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Who are early Rookie of the Year favorites?
2:30 | NBA
Who are early Rookie of the Year favorites?
SI Staff
Friday July 15th, 2016

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NBA Summer League provides a unique look at rookies, up-and-coming players, and outcasts trying to work their way into the league. Given this combination of players in a city like Las Vegas, a number of storylines can emerge from a week during which the NBA converges on Sin City.

With their time at Summer League winding down, SI.com's NBA staff reflects on the most impressive player, strangest sight, and more. 

•​ Buddy Hield Q&A on life in the NBA | Unlocking Ben Simmons’s jumpshot

Most impressive player?

Andrew Sharp: Remember when the NBA gave “Player of the Month” to the entire Hawks starting five? There was a time in my life when I thought that was corny and awful, but now I understand. The Summer Suns showed me the light. The Summer Suns are my Player of the Week.

Dragan Bender was bigger than expected and incredibly active. He projects well as a big man who can play either the four or five. Devin Booker was the best player in Las Vegas for the past week, so impressive that he was done playing by the time I arrived. Meanwhile, Tyler Ulis looked generally great at point guard, scoring, running the team and holding his own on defense. Marquese Chriss is house money if Bender matures over the next few years, and Chriss had his moments as well. Overall, the Suns had the most impressive rookie (Bender), most impressive sophomore (Booker) and the best second-round pick (Ulis). Don't talk to me this week if you‘re not talking about the Summer Suns.

Dragan Bender has all the tools to be NBA’s next European sensation

Ben Golliver: Even as it increases in size and scope, drawing record crowds and landing games on ESPN, Summer League is still all about the ball. It’s hard not to marvel at Norman Powell, a pure baller whose love for the game has come through for the second straight summer. Despite logging major minutes for Toronto as a rookie, including time in the postseason, Powell returned to Las Vegas to average 21 PPG, 5 RPG and 3 APG in his first four games, hitting more than half of his three-pointers and leading the Raptors to a perfect 4–0 start and the 24-team tournament’s No. 1 seed.

Does he need to be here? No. Is the 23-year-old guard overqualified compared to the rest of the competition? Absolutely. Neither of those facts has stopped him from working on the attack elements of his game, including this vicious poster dunk over multiple defenders. Powell’s commitment to his team and the game is what Las Vegas Summer League is all about.

Rob Mahoney: Kris Dunn wasn’t the best all-around player in Vegas (hello, Devin Booker) but his performance was the most striking of all the rookies in attendance. It only took two games. Dunn was pulled from action after a hard move toward the basket later triggered concussion symptoms. Still he made the bucket on the play responsible, powering his way up and through a bigger defender. It’s fair to be skeptical of Dunn’s jumper until he proves his range as a pro. What should tide him over is his strength, physicality, and persistence on both sides of the ball.

Matt Dollinger: I should probably never gamble again after spending eight unsuccessful days in Las Vegas, but screw it, I’m going all-in on Kris Dunn. It’s never wise to get too carried away with what you see at Summer League, but Dunn appears to have all the makings of a star NBA guard. He’s explosive, he can shoot, he can get to the rim, he can create for others, he has a big frame and he plays with a certain electricity. You could see the delight on Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns’s face as they sat courtside watching their future teammate carve up the competition. At 22, Dunn might already be the best point guard on Minnesota’s roster, making Ricky Rubio a trade candidate this season.

David Dow/Getty Images

Strangest Summer League sight?

Andrew Sharp: I saw ... a Sixers fan who hit a half-court shot, then run to the opposite baseline to give Joel Embiid a pound. Mark Cuban and Joey Crawford, laughing together like old best friends. Jared Jeffries in a karaoke bar, although sadly, not performing. Justise Winslow eating chicken fingers. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Dennis Schröder playing ping pong. Nicolas Cage getting out of a limo with his entire family, at which point one Sports Illustrated editor turned into a screeching teenager. 

Every sight at Summer League is the strangest sight at summer league—and that’s before you get to the Summer Lakers religious experiences. 

