NBA Summer League comes to a close this week, and while I physically escaped the desert a couple of days ago, I have more thoughts on everything that went down. You didn’t come here to read a long introduction. I’m dumping out my notes from Vegas here, with my All–Summer League picks coming later in the week.
1. I am pleased to report that many of the best players here were sophomores. That’s something we expect every year, but doesn’t always hold true. Of course, there was no Summer League in 2020 due to the pandemic, so many of last season’s rookies were making their Vegas debuts. Players like Tyrese Maxey, Patrick Williams, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Desmond Bane, Immanuel Quickley, Xavier Tillman and Jaden McDaniels looked like they’d played significant minutes in the NBA last season. All had impressive moments, and some of them probably didn’t need to play here at all. Casual NBA fans should at least be familiar with most of those guys by now. And while it’s probably not worth overselling anything here (I don’t foresee Pritchard transforming into Chris Paul anytime soon), it’s always a good thing when high-level experience translates into growth and development.
2. On the flip side, there are a couple of high-profile sophomores I am somewhat worried about moving forward. They were top-10 picks in the 2020 draft, and next season will be critical for both when it comes to establishing themselves as legitimate rotation players. They are Obi Toppin and Jalen Smith.
To be completely fair to Toppin, he was placed in an unfavorable situation last season. He was an offensive-minded rookie playing under a defense-first coach, on a Knicks team whose best player (Julius Randle) plays the same position. In most situations, Toppin and Randle are more or less incompatible for long stretches of time due to their defensive limitations. Without bashing Toppin, it’s fair to question why New York so aggressively pursued him in the first place, given there was almost no opportunity for him in their primary Randle-centric lineups. He averaged 11 minutes per game and saw time in the playoffs. It was underwhelming from an older player who dominated at the college level, but the fit didn’t help.
Still, from watching Toppin at Summer League, I can’t help but be a bit concerned. His counting stats were largely inflated by the fact that he, for some reason, averaged a whopping 36 minutes over his first five games in Vegas. He remains a streakier shooter than originally advertised and has trouble creating mismatches using his size. Opposing teams appear to have figured out that you can generally get away with hiding a wing on Toppin in half-court situations. For him to be a significant force on offense, that has to change.
It’s still very difficult to envision what Toppin’s pathway to increased minutes is, assuming the Knicks push for the playoffs again and play through Randle, who, like Toppin, is limited to guarding slower forwards and bigs defensively. Toppin’s best chance at a bigger role is proving he can play small-ball center next to Randle, but he’s a slow mover laterally, plays very upright and isn’t much of a rim protector, either. It’s hard to see Tom Thibodeau of all people deciding to fall on the sword defensively and take that route. How the Knicks—who are intent on staying competitive—manage the touchy distribution of minutes at forward will be a key item to watch next season.
3. As for Smith: Through four Summer League games he was shooting just 36% from the field and hadn’t blocked a shot. He floats around the perimeter a bit too much, and isn’t a very natural face-up player, relying on bully-ball tactics that don’t work for all but the most physically gifted NBA players. Smith just doesn’t separate well from defenders on the interior and is heavily right-hand dominant as a finisher. I’ve criticized the Suns for drafting him at No. 10 at several junctures, and this isn’t aiming to pile on here (although, yes, Tyrese Haliburton was drafted two spots later). I’m just not convinced Smith is mobile or skilled enough to truly excel as a stretch big in the NBA. If he can beat out Frank Kaminsky this time around, he’ll have a pathway to increased minutes as Deandre Ayton’s backup, but that type of profile is almost certainly not what the Suns hoped they were getting.
When Phoenix invested significantly to select Smith 10th, that essentially signaled that they believed he could share the floor with Ayton. Many rival teams viewed him as more of a late-first-round-caliber prospect. His physical stiffness was always of concern to discerning scouts. And the biggest optimists hoped Smith could be a Myles Turner–type big who blocks shots, makes threes and offers some consistency despite his limitations. Logic says you just don’t draft a rookie in the top 10 who plays the same position as one of your team’s young centerpieces and offers minimal flexibility. So, assuming some degree of reasonable draft strategy here, Phoenix had to believe Smith could play power forward for meaningful stretches of games, space the floor and rebound.
