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The Biggest Standouts From NBA Summer League

Naming first-, second-, and third-team selections.
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Another year of Summer League is in the books, and it’s time to hand out another round of honors, recognizing top performers for their contributions at an event that is generally quite meaningless in the big picture. To be fair, you can say that of pretty much all award shows. So here we go.

As for how these decisions were made: The criteria for these teams are admittedly inexact, which is what happens when you have a one-person committee. I was in Vegas all last week watching games live. I factored in stats, but the box score can’t be the only aspect of gauging performance and context. I also tried to recognize players on winning teams when splitting hairs, but at Summer League, so much is arbitrary that these decisions are mostly left to the eye of the beholder. To simplify the process, players had to appear in at least three games to qualify for the first or second team. Standouts who played fewer than three games were eligible for honorable mention. Again, this is Summer League we’re talking about—it’s not that serious.

My 2021 All-Summer League teams are as follows.

First team

Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers

Duarte was the oldest player drafted, but that may be a minor aside to a bigger story: He made big contributions in his four games and appears very much as advertised. He averaged 18.3 points, shot 48% from three on more than seven attempts and filled up the box score with four rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.5 blocks and 1.8 steals in his four games. Duarte appears ready to help the Pacers this season and should be able to step into Doug McDermott’s vacant minutes without much trouble. The 24-year-old plays with poise befitting his age and showcased why he was a target for a number of teams on draft night. He’s crafty, can do a little bit of everything on both ends and looks supremely confident.

Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Green played three games before the Rockets opted to hold him out due to his sore hamstring, but he was quite good when active, averaging 20.3 points on 51.4% from the field, a scalding 52.6% from three-point range and 92.9% from the foul line. The No. 2 pick looks ready to make an impact as a rookie, and, while this type of efficiency obviously isn’t sustainable, Green was clearly one of the standouts in Vegas. Not many guards can make it look as easy as he does, and if he can improve his handle and diversify his approach to scoring, the results could be scary. Green’s value is intrinsically tied to his shooting workload, and he has work to do to become a more complete player, but when so many of his shots are going in, well, it’s hard to be too critical.

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Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

Mitchell’s counting stats weren’t particularly special, but his notorious on-ball defense made a huge impact for the Kings on their surprising run to the summer league title. He also shot the ball well from distance and made plays for teammates, delivering on his reputation as a winning player. Mitchell notably smothered James Bouknight head-to-head, as well as shutting down Payton Pritchard in the championship game. The Kings took some flak for picking him at No. 9—they certainly didn’t need more guards—but his defensive-minded approach and relentless motor may wind up translating in a significant way. It may come at the expense of others, but Sacramento is going to have to find minutes for him.

Trey Murphy, New Orleans Pelicans

Murphy’s all-around contributions were at the center of the Pelicans’ success in Vegas: He averaged 16.2 points, seven rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 55.8% from the field and 44% from three-point range. While not a naturally creative player, Murphy took care of the ball and showed off quality standstill passing ability to go with his catch-and-shoot game. He added value defensively, as well, drawing tough assignments and holding his own. While Murphy was plenty effective at Virginia last season, the late-blooming forward has been even better than expected and could be a viable bench option for New Orleans in short order. He continues to make impressive strides.

Payton Pritchard, Boston Celtics

It’s a good summer to be Payton Pritchard: He averaged 20.3 points, an event-high 8.7 assists and just 1.3 turnovers in three strong games at Summer League. He then left town and scored 92 points in the Portland Pro-Am before returning to play for the Celtics in the title game. He was terrific overall, and the experience he gained in Boston last year has clearly paid off. Pritchard proved a lot of people wrong as a rookie, with toughness and shot-making skills that cover for his lack of size and justified Boston’s decision to pick him in the late first round. And while it’s still fair to wonder whether he’ll be more than a quality backup, he clearly belongs. He could be in for a larger role next season, even with Dennis Schröder joining the Celtics.

Second team

Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Cunningham was his usual self in Vegas, and while his Pistons team didn’t entirely light it up, his three games certainly showcased why he was the top pick in the draft. He turned in a strong showing head-to-head against Jalen Green, made 50% of his threes on 8.7 attempts per game, and made big contributions as a decision-maker, defender and vocal communicator on the court. Cunningham’s basketball smarts remain his strongest selling point, and while he could be more efficient in the paint and struggled to get to the line, those things should come in time. Expect much better results on the assist-to-turnover front if Detroit gradually assembles a quality roster around him.

Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves

McDaniels teamed with Jaylen Nowell to lead a successful stint in Vegas for the Wolves, and he looked like a much-improved player with a chance to become a real piece for Minnesota. He averaged 16.3 points on 49% shooting to go with six rebounds, and he led the way for his team on both ends, with his skill and size beginning to manifest into more legitimate matchup versatility. McDaniels is still a project, but he’s turned out to be a terrific value pick at No. 28 in last year’s draft and a potential developmental win for the Wolves’ organization.

