LAS VEGAS — A 30-team field has been whittled down to two. Eleven days are in the books and just one remains. With the Lakers and Blazers set to face off in a championship game rematch on Tuesday, it’s finally time to run through the winners and losers from the desert marathon that is Las Vegas Summer League.
Winners: LeBron James and the Lakers
For the second straight year, Las Vegas has belonged to the Lakers, who won last year’s Summer League title and enter Tuesday’s championship game with a perfect 6–0 record. While July 2017 represented the height of Lonzo Mania—with sold out crowds enthralled by L.A.’s heavily-hyped homegrown prospect—Lakers Nation has moved on to worshiping at the altar of LeBron James.
Even though Summer League began just days after James agreed to sign with the Lakers on July 1, bootleg T-shirts featuring James’s name, number and images of past Lakers greats were being sold in the parking lot on opening weekend. As the event progressed, whispers immediately picked up that James would make his first public appearance as a Laker in Las Vegas. Multiple Lakers gamedays came and went with no sighting, but James finally sat courtside on Sunday afternoon, drawing a standing ovation from the pro-Lakers crowd and hugs from new teammates Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram. To no one’s surprise, James appeared fully ready for the coming storm of attention, as he dressed to impress trend spotters with a pair of $500 Lakers shorts and custom purple Nikes.
The Lakers have displayed plenty of substance to go with James’s style. Hart (24.2 PPG, 5 RPG, 2.3 APG) has been the leading scorer in Las Vegas and will likely earn tournament MVP honors after dropping a game-high 37 points in a semifinal win over Cleveland on Monday. The second-year guard is the quintessential “Too good to be here” player, and yet he has refused to shut it down. A consistent force throughout, he’s attacked hard off the dribble, pulled up into smooth three-pointers, and played committed defense. Although Luke Walton is stuck with a mind-bending Rajon Rondo versus Lonzo Ball lineup conundrum, the Lakers coach can console himself with the knowledge that Hart’s two-way game is perfectly suited to a complementary role alongside James.
Meanwhile, second-round pick Svi Mykhailiuk has been found money. The 21-year-old Ukranian forward has done a little bit of everything: making plays for his teammates, running the floor, moving without the ball and knocking down stop-and-pop jumpers. The budding Summer League legend hit six three-pointers in L.A.’s dramatic double-overtime victory over Cleveland.
Over the last two weeks, expectations for the 2019 Lakers have bounced up and down like a pogo stick: the initial excitement at landing James led to confusion and disappointment when it became clear that the four-time MVP would be joined by Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee rather than Paul George, Kawhi Leonard or even Julius Randle. Las Vegas should provide a third-wave boost. Even if James will be playing with fewer proven stars than expected, he will be lining up with better young talent than most people realize.
Loser: LaVar Ball
LaVar Ball was flying high at last year’s Summer League: his prophecy to land Lonzo on the Lakers had just come true, his Big Baller Brand was getting constant attention as Lonzo cycled through different game shoes, his appearances at Summer League games drew cheers and autograph-seekers, his post-game quotes and proclamations went viral night after night, and his plan to turn his other sons—LiAngelo and LaMelo— into stars was just beginning.
This year? LaVar was nowhere to be found in Las Vegas and positive press was even harder to come by. LiAngelo, who was booted off UCLA’s team after he was caught shoplifting in China, did not receive a Summer League invite. LaVar’s “Junior Basketball Association” league for NBA hopefuls has consistently played to small crowds, and it drew fire this week when video of a coach physically confronting a player during a game surfaced on social media. LaVar’s ability to spark debates with outlandish statements seems to have lost some steam too, as his recent decree that he could have beaten James one-on-one “back in my heyday” didn’t generate the same anger and attention as previous comments about beating Michael Jordan.
Meanwhile, Lonzo appeared to be putting some distance between himself and his father when he showed up to a Summer League game wearing a plain red shirt rather than, as has been his usual custom, looking like a walking billboard for Big Baller Brand. Throw in the uncertainty around Lonzo’s knee surgery on Tuesday and the possibility that the 2017 No. 2 pick might be traded now that James and Rondo are in town, and things have certainly been better for the Ball family’s patriarch.
Winner: Knicks hype
Summer League is not only a testing ground for rookies, it’s a petri dish for free agency conspiracy theories. Last year, rumors about a possible LeBron James/Lonzo Ball pairing (“LeBronzo”) were all the rage. This year, New York found itself as the center of attention.
Driving this rare bout of Knicks optimism was rookie Kevin Knox, who ranked among the top-five scorers in Las Vegas (21.3 PPG and 6.5 RPG) and led the tournament in “Wow” highlights. The No. 9 pick struggled with his efficiency, but he made up for it with thunderous, heat-seeking dunks that showcased his impressive length. Even though he’s just 18, Knox looked comfortable on the ball and he wasn’t shy about breaking down defenders off the dribble. He wasn’t a one-man show, though, as second-round pick Mitchell Robinson (13 PPG, 10.2 RPG) also impressed with his shot-blocking ability and above-the-rim finishes.