Ben Golliver: The Kings’ ongoing ability to be terrible in new and strange ways is remarkable. During their opener against the Raptors, Sacramento scored just 13 points in the second and third periods, shot 28%, and had more turnovers (19) than field goals (15) or assists (9) on its way to a 41-point loss in a 40-minute game. Second-round pick Isaiah Cousins, a point guard, was out with a groin injury, and the Kings’ imbalanced roster was lacking in backcourt solutions.

The loss to Toronto was so bad that Sacramento made a quick, desperate call to David Stockton, the 5’11” son of Hall of Famer John Stockton, in hopes of adding a little experience and structure at the point guard position. Why wasn’t Stockton or any other competent point guards on the roster in the first place? Great question. Anyway, Stockton, who told Kings.com that he had been “sitting at home, working out, getting ready for the upcoming season,” deserves a gold star for parachuting into Las Vegas in record time to suit up for Sacramento’s second game. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to help the Kings avoid an 0–4 start and the No. 23 seed in Summer League’s 24-team tournament.

Rob Mahoney: Still, and always, the Lakers’ dominant Summer League home crowd. Summer League is filled with strange sights, but I’ll never quite grasp the independent decisions of an overwhelming number of Laker fans to trek out to Vegas to support the JV team. Most franchises—especially those situated within a few hours’ drive—have pockets of fan representation in Las Vegas. The Lakers bring so much support that they can’t even play at Cox Pavillion, the smaller of the two summer league venues. 

Matt Dollinger: Tom Thibodeau and Vinny Del Negro were inseparable during one of the first days of Summer League action. The two former Bulls coaches (Thibodeau took over after Del Negro was fired) chatted for hours while watching the afternoon slate. I wonder what they were talking about. Actually, no I don’t. Probably this.

Lottery pick with longest way to go?

Andrew Sharp: It’ll take time before Brandon Ingram starts to look a franchise player. For now he can hold his own, but even in Summer League, his weight puts him at a disadvantage, and he can disappear for stretches. He’s still 18. He’s my pick for “longest to go” because he’s decent now, but by the time he gets done maturing he may be farther along than anyone else in Vegas this week. 

Ben Golliver: Sacramento’s selection of Georgios Papagiannis at No. 13 drew a quizzical reaction on draft night. Who? This early? Another center? Really, Vlade Divac? While those questions and doubts made Papagiannis one of the most intriguing players to watch coming into the week, the 19-year-old Greek center has had a rough go of it. After sitting out his first game with “knee stiffness” and later complaining of a hamstring injury, Papagiannis has started for Sacramento but played limited minutes and posted mediocre numbers (5 PPG and 5.3 RPG on 35 FG%).

As the Sacramento Bee noted, Kings coach Dave Joerger is the first to admit that Papagiannis is a ways away. “It’s going to take a little while for him to catch up to the speed of the game, the pick-and-pop fours and the athletic fives that are 6’7”, 6’8”,” Joerger told the Bee. It’s going to be tough for him.” The good news: Sacramento has so many centers that Papagiannis legitimately has years to get his body and game where they need to be. The bad news: Sacramento has so many other shortcomings that even a perfect developmental progression from Papagiannis won’t solve of the poorly-balanced roster’s many issues.

Rob Mahoney: It’s not easy to be a big man in summer league, but Georgios​ Papagiannis underwhelmed in ways that went beyond the guard-dominant vibe of the event. It’s less the numbers and more the general impression he leaves; for a player whose supposed strength is leveraging his size, Papagiannis had an awful lot of trouble backing down even summer league bigs in the post. On deeper catches, Papagiannis launched himself upward with all the force of a slightly fizzy soda. Many of his attempts were unsurprisingly capped by summer leaguers looking to make a point.

Matt Dollinger: The flashes are there for Dragan Bender, but the consistency is not, which is a fair predicament for an 18-year-old getting his first taste of NBA action. To Bender’s credit, he played aggressively in Las Vegas, a welcome sight for Suns coaches. He shot just 28.2% from the field, 28% from deep and registered more fouls than rebounds in four games with the Suns. It’s clear he can be an impact player on the perimeter, but Bender has a long way to go to being able to do anything inside the three-point line. He struggled with the physicality against Summer League competition—imagine how his 7'1" 225-pound frame is going to hold up against grown men. The Suns are in no rush for Bender to develop and he’ll have plenty of time to fill out his frame and get acclimated to the next level in Phoenix, which is a good thing for all. 

