LAS VEGAS — The NBA’s annual Las Vegas Summer League is no place to cultivate a hot take, despite 100-degree desert temperatures and the presence of hyped young players in a competitive game environment. While first-round rookies are often among the most talented players on the court in Vegas at any given time, it’s just not worth leaping to conclusions, no matter how poorly or well a performance goes. There is an adjustment period for most everyone, and generally it’s the players who aren’t on guaranteed deals who have the most to fight for here.
Returning Summer League veterans should be considered a different story, given the full year of basketball under their belts. It’s easier to be discerning and more fairly critical of the guys who are back for more. From an evaluatory standpoint, the expectations are higher when you couple first-round pedigree with professional experience and comfort within an organization. They’re here to show improvement. Think of it like a routine check-up for scouts. And on that note, here are five players who have made noticeable strides over the course of the last year.
Jonathan Isaac, Magic
The sixth pick in the 2017 draft, Isaac has had two strong outings in Vegas leading to two wins, with 20 points and seven rebounds as the Magic’s go-to option on Friday against the Nets. On Sunday against the Grizzlies, he did a strong job of neutralizing Jaren Jackson and racking up 12 points, seven rebounds, two steals and five blocks. After missing the majority of his rookie year with injuries, plus the Magic rightfully slow-playing his early development, his showing has been wildly encouraging, and he’s somewhere on the track to becoming a uniquely gifted two-way contributor for Orlando. The Magic will lend Mohamed Bamba similar levels of patience. At minimum, their last two drafts have established a defensive-minded, highly athletic direction for the roster: on Sunday, they started Isaac and Bamba up front with Wesley Iwundu and Melvin Frazier on the wing, the sort of look you can expect from them over the next few years.
Also, this clip from Sunday is pretty tantalizing.
Isaac’s vast potential has been easily apparent from the start—he has a smooth jump shot, he’s an athletic 6’11”, long and fluid on the defensive end, and offers valuable positional flexibility at the three, four and occasionally the five. The upside was clear, but exactly what type of role he’d evolve into long-term was a bit more abstract. The mantra with Isaac has been adding muscle, and he looks much more stable getting to his jump shot and elevating over defenders, which points to improved core stability, even if he may never become particularly thick in the chest. The midrange game is killer, but his three-point consistency has to keep improving, as does his body. Isaac is already a factor defensively, and his aggressiveness scoring the ball and improved pull-up game leave much more room for optimism that Isaac can get closer to accessing the high end of his ability. Orlando should feel good.
John Collins, Hawks
There may not be an easier eye-test player in Vegas. Collins, not Trae Young, has been Atlanta’s main attraction in terms of highlight-level moments. It’s obvious he’s graduated beyond this level of play, but it's no less exciting to have him here. Collins turned in 30 and eight against the Knicks on Saturday, including four made threes, and followed it with 18 and nine against the Blazers on Sunday. Already an athletic, high-energy rebounder, he looks more explosive physically and far more versatile scoring the ball, particularly with his jump shot. He was nowhere near this comfortable releasing from distance a year ago, and now looks the part as an inside-out option and double double threat.
Collins’s surprisingly natural three-point range and increased ability to put the ball on the floor would appear to elevate whatever you may have perceived his ceiling to be as of last season. The Hawks’ rebuild may hinge on his chemistry with Trae Young, and how many pieces Atlanta can put around them to be successful. As it stands, Collins, who doesn’t turn 21 until September, might be the most promising piece on their roster. Young struggled during the Hawks’ games at the Utah Summer League last week, but his showing has been more positive than negative overall, and you can see the team’s intent to eventually roll out fast-paced, skilled lineups around him. Consider Collins a major part of that.
Harry Giles, Kings
Giles's re-emergence as a functional, healthy basketball player is one of the feel-good stories of Summer League. Once the No. 1 recruit in his high school class, two torn ACLs later, Giles is simply hoping to get his career started after falling to No. 20 in last year’s draft, then sitting out what would have been his entire rookie year as he continued to rehab. Several front office members I spoke with who caught glimpses of Giles during that time emphasized how far he’s come from a physical perspective. His 17-point, six-rebound, five-steal game against the Suns was particularly encouraging. Whether he’ll be able to stay healthy for a prolonged enough period of time to develop into a starting-caliber player is still questionable. But watching him operate effectively on the inside has been encouraging to say the least.
Though he’s no longer a freakish leaper off the floor, Giles has looked more nimble than expected, and still possesses strong footwork and ambidextrous finishing ability. He’s long and has solid awareness on the court, enough to be an effective positional defender. Mixing in a nice-looking midrange stroke adds to the intrigue. Giles seems to be in shape and has some level of confidence in his ability again, which certainly is a positive wrinkle in the Kings’ outlook going forward. He’s just 20 years old, and deserves whatever success follows from here.
Derrick White, Spurs
While Spurs faithful and the league at large can mourn Tony Parker’s departure from San Antonio, it has to help that White appears ready to step into real rotation minutes in the Spurs’ backcourt. The 29th pick in last year’s draft out of Colorado, White was a former Division-II star who broke out in his lone Pac-12 season and has clearly benefitted from his time spent learning the game over the last year. He played in just 17 games with the Spurs as a rookie, but has improved at a rapid rate as someone who’d had relatively little exposure to high-level basketball prior to being drafted. At age 24, he’s the type of versatile combo guard most teams can find a place for, and looks poised to deliver value on his draft slot.
White tweaked a hamstring on Sunday that limited him to seven minutes will presumably end his run in Vegas, but he’s shown plenty. Earlier in the week, he led the Utah Summer League in scoring, averaging an eye-popping 23 points, 7.0 assists and 6.7 rebounds in three games, and then adding 19, five and five against the Pacers on Saturday. He is a capable playmaker and an athletic, downhill scorer. While some of the stats are inflated by opportunity and role, there’s a level of poise and consistency to his play that portends good things whenever he arrives in a full-fledged role for the Spurs. It should be sooner than later, at this rate.
Antonio Blakeney, Bulls
In Blakeney’s case, this is less a massive step forward than it is a good opportunity to cast a spotlight on his play. After going undrafted out of LSU in 2017, the now 21-year-old guard and former All-American has paid his dues in the G League and spent last season on a two-way contract with Chicago. Blakeney’s growth into a more disciplined scorer and intriguing prospect has to be considered one of the better two-way contract success stories, as the Bulls identified him as a target, nabbed his rights and invested time in him with their Windy City affiliate. He averaged 32 points in 32 games there and was named the G League’s Rookie of the Year, leading the league in scoring.
Unsurprisingly, Blakeney shone in a 25-point performance against the Cavs on Saturday. Going head-to-head with a more-touted but similarly offensive minded opponent in Collin Sexton, Blakeney showcased his breadth of abilities, with a quick first step into the lane and natural shooting touch off the dribble and catch. Whether it’s in Chicago or elsewhere, he’s knocking on the door of the NBA and has enough athleticism and skill to be a contributor off of someone’s bench down the line. Blakeney shot it poorly and dropped a relative dud on Sunday against the Lakers, but as it stands, should be considered a legitimate prospect at this stage of his development.