Aaron Nesmith, Boston Celtics

It was great to see Nesmith looking healthy and comfortable, and he certainly looks ready to help Boston as a floor-spacing threat next season. He spurred the Celtics to the championship game with a run of consistent shooting and is on his way to becoming a viable rotation piece. Nesmith was much more impressive on the whole than teammate Romeo Langford, and he looks like he deserves the inside track to wing minutes behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. He has more all-around game than he gets credit for, and his catch-and-shoot skills should eventually make him a key piece for the Celtics.

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Alperen Şengün, Houston Rockets

Şengün created a good deal of buzz with his play at Summer League, and he was unsurprisingly quite productive after dominating in Turkey as a teenager. He shot just 43% from the field in four games, but averaged 14.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, three blocks and 1.3 steals, frequently finding his way to the foul line and making a big difference for the Rockets. Şengün has a diverse enough skill set to be a real piece of Houston’s future, and it’ll certainly find minutes for him as the rebuild gets moving this season. He showed much more mettle defensively than expected and has the chops to overcome his lack of great mobility and quickness. He was arguably the most impressive true big to take the court in Vegas.

Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets

It should not surprise astute observers that the trigger-happy Thomas led summer league in scoring, averaging 27 points in four games on 42% percent shooting. There’s no question Thomas can pile up points, and it’s a positive sign that his ability to draw fouls translated strongly in Vegas (84% from the line on nearly 10 attempts per game). He dropped 36 on the Spurs and also nailed a pair of clutch shots against the Wizards, hitting a step-back to force overtime followed by a difficult, one-legged game-winner. The real test for Thomas will come when he’s asked to adjust his style of play to fit alongside Brooklyn’s stars. But he may be closer to helping the Nets’ bench units than expected, and he landed in a good situation for his long-term success.

Honorable mention

Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers

Maxey played just two games at Summer League, which relegates him to honorable mention here, but he averaged 26 points on 50% from the field and did a little bit of everything, making plays on both ends of the floor, showing off some playmaking ability and functioning as the centerpiece of Philly’s offense. Maxey is still a streaky three-point shooter, but he’s made strides in terms of his composure and all-around contributions, and figures to be a big part of the 76ers’ rotation this season. He could be a huge boost to Philly’s bench if he turns a corner.

Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies

Bane also played just twice, but he averaged 24 points in those games and made nine of his 13 three-point attempts. He was a terrific find for Memphis in the 2020 draft and looks ready for an increased role spacing the floor. While not a massively impactful defender, Bane plays a smart, opportunistic style on the perimeter, and as long as he keeps knocking down shots, he’ll be just fine.

Omer Yurtseven, Miami Heat

Yurtseven has come a long way in the past couple of years and looks like a real candidate for backup center minutes in Miami. The Heat recently gave him a two-year deal, and the 23-year-old has started to hit his stride, averaging 20 points and 9.7 rebounds through three games and turning in active, valuable minutes. He’s always been skilled with good size for his position and comes with legitimate pedigree as a prospect. Notably, Yurtseven’s jumper has started to come along as well. If he can better hold his own defensively, he may be Miami’s next unheralded find.

Xavier Tillman, Memphis Grizzlies

While Tillman’s contributions don’t always blow up a box score, all you have to do is watch him closely to understand the different ways he can impact a game. He’s a stellar defender and brings a positionless mindset on the offensive end as a screener and playmaker, totaling 14 assists and 12 rebounds in his two Summer League games. How much his individual offense can expand remains to be seen—he’s still not a great shooter—but in his brief two-game stint, he was clearly one of the better players in Vegas.

Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets

Hyland acquitted himself well at Summer League, showcasing his shot-making skills and making fairly good decisions, averaging 19.8 points in four games and making 40% of his threes on nearly nine attempts per game. The Nuggets are enthralled with his creative, unorthodox game, and he could be another find—it was actually his passing skills that stood out the most in this setting, and he’s a much more unselfish, capable playmaker than he showed in college. While it may not be this season, he has a legit chance to be a useful bench scorer at some point.

Obi Toppin, New York Knicks

Why the Knicks felt the need to play Toppin 35 minutes per game at Summer League is beyond me, but he was productive and improved his play as the week went on. It’s unclear how much of a role he’ll be able to assume on a team built so heavily around Julius Randle, but Toppin gets credit here for his production and consistency, even with his long-term upside coming into a bit of question based on his play here.

Tre Jones, San Antonio Spurs

While there are still some doubts about Jones’s upside—he profiles as a backup, at best—he was stellar in his four games, averaging 22.8 points, shooting 50.7% from the field, and looking like an improved jump shooter. You can always count on Jones to compete defensively, and he did a good job of making plays and running the team for the Spurs. He’s blocked in San Antonio by a number of other young guards, but it won’t be surprising to see him eventually get a real crack at backup minutes somewhere.

Jalen Johnson, Atlanta Hawks

While teammate Sharife Cooper got more attention for his flashy playmaking, Johnson was highly productive in his four games, averaging 19 points and 9.5 rebounds and looking very comfortable for a player who hasn’t had a ton of game action in the past two years. He’s a terrific passer and versatile frontcourt piece who can play in transition, add value on the glass, and made good use of his opportunities. He gets the slight nod over Cooper here due to his consistency, and if he can continue to make threes at a reliable clip, Johnson could be a real value for the Hawks at No. 20.

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