As soon as observers began salivating about Knox’s pairing with Kristaps Porzingis, a tantalizing dream scenario emerged: Imagine a Peak Wingspan frontline that featured Kevin Durant, Knox and Porzingis. The dot-connecting theory goes something like this: Durant, who signed a two-year contract with a player option for next summer, wins his third title and possibly his third Finals MVP in 2019, concludes that he has nothing left to prove in Golden State, and decides that he wants to be the face of his own big-market franchise. Moving to New York would give him a stage to rival James’s, it would place him in the easier Eastern Conference, it would wipe out the “bandwagon” narrative that has stuck to him since 2016. It would also satisfy his agent, Rich Kleiman, who is a lifelong Knicks fan.
Whether this talk proves to be idle speculation or a full-on premonition, Knicks GM Scott Perry deserves credit for instilling new hope into a downtrodden franchise. Even being mentioned in superteam dreams is a sign of real progress for an organization that has been laughed out of the room summer after summer.
Loser: Sixers hype
Summer League’s biggest disappointment was Markelle Fultz’s decision to sit out so that he could “work on his jump shot.” The 2017 No. 1 pick was healthy enough to play in Philadelphia’s final 10 games, and he even received a few minutes in the first round of the playoffs. Instead of putting his stamp on the summer by taking out a year’s worth of confusion and frustration on unsuspecting rookies, Fultz spent the week watching from the sidelines.
Inexplicable. What better place for a player to ditch the “yips” than Summer League? Things got especially dark during one game when Fultz sat shoulder to shoulder with Jahlil Okafor. The former Sixers washout could surely offer tips on how to become a cautionary tale while tossing around barbs about Bryan Colangelo’s burners.
In the Fultz vacuum, Philadelphia’s unimpressive summer was exposed for all to see. After coach Brett Brown made it clear the Sixers were seeking superstar talent, the franchise struck out on both LeBron James and Paul George and are reportedly cooling on a possible Kawhi Leonard trade. Meanwhile, key veterans Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli both hit the exits.
Philadelphia built significant momentum during a strong second-half surge, but it hit a brick wall during an off-season that will be defined by Colangelo’s abrupt departure. Competing with Golden State, Houston and Boston requires excellence at every level of an organization. Are the Sixers up to the task?
Winners: Jaren Jackson Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr.
Five of the first seven players selected in this year’s draft were big men, a development that led some analysts to question whether the changing nature of the modern game wasn’t being appropriately reflected in the pre-draft evaluation process. The thinking goes: If bigs are routinely played off the court in the playoffs, why are so many teams willing to invest valuable picks on them?
Fans in Memphis and Chicago both had good reason to worry that their organizations were out of step with best practices. The Grizzlies tried to modernize under David Fizdale but promptly fired the popular coach during a hopeless 2017–18 season. The Bulls, meanwhile, have been stuck in a never-ending series of identity crises since Derrick Rose’s game fell apart.
Good news: Both Memphis and Chicago landed big men who played like future stars in Las Vegas. At No. 3, the Grizzlies selected Jaren Jackson Jr., a fluid forward/center who checks every box: he comfortably shoots from three, he moves well in space, and he provides legit rim protection. Jackson (11.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.8 BPG) has room to grow physically, but he welcomed contact, played with energy, and used his length to full effect in helping Memphis reach the Summer League semifinals. The Grizzlies seem headed for a major roster overhaul in the next year or two, but the 18-year-old Jackson already looks like a cornerstone.
The Bulls received similarly positive early returns from Carter, who plays with wisdom far beyond his years. His family wasn’t shy about suggesting that Carter’s full skillset was buried during his one season at Duke, and Las Vegas provided the opportunity to reintroduce himself. Carter (14.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.6 BPG) drew oohs and aahs with some of his blocks, including a two-handed snatch from behind that amounted to grand larceny. But the strength of his game is in the subtleties: anticipating drives, stepping out on guards, offering well-timed help from the weakside, working for second and third efforts on the glass, making quick decisions with the ball, and finding ways to score without disrupting his team’s flow.
Even those skeptical of the pricey Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker additions must tip their caps to the Bulls for salvaging a halfhearted tank by nabbing such a refined talent with the seventh pick.
Loser: Vlade Divac
Beleaguered Kings executive Vlade Divac entered Las Vegas facing even more second-guessing than usual thanks to his decision to select Marvin Bagley III over Trae Young, Luka Doncic and multiple big men with more modern profiles. Although Bagley’s comfort with the ball and energy on the glass make him an intriguing prospect, his lack of a clear defensive position and limited shooting range are hard to swallow from a No. 2 overall pick.