To his credit, entering Monday Smith had made 35% of his threes on seven attempts per game in Vegas and averaged 12.5 rebounds, which was tied for tops in the league. If Smith does those things, he can help Phoenix in some capacity. But, similar to the situation in New York with Randle and Toppin, it seems pretty unlikely that Phoenix can field winning lineups with Smith and Ayton together. He appeared in just 27 games last season and made essentially no impact. Based on what I saw at Summer League, it’s a stretch to think there’s a real opportunity for a sophomore leap coming. And another year of limited returns would thrust Smith further into limbo.
4. Anyway, let’s take a more positive angle: Confirmation bias be damned, the 2021 draft class has a chance to be really good. I wrote a bit about the top picks last week, and the overall sentiment remains unchanged. Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green are as advertised. It’s worth noting that Evan Mobley struggled a bit, but he should be fine when paired with better guards. Jalen Suggs might be the Magic’s best player already, Scottie Barnes is solid and Jonathan Kuminga’s athletic tools are going to translate in a big way. There were players all over the first round who landed in great situations and look poised to have strong careers.
In six days in Vegas, I saw strong moments from the marquee players, as well as late-first-round guys like Quentin Grimes, Cam Thomas, Josh Christopher and Bones Hyland. Guard was a clear position of depth in this class, and second-rounders like Jason Preston, Miles McBride, and Jared Butler (who didn’t play Summer League, and we’ll have to wait to see in action) could have been justified in the late 20s, as well. Second-rounders Sharife Cooper (Atlanta, No. 48, more on him later), Dalano Banton (Toronto, No. 46) and Juhann Begarin (Boston, No. 45) also showed intriguing things.
5. No. 16 pick Alperen Sengün is already a cult hero in Houston, and he’s unsurprisingly been one of the most productive players at Summer League, after dominating against older guys in Turkey all last season. He was the No. 10 prospect on our Big Board. This was my first opportunity to watch Sengün play in person, and I came away more enthralled with his unorthodox game than I expected. The most likely outcome here is that he lands somewhere on the Jonas Valanciunas–to–Enes Kanter spectrum, where he plays in the NBA forever, averages double doubles at the peak of his career, but his true contributions to winning are still reliant upon who else is on his team. For the 16th pick, that’s a great outcome.
While I’m not completely bullish yet that Sengün will leap into the elite tier of NBA bigs—it’s a little worrisome he shot only 43% from the field through four Summer League games—I will say that he was much more impressive on the defensive end than I could discern from watching him on tape. Sengün isn’t a rim protector in the truest sense, which could be a limitation on his pathway to crunch-time minutes, but he is physical, likes contact, has quick hands and at least offered a degree of resistance when opponents tried to face him up and attack the basket. Will he be able to meet the best NBA leapers at the rim on a consistent basis? Maybe not. But at a glance, I think there’s a decent chance Sengün will eventually hold his own. He’s not a great mover, and is not an above-the-rim finisher, but he plays so hard and has such good instincts for coming up with 50-50 balls that you can see him excelling even on a team full of ball-dominant perimeter scorers. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Rockets appear to be assembling such a roster. Houston won’t win many games this season, but whatever becomes of this rebuild will be a pretty interesting subplot.
6. The Pelicans may have nailed their selection of Trey Murphy at No. 17, addressing their need for shooting, defensive versatility and frontcourt size with one impressive prospect. Murphy was clearly one of the better rookies at Summer League, and a big reason why New Orleans won its first four games, shooting 55% from the field and 44% from three, while capably defending a range of opponents that included Evan Mobley, Patrick Williams and Jonathan Kuminga. While I’m not ready to classify Murphy as a legit perimeter stopper yet—he’s not laterally quick enough to stick with agile guards—he clearly is willing to step up on that end, and he has legitimate size to help absolve Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram of unwanted matchups. The Pelicans making the leap as a legitimate playoff team requires (1) both of their stars to step up defensively or (2) everyone else on the floor to do that in a manner unseen over the past couple of seasons.
