NBA Summer League won't wrap up until Monday, but after nearly a week of games in Las Vegas, we've already got plenty of standouts to enjoy and examine.
The Crossover's NBA scribes have been on the ground for the entire time. So as the rookies and young prospects hit the home stretch, we asked our writers who they think have been the most intriguing players to watch.
We'll lead off with some prospect named Lonzo Ball, who turned in the most intriguing performance of the Summer League circuit on Wednesday night. With LeBron James watching intently and sitting courtside, Lonzo dropped 36 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in a Lakers' 103-102 win over the 76ers.
Without further ado, here's our list of the most intriguing players from Las Vegas
Lonzo Ball, Lakers
Ben Golliver: There are arguments to be had about who is the best player in Las Vegas, or who has been the most consistent. But there’s only one answer if “intrigue” is the desired characteristic: Lonzo Ball. While Dennis Smith Jr., De’Aaron Fox and Jayson Tatum have left many in attendance gushing about their star potential, the Lakers' rookie point guard has already proven to be a certified phenomenon throughout a week in which he has struggled shooting and missed a high-profile match-up with Fox due to injury.
The No. 2 pick has wowed during all three of his appearances with his passing ability, and he displayed better assertiveness on the drive in a win over Philadelphia on Wednesday. The Lakers entered Las Vegas hoping to find a player to build around, and the early signs have been very promising: Ball has helped L.A. play an unselfish, fast and entertaining style, he’s handled all the attention and scrutiny like a seasoned vet, and he’s found multiple ways to contribute even when his clunky three-point shot has been off.
Still, basketball is only part of the story for Ball when his father LaVar is playing hype man and when Big Baller Brand is a never-ending trending topic. As if pulling in a record 17,500 fans and registering Summer League’s first triple-double since at least 2008 weren't enough, Ball sent social media networks into a tizzy on Wednesday simply by rocking Kobe Bryant’s signature Nike sneakers with a recruiting-minded LeBron James sitting courtside. Some prospects have intriguing games. Others have intriguing stories. Ball clearly has both, and he plays for a Lakers franchise that desperately needs everything he brings to the table. Smith, Fox and Tatum have raised eyebrows. Ball, however, has utterly transfixed his audiences.
Dennis Smith, Jr., Mavericks
Rob Mahoney: When the quickest player on the floor at Summer League chooses to play at a moderate pace, that warrants some attention. Smith is a dizzying athlete—the sort that can blow by the vast majority of his Vegas competition. Yet rather than seek out those openings whenever he could, Smith has showed a surprising willingness to rear back and reset the offense. Quick bursts have given his moves the edge they need without sacrificing control. Rarely are rookie speedsters so discerning, particularly when let loose on the first stage of their professional career.
There’s still a lot for Smith to learn. It just helps that slowing down seems to come as naturally to him as revving up. Smith goes into the first stages of his development as a pro with the patience of a player well ahead of the curve. Creating offense at the NBA level draws on a delicate, stop-and-go rhythm. Smith has shown that he can walk that line against his fellow Summer Leaguers, and perhaps even against regular NBA competition.
The distinction is meaningful. It’s one thing to be in control when the opponents are a hastily assembled collection of rookies fringe contributors. It’s quite another when the day-to-day competition are the best basketball players in the world, linked together by cogent systems.
What’s reassuring is what Smith’s style says about his methodology. We know he has the horsepower to get wherever he needs to go on the floor. Slowing down speaks to consideration; Smith is dribbling his way through different possibilities and examining them as he goes rather than committing outright to certain angles. His head is up and his eyes are open. No one should expect Smith to see all the options available to him in his first season, but that he’s looking for those possibilities rather than trying to prove himself on every possession bodes well. Smith’s shooting has been encouraging and his activity on defense is nice. His actual prospects, however, boil down to his approach.
Bam Adebayo, Heat and John Collins, Hawks
Andrew Sharp: At Kentucky, Bam Adebayo arrived as a five-star recruit who was athletic enough to dominate lesser athletes. But as the season unfolded and competition improved, his skills never quite caught up to the hype. He wasn't scoring down low, he wasn't getting opportunities in space, and he never gave Kentucky the third scorer they needed offensively. Meanwhile, at Wake Forest, John Collins was a less-heralded recruit who turned himself into a monster down low. But to NBA scouts, that raised its own questions. Despite outrageous numbers for a 19-year-old—he averaged 28 and 15 per-40 minutes—many looked at Collins and saw another Greg Monroe, Enes Kanter or Jahlil Okafor.
Both of them fit prototypes that typically make NBA teams wary. One was the dominant college star who would be marginalized against NBA athletes. The other, the big-time recruit whose skills never matched his athleticism. Now they both look awesome.
