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Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green's Budding Rivalry Heats Up

The No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks faced off against each other for the first time as pros and it did not disappoint.
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LAS VEGAS — Summer League is back, which means two things. One, we have to relitigate the annual dialogue over how much weight we should actually place on the performance of top rookies as they make their debuts. Two, wear a mask. But I digress.

The good news on the let’s-all-overreact-to-Summer-League front is that the best players from the sufficiently hyped 2021 draft class have, by and large, all played quite well so far. We’ve only been here for three days, and by the time you read this, a lot of teams will have still only played one game. I’ll try to avoid the hyperbole. But it’s safe to say that this summer’s new headlining faces have been exciting to watch so far—and we’ve seen enough of all of them over the years to know that it’s not all fluky.

Anyway, the marquee game of the entire summer league slate was Tuesday night, with top picks Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green facing off for the first time as pros. While it wasn’t an aesthetically brilliant contest (the other thing about Summer League is that we don’t get many of those), the energy level and competitive zest were palpable in the building, and Cunningham and Green leaned into their individual matchup for much of the evening. The Rockets pulled away in the third quarter and went on to win 111–91. It’s not so much the result that matters, although I give Houston credit for putting together a Summer League team that fits well together (first-rounders Alperen Sengün and Josh Christopher have been solid, too).

Both players had their moments, with Green putting together a better stat line (25 points on 6-of-11 shooting) and Cunningham (20 points on 8-of-18) better asserting himself in moments where they matched up directly. Over the years it’s become clear to me as an observer that both players take these opportunities to match up personally. They defended each other for long stretches and didn’t hide. I don’t know that I’d classify it as a rivalry yet, but it doesn’t feel buddy-buddy, either. That brimming level of competition certainly enhanced Tuesday’s game, with each guy getting the better of the other at different junctures. The Pistons and Rockets aren’t going to win many games next season, but it could legitimately be fun to watch when they play one another.

I will add this: There was plenty of debate around the NBA surrounding who the top prospect was this year, and those discussions won’t go away for a while. It’s a testament to the quality of the top of this draft. This was the second game of the week for both players: Green had an incandescent debut against the Cavaliers on Sunday (23 points on 9-of-18 shooting), while Cunningham had another unspectacular yet effective showing, with 12 points on just 5-of-17 attempts in a close loss to the Thunder. (This is the point in the article where I will abstain from assigning any more unnecessary significance to Summer League).

If you’ve never spent a ton of time watching Cunningham, the key thing to keep in mind is that it’s not always about his stat line. He has a steadying impact on the court that doesn’t always manifest in a box score. I never quite understood why he was compared to Jayson Tatum, as it’s hard to think of two players of similar size with more diametrically opposite approaches to basketball. By nature, Cunningham isn’t a gunner—he’s a facilitator and a connector—and he’ll need to develop a stronger scoring efficiency/volume correlation as he gets more comfortable. But he leaves an impact on every game he plays, and it will fall on the Pistons to put talent around him in the long run.

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As for Green, it’s extremely evident how much he’s settled in and gotten accustomed to the pace of play in the pros. That’s certainly a byproduct of the time he spent developing with G League Ignite, which isn’t a surprise. But it was still striking to me, having not seen him play in person since his senior year of high school, how much the game has slowed down for him. The question with Green was never about talent, but whether he’d harness his ability in an efficient way and expand his game beyond scoring. There are still some holes here—he’s still a streaky shooter, he needs to develop more off-dribble countermoves, and there are still moments when he rushes into bad decisions. But he’s already much more consistent than anyone might have guessed two years ago at this stage, and suffice it to say the arrow is pointing in a positive direction.

Elsewhere: No. 3 pick Evan Mobley wasn’t quite at his best Sunday, but his game can be more of a slow burn, and he was active if not especially productive in the stat sheet. It’s going to take him a little time to fill out physically and take advantage of mismatches. He’s not going to be a guy you throw the ball to all the time, at least not immediately. But his impact on the game defensively is going to translate, and the Cavs will be able to let him play through mistakes and expand his comfort zone outside the paint. Mobley isn’t a physical back-to-the-basket player yet and has a harder time accessing his soft right-hand hook against better competition, but his length and coordination should win out as he gets better at leveraging his frame to separate against defenders in the paint.

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The fledgling marriage between the Raptors and No. 4 pick Scottie Barnes looks highly promising, and Barnes left his fingerprints all over Toronto’s win over the Knicks on Sunday. Barnes finished with 18 points on 7-of-18 shooting, 10 rebounds and five assists, two steals and a block. It’s so tough to find players with his mix of size, length and basketball smarts, and the Raptors strongly value the toughness and versatility he brings to the table, which ultimately helped make him the choice. Barnes even knocked down a couple of jumpers, and if he makes strides there, the calculus changes in a big way. It’s very hard not to appreciate how hard he plays and how much fun he clearly has while doing it. It’s very early, but you can easily understand why Toronto felt strongly about him.

Having said that, the guy the Raptors passed on at No. 5, Jalen Suggs, was the best player on the floor in the Magic’s overtime win against the Warriors, reinforcing suspicions as to how strong the top of this draft might really be in the long run. Suggs looked very comfortable with his jumper, racking up 24 points on 9-of-22 shooting and making 3-of-6 threes. He added nine rebounds, two steals and three blocks, including a game-saving swat that forced overtime, and was heavily present in all facets. Suggs’s overall consistency, competitive fire and athletic gifts form a unique package, and he’s already the best of Orlando’s guard prospects, which was particularly evident watching him share the floor with Cole Anthony and R. J. Hampton. The big question for the Magic entering the season will be whether Suggs and Markelle Fultz can develop chemistry and form a tenable long-term pairing.

No. 7 pick Jonathan Kuminga also deserves mention: It’s easy to forget just how powerful an athlete he is, and how easily that can translate into points, at times. Kuminga slipped out of the top five on draft night, and it was somewhat low-hanging fruit to nitpick his decision-making and mistakes on tape, but his unusual strength, speed and coordination have always popped most in person. That hasn’t changed. Kuminga still has a lot of work to do to harness that, but you can’t really fault Golden State for taking a chance. Kuminga is legitimately an upper-crust athlete by NBA standards, and what type of ceiling he reaches will depend on his own willingness to focus in and make adjustments.

Lastly, No. 6 pick Josh Giddey rolled his ankle in the early minutes of his Oklahoma City debut, so observers may have to wait a bit longer to get a great look at him. And, speaking of waiting, we’ll touch base on the rest of Summer League next week. See what I did there?

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