Most exciting non-rookie?

Andrew Sharp: D’Angelo Russell. He was given unprecedented freedom after spending a year with Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott, and looks like a completely different player. He’s bigger and stronger than he was this time last year, but more importantly, he’s free to be creative, pull up from anywhere and create in the lane. He’s fun again, and so are the young Lakers.

Watch D’Angelo Russell beat Ben Simmons’s Sixers on a buzzer beater

Ben Golliver: There were a bunch of intriguing second-year players in Las Vegas this year, but to me this boils down to the Suns’ Devin Booker versus the Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell. You can’t go wrong either way. I’ll take Booker, who had an eye-popping scoring burst against the Blazers and an entertaining, tense back-and-forth with the Celtics’ R.J. Hunter on back-to-back nights.

Booker has shown a deft scoring touch, some really nice playmaking skills, and a swagger that suggests he’s ready to take a big step forward next season in terms of responsibility. The fact that he’s still only 19 years old makes him all the more exciting for a Phoenix franchise that needs both likability and star power.

Rob Mahoney: Never has D'Angelo Russell played with more command since becoming a pro. He distinguished himself by order of magnitude. Few of the guards competing in Vegas are really on Russell’s level to begin with, and Russell made a deliberate effort to confirm the premise. The results were spectacular: game-winners, impressive feel, and some of the most prolific scoring in summer league.

Matt Dollinger: It was hard not to fall in love with Jimmer Fredette all over again in Las Vegas. The former BYU star may never be a rotation player in the NBA, but he’ll be an annual star at Summer Leagues if keeps getting invitations. Jimmer suited up for the Nuggets this year, dropping 26 on the Grizzlies and sending excitement through the gym every time he touched the ball. Barring a historically late growth spurt, NBA teams are unlikely to change their opinions on the sharpshooter, but if a team decides it could use another scorer, it could do a lot worse than picking up Jimmer. 

Once a star at BYU, the clock is ticking on Jimmer Fredette’s NBA dream

Team you’re most excited about for the future?

Andrew Sharp: Three-way tie. The Timberwolves with Kris Dunn as the sidekick to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are the most exciting young team of Summer League 2016. The Suns with Devin Booker, Dragan Bender and next year’s lottery pick (in a point guard-rich draft) will be the most exciting team in 2017. In two years D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram will be older, stronger, worlds better and the 2018 Lakers will be the new team on the rise. Is it strange to think two and three years ahead? Definitely. But the first two weeks of July were all about the Warriors. This week is about who can beat them in 2019. 

Ben Golliver: The strong early work by Kris Dunn has me even more excited about the Timberwolves, who have already been on an upward trajectory in recent years with the additions of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, plus the hiring of new coach Tom Thibodeau. Frankly, Minnesota’s identity over the last decade has ranged from irrelevant to incompetent to incoherent. With Dunn on board as a difference-making backcourt piece, the Timberwolves seem ready to settle on a young, talented, hard-working core that complements each other and should develop nicely into an aggressive defensive-minded team under Thibodeau’s guidance. The big question now is whether Minnesota will make its long-awaited playoff breakthrough in 2017 or 2018?

Rob Mahoney: Oddly enough, Utah. The Jazz didn’t even make their first-round pick this year (preferring, instead, to trade No. 12 for George Hill) and brought just a few roster players to compete in Vegas. Among them, though, was Trey Lyles—a second-year forward who built on his play of last season with a dominant Summer League. If Lyles makes good on his potential as a stretch big (he went 15-of-33 on threes during his Vegas run) for the Jazz, their trove of home-grown talent could soon reach a ridiculous level. Utah is ready to make a leap. Lyles seems to be right there with them.

Matt Dollinger: If we’re judging off pure decibels, the Lakers win in a landslide. More than 16,000 people packed the Thomas & Mack Center for the Ben Simmons vs. Brandon Ingram showdown, and approximately 15,582 of them were Lakers fans. With Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and the surprisingly nimble Ivica Zubac on the floor, you can see the Lakers have the makings of a nice nucleus in the post-Kobe era. It’ll be a few years until the Lakers get back into the playoffs, but they’ll instantly be a more fun team to watch than last year’s charade. 

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