainly add to the overall look when done right.

McCall averaged 11 points per game but the 46% shooting from the field is encouraging, especially when you take into account that includes McCall’s 0-for-8 game against the Spurs to close Summer League proceedings.

There were a few different ways McCall went about this — often with drives/penetration to the rim where he’d either score or draw the foul and free throws.

On this possession, McCall drives into the space, skips through the defense and finishes at the rim:

What I like about this play is when McCall is about to reach the next defender in (Hawks Summer League legend) Jock Landale, McCall lifts the ball over his head as to evade the reach in from Landale.

On this play, McCall uses his combination of long strides and a decent first step/quickness to drive from the three-point line to the basket, evading the help defense’s efforts to block the shot at the rim:

Here was one of my favorite baskets from McCall, as he drives from the wing (again, going to his left), shows a little hesitation before changing gears again and finishing with the reverse layup:

In transition, McCall is capable of getting it done at the rim, whipping out the nifty Euro-step to finish at the rim:

Against the Wizards, this crossover and drive was a little messy but McCall manages to draw free throw out of it nonetheless:

You can, perhaps, get this to work in Summer League/G League but in the NBA this isn’t going to work. And as nice as some of the other finishes at the rim that we’ve looked at are, McCall will need to improve his finesse at the rim — he let a bunch of opportunities go begging at the rim in the four games he played in Las Vegas.

On this play, McCall again showcases some of his long strides but can’t finish at the rim with the help defense in close proximity:

Next, McCall shows a quick step going to his left but again can’t convert at the rim:

Again, McCall shows his ability to get to the rim but can’t finish around the rim protector, and his layup is short:

On this possession, McCall skips through the defense but again can’t finish at the rim:

You get the idea (those were just a few examples) — McCall is able to work himself into decent positions but he can’t always finish, and this will be key for him if he wants to stick in the NBA. It was the difference from being the 46% shooter from the field he was to probably over 50%.

Moving onto one of McCall’s more positive aspects of offense is his movement off of the ball. McCall shows willingness to move off of the ball and he makes decent cuts too.

Here, he catches the defense napping, makes a curl, receives the ball and scores the layup:

Sometimes the effectiveness of McCall’s cuts were mitigated slightly due to the talent around him, such as on this possession where he makes the cut but Jaylen Adams does not see the cut until it’s too late, and his attempted pass to McCall results in a turnover:

Though, Adams would get a chance to make up for that shortly afterwards, finding the cutting McCall, who finishes with the reverse layup:

On this play, McCall makes a great cut from the wing, receives the ball and draws the foul and free throws:

To be fair, this should all be taken with a grain of salt — while McCall could find himself surrounded with better passers that recognize his cuts, you would also imagine that NBA defenses won’t be caught napping as much as they were in Summer League. But don’t let that take away from the fact McCall is a positive when it comes to moving off of the ball.

Let’s move onto McCall’s three-point shooting.

In his two seasons in the G League, there hasn’t been anything to suggest that McCall is an elite three-point shooter. In fact, perhaps the opposite.

In his first season with the Long Island Nets, McCall shot 31% from three on 1.5 attempts and in his second season he shot 28% on 2.3 attempts per game — which is not only not elite but...bad.

Summer League was a different story for McCall, as he shot 4-of-7 in his four games from behind the arc, which works out to 57%.

Again, sample size is obviously important here — you can’t draw any significant conclusions on McCall’s outside game from four games and a total of seven attempts.

Granted, he did at least make over half of those in Las Vegas, and that — for a career 29% three-point shooter on 1.9 attempts — is, I guess, something?

Let’s look at a few of these threes, just to get an eye in.

From the corner against the Bucks, McCall hits the catch-and-shoot three:

On this three-pointer against the Wizards, you get a bit of a better look at McCall’s release/off-arm:

There were some instances where McCall didn’t always flash to the corner in transition to space the floor (not something we’ll look at but worth noting) but he did a better job of it on this play, receives the ball and hits the three from the corner:

It’s a little funky looking but McCall got it to work at Summer League. Again, I wouldn’t read a ton into it given the sample size at Vegas versus the two year sample size in the G League where he was below average as a shooter. If McCall could lift himself to a 35/36% three-point shooter, that, in tandem with his defense, could change everything for a possible NBA career.