Divac never got the chance to thumb his nose at his critics, as Bagley played just one game in Las Vegas before suffering a pelvic injury that ended his Summer League. This was a case of bad news piling on top of bad news, as Bagley shot just 31% in three games for the Kings in the Sacramento Summer League prior to Vegas. Instead of addressing concerns about his fit or impressing observers with his scoring ability, Bagley became the latest in a long line of Kings draft picks to raise more questions than he answered. Among the nine players selected in 2018’s top 10 who saw court time in Las Vegas, the 19-year-old Duke product easily had the least impressive body of work as Sacramento stumbled to a 2–3 record.
The good news for Divac? His week could have been worse. Harry Giles, a 2017 first-round pick, looked active and explosive after missing his entire rookie season while rehabilitating from a knee injury. And the Bulls decided to match the Kings’ exceptionally generous 4-year, $78 million offer to Zach LaVine, thereby helping Divac avoid a cap-clogging landmine.
Winner: Trae Young
Young (17 PPG, 6.8 APG) was pilloried for his poor shooting at the Utah Summer League, but his critics spoke too soon and too loudly. The No. 5 pick rebounded in Las Vegas with some nice showings, and he emerged as the event’s best pure passer. While Young’s shot selection crosses the border from acceptable to aggravating far too often, his knack for collapsing defenses and finding teammates in traffic make him a tough cover in the half-court. A constant threat to pull up in transition, Young must learn to resist his immediate impulse to shoot when left open, as he often finds higher-quality looks when he is patient.
The defining question for Atlanta’s season is simple: How green should Young’s light be? The young Hawks are going nowhere, and they’ll need at least one more year of tanking to assemble a reasonable cast around a core that now includes Young, John Collins and Taurean Prince. Is there such a thing as too many Trae Young threes when wins and losses don’t really matter?
In an ideal world, the Hawks would move Dennis Schroder before the start of the season, thereby defusing an obvious source of tension over touches and shots while also clearing the way for Young to learn on the job. If Young can learn to consistently prioritize passing over chucking, the Hawks could be in for a big bump in entertainment value, even if they remain among the league’s worst teams.
Loser: Deandre Ayton
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Ayton (14.5 PPG, 10.5 RPG) wasn’t bad in Las Vegas, but he also didn’t turn in a transcendent performance befitting the top overall pick.
Ayton’s best showing came in a head-to-head showdown with Orlando’s Mo Bamba, as he physically dominated his fellow lottery pick. Unfortunately, he didn’t sustain that level of impact throughout the tournament, and both Carter and Jackson emerged as more impressive two-way contributors. This wasn’t entirely Ayton’s fault: he faced regular double teams and was surrounded by lackluster guards and wings who struggled to feed him the ball. Still, he committed more than his fair share of turnovers, he didn’t show much of a toolbox in isolation situations, and he was regularly late in making his defensive reads.
Although he probably boasted the best physique in Las Vegas, Ayton’s feel for the game left much to be desired. Suns fans didn’t seem to mind too much, as they were out in full force after landing the Arizona center with the top pick. Bagley’s injury and Luka Doncic’s absence at Summer League spared Ayton from heavy-handed critiques, but Phoenix’s kneejerk decision to select him might be subjected to greater scrutiny once the 2018–19 season opens.
Winners: Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers will face the Lakers in the Summer League championship game for the second straight year thanks to one of the deepest Vegas rosters in recent memory. In addition to rookies Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., Portland was stacked with returning NBA talent, including: Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan, KJ McDaniels, Jake Layman, John Jenkins, Archie Goodwin, and Wade Baldwin IV.
During another off-season spent regretting Neil Olshey’s 2016 spending spree, Blazermaniacs were treated to promising showings from Collins, Baldwin and Trent, all of whom could deliver rotation minutes next year. Collins, who looked completely overwhelmed last summer, displayed good defensive awareness, improved confidence and a feistiness that will be essential to his NBA future. Baldwin struggled badly in Portland’s semifinal win over Memphis—missing late free throws and committing some unsightly turnovers—but his overall week was positive. The 2016 first-round pick struck a nice balance between orchestrating the offense and picking his spots to score. Finally, Trent potentially provides eager complementary scoring and floor-spacing to a subpar wing rotation.
Portland will need significant internal improvement if it’s going to build on last year’s first-round sweep against New Orleans. The Summer Blazers played well enough, both individually and as a collective, to make that prospect seem much more likely than it did two weeks ago.
Losers: Brooklyn Nets
Twenty-nine of the NBA’s 30 teams at Summer League won at least one game. That left the Nets (0–5) as the only winless outfit, further torturing a fan base that has clearly been through enough in recent years.
To recap, Brooklyn won 21 games in 2015–16, 20 games in 2016–17 and 28 games in 2017–18, all while sending first-round picks to Boston and Cleveland as part of the calamitous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce blockbuster. At times like these, it’s important to remember that famous NBA adage: “You’re either selling wins or selling hope.” The Nets have somehow managed to avoid selling both for years now, a feat that would almost be impressive if it wasn’t so utterly dismal.