Clearly, New Orleans has a grasp on that piece of the equation and has built up some versatile defensive backbone with the additions of Murphy and 35th pick Herbert Jones. Jones doesn’t share his gifts as a shooter, but he’s a smart passer and cutter and can defend pretty much anybody. Naji Marshall, who spent last year on a two-way, also looks ready for a bigger role. They also added veteran Garrett Temple. It’s unclear what will happen to restricted free agent Josh Hart next season, with a sign-and-trade still possible, but the stockpiling of young, defensively capable forwards could pay dividends for the Pelicans over the next few seasons. Side note: New Orleans also added my personal favorite undrafted prospect, Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado, on a two-way contract. Despite minimal fanfare, I thought he was the best player in the ACC last season, and it won’t shock me if he carves out a legitimate, T.J. McConnell–type career.
7. James Bouknight took a bit of flak for an uninspiring start to Summer League (Davion Mitchell notably put the clamps on him head-to-head), but he was absolutely terrific in the second half of the game I watched against San Antonio. Bouknight played point guard for most of the second half and finished with eight assists, no turnovers and plenty of impressive moments. He’s been unfairly labeled as a gunner, primarily because he had to take so many shots on a UConn team that was otherwise hamstrung on offense.
For me, the most impressive thing about Bouknight was his degree of poise and feel for a high-usage college scorer, and it could certainly be that he turns the corner and becomes a legitimate, Swiss-army-knife combo guard next to LaMelo Ball. He should eventually thrive attacking defenses off the catch, and that coupled with his creativity as a finisher could make him quite valuable. His handle and jumper have to get better, but I wouldn’t overreact to the growing pains that are probably coming. Bouknight could be a steal at No. 11.
8. Atlanta got positive showings out of draft picks Jalen Johnson (No. 20) and Sharife Cooper (No. 48), both of whom fell as rival teams shirked away from perceived risk. It looks like the Hawks made out pretty well as a result. While the real test with Johnson will be how he deals with adverse situations (being big, skilled and versatile at Summer League helps a lot), there should never have been much question about his ability to play a complementary role in the NBA. Front offices were concerned with his history of off-court unreliability dating back to high school, and multiple teams I spoke with said he wasn’t particularly impressive in interviews, which all contributed to his fall to No. 20. Atlanta has a lot of forwards, and he may not play much immediately, but Johnson is another intriguing wild card on a deep roster.
As for Cooper, the Hawks got him on a two-way contract, which is a nice bargain for a player who has a pathway to being a legit NBA backup. Cooper led Summer League with nine assists per game entering Monday but also averaged an unsightly 5.7 turnovers through his three games. He clearly has an NBA-caliber skill and a terrific understanding of angles for a guy his size, and he finished better than expected in the paint. He also often takes needless risks, doesn’t shoot the ball consistently and won’t offer much resistance on defense. Cooper slipped in the draft due in part to those weaknesses, and he’s still not going to be for everyone, especially teams with aversions to undersized guards. Realistically, Cooper may be blocked in Atlanta long-term given the fact you can’t responsibly play him next to Trae Young. But he certainly turned some heads this week and looked much more NBA-ready than some of his peers, and it won’t be surprising if he has a big year in the G League and turns that into a longer look as a bench playmaker, whether that’s with his hometown Hawks, or elsewhere.
9. I have held significant real estate on the Max Strus archipelago dating back to his time at DePaul. The Heat have him on a real contract now, and it won’t shock me if he eventually carves out a specialist role there. In addition to a sudden-death game-winner against the Grizzlies, Strus continues to impress with his shot-making, toughness and feel. While he’s lost a bit of his mobility and vertical burst after tearing his ACL in December 2019, the elements that made him a potential role player are still present. At worst, he should hang around on the end of benches moving forward. The Heat just re-signed Duncan Robinson, but you can never have too much shooting, right?
10. Finally, for what it’s worth, the first-round prospects who struggled the most in Vegas were Franz Wagner (No. 8), Jaden Springer (No. 28) and Santi Aldama (No. 30). Wagner’s passive tendencies manifested, and he struggled to make shots, both of which could limit his pathway to minutes behind Jonathan Isaac and Chuma Okeke in Orlando. Springer and Aldama will strongly benefit from seasoning in the G League. For now, we’ll leave it there.
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