In the Orlando summer league, Bam was as impressive as anyone on the floor. He put up 17.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks. He's continued to impress in Vegas, where he's putting up 15.7 and 8.7 rebounds. More important than the numbers is the way he moves. He's got nifty skills around the rim—more than he ever showed at Kentucky—and he's got skills in space that caught me off guard. There were multiple times where he grabbed a rebound and led a fast break—and it looked completely normal. He moves fluidly at 6'10", 250 pounds, and that helps in the halfcourt, too. Couple that with rim protection that was always going to be valuable, not to mention the ability to stick with guards on pick-and-rolls, and each time I've watched the Heat I've come away convinced that Bam will get 20 minutes per game for Miami next year.
What Collins does well is less surprising, but no less impressive. As the draft process unfolded I was pretty positive he'd be the best player drafted past the lottery. He was a sophomore at Wake, but he's as young as most freshman, and more productive than anyone. On Sunday Collins put up 22 and 10, on 9-of-11 shooting. On Wednesday, he added 25 and 9, on 11-of-15 shooting. He's got offensive skills that translate regardless, and his ceiling might be higher than many people realized. He's got a nearly 7-foot wingspan, and he's a better athlete than any of the extinct big men cautionary tales noted above. Speaking of which:
Neither player is flawless. Collins has to get better on defense, and Adebayo's offense will be a work in progress. But anybody's who's looking for finished products at summer league is in the wrong place. I like these games for the handful of players who pop when you watch them move amongst their peers. Bam and John The Baptist are not perfect, but they pop. It's a good start.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics
(Editor's note: Tatum deserved a spot on this list, but we just wrote about him. Here's snippet from Rob Mahoney's profile of Tatum. Read the rest here.)
Rob Mahoney: Jayson Tatum has lost his balance. He is crowded, again, as he begins his face-up move, as is the case for so many scorers in the Las Vegas Summer League. Lineups are not balanced well enough to keep the floor spaced properly. Teammates are so unfamiliar with one another that they cannot help but get in the way. None of this seems to bother Tatum, who feints and pivots and ekes out a shot over an encroaching defender.
The shot goes down because this is what Tatum does. Touch and skill bubble to the surface whenever he has the ball. Even when Tatum isn’t able to blow past his man, smart footwork and a high release point can often take his moves to their natural conclusion. Already he seems to have a promising future as a contested shot-maker—a skill that makes the life of a young player dramatically easier.
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
Jeremy Woo:I’m increasingly confident the Jazz nailed this pick (and the trade that produced it), and it’s possible that we end up nitpicking this year’s 8–13 draft sequence for a while. Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith, Zach Collins, Malik Monk, Luke Kennard and Mitchell—it’s really not that clear cut, is it?
Mitchell has been a buzzy name among NBA personnel in Vegas with high-energy showings on both ends of the floor. As a point of comparison, while Smith has been impressive this week in his own right, Mitchell hasn’t looked markedly far off as an athletic, score-first ball-handler—and his defense is leaps and bounds ahead. For what it’s worth, teams raved about his makeup during the draft process. It’s early, but this class looks extremely deep—and as lottery picks go, Mitchell should have everyone on notice.
T.J. Williams, Cavaliers
Jake Fischer: The Cavs' search for point guard depth was well-documented last season. And while Kay Felder's speed and athleticism have certainly popped here in Vegas, Cleveland's reserve Summer League point guard has turned more heads among scouts. T.J. Williams is a bull at a 6'4", 211 pounds and boasts a 6'8" wingspan. He's used that size to overcome what he lacks in athleticism to muscle defenders on his hip and get to the rim. He's averaging 10.0 points, 2.7 assists and 2.7 rebounds in just 18.7 minutes per game this week.
At Northeastern last season, Williams totaled the fourth-most free throws attempts in all of college basketball, and his ability to get to the line has translated to this level. Averaging 3.0 attempts in his reserve time extrapolates to 6.4 FTA per 40 minutes, a number that would have ranked him 17th in FTA per game throughout the entire NBA this season (one spot ahead of Kevin Durant). Williams owns a strong grasp of the pick-and-roll and can also shoot from NBA range, although he's only attempted two—making one—from that distance in Vegas.
Cleveland's front office has shown strong interest in Williams and all 30 teams have had ample opportunity to see what the point guard can do against steeper competition. He'll likely have to grind his way into a roster spot through training camp and preseason play similar to T.J. McConnell, or hustle his way into a 10-day contract through the D-League like Tim Frazier.
Don't be surprised if you see Williams's name on the back of an NBA jersey at some point this season.