One last tidbit for McCall’s offense — and this was referenced earlier — was that his activity on the boards can result in some good things happening for his team.

On this play, McCall makes the cut, receives the ball, misses the layup but somehow manages to tip in the offensive rebound and drawing the foul in the process:

No idea how McCall managed to get this one to go, but he did.

Again against the Wizards, McCall covers good ground to get in amongst the battle for the rebound but then tries to go reverse at the rim and misses:

McCall probably could have just gone up with it but obviously felt that he needed to use the other side of the rim to protect the ball from being blocked. Either way, an example of McCall getting on the glass and into a promising position.

The problem with McCall’s offense is that everything you’d be worried about/feared with his offense came to the fore against the Spurs.

McCall was 0-for-8 on the game as a whole but the bigger failing was when the Spurs began to clamp down later on in the game and when the Hawks needed McCall to step up and make some plays offensively, he didn’t deliver. Now, granted, if he is signed to an NBA deal, he won’t need to step up and make plays but it was a failure of McCall’s Summer League campaign that has to be noted.

We’ll look, very briefly, at McCall in a playmaking role, because he did do some of this in Las Vegas.

In short, it was a mixed bag.

McCall did create some plays, such as setting up a three-point opportunity for Charlie Brown in transition after his own steal:

On this possession, McCall gets to the paint, hesitates and with his left hand dishes a nice pass to Brown near the rim leads to bucket:

After grabbing the offensive rebound, McCall rifles a pass to Charlie Brown, who draws the foul and free throws:

But in other instances, it just wasn’t amazing from McCall as a playmaker.

Coming out of the pick-and-roll, McCall’s pass to Bruno Fernando is too hot to handle and the end result is a turnover and a basket at the other end for the Wizards:

Again coming out of the pick-and-roll, it’s another turnover:

You could argue that was Travis’ fault but alas...

That Wizards game in general was a game where McCall fell short from a playmaking point of view. It was a game where a larger ball-handling responsibility was placed on McCall — especially in the second half — and it was a game where McCall committed five turnovers, the majority of those coming in the second half. And a game where the Hawks lost by just five points.

Again, if any NBA team is to sign McCall, he’s not going to be asked to handle the ball, he’s not going to have to make plays — that’s not what it’s about with him. But because he did have some role in that capacity in Vegas, it’s one worth mentioning.

Tahjere McCall was arguably the best Hawk on display at Summer League, but was that enough to earn a spot in the NBA?

Defensively, he’s ready.

Offensively, however, is the question mark and the main reason teams might be a little shy. If McCall can improve his touch at the rim and, most importantly, his outside shooting then I can’t imagine what would block him from a roster spot on an NBA team. It was a shame that McCall failed his test, so to speak, against the Spurs but still some signs to be encouraged from an offensive points of view. Whether that three-point shot he showed in Vegas is an outlier to that improvement, we shall see.

When it comes to playmaking, again, it doesn’t really matter — it’s not something he is going to do, nor probably should do in the NBA.

What happens with regards any potential signing remains unclear right now.

If the Hawks were to sign him, you would imagine it would with the team’s final 2-way contract. Whether that actually ends up happening, I’m not sure. Certainly, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce gave McCall a ringing endorsement with Pierce comparing him — on one of his trips to the broadcast throughout Summer League — to Tony Allen, who Pierce coached during his time in Memphis. That is no joke for a comparison, but also no assurance of a contract.

Based on his play, McCall could be signed to a 2-way somewhere or, at the very least, should be in line for a training camp deal somewhere. It’d be nice if it was the Hawks, who could do use all the defense they could get, especially for a guy who can guard multiple positions and just busts his tail off. He’d be a great systematic fit with what Pierce, ultimately, would like to do.

Alas...we’ve seen that defense hasn’t been a major thought during the construction of this roster.

Time will tell with McCall’s NBA future, but his play at Summer League has done the talking.

Will it be enough?