LAS VEGAS -- One organizer of the Vegas Summer League half-jokingly called the event the "Marcus Banks Invitational." He said this while fans wearing Banks jerseys filtered into Cox Pavilion with programs that featured Banks on the cover. At one end of the arena, a billboard-sized Reebok advertisement showed Banks in mid-drive to the basket. The Celtics played in prime time every night except Saturday, with Banks drawing the biggest crowds. The first two days of the summer league, news of Banks being back at UNLV led the local sportscasts, overshadowing Shaquille O'Neal's move to Miami and baseball's All-Star Game. It was a familiar scenario for Banks, not because the summer league took place only steps from the Thomas & Mack Center, where he made his name in college, but because high expectations met with mixed results.
When the Celtics acquired Banks in a draft night trade in June 2003, he was projected as the starting point guard. One rough year later, Banks remains a work in progress. He possesses all the physical tools to be a successful NBA point guard, especially the kind of speed that can make opponents look foolish. But he lacks the mental approach, consistency, and maturity of the more trusted point guards.
"I look at Marcus and I know he has a chance to be a really special guard," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "He has shown the potential to be the best ball pressure defender in the league. The point guards who have played under me have played very well, after some time. All of them will probably tell you the first couple months were not very easy. I'm probably the hardest on points and I will be hard on Marcus. And I've told him that."
With former NBA point guard Rivers in place as coach and the promise of season-long stability, Banks feels more comfortable on the court, less obsessed with his mistakes. Banks recognizes he has a long way to go before he earns the kind of playing time that corresponds to all the attention he received at the Vegas summer league. He understands what it takes to play in the NBA. The question remains whether he can handle the demands of the job and deliver every night.
"It's like this: [Doc] tells me a lot about not hanging my head when I make a mistake," said Banks. "But when you come into a situation like mine, [it's hard]. Last year I didn't get a lot of time and I couldn't make a lot of mistakes. So the time I was in there I was trying to do my best so much and I was making a couple mistakes. This year, it's totally different. I'm going to listen to whatever he says and try to get things rolling the right way.
"I'm in a totally different situation. Last year, I was stuck into the fire out on the stakes. I was pretty scared to make a mistake. [Doc] has really been positive. Even if you make mistakes, he's like constantly, `Don't worry about it, that's behind you.' That's what a rookie or a second-year player needs because they haven't been there long enough to look past it. They're trying to play without making mistakes, and when you do that, you make more mistakes."
Banks speaks from experience when it comes to mistakes after playing 1,384 minutes over 81 games his rookie year. Sometimes those mistakes were subtle, like missing a teammate or panicking under pressure. Sometimes they were painfully obvious, like driving into a crowd and committing a turnover or launching a shot with lots of time left on the clock.
But regardless, Banks always had a predictable reaction. He hung his head, furrowed his brow, and glared at the bench in frustration. He didn't know where else to turn. He finished his rookie season averaging 5.9 points per game, 2.2 assists, and 1.5 turnovers in 17.1 minutes. Banks scored a career-high 28 points against Atlanta in the regular-season finale, grabbed a career-high 7 steals against Golden State April 2, and recorded a career-high 7 assists at Portland Feb. 21.
"Marcus is a great athlete," said Celtics chief of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "But he's got to learn to manage the circumstances of the game a little bit better, know the score, the clock, the foul situations. He's got to know what's going on on the floor, rather than just using his athletic ability to play. He's got to think the game a little more.
"I think you teach it, but it's also experience. It will take some time. I'm really happy with the way he's playing overall. This is a great experience for him to play in the summer leagues and give Doc a chance to see what he has going into training camp and see what Marcus can and can't do really well . . . I think that in most of our summer league games, Marcus has been the best player on the floor."
Rivers missed a six-turnover performance by Banks at Orlando Nov. 26, but the coach saw plenty of his second-year point guard this summer. Banks averaged 11.3 points per game, 1.8 assists, 1.3 rebounds, and 4.3 turnovers in four shorter-than-regulation games at the Orlando summer league. (He missed one contest because of a right hip pointer.)
Offensively, rookie Delonte West proved the more composed point guard and better decision-maker under pressure, finishing among the league leaders with 3.4 assists per game. Banks did lead the league in steals, with 3.0 per game. In Las Vegas, there were possessions where Banks used his speed and completed end-to-end drives with a layup. But there were also several occasions when Banks drove to the basket out of control, winding up without options and committing turnovers. Still, he finished with 15.6 points per game and 3.2 assists in his return home. He also committed fewer than one turnover per contest.
"[Doc] already knows what I can do," said Banks. "It's not about going out there and proving anything. He knows I can push the ball. He knows I can run the team. It's about going out there and getting my confidence, just playing and getting repetitions."
Rivers also knows the biggest challenges ahead for Banks are more mental than physical. The coach will bring his experience as an NBA point guard to bear when instructing Banks. He also will bring a lot of patience.
"Marcus is going to have to play with better focus every night," said Rivers. "The one guy [your players] have to trust every night, that he's at least coming to play, is the point guard." . . .
Chris Mihm remains unsigned as a restricted free agent but the Celtics are pursuing sign-and-trade possibilities, according to a team source. The Lakers, Hawks, and Magic reportedly are interested in the center's services.